Christian Aid: Addressing race in Humanitarian and Development Organisations

30 March 2021
Amanda Khozi Mukwashi

interview with Amanda Khozi Mukwashi

CEO of Christian Aid

The following blog is an excerpt from the presentation of Amanda Khozi Mukwashi, CEO of Christian Aid, in the 3 December 2020 ICVA-CHS Alliance-PHAP webinar, lightly edited for length. The interview informs the forthcoming Leading Well? report, part of the Alliance’s ongoing work to Cultivate Caring, Compassionate Aid Organisations.

Moderator question: You’ve written and spoken publicly about the issue of race and identity. Can you tell us how you are engaging the staff in your organisation on this topic to shift the internal culture? 

Amanda: Walking into Christian Aid in 2018 as a black African woman, it was an interesting journey.  It has been very empowering, and it has also been an eye opener.  Yes, I have written about the issue of identity. I’ve written a book. In writing a book on identity I wanted to talk about my personhood. I wanted to talk about the fact that people like me, working in the sector like ours – in development and humanitarian – walk through life experiencing what I call “normalised injustice.” The injustice that we face on a day-to-day basis has been so normalized that even in our sector we don’t see it for what it is.  And we definitely don’t call it out and try to change it.

Christian Aid went through a major change from 2018. We, together with other trustees and staff, decided that we wanted to look again at chasing after growth. And we researched, we really asked the question: “Were we losing ourselves? Were we being true to who we were? Who are we?” And then we came up with our global strategy called “Standing Together.” What was quite radical in that new strategy is that we said we’re not going to chase after funding for the sake of funding. What we wanted to do is really bring out our focus on strengthening local access and local partners and the communities that we were standing side by side with. And so we looked at what must be done, and we wanted to live within our means, which was quite a big statement in terms of living within our values. So because of that, we then went to restructure the organization in 2019. We wanted to deepen our impact where we worked, so we reduced our overall footprint and exited just over ten countries and reduced our staff base across the organisation.

The reason I’m giving this background is because the actual changes  led to a reduction in offices, closure of programmes and loss of jobs. By the time the Black Lives Matter protests came on, we were already vulnerable as an organisation because we had gone through a lot of change. I think while we had the support of a lot of our staff that the changes were the right things to do, nevertheless people were impacted. That context is really important to understand, knowing where your staff are personally, as you go into the space to address race and diversity.

During the last phase of the change process, staff pointed out that the changes could be disproportionately impacting black, Asian and ethnic minorities. The searching questions came from young articulate women across black and brown ethnicities We wanted to know the answers and to test if those sentiments were founded. And this was the beginning of a significant shift and change within the organisation, because when the questions were asked we were unable provide the data and the statistics to answer them. This situation inside was unfolding with the emergence of a global pandemic which exposed ways of systemic racism with Black people being disproportionately impacted.

So point number one. We had to create an environment where members of staff were not afraid to ask the right questions.  I believe junior postholders found, at that time, the courage to ask uncomfortable questions despite a culture of silence. As a leader I have to take that on board and learn.

The second thing was that we had no data.  It wasn’t there to help us understand the reality of our Black, Asian and other minority staff. We weren’t naming or tracking the issues. I invited members of staff to have safe spaces where they could talk if they wanted to. And if they didn’t want to talk to me, we encouraged them to find ways in which they could talk to others. Fortunately, they were able to talk to me in confidence. And what I heard from 20 members of staff affected me personally quite a lot. So I called the leadership team and I said we needed to do something. I knew we couldn’t do it by ourselves and therefore we asked for help. So we brought in six consultants and we asked them to be clear about our antiracist vision. There was a push that we should explore race alongisde all other areas of inclusion. I said no.

That is the third lesson for me. Sometimes you have to be willing to be unpopular for the right reasons. The issue of race always comes to the bottom of the list, whenever you’re talking about diversity and inclusion. So I wanted a focus on race. I am clear, that we have to focus on race in the first instance. So I wanted the vision. I wanted reality. Because data only tells you half the story. The other part of the story is to understand the lived experiences of your staff, so that you can see what falls between the cracks of systems and policies. Life experiences point points you to the need for behaviour change.

The consultants produced a report. The report was submitted to the board of trustees, because governance is really important and is part of the solution. For our trustees, it was quite an eye opener. Essentially, the message that we were getting from our members of staff, especially the Black, Asian, and other minorities, is that there was a challenge of colour blindness in the organization. That’s not a very easy thing to digest, accept or to understand. Our values as an organisation are dignity, justice, equality and love. We agreed to further align our practices to our values.  Board, executive leadership and all our staff are committed to creating the environment that we aspire to so that all our staff, regardless of the colour of their skin, can have a lived experience of our values. It’s a long journey, which will not be smooth, but Christian Aid has never run away from fighting for justice, dignity and equality.  We do that in our work with partners, it is important that we do this internally for ourselves too.

Don’t miss the launch of the CHS Alliance & ICVA’s Leading Well report at Humanitarian Networks & Partnerships Week on 29 April, 09:00 UTC+2: Leading well: Leadership reflections on organisational culture and well-being.