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Black Lives Matter – in social protection and international development


Our blogger, Stephen Kidd, is a Senior Social Policy Specialist at Development Pathways. 

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has highlighted the systemic racism that is deeply embedded within the attitudes and institutions of rich nations. While the immediate focus has been on police brutality, institutional discrimination permeates both public services and the private sector. For example, in the United Kingdom, the fact that those most affected by COVID-19 are Black, Asian and Ethnic Minorities (BAME) is a manifestation of historic and current racism, discrimination and prejudice which has resulted in unequal access to decent jobs and public services and left the BAME population more vulnerable to the virus.

So far, though, there has been minimal focus on the systemic racism and discrimination that can be found within the international development sector. There is the reality that development workers from the North tend to be disproportionately white and middle class, an issue that must be urgently tackled. And, there is the crass comment by Boris Johnson, when announcing the closure of DfID, that too much money was going to the Black populations of Tanzania and Zambia and not enough to the white populations of the Balkans and Ukraine. But, beyond this, can we identify donor practices and policies that, perhaps unwittingly, reflect attitudes that, while all lives matter, some matter rather less than others?

As an example, let’s look at social protection. In recent years, there has been a significant increase in donor funding of social protection schemes across Africa. While social protection is usually regarded as a “good thing,” in reality donors often implement social protection in Africa in ways that are highly questionable and do not respect human dignity.

Of course, it can be challenging to disentangle the extent to which dehumanizing social protection policies are the result of the common practice of the othering of “poor people” irrespective of their colour or whether they are also driven by prejudices linked to colour and ethnicity. In response to Black Lives Matter, we need to urgently ask whether systemic racism has infected social protection policy within international development.

Let’s look at some examples of highly questionable social protection policies that have been enthusiastically embraced by some donors over the past 20 years.

Conditional cash transfers

Conditional cash transfers (CCTs) were created in Latin America ostensibly as a means of incentivising “poor families” to send their children to school and to access health services. To a large extent, they were – and are – driven by the conviction that “poor people” hold “persistently misguided beliefs” about the value of investing in their children’s education or health. If the so-called “poor” beneficiaries of a CCT don’t do what they are told, they are punished by having their cash withdrawn.

Yet, it’s important to ask who are, in fact, the “beneficiaries” of CCTs in Latin America? My strong suspicion is that CCTs for “the poor” have been disproportionately directed towards Black, indigenous and rural mestizo populations. For example, beneficiaries of Brazil’s Bolsa Familia programme appear to be over-represented in areas with higher proportions of Black people (e.g. in the North-East of Brazil); Panama’s CCT was initially rolled out among indigenous people; and, in Mexico, despite indigenous people comprising only 6 per cent of the population, during the early years of the Oportunidades CCT over half of the municipalities included in the programme were those with the highest proportions of indigenous people.

The belief that “poor people” are “misguided” is almost certainly a reflection of underlying prejudices among Latin America’s white – or whiter – elites which are manifested, in this case, in the ridiculous claim that Black and indigenous people do not understand how to care for their children (and I say this having lived many years within indigenous communities). In other words, the colonial mission to “civilise” native and Black populations continues, but in a different guise.

The imposition of conditions and punitive sanctions on Black and indigenous populations by Latin America’s white elites effectively perpetuates systems of control and coercion that have been passed down from colonial times. While the punishment meted out by CCTs may be milder than that of the slave plantations and encomiendas[1] of the colonial period, the common thread is the on-going prejudice against Black, indigenous and rural mestizo populations. Or, at best, it reflects a patronising sense of superiority. Attempts to soften the punitive appearance of CCTs by referring to the conditions as “co-responsibilities” do not disguise the reality of sanctions being dehumanising.

CCTs have been enthusiastically embraced by international donors who, despite the questionable origins of CCTs in Latin America, have introduced them across Africa, replicating the same systems of control and sanctions in “poor” communities, in particular among communities regarded as more “traditional.” Yet, given that there is no robust evidence that the use of conditions and sanctions in CCTs have any positive impact, we need to ask why international development institutions – and the elites working within them – are so attracted to a form of social protection that enables control and coercion to be exercised over “poor” African populations.

Of course, conditionalities and sanctions are not only practised in low- and middle-income countries. In fact, Latin America’s CCTs were exported to the United States via the Opportunity New York programme, which had a predictably strong ethnic dimension: 98 per cent of the “beneficiaries” were Black or Hispanic, very much the same population that is at greater risk of experiencing systemic discrimination and being gunned down by the New York police. Further, punitive, welfare conditionality is increasingly common in high-income countries where we can also find a strong ethnic dimension: for example, in the United Kingdom, 29 per cent of Black families receive income-tested benefits – which are more likely to incorporate sanctions and punishment – while the figure is only 17 per cent among white families.

Proxy means tests

Proxy means tests (PMTs) are another Latin American export to Africa and their creation was umbilically linked to CCTs. They were developed as a means of identifying “poor beneficiaries” of CCTs and, consequently, were disproportionately implemented among Black, indigenous and rural mestizo populations. As we’ve shown elsewhere, a PMT is a highly inaccurate and arbitrary targeting tool. It would never be allowed in Europe: indeed, its use of inaccurate, automated algorithms would make it illegal under European law. Yet, PMTs have happily been promoted by international donor institutions across Africa despite the undeniable evidence of their ineffectiveness and the harm that they can cause. In recent years, they have evolved into the [anti]-social registries which are increasingly being used to implement poor quality and unfair poverty targeting across a wide range of social programmes among “poor” Africans.

If we were to go out of our way to deliberately design a targeting methodology that does not respect the rights of human beings, whatever their colour, we probably couldn’t come up with a better tool than a PMT. Nonetheless, we need to ask why some donor institutions believe that a PMT is an appropriate instrument to use among Africans (and, of course, Asians) but not among the comfortable, educated majority-white populations in their home countries.

Community-based targeting

Let’s be honest: could we ever imagine a situation in which the access of Europeans to welfare support would be decided by meetings of local communities, with households being forced to compete in public to prove that they are poorer and more deserving than their neighbours? It’s an absurd idea and one that should never be acceptable anywhere. It would be an absolute breach of the right to privacy and, in practice, highly stigmatising.

Yet, across Africa, some international donors – including NGOs – have enthusiastically embraced community-based targeting. Little thought has been given to the right to privacy or the loss of dignity that people experience during public debates in which their lives are laid bare. In fact, I’ve been in a number of seminars during which white advocates of community-based targeting have been asked whether it is stigmatising. The answer has always been no, with the explanation that Africans (and Asians) do not experience stigma and shame in the same way that Europeans or North Americans do. If this is not a great example of the dehumanisation and othering of people of colour, I don’t know what is.

Public lists

Actually, on second thoughts, I think I may have an even better example: the public list. It’s common in donor-funded social protection schemes across Africa for the names of “beneficiaries” to be made public, either through published lists posted in prominent positions within communities or by beneficiaries’ names being read out in community meetings. Little thought seems to have been given to the feelings of those who are publicly identified in this way. Many will, of course, be ashamed to be identified as “poor” or “deserving” in front of their friends and neighbours; or, they may just not want their neighbours to know that they will be receiving a regular cash handout, which could result in them coming under pressure to share or being ostracised by those who have been excluded.

Public lists are justified by donors as a means of tackling fraud, since they give other community members the chance to report on those who they believe are cheating the system. Yet, in their own countries, the right to privacy would mean that the public listing of welfare recipients would be illegal. So, why should it be acceptable across Africa?

Productive safety nets

Finally, what about so-called productive safety nets? These are poor quality workfare schemes in which “poor” Africans are given physically demanding work in the hot sun for a few days a year. In return, they receive a small daily payment, often below the minimum wage with no attention paid to national labour regulations. In fact, as my colleague Anasuya Sengupta has pointed out, it is often women who do the work while the payment is made to a male head of household. The evidence on the effectiveness of productive safety nets is not strong: indeed, there is good evidence that participants can end up with lower incomes and poorer nutrition, while children may be pulled out of school to care for their young siblings while their mothers work.

Again, it is hard to imagine “productive safety nets” being allowed in donors’ own countries (although, to be fair, the workhouses of 19th Century England had similar characteristics). Instead, our modern public works provide people with decent jobs, alongside compliance with labour regulations, including minimum wages, and often training and career progression. Making women work for no pay would, of course, be illegal (but not, apparently, among African women). How public works are implemented in the home countries of donors are not as “programmes for the poor” but, instead, as employment, often contracted by government through the private sector. Yet, donors happily fund productive safety net programmes that not only stigmatise Africans, but may cause harm.

So, what to do?

A common thread in the above examples is how “poor” African populations are conceptualised and treated in the design and implementation of social protection programmes that have been driven and funded by northern donors. Too often, donor-led social protection programmes have “othered” their target African populations, treating them in ways that do not fully respect their humanity with policies and practices that they would never wish to have imposed on themselves. We can’t know the extent to which this is driven by patronising attitudes to “the poor” or by unwitting and sub-conscious racial biases and stereotypes that have permeated their world views. Or, perhaps, it is a potent mix of both. But, when we see that dehumanising practices are systematically or disproportionately imposed on non-white populations, we have a duty to ask whether this is a manifestation of institutional racism.

Of course, not all international organisations are guilty of promoting the type of practices described above across Africa. We can also find many examples of employees of organisations – in particular within the United Nations – promoting rights-based social protection policies and opposing other, often more powerful, donors who continue to promote sanctions, PMTs, community-based targeting, public lists and poorly implemented workfare. But, the struggle against dehumanising social protection policies is inconsistent, and much more needs to be done within the broader international development community.

It is probably no coincidence that when African governments themselves design and fund social protection schemes, they are often very different to those promoted by northern donors. Despite donors strongly pushing programmes for the so-called “poor,” there is little evidence of strong ownership by African policymakers (as seen in the minimal domestic financing that they are willing to allocate to them). In contrast, when African policymakers are in the driving seat of social protection policy, they tend to get behind inclusive schemes that treat everyone equally and with dignity, such as the universal pensions of Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritius, Namibia and Zanzibar or South Africa’s affluence-tested social grants. In other words, they prefer the same type of programmes that are implemented among the majority-white populations in donors’ own countries (for example, in the United Kingdom, 52 per cent of white families access a universal social security scheme).

Whatever the cause of the dehumanising practices within those social protection schemes that are designed and funded by northern donors, things must change. So, as we move forward:

[1] Encomiendas were grants of land by the Spanish Crown to settlers in Latin America, which gave them the right to demand tributes and labour from the local indigenous population living on the land.

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  • I really enjoyed this article and appreciate how you highlighted the very obvious racial issues in the development sector. I do believe developments race issues stem very much from saviorism which is obviously rooted in colonialism. I guess centering people in their own issues and empowering would also need a lot of unlearning ( on the donors and ngos part).


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