On 25 May 2020, George Floyd, a black American, was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis. This act sparked a political movement in America in response to continued police brutality and systemic racism against black people, resulting in national protests. Since then, a global movement has swelled in response to what is, in truth, a global issue: the systemic oppression of black people.
The power imbalances and discrimination which exist in our structures, our culture, and our unconscious bias are remnants of our long, complex and brutal history of colonialism and imperialism. All of us are being called upon to examine our own biases and racism, including that which is subconscious or deeply embedded, and to take action to challenge and change it. That goes for the International Citizen Service (ICS) programme too. We've spent the past weeks reflecting, examining ourselves and having open, frank and sometimes uncomfortable conversations, and want to open that conversation out more broadly.
As a programme whose premise is based on ‘sending’ volunteers from the UK to work on projects in the Global South, the historical power imbalances this dynamic can evoke can be an uncomfortable issue for us to confront. Yet, rather than avoiding it, we must own our historical impact, and recognise that we have great responsibility to dismantle these negative dynamics through the work that we do. We also have a responsibility to ensure that volunteers, from all backgrounds, are fully prepared and equipped to encounter differences of experience, due to their identities.
We have some long-standing practices already in place to ensure we promote positive social dynamics and outcomes in our volunteering.
Positive, cross-cultural relationships
The ICS programme is multi-layered – focusing on project impact, personal development and active citizenship. The opportunity to learn and work through cross-cultural relationships is foundational to the success of all three of these domains. Volunteers are embedded in the community they work in and make positive change in these communities through the positive relationships that they build. Nine years of feedback from volunteers and community members consistently highlights the cherished relationships that are built through ICS volunteering placements. It’s only through these relationships that positive change can take place.
No one person has the same experience of ICS. Identity and culture, including gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation and beliefs, are part of what makes each individuals’ experience unique. Whilst there can be challenges with sharing and understanding these different perspectives toward culture and identity, we know that there is also great value and the opportunity to learn and develop from so many different world views and experiences - which is what makes ICS such a unique opportunity.
ICS projects are based on the needs, priorities and aspirations of communities where they take place, and delivered in collaboration with the community, with sustainability in mind. Rather than being dictated by a ‘Headquarters’ in the UK, these projects are led through local community partners, who are tuned into local needs and aspirations.
Projects are designed in such a way that volunteers add real value, rather than engaging in superficial work. We do not put volunteers into contexts they are unqualified and unprepared for - or inadvertently taking away a job a local person could do.
Raising youth voices
The ICS youth engagement model aims to develop youth to be aware of, and to understand deeply, their rights, entitlements, and responsibilities. Our programme aims to build young peoples’ resilience, and their ability to reflect and identify their existing capabilities, as well as their power to make change. We support youth to develop their capability so that they have agency and voice to be proactive actors in society, building the world that is fair and inclusive for them.
Indeed, in response to the global attention to anti-racism, our ICS alumni have been vocal; they have held us to account (good!), so that we do not only preach 'fairness, justice and equality for all' but that we practice it as a programme and as an organisation. They have demanded to know that this is not just a 'trend', they have asked what our practices are to counter systemic racism, and what we will do to be leaders in driving this change.
Inclusive programme design
Our entire programme approach acknowledges that international development and overseas opportunities are traditionally available to, and led by, a demographic that overwhelmingly is white, middle class, non-disabled and male. However, ICS is based on the premise that the opportunity to participate and contribute on a programme like this should be available to all and that diversity is fundamental to its success. We are proud of our extensive work on this, and we are recognised in the sector for our achievements.
Inclusion is built into every aspect of our culture, practice and process, which has impacted directly on the make-up of our volunteer workforce. We have removed barriers for all demographics to access international volunteering opportunities, including those based on gender, ethnicity, region, socio-economic groups, disability, and sexual orientation. In the UK, our diversity targets have been met consistently. For example, 30% of ICS applications are from BAME backgrounds, and over 37% are from lower-socio-economic groups. Through its commitment to diversity, ICS aims to ensure that international development opportunities can be accessed by all.
We have improved hugely in the past nine years, but we are not complacent. We know we still have a long way to go. We want to go much, much further through ICS. So, we too are listening, educating ourselves, taking notice and taking action.
The resurgence of the Black Lives Matters movement has compelled us to look even more closely at our external and internal practices, specifically around anti-racism. We are accountable to, and being held to account by our volunteers, and those in the communities we serve, to interrogate ourselves and our practices.
We know that UK volunteers from BAME communities have had challenging, and sometimes negative experiences on placement due to the colour of their skin. How can we be more sensitive to, and better prepare these volunteers?
We know that volunteers working on placements in their own countries have had experiences where they have been perceived as inferior to volunteers from the UK, due to enduring notions that Westerners have superior knowledge to share, and a higher status in general. What can we do to tackle these perceptions and the imbalances they can cause?
We know that, in the West, overseas development and aid is tinged with the enduring legacy of 'white saviourism' - an inaccurate notion that people in the Global South lack the agency or ability to help themselves, that Westerners know what is best for them, and that they give aid out of a selfless sense of charity for which the Global South should show gratitude for (when in reality, the West has played an active role in creating many of the systemic problems the Global South is grappling with). How can we be mindful to 'white saviourism' and prevent its negative impacts on relational dynamics between volunteers and local communities?
We know that the demographics of international development organisations are not representative of the people they serve, which ultimately contributes to systemic oppression or marginalised groups, and limits the success of our mission. How can we be more proactive in building a workforce that is more representative of the people ICS exists to serve?
These are uncomfortable truths for us to face, especially for those of us who identify as part of sector whose very aim is to fight for a fair and just world for all. However, our discomfort should not prevent us from asking these difficult questions, or from working to do better and hold ourselves accountable.
Moving forward, we believe we can move toward responding to some of these questions through:
- Creating platforms that ensure that we are designing each phase of the programme in participation with the diversity of young people we represent, to make sure our practices reflect your experience
- Promoting ICS through diverse recruitment channels and outreach to ensure the opportunity continue to be available to all
- Educating volunteers on the history of the countries they are volunteering in, including the colonial history and the impact of that history
- Providing learning and trainings about the difference between being an ‘ally’ and a ‘saviour’
- Ensuring volunteers have the platforms and voice to lead and tackle systemic level barriers and discriminatory practices
- Ensuring volunteers are fully equipped and prepared for their experience, and the difference they may encounter due to their visible identity
- Sharing volunteer stories and experiences to other volunteers to support this preparedness
- Building reflection throughout the journey so volunteers can discuss their experiences openly, identify negative dynamics and dismantle them
- Looking internally at our own recruitment practices, our staff training and processes to mitigate unconscious bias and ensure diversity and inclusion of our staff force.