Intersectional inequality in digital development: reflections of a “brown woman”

“All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to be “twice as good,” which is to say “accept half as much”. This sentence resonated with me when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me last year. When I first arrived in the UK with my family, my Indian parents expected me to excel and so I attended a briefing meeting about applying to Oxbridge. A teacher came up and asked why I was sitting there. Did I really think I was “Oxbridge material”, she asked? Maybe she is right, I thought at the time, maybe I’m just not that bright. But later, I wondered—that suppression of ambition—would it have been the same, said in the same way, in the same tone, to someone who was a person of colour? To accept half as much?

Perhaps it was that teacher’s comment together with other experiences that motivated me to work in international development (and to teach). Subhashish Bhadra from Omidyar Network put it beautifully when he said his motivation to work in development was about the “ability to be”: “about the women who exercise their ‘ability to be’ in corporate boardrooms and other positions of power. It is about the young boy who exercises his ‘ability to be’ himself in the privacy of his room, away from the prying eyes of family and society. It is about the wheelchair-bound woman’s ‘ability to be’ in spaces that are accessible to her. It is about a gay man’s ‘ability to be’ a customer of dating apps without worrying about being identified. What is life without this ‘ability to be’?”

While working with others to be the best they could, he too wants to be the best he can. In the same vein, what ability do we have “to be” as women of colour, especially as development is about empowering others? First, it’s this tension I’d like to speak about—what is it like to be “a brown woman” (will talk more about that term itself) working in development? Second, I’d like to move beyond binaries of white vs non-white—while these discussions are much needed, I’d also like to raise the intersectionality of inequality in development, and now in digital development.

I’ll be honest—it took me ages to write this. I was nervous of Twitter trolls (known to attack women more than men), of gaining a reputation of “biting the hand that feeds me”, and feeling that I haven’t really suffered like some people have (certainly, no colleague has called me a f*ing bitch as recently happened to Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez in the USA).

But then I thought these might be all reasons that people don’t speak up. Surely if we work in technology and international development (sometimes called ICTD or digital development), where we discuss key questions of bias, discrimination and exclusion, we should also question our motivations, concerns, and even legitimacy in working in this space? It’s perhaps fitting that so much of the research I’ve been doing in the past few years has been on identification and identity in a digital age, and here these are thoughts on identity—of others and of mine.

It’s becoming clearer and clearer that the development industry suffers from both racism and gender inequality. In terms of race and bias, there have been recent articles questioning the white gaze and how this is built into structural inequalities and how aid flows replicate soft power relationships between former colonial powers and former colonies. USAID, after all, is “from the American people” and UKAID is “from the British people”. Over 1000 staff signed an internal statement on institutionalised racism at Médecins Sans Frontières, perpetuated by hiring practices, culture and a leadership from a “privileged white minority”. Rosebell Kagumire wrote a piece in The Guardian on how she witnessed racism within the UN system.

Add technology to the mix. Eliza Anyangwe makes the point that the white saviour has now morphed into the white startup entrepreneur interested in the African continent while Larry Madowo wrote recently on how Silicon Valley venture capitalists have deep pockets for African startups “as long as you’re not African”. More than ten years ago Gitau et al wrote on how the ICT for development field has so few authors based at African institutions, the latter being biased towards South Africa and Nigeria (it would be interesting to see if and how things have changed today). Earlier this week, there was an excellent discussion on racism in ICTs and development, held by the ICT4D Meetup group.

Gender inequality has been a major component of the development agenda (it has a whole Sustainable Development Goal!) although women’s empowerment has faced critique of its own: Batliwala, Rowlands, and Cornwall are a few of those who have identified the challenge of empowering women without considering the wider implications, and this is especially in the digital age when social norms are not addressed (for example in the increasingly crowded space of digital ID, women simply don’t have access to technology or still rely on male relatives as gatekeepers). In her must-read book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez gives multiple examples of how design by men is for men. 

Combine race and gender though and we hear very few examples from women of colour working in development—what are the challenges they face? How much are they heard?  #AidToo emerged in the wake of #Me too as well as the Oxfam and Save the Children abuse cases—but how much are cultures changing? 

In setting up a blueprint for Black Lives Matter in the development sector, Hannah Ryder writes that at the root of racism lies power and prejudice. But power and prejudice emerge in all forms. I’ve certainly been at the receiving end of discrimination. My voice does not carry the same weight as a white man’s. I’m not saying this to sound like a victim. I’ve worked with same great colleagues but also faced micro-aggressions and then downright discrimination. In a simple case, a white male manager at the World Bank plagiarised my work. When I brought it up (which took a lot of courage), he asked whom people would believe—him or me. Several members of my team complained on my behalf. Everyone was aware of it, and as is typical in systemic discrimination, no one did anything about it. I left. 

A cartoon in the New Yorker which went viral

But inequality is—in Crenshaw’s now-famous term—intersectional. Race, class, gender, physical appearance, age and other individual characteristics intersect with one another and overlap (what about caste in development? Or disability? Or LGBTQ communities? And the intersections between any of these?). It wasn’t just the white manager at the World Bank—other examples of discrimination I faced were being awarded a grant from a tech company, only to be cut out of it by the white female academic who I applied with. Or an Indian male who started shouting at me because he misunderstood something I’d written in an email and told me “I was a lowly consultant who shouldn’t aspire to more”. Yes, there are always such individuals, but at the receiving end, one can’t help think about power and prejudice—would these individuals have reacted differently if it was a white man with the same skill set? Going back to Subashish Bhadra’s words, interactions such as these quell a person’s ability “to be”. They scream “you are not as good as me, and I have the power to do whatever I want”. 

This intersectionality of inequality in development needs to acknowledge all power imbalances. Is a “person of colour” a helpful term in banding everyone together? What about Latinx? And what about white? Gina Crosley-Corcoran wrote an interesting article deconstructing white privilege and how poverty and class illustrate that white is not a homogeneous category, just as gender, being Asian or being a person of colour is not. Indi Samarajiva wrote an honest but shameful (for me) article on how racist South Asians can be. Racism against African students in India, for example, has been appalling. “Fair” is still a common aspiration in India. Skin lightening creams continue to be sold, rebranded from “fair and lovely” to “glow and lovely”. Power and prejudice exist in different forms.

Another intersectional concern for me is that I might be considered more “empathetic” or understanding of women and/or under-represented minorities. But here too there is nuance—I grew up mostly in the UK after the age of 11—do I really understand issues in India as well as someone based in India, not to mention “all brown women”? (Afua Hirsch’s book Brit(ish): race, identity and belonging is excellent). And what happens when I’m on a panel for representation? Whom am I exactly representing? (See Kelan’s critique of inviting a female speaker purely to avoid manels).

On a panel for representation

And what about those we work with? As a researcher, the responsibility of communicating other voices is always challenging. Researchers perhaps have the luxury of asking questions, rather than proposing policies. We don’t talk about “beneficiaries” (horrible word) but of respondents. But it can still feel extractive, and we are still plagued with worries: how much do I understand after two weeks of “fieldwork” (another horrible word)? What right do I have to ask this mother to give up her time and come answer questions for me (compensation for time is also a contentious topic).

One of the biggest challenges is being able to interview time-strapped women for research, but without their voices, are they being represented? One book in development that left a deep impression was Cooke and Kothari’s “Participation: The New Tyranny” which deals with how participation can be oppressive in itself. In digital development, it can also be frustrating, because time and again, the message is, technology is not a silver bullet—think about the context, think about the social norms, but the technologists still seem to find this surprising.

Then again, we talk of the need for “local” researchers and capacity building—but what does local mean? During my PhD research in rural Karnataka, it was hard to find a research assistant from Bengaluru (or Bangalore) willing to go to the village of Budhikote for extended periods. A “local” researcher from the next town to Budhikote played on the urban/rural hierarchy and often laced his speech with words such as “uneducated villagers”. So what does local mean?

Like I said at the beginning, I feel as if I’m not saying anything new, but power and prejudice remain. There is so much left to deconstruct … unpaid internships, unequal pay, contracts of small pieces of work where intellectual capital is lost with the end of a project, no stability for the contractor, visas and right to work etc etc … I’ve worked across the private sector, academia and NGOs. Going only by what I have encountered, in terms of comparison and perhaps unexpectedly so, the tech sector was the most inclusive (although we know about Satya Nadella’s comments on women needing to be patient for a pay rise). Discrimination in academia is bad (in terms of gender as well as race—we know about academic review processes that commonly disregard women’s additional unpaid work, now exacerbated during COVID, or how male professors are frequently given higher reviews than female ones, even if they teach an identical course. And similar discrimination comes up in terms of race. But I have found the development space the most imbued with power and lack of accountability. 

Not all women and not all “women of colour” will feel the same of course. Plenty of women and women of colour are doing amazing work, and are great role models. And not all women, or women of colour, are angels—Sarah Drinkwater makes the point that one of the reasons she admired Elizabeth Holmes, the CEO of Theranos, was likely because there were so few female role models. She writes “if we had more women on stage, we would pick up the charlatans earlier, right? Because it doesn’t matter what demographic you’re from, you can still be kind of a charlatan”. 

At the end of this you might ask “what do you suggest we do?” On the one hand, like Browning and Kagumire, I feel a sense of fatigue around both race and gender, compounded by the intersectional element of age. People have talked about inequality in different forms for years. Is anything changing? Do I have any right to speak on behalf of others, even though I hope I am relaying their voices? As I get older, I want to be a role model for junior colleagues, students and my young nieces, but feel like I haven’t figured out the leaning in myself (see Michelle Obama’s response to lean in). The challenge of working twice as hard, to paraphrase Coates, is tiring. On the other hand, we know the efforts our mothers and grandmothers and other strong women made. We need to build on those and continue fighting for a more equitable future.

#Metoo, the COVID-19 virus and BLM are providing ample opportunities for the development sector to question power and prejudice, whether in terms of gender, race or other aspects of exclusion. Ryder provides a thorough blueprint for development organisations to move towards equality and diversity. Similarly, Engine Room has written on deconstructing knowledge and power in work. And Maria Faciolince, leading the Power Shifts initiative at Oxfam, has compiled a comprehensive list of resources on dismantling individual and institutional racism in development. 

So on a larger scale, it’s about constantly absorbing and educating oneself (such as by reading some of the references mentioned above). In action, it’s about humility, inclusivity, and diversity. Intersectionality shows that power is not binary: it morphs and shifts, and in many cases stems from insecurity (“I need to do this for my career, my ego etc”). We need to treat others with respect and kindness, as equals, and feel free enough to speak up when we don’t see it (I’ll admit it though—I could have mentioned other cases but didn’t feel comfortable doing so).

I wrote this as a personal piece but then shared it with the company I consult for, Caribou Digital. Together with other colleagues concerned about issues of diversity, we’re working on a discussion session at our upcoming virtual retreat, and what actionable change we can work towards. Many of these issues are deeper ideological and structural issues in development, but we can do our best as an organisation working in this space. Another colleague and I started a code of conduct for Caribou Digital which we’re working on improving—we need to run this through everything we do. I still believe most of us working in development have good intentions, but what does good mean, and what biases are embedded in it? I’d love to hear your stories—good and bad—and together I hope we can make a change both in the development space and beyond.

Thanks to all those who gave feedback on drafts, and to Sharon Rhodes for proof-reading!

Author: Savita Bailur

I’m a researcher in digital development. Currently a Research Director at Caribou Digital and Adjunct Associate Professor at the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University. Previous experience includes USAID, World Bank, Commonwealth Secretariat, World Wide Web Foundation, mySociety, Microsoft Research India and University of Manchester (lectureship).

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