Racism in the aid industry: intersections between race, poverty, ethnicity, religion and gender

Racism in the aid industry: intersections between race, poverty, ethnicity, religion and gender


This text represents the culmination of the work done during the course “New Media, ICT and Development “.  I have chosen the theme “ICT4D, Aid Work and Communicating Development” because I am fascinated by online culture, communication approaches and digital media, and because I think that this theme illustrates how international development greatly relies on communication processes. The text includes a global view on the different topics that have been touched: racism and poverty, racism and ethnicity, racism and religion; and racism and gender. The course literature is an important source of insights and ideas that this text reflects. The main topic that is analysed is racism in the aid industry. However, this topic is analysed from multiple points of views by taking into consideration an intersectional perspective.

Debates on racism can be considered an important part of the key theme of ICT4D, aid work and communicating development. By reflecting on racism in the aid industry, it will be possible to construct a more complete and multidimensional picture that the field of communication for development faces nowadays.

This text will start with a comprehensive view on racism in the communication and development field that will be followed by a short presentation of the idea of intersectionality. Different examples of the complex intersections between racism and other forms of discrimination will be provided as an attempt to create a more complete picture of the challenges the field of communication for development faces nowadays.



My work during this course has been focused on a great variety of topics. I have put a lot of emphasis on ICT4D and racism. Before reflecting on racism in the aid industry, I think it would be important to offer a short of overview of ICT4D.

Information and communication technologies for development or ICT4D can be seen as a new concept in the academic research that is applied to theorise the use of ICTs in international development. The growing availability and popularity of ICTs has become a global characteristic. ICT4D is a field that includes multiple disciplines such as anthropology, computer sciences, development studies and geography, among many others (Walsham, 2017).

Heeks (2017) has provided some examples of ICT4D blogs and microblogs. Blogs, online discussion forums, photo- and videosharing are just some of the resources that can be used promote communication and cooperation and to create communities of interest.  Despite the importance of this type of information, the author alerts us to the fact that in some countries, the liberty of journalists and communication professionals is significantly restricted by the formal and informal structures of power. In order to promote communication for development, it is necessary to identify and understand the different systems of oppression. Heeks (2017) argues that social media can be a useful vehicle for development. There is a lot of social media content on policy and development issues. Some critics say that social media is mainly used to spread protests. However, recent studies have shown that social media is used more to report protests than to spread them. Racism is another nuclear issue not only in social media but also in ICT4D in general.



Despite being a paradox, racism in the aid industry is unfortunately a real phenomena. One could argue that racial discrimination cannot exist in this filed because it is against the aid and humanitarian principles. However, authors such Chonka (2019) explain that racism can often be found in aid and development work. By giving different examples from social media, Chonka (2019) shows how racism has penetrated the fields of ICT4D, aid work and communicating development. The author takes as a starting point an apparently insignificant aspect such as memes. However, his analysis reveals deeps problems in the ICT4D and aid industry such as ideological ambivalence of international aid and development institutions.

According to Miller et al. (2016), many problems that people face in the media and communication environments are linked with social and racial inequalities. Racism can be viewed from the point of view of inequality and social mobility. Nowadays, media technologies have become a primary way in which people that are less privileged can access information and knowledge. As a consequence, ICTs and internet are conceptualized by Miller et al. (2016) as tools of social mobility. Access to new media has become, in this context, a way to promote development and to give voice to people. As a matter of fact, access to ICT improves the access to economic, social and cultural capital.

Ademolu and Warrington (2019) see race and racial identity as an essential part of development issues, development studies, development perspectives and development representations. The communication field is influenced by this highly complex variable whose analysis is made even more difficult by the intersections with other forms of discrimination.



Miller et al. (2016) note that information and communication technologies are conceptualized by feminist scholars as empowerment instruments for both men and women. These scholars often apply intersectional to their analyses. This approach can be used not only in gender studies, but also in other fields such as anthropology, sociology, commutation and development studies, among many others. The intersections between racism and other forms of systemic discrimination represent a vast area of scientific inquiry. We can use them to detect problems, challenges and contradictions in contemporary realities. Intersectionality is an extremely important theory and methodological tool that in the recent years have been applied in a wide range of disciplines from sociology and history to public policies, social movements and international human rights. It has gone far beyond the boundaries of traditional feminist studies. Researchers from other disciplines have applied its rich potentialities to study complex and often contradictory phenomena. What is essential to underline is that intersectionality is a lot more than a content specialization. It is a paradigm, an approach to conceptualize reality as a dimension that is socially and historically constructed (Hancock, 2007).

The analysis of racism in aid industry can be enriched by the consideration of intersections with other forms of discriminations. In their book “Communication for development: Theory and practice for empowerment and social justice”, Melkote and Steeves (2015) give a special significance to the intersections between different variable in the analysis of communication processes. Racism is a specific form of discrimination based on race. However, there are many other factors that can trigger discrimination. According to Melkote and Steeves (2015), intersections constitute one of the biggest challenges for communication and development programs. The authors stress the importance of participatory communication as an approach designed to detect and fight social inequality, and to promote development. The intersections between race and other variables are presented as an essential part of the concept of social justice. Without understanding their implications, participatory communication action for social justice and empowerment cannot become an achievable goal.


Racism, poverty, religion, ethnicity and gender

Race constitutes a crucial element that can integrate in complex picture of the contemporary debates on development and communication. Ademolu and Warrington (2019) give the example of NGO images of global poverty in which traces of racial representations can also be detected. As a consequence, the intersection between race and poverty cannot be ignored. This analysis is made even more difficult by other variables including religion, ethnicity and gender. These variables are highlighted by authors such as Melkote and Steeves (2015).

In his analysis of racial conations in the field of communication and development, Chonka (2019) highlights the importance of culture. It is essential to gain a deeper understanding of the relationships between digital media, culture, development, aid work and communication. Since the social norms affect every area of human activity including ICT, the idea of choice plays an essential role in the field of communication and development. There is a great multiplicity of methods and approaches that can be applied. By using Amartya Sen’s capability approach, Kleine (2010) highlights the importance of the choice framework.  This framework gives a special attention to social norms. Social norms related to variables such as ethnicity and gender have the power to frame the use of ICT in different temporal and spatial contexts. Since the capability approach conceptualizes the development not only as an economic measurement, but also a human and individual freedom, the inclusion of the choice frameworks seems as an adequate strategy. Communities should have a central role in the analyses of development processes. The choice framework could be used to orient ICT-related development activities.

Even though the number of people using information and communication technologies has drastically increased, accentuated difference and inequalities still persist. Aspects such as race and religion greatly influence the access to resources including ICTs. The differences in the access of resources trigger great social inequalities which can assume a great variety of forms and configurations due to tight links with factors such as race and political representation (Miller et al., 2016). According to Kleine (2010), the field of ICT4D and communicating development is put under a lot of pressure from economic actors and society and general.  Although the economy has been the major vector of interest in the development discourses, in the present context of the global technological progress, communication should gain a more solid and well-founded position. As Kleine (2010) notes that ICTs affect almost all the existing resources: (1) information and social resources – the opportunity to reduce the expenses on communication processes; (2) geographical resources – the possibility to make geographical distance smaller; (3) cultural resources – the availability of online spaces for sharing and disseminating cultural knowledge; (4) educational resources – the opportunity to improve formal and non-formal education; (5) health and medical resources – the possibility to access informational and multiple options for treatment. These are just some of the opportunities that exist. However, in order to take full advantage of these opportunities, variables such as race, age, gender and ethnicity should be included in the analyses.



The interaction between racism and other forms of discrimination should be subject to a more detailed analysis, if one wants to better implement communication for development.  For example, access to ICTs is a very important factor. According to Kleine (2010), variables including ethnicity, gender and age can influence the basic access to ICTs. Authors such as Miller et al. (2016) see access to ICTs as a major mechanism to give a voice to people, fight social inequalities and to increase social justice.  In order to fully implement the concept of social justice and to understand the local and global structures of power, the intersections between racism and other variable need to be acknowledged by development and communication professionals. Reflecting on these intersections will improve participatory communication that is much more than a lip service and that is an instrument of social empowerment (Melkote & Steeves, 2015).

I think that racism in aid industry is an urgent matter because it can put under question not only the efficacy but also the credibility of this field. By reflecting and writing on this topic, I was able to develop my overall knowledge on communication and development processes, and to increase my critical thinking abilities. Critical analysis is, in my opinion, the most important step in the identification of racism in the aid industry because its traces can be extremely subtly, and only a critical and contextualized analysis can lead us to a more multi-faceted understanding of the problem. For this reason, the study of intersections should become a priority for researchers and practitioners. Despite their complexity, intersections allow the identification of hidden meanings, representations and symbols. I think that intersectionality plays an even more prominent role in areas such as communication for development because these areas are highly influenced by the links between different forms of knowledge, practice and values. Intersectionality should not remain exclusive to the area of gender studies or feminist research. This highly interdisciplinary approach brings many advantages and potentialities.  Racism in the aid industry can be viewed as a contradictory process which can by understood through the multifaceted lens of intersectionality.

It is important to continue the theoretical problematization of communication for development and ICT4D within aid work. In my opinion, racism in aid industry can be considered as an example of the gap between theory and practice in the field of communication and development.



Ademolu, E., & Warrington, S. (2019). Who Gets to Talk About NGO Images of Global Poverty?. Photography and Culture12(3), 365-376.


Chonka, P. (2019). The Empire Tweets Back?# HumanitarianStarWars and Memetic Self-Critique in the Aid Industry. Social Media + Society, 5(4), 1-13


Hancock, A. M. (2007). When multiplication doesn’t equal quick addition: Examining intersectionality as a research paradigm. Perspectives on politics5(1), 63-79.


Heeks, R. (2017). Information and communication technology for development (ICT4D). London, United Kingdom: Routledge.


Kleine, D. (2010). ICT4WHAT?—Using the choice framework to operationalise the capability approach to development. Journal of International Development, 22(5), 674–692.


Melkote, S. R., & Steeves, H. L. (2015). Communication for development: Theory and practice for empowerment and social justice. Thousand Oaks, California, United States: SAGE Publications.


Miller, D., Costa E., Haynes. N., Mcdonald T., Nicolesco R., Synanan J., Spyer J., Venkatramn S., & Wang X. (2016). How the world changed social media. London, United Kingdom: UCL Press.


Walsham, G. (2017). ICT4D research: reflections on history and future agenda. Information Technology for Development23(1), 18-41.


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