The International Rescue Committee reinforces “white supremacy culture”, staff have alleged, with the aid organization subsequently hiring a law firm to review its policies relating to discrimination, harassment and retaliation, the Guardian can reveal.
Headed by former UK foreign secretary David Miliband, the IRC is a major NGO with 20,000 staff and volunteers and a budget of $800m. It delivers aid in more than 40 countries, primarily in Africa, and helps resettle refugees across the US, with operations mainly directed out of New York.
In a statement to the Guardian, three former staff and six current members accused IRC leaders of “belittling, gaslighting and retaliating” against employees seeking to make significant antiracist changes internally following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor last year.
“IRC leadership has belittled, gaslit, retaliated against [staff], and proven themselves to be deeply committed to coloniality and white supremacy culture through their lack of commitment to real, tangible change,” it said.
“IRC made public statements supporting Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, but those of us organizing internally for anti-racism and decoloniality work faced countless roadblocks and pushback from senior leaders.
“Over the past year alone a large number of Bipoc/BAME staff have left the organization, many of them at least in part due to the IRC’s lackluster diversity, equality and inclusion [DEI] work. Several current and former staff have submitted complaints related to their treatment within the organization, including bullying by senior leadership.”
The IRC said it has engaged a law firm to conduct an independent review into concerns regarding its approach to diversity, equality and inclusion. It added that it “was founded to help people survive in the face of racist violence and oppression and we are committed to racial and social justice. These values are core to the IRC mission of helping people survive, recover, and gain control of their lives.
There are also serious concerns among staff over a lack of diversity among directors and board members, particularly given the nature of the organization’s work and that former refugees are sometimes hired initially to do lower level, lower-paid work.
Staff were angered at being censured last year for circulating a petition ratified by some 150 members of the IRC’s Global Anti-Racism and Decoloniality (Gard) network for signatures internally. It called for the organization to be democratized and for senior leaders to be made significantly more accountable, in a set of wide-ranging and detailed proposals.
In an email to staff, Miliband addressed the demands, saying: “We do not agree with some of the characterizations in the letter, but find very many practical recommendations in your document to be aligned with workstreams already under way with the DEI team, as well as ideas that we have discussed with you and we hope will form part of the DEI action plan.”
They were also told by senior vice-president Ricardo Castro that the IRC prohibited the use of its platforms to solicit signatures for petitions, since it could have a “coercive effect on staff who might feel pressured to sign in part because they assume that the use of IRC’s platforms implies endorsement of the petition by the organization.”
While colleagues remained welcome to post the petition on IRC intranet, he said also that “allowing signature-gathering petitions in some instances and not others would require IRC to make content-based judgments as to which petitions to allow, which would open IRC up to allegations of content-based censorship.”
Castro added: “To the point that was raised about the petition content being ‘IRC related’, it is, to our knowledge, not being put forth directly as part of anyone’s job at IRC or directly in furtherance of IRC’s business and programming and thus falls outside the scope of what is permitted.” However,
An allegedly glacial pace of change over months following the submission of this document, as the Black Lives Matter movement snowballed, led several staff to complain and some to leave. However, it is understood the IRC is now set to take up a significant number of the Gard recommendations after extensive work behind the scenes.
Former grant manager Serwat Asante, who is now working for a similar organization, said: “I was publicly berated on a recorded video call by a senior official for asking about decision-making and power imbalance during DEI discussions.
“I was also labeled as ‘adversarial’ and ‘contentious’ for helping to coordinate a 52-point, staff-led call to action to work with leadership to make IRC an organization dedicated to anti-racism and decoloniality. These actions, coupled with a culture of reprisal and a year of performative DEI engagement, ultimately, led to my decision to leave the organization.”
He told a staff forum that his pay remained below the New York average for those in such roles, saying: “I very much hope that we can be a team that recognizes that it’s right that my salary is published, I’m absolutely clear about that, but I’m not going to have conspiracy theories sent round that give people a sense of demoralization when our work is so needed.
“So thank you for giving me the time to say that, and I’m very sorry for our Ethiopia colleagues that their amazing work should have had to be diverted for 30 seconds for me to do so.”
Similar organizations have also been facing a reckoning from their staff of late. NGO Médecins Sans Frontières was described as “institutionally racist” by insiders in July, while Amnesty International staff claimed there was a culture of white privilege at the organization in April.
When the Guardian raised the allegations to the IRC, it acknowledged it could do “much better” and said that an outside law firm, WilmerHale, had been engaged to conduct an independent review to achieve an objective and comprehensive assessment.
“We recognize the serious nature of any allegations, whether reported within the organization, or made publicly through media or on social media,” a spokesperson said.
“As our strategic plan S100 made clear, inequalities of power reflect profound historic injustices, and IRC is determined to do better, in some aspects much better, to reflect the diversity of the places we work and the people we serve.
“This month, we have learned about newly-voiced concerns regarding our approach and efforts to promote diversity, equality, and inclusion at IRC. To ensure these concerns are considered fully, the board of directors has created a four-person special committee, which is charged with overseeing an in-depth review of these concerns.
“Among other things, WilmerHale will assess IRC’s policies and procedures related to discrimination, harassment, and retaliation; how IRC responds to and investigates employees’ complaints of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation; and management’s role in promoting a workplace that is respectful and inclusive.”
IRC has invested significantly in DEI over the past year and has set goals to increase leadership diversity, while also hiring a full-time staff member in a role titled diversity recruiter. It has also launched an audit of HR practices to improve internal policies.
Miliband, the president and chief executive, said: “Like everyone at the IRC, I am deeply committed to our mission and to the high standards we set. I welcome the independent review that has been established and look forward to contributing to it. During the course of the review, I will not be commenting on its progress.”