SID Hosts Panel on Race and Diversity in Global Development

July 31, 2020

At an online panel hosted this week by the Society for International Development’s Washington, D.C. chapter (SID-W), DAI Global Health Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Bobby Jefferson facilitated a timely conversation around the topics of achieving racial equity and inclusive development in technology.

Co-convened by SID-W’s ICT for Development Workgroup and the Young Professionals in Development Network (YPN), panelists included Lyndon Bowen Jr., a recent North Carolina Central University graduate; Carolyn Florey, Technology for Development Lead, International Rice Research Institute; Darlene Irby, Director of Digital Health and Health Information, Jhpiego; and Jeff Street, President, VIA Consulting Group.

“Like other industries, development and the development-tech sector is bound up in the racial dynamics and racial inequities of our society,” said Jefferson. “Tackling issues of access, power, bias, and discrimination is not a comfortable process, but frank discussions like today’s are a necessary part of the anti-racist agenda. Kudos to SID-Washington for providing this forum.”

With about 50 participants in attendance, the panel addressed questions around why international development leadership remains skewed toward white men, whether some of the language of technology reflects unanalyzed biases, and where the industry is heading in regard to inclusivity.

Florey and Irby described the problem of “wanels” and “manels,” for example, the phenomenon whereby panels at conferences and industry events tend to be populated by white people, particularly men. Florey said more male leaders need to step aside and propose women or people of color to represent their organizations.

When it comes to rising in those organizations, YPN Workgroup Co-Chair Jamila White, Senior Africa Representative, Mercy Corps, said she often advises young people of color to consider that the development professional of the future will specialize in tech, big data, and monitoring and evaluation.

All panelists agreed that pandemic conditions may actually be favoring inclusivity in some ways. “Webinars are allowing for more people to engage,” said Jhpiego’s Irby. “We are also relying more on our counterparts in-country, which empowers them.”

Regarding some inherently biased tech terminology, such as master/slave databases, panelists agreed that while it should be changed, forcing it was unwise. VIA’s Street said: “We can’t dictate people’s morality. We can nudge and lead, but we can’t force it.”

“My generation is demanding accountability and action from leadership,” said Bowen, the panel’s youngest participant. “Companies are under more pressure to reflect on hiring practices and other areas of discrimination. I have hope on this—we will see more diversity in leadership and ensure that more voices are being heard.”

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