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Moving the needle: five priorities for improving diversity and inclusion in international development organisations

30 second summary:

  • International development organisations, like ours, need to do more to promote diversity and inclusion within the sector as a whole.
  • We need commitments that include executive engagement, reliable data, measurable targets, clear communications, and accountability of leadership.
  • We outline five priority areas for action.

The world of international development is having a much needed moment of reflection, and is finding that there is much more we can collectively do to ensure that we are diverse and inclusive in our organisational leadership, our thought leadership, and the implementation of our programmes. Here at Oxford Policy Management, we are well aware that there is much more we can do to improve company performance by engaging more deliberately on diversity and inclusion.

Why does this matter? We know that diverse representation leads to better performance. As companies seek to build back better from the covid-19 crisis, prioritising diversity and inclusion (D&I) initiatives will benefit companies in the medium to longer-term. This investment in D&I is critical to improving productivity and ensuring organisational success. And it’s not only the organisation that wins: when there is greater diversity, employee satisfaction and retention also increases by as much as 62%. Additionally, ensuring that our organisation provides equitable opportunities for employees illustrates the commitment to fairness, which is our ultimate mission.

Diverse representation at all levels of leadership will not happen overnight, and to make meaningful progress, companies require explicit commitments that include executive engagement, reliable data, measurable targets, clear communications, and accountability of leadership.

By their very nature, international development organisations are often global, operating at many levels in many different places – while this set-up can bring challenges, it also gives us a unique set of opportunities for building on what works, extending commitments in a meaningful way to both our internal structure (e.g. how to achieve a more diverse organisation) and also our external mission, so our work also respects and promotes diversity and inclusion around the world.

This blog articulates what a clear charter of commitments should look like, along with specific actions that need to be pursued by organisations working in international development to make meaningful progress. For companies like ours to grow as truly diverse and inclusive organisations, including in leadership positions at corporate, country, and project levels, these commitments need to be adopted at the Board level, and then rolled out within the organisation at all levels.

  1. Executive Sponsorship: For organisations to successfully integrate D&I into all decision making, this commitment needs to be reflected from the top, with the leadership agreeing key metrics as part of performance management each year. At OPM, the CEO and the Chief of People and Organisational Culture (CPOC) are the joint sponsors for this initiative, with senior leaders expected to own as well as cascade D&I targets throughout their teams so that this is a shared responsibility for all staff.
  2. Data-driven decisions: Being able to measure progress (or lack thereof) is crucial in ensuring companies like ours ‘walk the talk’. As development practitioners, much of our work relies on evidence as a basis for policy decisions, and this must be extended to monitoring and evaluating our own initiatives. We must make use of rigorous quantitative and qualitative data to make decisions, and have a baseline against which we can measure progress and drive improvements. Here in OPM, we are complementing existing data sources such as staff and diversity surveys with further analysis of breakdown of leadership at the country, programme, and corporate levels. This will ensure that we have a clear baseline of our current position, providing us a platform against which we can set targets, monitor them regularly, and report back to staff, Business Leaders, and the Board on a quarterly basis. We will capture D&I data and present disaggregated findings to inform effective decision-making.
  3. Commitment to equity and justice: As we pursue systemic improvements to D&I, we are conscious that this takes time and effort, and there are challenges that can be particularly prominent in international organisations operating in many different contexts. But these challenges must not become an excuse for inaction. As part of this process, companies like ours must commit to making targeted efforts and investments to ensure that we address any instance of inequity or injustice we are able to identify – as soon as it is identified. We must also regularly review our policies – such as our pay and promotion policy, our global mobility policy, and our maternity and paternity policies – to ensure that they enable, rather than hinder, D&I.
  4. Enable leaders and managers as champions of change: D&I should be the shared responsibility of all leaders and managers primarily, and the culture should be encouraged and enabled by all staff. We know that the highest performing companies focus on leadership development and inclusive cultures. We are determined to cultivate such an organisational culture, providing training to leaders and managers, using an improved performance management framework to cascade targets and incentives related to D&I improvements across the organisation. At OPM, we have incorporated meaningful metrics into Annual Performance Targets of our executive leadership team. This approach will be cascaded among the performance metrics of other leaders. In addition to leading the implementation of targets and metrics, leaders are also expected to model inclusive behaviours and set the example on D&I initiatives.
  5. Targeted investments to promote underrepresented groups: We need to ensure that no one is left behind. Commitments to improving D&I must be backed with targeted investments on training, learning, and mentoring to ensure improvements across the whole organisation. These include empowering our D&I Committee to support the implementation of effective D&I policies; line management and unconscious bias training for leaders and managers; Executive sponsorship of company-wide conversations; and, based on staff feedback, creation of safe spaces for underrepresented groups to discuss and grow together.

The time to act is now

Whatever the industry, the highest performing companies seek to understand the lived experiences of their employees and create an environment that nurtures differences and adds value to employees to magnify their strengths so that they can thrive. We need to be at a place where this is second nature to companies, embedded in organisational culture as a norm. The recent spotlight on international development organisations has highlighted failings across our industry. Collectively, we can make meaningful and purposeful progress to address these failings with clear, concrete actions. It is time for an integrated approach to D&I, so we are not seeing D&I initiatives as separated, one-off activities, but as core considerations in all our investments and business decisions. We know we have work to do at OPM, but we are committed to making improvements to grow as a more diverse and inclusive organisation. 

Bernadette Sexton was Chief Executive Officer at OPM; Shrochis Karki was OPM’s Chief of People and Organisational Culture; and Abeena Mohann and Shamim Zakaria have both acted as members of OPM’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee