Charitable Charade

The Indian development sector has got diversity hiring all wrong

Anubhuti Trust, an anti-caste feminist organisation, conducts a mental health support workshop in Titwala, a town in Maharashtra, for nomadic and de-notified tribes, in 2021. ANUBHUTI TRUST
31 December, 2023

As a Muslim woman grappling with struggles around identity, I decided to join the development sector based on an assumption—that it is an egalitarian space where I would be among those who genuinely care about structural equality for vulnerable communities. In reality, I discovered a disorienting hypocrisy where despite working on social-justice issues, the politics of many of those around me remained far from the principles associated with these causes. As someone who chooses not to carry markers of my religion, my experience ranged from supposedly innocuous comments about “not looking like a Muslim” to situations where people blatantly expressed their anti-Muslim animus. In response, I learnt to have a thick skin, a numbness to maintain functionality.

In 2018, Benson Neethipudi, a project manager and public policy professional with experience in India’s social sector, explained in The Wire how India’s development sector had a diversity problem. “It is particularly disappointing that though the sector is interacting with Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi communities all the time, professionals from those communities don’t find adequate representation in the sector and its decision making.” He noted there was little conversation around the issue. “Any attempts to fix it,” he wrote, “will have to start by examining how the pipeline for candidates entering the sector inadvertently excludes individuals from social groups who form the majority of its constituents.” Available studies on the subject are few and far between. In one, the lawyer and human rights activist B Karthik Navayan had conducted a small study of 34 development sector organisations, concerning social diversity in their staff. Only ten responded. Three provided information, two of which were insufficient; the rest replied that they were not covered under the Right to Information Act. 

Partha Mukhopadhyay, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, ascribed two reasons for this underrepresentation: the lack of access to the degrees and qualifications that are required to get a job in the sector and the lower paying nature of most jobs in the development sector. The latter, he told me, results in “a lower incentive to aspire towards these jobs even if you do fulfill its requirements,” especially with obligations like supporting a family—which is true for most first-generation learners.

“In most organisations, you will see that the people working on the ground, the foot soldiers, would belong to marginalised communities. But the top leadership, even within social-justice movements that are working on access to rights and entitlements, the majority would be from elite Savarna backgrounds,” Priyanka Samy, a second-generation Dalit-feminist activist working on human rights, equity and gender justice, told me. Having worked closely with funding organisations, Samy argued this kind of a representational lack affected “how resources move and what kind of work gets funded and which groups of people get funded.” Despite the recent push in organisations to pursue diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives—real systemic change is still a farfetched reality. While it may ensure a vague adherence to political correctness on paper, actual change within organisational culture is yet to be seen.