The Trump administration issued an executive order and memorandum in September, prohibiting any discussion in the federal workforce of concepts like systemic racism, white privilege and unconscious bias during workplace diversity training.
The order affirmed that the federal government aims to "continue to foster environments devoid of hostility grounded in race, sex and other federally protected characteristics." But it condemned workplace diversity and inclusion trainings as "divisive," "anti-American," racist against white people and sexist against men. As an example, the order pointed to a Treasury Department seminar that promoted the idea that "virtually all white people, regardless of how 'woke' they are, contribute to racism."
The overall message: Such trainings must stop in federal agencies, contractors or any other institution that receives federal grants; otherwise, they may lose their funding. In part the memo said that these parties must certify that they will "not use Federal funds to promote the divisive concepts set forth in the E.O." and that "noncompliance by continuing with prohibited training will result in consequences."
As a result, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – one of the largest official foreign aid agencies in the world – suspended all diversity and inclusion training on September 30, one week after the order was issued.
"In compliance with the [executive order], USAID has put a pause across the Agency on upcoming trainings, seminars, and other related [assemblies] on diversity and inclusion until the completion of a review of the content of these programs in conjunction with the Office of Management and Budget," a USAID spokesperson wrote to NPR in an email. The spokesperson would not provide further comment on what this move entails.
"There are many unanswered questions," wrote USAID Acting Administrator John Barsa in a guidance he issued to the agency, according to the global development website Devex.
But apparently, it will be far-reaching. According to Barsa's guidance, any organization receiving funding directly or indirectly from USAID will have to make sure they're in compliance with the executive order – whatever that looks like. USAID works with more than 4,000 organizations in more than 100 countries, according to the agency's website.
Experts in international aid contend that these trainings provide important context that can lead to institutional culture shifts. Megan O'Donnell, assistant director for gender and a senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Development, says that diversity training is intended to provide a "more accurate, historically grounded picture of racism and sexism" in the U.S. and globally. "This kind of executive order [from the Trump administration] means that we're refusing to acknowledge history and the current reality that so many people are impacted by," she says.
O'Donnell says that training is most effective when done in combination with other diversity and inclusion efforts, like narrowing pay gaps and setting targets for hiring and promoting women and people of color.
That kind of multifaceted approach reflects the findings of a 2019 study by Edward Chang of the Harvard Business School: that a one-hour, one-off training might change attitudes but not behaviors in the workplace. Chang stresses that "instead of [one-off] trainings, companies should think about how they can embed diversity and inclusion practices throughout their organization." As for the executive order, he has this to say: "The spirit of the executive order I very much disagree with. This idea that we should not be talking about diversity or race in organizations and education – I think that's outlandish."
These diversity and inclusion efforts are especially important in the international development sector, O'Donnell says, where people from high-income countries, often white, are trying to help people from low- and middle-income countries, often people of color. According to O'Donnell, training can help challenge that inherent power imbalance and make development projects more effective by putting the perspectives of the beneficiaries first.
That's why this move by the Trump administration and USAID is so worrisome to members of the aid and development community. Marie-Rose Romain Murphy, co-founder and president of Fondation Communautaire Haitienne-Espwa (The Haiti Community Foundation) says that in a global development system already "dominated by white privilege and white men," the executive order is a setback in the conversation around how racism and sexism are not just a matter of "a few bad apples" but rather systemic problems. "This is not a good signal," she says.
A June report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the percentage of non-white people working at USAID increased only 4 percent from 2002 to 2018. Well over half of the workforce (64 percent) was still white, and the proportion of African-Americans actually fell 5 percent. The study also found that men continue to hold more senior-level positions, with more women concentrated at lower levels.
The development sector has also been criticized for failing to hire and promote more local workers, organizations and leaders. Now, Romain Murphy says the executive order could send the message that it's "even more OK to not use local contractors and people of color."
Emily Bancroft is president of one of the USAID partners, a global health group called VillageReach. She says the group hasn't received direct guidance from USAID yet regarding the executive order. But for now, she does not believe they'll have to change much to be in compliance with the order, besides submit their training materials to the government for evaluation.
"We don't do a lot of formal training with our staff. We encourage personal learning, open dialogue and reflection on colonialism and systemic racism within the development sector," says Bancroft. "Our best assessment right now is that what we do within our organization is not in violation – but there's a lot of room for interpretation on that."
If it turns out VillageReach is actually not in compliance with the Trump order, Bancroft says they'll have to reassess their federal partnership because diversity, equity and inclusion are core values. In the meantime, it seems that most of the sector is on standby.
"I think a lot of people are saying, 'Let's wait and see what happens with the election and whether this executive order goes away,'" says Bancroft.
Joanne Lu is a freelance journalist who covers global poverty and inequity. Her work has appeared in Humanosphere, The Guardian, Global Washington and War is Boring. Follow her on Twitter: @joannelu