Alcinda Manuel Honwana, Director of the Anti-Racism Office

Striving for an anti-racist workplace
Deconstructing the barriers preventing the UN from becoming an equitable organization
1 Mar 2024

Alcinda Manuel Honwana is a social anthropologist from Mozambique. She joined the Department of Management Strategy, Policy and Compliance (DMSPC) as Director of the Anti-Racism Team (ART) in December 2022. Prior to joining the United Nations, Alcinda was Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Strategic Director of the Firoz Lalji Institute for Africa. She also held the position of Chair in International Development at the Open University UK, and taught Anthropology at the University of Cape Town. She has been a Director at the Social Science Research Council in New York, and a Visiting Professor at Columbia University, and the New School for Social Research in New York.

Her extensive academic research on social and cultural issues including on decolonizing the academy, the dynamics of post-conflict reintegration, youth politics and social movements, earned her the reputation as one of the most influential scholars in these fields. Her most recent books include: ‘Youth and Revolution in Tunisia’ and ‘The Time of Youth: Work, Social Change and Politics in Africa.’ Her career has straddled academia and policy making, allowing her to apply innovative insights to drive policy change.

You are currently chairing the Anti-Racism Office. What is the mandate of the Office?

Established in June 2022 as the Anti-Racism Team (ART), we became the Anti-Racism Office (ARO) in December 2023 following the General Assembly’s Resolution 78/253. The Anti-Racism Office spearheads the fight against racism in the UN Secretariat by overseeing, coordinating, and monitoring the implementation of the Strategic Action Plan on Addressing Racism and Promoting Dignity for All in the UN Secretariat (SAP). We are not an implementing entity, and we work closely with key departments and offices in the Secretariat, providing the anti-racism lens, ensuring seamless implementation, and monitoring progress towards goals of the SAP.

The SAP takes a comprehensive approach, tackling racism in all its forms: from harmful interpersonal interactions to deeply ingrained institutional and systemic biases. We go beyond ‘white on black racism’ to address prejudice and discrimination in all its complexities, across diverse social contexts. This transformative vision is critical to empower individuals, unlock collective potential, and strengthen the UN’s ability to serve communities around the world with greater inclusivity and impact.

What have been the ARO’s main achievements to date?

In the first year of activity, the Anti-Racism Office established a network of Anti-Racism Advocates (ARAs) in all duty stations across the global Secretariat. The 180 Anti-Racism Advocates are the drivers of change at entity level. The advocates provide support and advice to their colleagues and organize anti-racism initiatives in their entities to promote the implementation of the SAP.

The Anti-Racism Office has also been engaging with the staff unions, including the national staff associations, the network of Racial Justice Focal Points as well as affinity groups such as the UN Peoples of African Descent (UNPAD) and UN Asian Network for Diversity and Inclusion (UN-ANDI). Although our mandate is focused on the UN Secretariat, we have been engaging with colleagues from other UN Agencies, Funds and Programmes to share and exchange experiences and best practices in addressing racism in the workplace.

These engagements and collaborative partnerships are critical for building an active anti-racism community across the organization. In that regard, the Anti-Racism Office is planning the first Global UN Conference on Anti-Racism Advocacy for the last quarter of 2024 in Lisbon. Organized in partnership with the Government of Portugal, the conference will bring together the Anti-Racism Advocates, the Racial Justice Focal Points, the staff unions, members of key implementing departments, of affinity groups, and of some UN system organizations to discuss anti-racism in the workplace and foster cohesive action.

Across duty stations in Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, we listened to the voices of staff who spoke of enduring racial discrimination, biased recruitment practices, and a culture of silence. These are some of the challenges that we’re grappling with in addressing racism in our organization. The Anti-Racism Office’s holistic three-pronged action approach includes: (i) Anti-Racism Advocacy (ii) Anti-Racism Transparency, and (iii) Anti-Racism Accountability. We are working to actively tackle interpersonal racism through comprehensive communications for awareness raising, learning and training, open dialogues, and other knowledge building initiatives. But we understand that lasting change requires addressing the root causes of the problem. That is why we are embarking on reviewing policies, reforming practices, and fostering a culture of accountability to dismantle the systemic and institutional barriers that perpetuate racial inequalities. This is not a quick fix. We are embarking on a long journey that will require the involvement of all UN personnel.  

The Anti-Racism Office, in collaboration with the SAP implementing departments produced two critical independent review reports in 2023: one on ‘The elimination of racial bias in the end-to-end recruitment process’; and another on ‘The analysis
of past complaints of racism and racial discrimination in the Secretariat.’ These two reports provided deeper insights into the problems experienced in these areas and made specific recommendations for resolving them. Addressing the challenges in policy and practice in these two areas is vital for institutional reform and transformation.

The Anti-Racism Office also prepared a proposal for the review of the Secretary-General’s Bulletin ST/SGB/2019/8 on prohibited conduct, to include racial discrimination. The proposal is now going through an internal review process involving all relevant stakeholders in the organization.

Our analysis of the staff composition in the UN Secretariat over the past five years offers valuable insights into geographical representation at different levels. Even though nationality doesn’t fully capture the complexities of racial identity, it provides a starting point for understanding certain patterns. We are aware of the importance of gathering race-related data and are actively working with relevant stakeholders to propose mechanisms for initiating the collection of race-related data in the Secretariat. This data will be crucial in building a more accurate and nuanced picture of the racial make-up of the organization to inform future initiatives to promote greater equity and inclusion.

Regarding advocacy and awareness raising, the Anti-Racism Office organized the ‘Anti-Racism Live Talks’ with engaging virtual discussions that reached over 4,500 staff members in the Secretariat. Almost 3,000 staff members attended the ‘Dialogues on Racism’ organized in collaboration with the Ombudsman’s Office; and training programmes have been offered to about 100 anti-racism advocates, the judges of the UN Tribunals, about 80 investigators in the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), and key staff from implementing departments, staff unions, and affinity groups. Communication campaigns through social media, iSeek, broadcast messages and videos have been instrumental to provide information and raise awareness and knowledge on anti-racism to staff and leadership across the organization.

What are the main criteria, apart from the results of the staff engagement, that you intend to use in order to measure the impact of the achievements realized so far in the fight against racism and racial discrimination at the UN?

Measuring progress on the Strategic Action Plan (SAP) means not only looking at actions and outputs, but also the long-term impact. We are endeavoring to monitor and evaluate the implementation of specific SAP actions, but our ultimate goal is to see the impact of the changes on the personnel and organizational culture as a whole. This means creating a more inclusive work environment, enhancing career opportunities, and ensuring everyone feels respected. We will use staff surveys to assess changes in workplace satisfaction, interpersonal relationships, and career trajectories. Analytical data-driven dynamic dashboards will help us track increasing racial representation at decision-making levels and measure the effectiveness of reporting mechanisms for racism. Ultimately, we would like to see fewer incidents of racial discrimination, perpetrators being held accountable, strong support systems in place for victims, and more robust anti-racism policies.

Building a truly inclusive environment may seem daunting, but the potential rewards are immense. At the Anti-Racism Office, we are driven by the prospect of fostering a workplace where everyone can thrive, free from bias and discrimination. This is a worthy cause, and we are honored to be spearheading this journey.

The Secretary-General said that increasing staff diversity is one of the ways to fight racism at the UN. Many obstacles stand to impede workforce diversification. In your view, what is the best way to overcome these obstacles and as such, increase the diversity of the workforce?

I don’t think staff diversity per se is the issue. The United Nations Secretariat has a very diverse workforce already. I believe the problem lies in the distribution of power and influence. Power is at the heart of racism, as a system that privileges one racial group over the others. Therefore, it is crucial to examine and address the persistent lack of equitable racial representation in access to leadership positions, career development opportunities, and other resources. Similarly, it is fundamental that the regulatory frameworks within the organization are strengthened to be robust enough to deter racial discrimination, fight impunity, enforce accountability and racial justice, as well as guarantee a dignified workplace for every staff member.

If you were to see a real change taking place at the UN so that it becomes an organization free from all forms of racism and racial discrimination, what would this change be?

Real change would mean having a United Nations where everyone feels a strong sense of belonging, and is empowered to contribute their best, regardless of their race or ethnic background. 

By creating a racism-free workplace where respect and dignity thrive, we will be able to unlock the full potential of our diverse workforce and deliver the United Nations global mandate with greater equity and efficiency. 

* Prisca Chaoui is the Editor-in-chief of UN Today.
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