Be inspired but remain humble: UNDP’s mission to tackle racism in development programming

March 20, 2023
#FIGHTracism graphic

On 21 March, we mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. It was proclaimed in 1966, six years after the police in Sharpeville, South Africa killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against the apartheid "pass laws". Since then, apartheid in South Africa has been dismantled and a set of international norms were adopted to reaffirm that human rights and fundamental freedoms are inherent to all human beings equally. 

Despite the progress we made in creating frameworks that prohibit racial discrimination and in establishing monitoring and accountability mechanisms, racism is still prevalent and widespread. Racism manifests in many actions or precisely in the lack of actions. It starts with settling with the convenience of ignorance when one rejects the existence of racism or denies the detrimental impacts of racism on progress and development. Racism also hides behind deliberate policies which drive members of the same racial or ethnic community into one particular area or location with segregated, and often substandard education, health and social services, blaming it on a series of spontaneous accidents driving prejudice and personal choices.

As a Roma woman from a small Hungarian town, Szekszárd, I always knew I was privileged that my parents could provide me with proper education and aspirations for a good life. However, when I was fired from a workplace at the age of 21, precisely because of my Roma origin, I made a lifelong commitment to challenge and stand up against racism. At the age of 30, I was appointed as UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, and a few years later, I became member and rapporteur of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD).

I have always been deeply troubled by examining disaggregated poverty data (where these exist) and reports about political, social and economic exclusion by population groups and recognizing that it is systematically the minorities, Indigenous peoples, Afro-Descendants, schedules castes, and other racialized groups, and especially the women from these communities, who are at the bottom of these statistics, and for several decades, steadily so. UNDP’s own publication, “Global Multidimensional Poverty Index Report: Unmasking disparities by ethnicity, caste and gender”, highlights many such trends. It shows for example that in seven out of eleven Latin American countries examined, Indigenous groups were the poorest and that five out of six multidimensionally poor people in India live in households whose head is from a Scheduled Tribe, a Scheduled Caste or Other Backward Class.

In the development framework, Sustainable Development Goal 10.3 commits to ensure equal opportunity and reduce inequalities of outcome, including by eliminating discriminatory laws, policies and practices and promoting appropriate legislation, policies and action in this regard. However, when populations are being purposefully pushed further and further behind, it becomes increasingly challenging to live up to our promise to leave no one behind. Racism hampers progress in every domain in which we operate, from conflict prevention to peacebuilding, from displacement to access to justice, from deforestation to health, from gender equality to governance. In my capacity as Special Rapporteur, I prepared a report to the Human Rights Council, “Ensuring the inclusion of minority issues in post-2015 development agendas”, to demonstrate how persons belonging to minorities were marginalized. In this report, I analysed the situation of minorities in the context of the 11 areas of global consultations on people’s vision for the post-2015 development agenda. I provided recommendations on how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) should be more inclusive. However, minorities were not even named and SDGs, targets and indicators remained “disturbingly silent about the eradication of systemic racism and racial and ethnic discrimination which constitute global barriers to human development and the fulfilment of human rights throughout the lifespan”.

"Racism hampers progress in every domain in which we operate, from conflict prevention to peacebuilding, from displacement to access to justice, from deforestation to health, from gender equality to governance."


I joined UNDP in October 2022 as a Senior Advisor on Anti-Racism to assist in transforming UNDP into a truly anti-racist organization. Despite the shortcomings of the SDG framework, I firmly believe that it carries the hope and promise of change and progress for the most marginalized groups. And UNDP can be proud of the many activities carried out to empower racialized communities. Our independent evaluations prove it so. We protected and promoted the rights of ethnic minorities in Bangladesh and strengthened their Indigenous and minority youth networks. In Iraq, UNDP built emotional resilience and skills, and contributed to the economic stability of Yazidi, Christian and Kurdish minorities. In Viet Nam, we secured up to 90 percent of ethnic minority participation in legal awareness activities. In Bolivia, we carried out dialogues exclusively with Indigenous peoples, and we successfully implemented laboratories in 23 vulnerable Indigenous communities. 

Inspired by these promising initiatives, we need to remain humble at the immense task still ahead of us. There is no magic formula to fix racist mindsets, to stop racism today and land ourselves in an equal world tomorrow. We will need to take a step-by-step approach, start to collectively create appropriate strategies, policies and responses to the various challenges that racism brings to our way. And let us be honest: there may be difficulties, especially at the country level, when we point out to systemic, institutional and structural racism and offer solutions. Confronting and addressing racism is often politically sensitive, personally emotive and substantially challenging. Therefore, we all have a duty, collectively and unequivocally, to recognize, name, question, challenge, confront, tackle, investigate, remedy, punish and stop racist manifestations around us.

This year, we celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which was adopted on 10 December 1948. Commemorations remind us that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights and that we “are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood”. Indeed, the UDHR requires us to stand up, united, for the equal rights and fundamental freedoms inherent to all human beings, regardless of our race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

My assessment report on UNDP’s current anti-racism efforts in strategies, approaches and projects provides an insight into what has been done so far with a set of recommendations on what more we can do. Join me on this noble and challenging journey to end racism and racial discrimination in development programming. Together we can find and promote innovative and sustainable ways to stop centuries long exclusions of marginalized and racialized communities, to bring them the promise of progress and the hope for a better future.