The Impact of Racial Inequalities in Achieving the SDGs

This article is based on a ‘Impact for Breakfast’ talk given by OAD Director Kevin Govender and OAD Fellow Tawanda Chingozha on the impact of racial inequalities on development in Africa. The first half of the blog (on the OAD, racism and its effect on project funding) was presented by Govender, and the second part (on the impact of racial inequalities on African development, colonialism and land ownership) was presented by Chingozha.

Long read -the article is approximately 11 pages

Brief background of the authors:

Kevin Govender is a South African of Indian descent. He was born in 1978, in Kwadukuza, South Africa and grew up in rural South Africa. He studied Physics and worked at the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation, the South African Astronomical Observatory (SALT Collateral Benefits Programme) and currently the Office of Astronomy for Development. 

Tawanda Chingozha is Zimbabwean of African descent. He was born in 1987 in Harare, Zimbabwe, and grew up in the low income suburbs of the city. He studied Economics and worked at Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA), Barclays Bank Zimbabwe and currently at the Office of Astronomy for Development.

Both South Africa and Zimbabwe are known internationally for their history of orchestrated racial inequality, especially the South African system of Apartheid (1948-1990). Both authors have first hand experience of being on the receiving end of racial oppression. Govender also has the experience of being on the “other side”, since in South Africa people of Indian descent were treated better than those of African descent, according to the Apartheid “racial hierarchy”. Chingozha, as someone born after Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, has experienced the daily struggle to put food on the table that many Africans still go through due to their continued economic exclusion.

Background of the OAD and where it fits into Development, SDGs and Racial Equality

The Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) is a joint venture between the International Astronomical Union (IAU) and the South African National Research Foundation (NRF), with strong support from the South African Department of Science and Innovation. It was established in 2011, as part of the IAU’s 2010-2020 decadal strategy, which aimed to use astronomy to stimulate global development. Astronomy is an interesting field since it connects with different aspects of society, from the cutting edge technology of large telescopes and computing, to the deep cultural connections such as asking existential questions about life and the origins of the universe, to the connections with other sciences such as physics, mathematics, chemistry and biology. The purpose of the OAD is to use astronomy, in all its aspects, to impact on the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (which was chosen as the closest we have to a universally accepted target for development). 

The OAD exists as a small coordinating office in Cape Town (4 full-time staff and several shorter term Fellows, interns and volunteers) with a global network of collaborators. From 2011 to 2020, the OAD has coordinated IAU grant funding totaling €851,959 for 160 projects around the world, through its annual call for proposals, targeting audiences in more than 100 countries. During this time the OAD has also established 11 regional offices around the world (in Armenia, China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Jordan, Netherlands, Nigeria, Portugal, Thailand, USA and Zambia) with two of these offices serving as a joint language centre, and one serving as a dedicated language centre. During the same period, the OAD registered over 600 volunteers from around the world, and formed 17 partnerships with organisations sharing in the OAD vision.

Types of projects supported by the OAD have ranged from using astronomy tourism to stimulate rural livelihoods in Himalayan villages in India; to tapping into the inspiring potential of astronomy to promote peace, mutual understanding and a sense of global  citizenship in refugee camps in Algeria; to using astronomy to motivate students in Rio de Janeiro’s City of God and Gardenia Azul favelas in Brazil. To get a better idea of the types of projects the OAD supports, readers are encouraged to browse through the OAD website which has project overviews, photos, resources and reports. Based on its experience over the years and with input from stakeholders around the world the OAD has identified three “flagship” projects which are currently being developed. These are (i) Stimulating economies (e.g. astro-tourism, observatories for communities, etc); (ii) Science diplomacy (e.g. peace, post-conflict, partnerships, policy, etc); and (iii) Knowledge and skills from astronomy (e.g. data science, teacher training, schools, etc)

As an international funding body dealing with relatively small individual grants, the OAD has always connected with people very “close to the ground” so to speak. Some of the more than a thousand proposals we have processed come from individuals who have never before written a funding proposal, and from regions of the world where systems of governance and institutions are very different from the so called “developed” world. This has led the OAD to be very aware of global inequalities and the importance of being able to work across social and economic divides in order to positively impact on development. Race is certainly one of these divides that exist. The OAD, being based in Sub-Saharan Africa, and with key members of the OAD team being born and bred in this region, is very aware of how racial bias has affected this region in particular. The OAD has been able to use its location, the insights and experience of a diverse team, as well as its global partnerships and collaborations, to inform how it should take such biases into account when awarding funds and implementing projects aimed at impacting on development.

What is Racism?

I (Govender) was born and grew up in Apartheid South Africa. As a South African of Indian descent I was in a strange middle ground. Indian and Coloured South Africans were treated better than black South Africans. So I got to experience “both sides”. Whenever I saw a black person I knew they were below me. Whenever I saw a white person I knew they were above me. Of course it was not quite middle – white people were far higher than all others combined, but the differences among non-white groups was significant enough to influence our psyche – to embed racism into who we were. In our part of the country (the rural sugarcane farming region on the East coast), Indians could own land and, even though they lived a relatively poor life compared to Whites, they mostly had some or other means to make a living on their own. Black farm workers, however, were essentially treated like slaves, relying entirely on the farmers for food, housing, vices, etc. Racism was embedded in the legal system, enforced by the powerful state through any means necessary. For most of us, it was simply the way life was – this was our reality – whether we liked it or not – so most people had to accept it and simply make ends meet in whatever way you could. When Apartheid ended we had the privilege of wise leaders, of the calibre of Nelson Mandela, who guided us through a relatively peaceful transition, including the famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission, where most of the nastiness of the past were laid bare, opening up old wounds to allow them to heal. What it also allowed was for us to recognize the racism within us – to accept how brainwashed we were as a society and to work on ourselves to be better. Of course not everyone embraced that opportunity and every now and then one still finds international headlines of publicly racist behavior in South Africa. However, any such acts of racism are condemned by black and white alike, because we know how bad it has been in the past and we don’t want to go back there. 

Now why am I telling you all this? South Africa’s Apartheid was the perfect example of official, government endorsed systemic racism, implemented with scientific precision and skill. When Apartheid ended there was a space for self reflection and a concerted effort by society to correct our racist ways – and in a country where less than 10% of people are white, there is an obvious moral pressure to do so. This was not necessarily the case in other parts of the world where similar levels of racism (in times of colonialism, slavery, etc.) were embedded in society. In the US and in Europe, people didn’t necessarily have to face their ugly past or biases against Africa and Africans, because black people are in the minority in those regions. So a person could easily grow up with minimal contact with a black person, and embedded biases can simply be transferred from generation to generation without ever being addressed, leading to explosive realisations of racism in society, such as those surfaced during the recent “Black Lives Matter” movement. 

Former South African President and Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela said “Racism is a blight on the human conscience. The idea that any people can be inferior to another, to the point where those who consider themselves superior define and treat the rest as sub-human, denies the humanity even of those who elevate themselves to the status of gods.”

We should never lose sight of the fact that racism is not just about those who are treated badly – it is about everyone. We all lose if racism is not addressed, because it takes away from our humanity. Now, in order to even start to address this “blight on the human conscience” there is something very important for all of us to realise: we are all racist, just at different levels. 

Unconscious bias is a very real thing. And it’s not hard to understand why we naturally carry biases. For example, establishing bias is an obvious part of pattern recognition, which is a skill that has helped us survive as a species. Recognising that a certain type of mushroom made people sick saves others from getting sick. Certain types of animals were easier to hunt than others, or displayed behavioural patterns that we could recognise and use to give us the upper hand. Our ability to recognise such patterns has been a huge benefit for our survival. So when we are exposed, for example, to scientists who are all white men with grey hair, or to criminals who are all young black men, then we start using these “patterns” to define our interactions with the world, such as unconsciously (and sometimes consciously) clutching tighter to our handbags when a black man is around, or valuing the opinion of an old white man more than another. 

We have to accept that we are racist. Say it. Be comfortable with it. Then identify patterns in your own behavior that need to change. Denial or avoidance of the reality of our implicit racism helps no one. As uncomfortable as it may be, awareness of your own biases, or even just acceptance that you have biases, is a huge step towards overcoming them. Many of us have simply been brainwashed to be that way and some level of bias is completely natural as human beings – but we do have to ensure that we recognize our biases and take appropriate and responsible measures to ensure that it doesn’t affect our children, the people around us, and most importantly the work we do and the systems we build. In the conversation on racism there is nothing more dangerous than a racist person who believes vehemently that they are not. It leads to poor decisions and the implicit spreading of racist ideas. 

What is systemic racism?

Systems are designed, built and sustained by people. Racism in people leads to racism in systems.

The innate biases of individuals naturally become embedded within the systems they build. For example, where English is the language of business, a funding proposal with poor English can come across as incompetence on the subject, even though the proposers may be more well informed about needs in their community than any of the reviewers of their proposals. How often do we see “excellent communication skills” in job adverts when actually it means excellent communication with us, the employer, in our method of communication? Our biases also reflect in our measures of quality, where a project has to be implemented according to standards set by an “outside” funder and according to norms of a particular culture that is often significantly different from the location of project implementation.

Of course in a grant funding environment, the one in need is obliged to comply. Everyone knows the system is biased and so they adapt to it. Projects will say what they think funders want to hear, because they are desperate for any support they can get. The question is, are the hoops that projects are made to jump through actually necessary, or is it just the funders’ idea of how things should be done (and if the funder knew differently then would they actually be happy to change the system)? Of course every funder will strive to build systems that are “fair” or “neutral”. This is not necessarily a good thing. 

Former Archbishop of South Africa and Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu said “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.”

We have to realize that being neutral in an unequal world is as bad as being unfair. However, we should not simply feel sorry for those who are disadvantaged. We can completely change our perspectives. Imagine a situation of two runners starting a race together but one carrying weights. Now instead of simply feeling sorry for the person with the extra weights, just imagine what carrying those weights has done to them. Imagine how much stronger it has made them. How much more resilient it has made them. Now imagine how much more that person could achieve – their incredible capability – if those weights were removed. When one looks at a project in Africa one should not judge it only on the basis of “western” criteria. Think about locally relevant criteria. When funding a project in some situations, a clear business plan and budget may be far less important than the person’s reputation among the community, or their street-smarts to make things happen in times of adversity. An example is the phenomenal Dorah Mazibuko of Meadowlands in Soweto, South Africa, a golden-hearted woman who co-founded and ran “Dorah’s Ark” until her sad passing in 2017. Then a soup kitchen, now a shelter, Dorah’s Ark consistently used to feed around 200 people a day, yet no one knew for sure from one day to the next where the next meals were going to come from. Until several young professionals became involved in Dorah’s Ark, that phenomenal and worthy initiative remained largely outside the funding “system”. 

How Racism/Bias Affects Development Projects

There are plenty of resources out there that demonstrate how unconscious bias or racism affects various systems and projects. Perhaps one of the more striking for the African context is a 2019 World Economic Forum article by Christie Peacock (Founder and Executive Chairman, Sidai Africa Ltd) and Fiona Mungai (Managing Director, Endeavor, Kenya) in which they say “Village Capital found that 90% of the capital invested in East Africa in 2015-2016 went to a very small group of expatriate-founded businesses”. 

They go on to make the point that we wish to make here, so we will simply quote from that article: “Foreign investors typically expect sophisticated financial models and detailed business plans which, in their eyes, reflect the calibre of the entrepreneur and by proxy the business itself.

Local entrepreneurs will have different, frequently qualitative, skills, market insights and valuable social capital and political networks, crucial to business growth and long-term sustainability. However, this unique local knowledge and social capital are valued less highly than quantitative skills in the due diligence process. There are examples of expatriate-owned businesses running into serious political difficulties because of a lack of political awareness, insights and networks.”

A question to ask oneself, as a funder, to check one’s own bias: how would you feel about, say, depositing €5000 for a project into a personal bank account in Nigeria? Now imagine how you would feel if the bank account was owned by a US citizen based in Nigeria. We use Nigeria because it has suffered from the unfortunate reputation of being a source of corrupt internet scams, and the authors have personally witnessed this type of bias against Nigeria. While corruption does exist (in many countries around the world) it has also contributed to biases that good people/projects in those countries have to deal with. 

The big question is, of course, whether bias in funding has anything to do with the quality of the project. Another 2017 study by The Global Accelerator Learning Initiative (GALI) looked at insights from 43 “accelerator” funding programmes. Again we will simply quote from their report to emphasise the point we are trying to make:

“We wonder whether the perception of lower entrepreneurial skills compared with higher reported rates of experience is connected to cultural bias. Anecdotally, we’ve seen that foreign (typically US-based) investors in emerging markets find it easier to invest in expat founders because of cultural ease. They may even overlook key risks — such as lack of work permits or weak business track record — because among expat entrepreneurs the pitch is polished, confidence is high, and there is no language barrier.”

The bottom line: Racism and bias does influence funding, and this does have an impact on African development as a whole.

Impact of Racial Inequalities on African Development

In terms of proportion, black people are the majority on the African continent and the phenomenon of blacks facing brutality at the hands of a white minority class largely ended with the end of colonialism. What has persisted however is economic exclusion of black people. Black people in Africa have less opportunities in accessing decent housing, higher quality education, better health care, etc. Figure 1 juxtaposes housing disparities in South Africa where the demographic on the right and left sides of the image would likely be blacks and white respectively. 

Inequality in South Africa captured by a drone
Figure 1: Inequality in South Africa captured by a drone. Source:

Racial income inequalities are pervasive in Africa. Debating about them is important because it is income levels that determine the school that one is able to send their children to (whether or not there is internet in the households to enable online schooling to take place against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic). Income disparities translate to disparities in health quality almost in a one-to-one relationship. In the long run, these disparities persist and it is imperative that engagement around these issues takes place. 

Colonialism as the Origins of Black Economic Exclusion in Africa

Arguably, racism was the fulcrum of colonialism. The occupation of Africa by colonial powers was essentially about the exclusion of black people – the severity of which depended on whether the settler administrations built inclusive or extractive institutions. Thankfully, the end of colonialism was a death knell to racism – or at least it was supposed to be. On the continent, some of the crudest and most brutal tactics of apartheid/colonialism largely ended – but in some places on the continent it is the black man who now yields the fierce sjambok of oppression against fellow blacks, as is discussed later in the article. On the world stage, white superiority has persisted. This is because the end of African colonialism only affected the continent, leaving Western systems intact and potent against minority communities such as blacks, as we have seen in recent months particularly in the US.

Beyond Colonialism

Back on the African continent, important progress has been registered on the racial front with the end of colonialism. In South Africa, Zimbabwe and other places in Africa, all-inclusive higher education enrollment rates have more than doubled. There have been material gains in access to public services among other socio-economic indicators. However, problems remain. It is important to note that the discourse has shifted from inter-racial to intra-racial conflict. In too many countries the post-colonial era has given birth to intra-group oppression by new elites, entrenchment of these elitist interests and plundering of national resources to accumulate wealth. 

Whereas these new realities post-colonialism may in some ways summarize the challenge of continued exclusion of blacks, there are additional factors. Among these, racial inequalities, or rather the exclusion of black people, have persisted in Africa because of the persistence of wealth, cultural factors, persistence of colonial policies, weak state capacity and the vicious cycle of brain drain. It is recorded in history that as European settlers made a foothold on the continent, they amassed wealth (goats, cattle, minerals, land, etc) by whatever methods or means that they deemed necessary at the time. This wealth has persisted generation after generation in many white families and enterprises to this day – maintaining inequality. In terms of culture, certain customs and realities may prevent the extent to which blacks can fully benefit from available opportunities. A good example is that African indigenous agriculture is characterised by customary tenure – yet such a system is not compatible with market led agriculture finance models where one can obtain funds from a bank using land as collateral. 

In Africa’s urban areas, black people are at the mercy of authorities who sometimes conduct eviction programs where housing or settlements violate municipal zoning by-laws. Cleaner, more organized cities should certainly be a priority for any African government, but it has to be mentioned that the laws upon which some of this state action is based are sometimes colonial era relics that were meant to prevent the massing of black people in urban areas. Africa is also characterised by weak state capacity in as far as policing natural resources and preventing instability is concerned. The African continent may be viewed as the embodiment of the “resource curse” whereby natural resource abundance fails to trigger upward mobility for black people. Against the backdrop of weak state capacity oil, gas, timber and mineral resources in countries such as DRC, Nigeria and Mozambique are looted by armed groups or government protected elites. In the end there is a negative net effect, especially for communities in the resources’ catchment areas. Lastly, the present reality where many talented African academics are attracted by better reward systems in North America, Europe and other places means that African universities may lack the capacity to obtain prestigious research funds and awards to invest into African research and capacity development. 

Racial Inequalities in the Land

While black people in Africa lack access to resources across the board, landlessness is perhaps more prominent. The effect of landlessness on economic exclusion is more profound because the majority of people on the continent rely on agriculture as a source of livelihood. The majority of peasant farmers grow crops and raise animals on communal lands – a scenario in which property rights are defective from the perspectives of market efficiency and agriculture financing. In contrast, where farm ownership is secure in the form of land titles, banks can avail funds much easier, land transferability is smoother and inefficient producers are pushed out of the market which results in higher levels of production and moves us closer to achieving SDG 2 (zero hunger). The reality however is that even for black farmers with land titles, they may only be more productive relative to those without where there is market access (i.e. they are located close to transport networks). Yet the legacy of colonialism is that blacks were located in remote, inaccessible areas. 

Therefore, land reform in one shape or another is a pertinent debate in Africa. The question is whether and how countries should reallocate land and ensure more equitable access to both the land and transport networks. Or should governments just create market incentives – including expanding transport networks in remote black farming areas? This is certainly not an easy topic to dissect. Zimbabwe’s 2000 Fast Track Land Reform Program (FTLRP) is one of the most radical, prominent and expansive on the African continent. The program repossessed around 80% of white commercial farmland for redistribution amongst the majority black population – which shows how expansive the land redistribution exercise was. While there is not a lot of consensus on the effects of this program on food production and the economy in general in Zimbabwe, preliminary evidence and analysis of satellite imagery for the entire country between 1997 and 2003 show that FTLRP negatively affected crop cultivation and crop quality. 

The Zimbabwean case study epitomises the difficulty that radical interventions to level racial disparities may be fraught with. It goes without saying that the FTLRP black beneficiaries in Zimbabwe may not have had the higher quality technical expertise needed to run a commercial farming enterprise, as well as the requisite capital and experience. Other possible factors that have been cited for stagnation of Zimbabwe’s agriculture post-land reform are poor tenure security (lack of land titles) for the beneficiary farmers, the violent nature of the land repossession and even ‘the sinister hand of Western powers’ as alleged by political elites in Zimbabwe. This is a matter for empirical debate but it is clear that African governments may be free to radically transform the economy in favour of the majority blacks, but there is uncertainty on the consequences. 

The Way Forward

Given the myriad challenges around racism and the economic exclusion of blacks in Africa, it is imperative to ponder on a few ideas and points that may help address the situation. In this section we suggest some of these. 


In some instances, funders of projects must promote co-creation. This is a bottom-up approach in which both the funder and the project proposer work together to motivate the proposal. An advantage of this is that where the funder is from outside Africa, there can be cultural gel early on the project. In this context cultural gel would entail learning and understanding the various ways different races/cultures do things and ensure that such differences do not impede the realisation of bigger, underlying project goals. 

Peer review

Peer review ensures that projects get assessed by peers who are familiar with the cultural and language contexts of the proposer. 


Trust by the funder (for example, giving the funding in liquid cash) can ensure some flexibility on the part of the proposer by giving them more leeway to change some operational plans as things evolve on the ground. 

Consider backgrounds and culture

The mainstream economy as we know it is largely “Western”. It has very little space for things such as traditional African medicine, harnessing indigenous knowledge or banks being able to advance loans to peasant farmers in communal areas. The systems may hence need some calibration. 

Empower for sustainability 

This has to do with the proverbial empowering of blacks to “fish”. This is more relevant within the humanitarian aid discourse where African communities rely on food aid, year-in, year-out. Focus should be expended on improving the resilience of farming communities to climate and other shocks. 

Incentives to Address Racial Inequalities

Radical approaches may result in more difficulty than benefit. Hence, dealing with unequal access to resources (including the land) may require market incentives rather than radical approaches. Land taxes or fair market-determined compensation may be good ways to ensure that underutilised tracts of land are given up for the benefit of landless blacks. To promote fairer distribution of income, governments across the board rely on progressive taxes, but countries such as South Africa have black empowerment laws, which require that companies benefitting from government tenders and strategic resources co-opt blacks into their equity to promote the upward mobility of black people. 

Grab low hanging fruits

Despite difficulties faced by blacks in Africa, the continent is pregnant with opportunities. Including blacks in the mainstream economy will require confronting the irony of abundant tropical sunshine and the present reality of children who eat cold meals in the absence of electricity. By harnessing solar energy, the continent can leapfrog its development. The continent boasts relative land abundance, a young population, as well as high marginal capital productivity that converts small capital investments into large gains. 

By ramping up African economic performance this way, we may be able to address “Afro-pessimism”. 

Concluding remarks: The Big picture

We are at an interesting time in that more and more people are realising the racial biases that exist in society, through the global “Black Lives Matter” and similar movements. This bodes well for Africa in a way, in that it is an opportunity for the international community to also reflect on whether the attitude that has generally been referred to as “Afro-pessimism” is warranted. 

In 2018 the South African Karoo Array Telescope (MeerKAT), a precursor to the international Square Kilometre Array Project (SKA), released the world’s clearest radio image of the centre of our Milky Way Galaxy (Figure 2).

MeerKAT’s view of the Galactic Centre
Figure 2: MeerKAT’s view of the Galactic Centre (credit: SARAO) 

This image blew away the astronomical world. The idea that a project this advanced, which was funded, built and driven on the African continent, and which successfully delivered such world class science, was previously inconceivable. Peter Dewdney at the History of SKA Conference (3-5 April 2019, in speaking about how amazed he was by how South African Radio Astronomy had responded to the challenge and opportunity created by the SKA, said “It was as if Radio Astronomy in South Africa had been stored in a high pressure bottle and someone took the cap off”.

This radio astronomy project is only one of the first steps of a larger initiative involving 9 African countries and several international partners. Now, if this continent can deliver on one of the most difficult, complex, technically challenging tasks that human beings could conceive, just imagine what else Africa is capable of. 

It is of course not coincidental that we use this astronomical example. Astronomy is a field that offers a humbling perspective of our place in the universe. When one sees the earth from a distance, in all its fragility, it is hard not to realise the importance of working together as the inhabitants of this pale blue dot (as Carl Sagan famously referred to it). And as co-inhabitants of this lonely blue planet, suspended in the vast emptiness of space, it is of paramount importance that we recognise, support and value the immense diversity of skills, knowledge and experience of all human beings, regardless of how they look, so that we may together make the world a better place.

“The day the earth smiled” - an image of the earth from Saturn, taken by the Cassini Spacecraft, 19th July 2013. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Figure 3: “The day the earth smiled” – an image of the earth from Saturn, taken by the Cassini Spacecraft, 19th July 2013. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute