by Michelle Hesso
I am an indigenous woman from Nagaland, a small place in the North-East of India. I am a development professional immigrant to Ireland with varied working and volunteering experience (of at least 7 years) with Irish and Indian non-profits. I also co-founded Project N-Able, a social-media based accessible knowledge pool.
When I relocated to Ireland in 2019 with this background I was rather confident that my intercultural education, knowledge, and skill set would be an advantage. I perceived value in working as a professional with lived experiences, representing communities that NGOs often work with, and presenting a different perspective.
While working with an Irish INGO during 2019-20, I represented the organisation at various events and quickly observed the homogeneity in the room, or on screen. It is true that Irish charities are now aware and consciously working head-on to address this. But in the meantime, I am undertaking independent research to explore concepts of diversity and inclusion among Irish INGOs and the need for diversity, with a specific focus on HR & recruitment. Similar to discussions on the colonial nature of development aid and its subsequent decolonisation, I am advocating for the decolonisation of the INGO workplace in Ireland.
What is Diversity?
Diversity can mean different things. The 2018 Charities Regulatory Authority (CRA) research mentions diversity only in terms of the size and work of charitable activity; and does not explore diversity as we contemporarily understand. A 2020 Dóchas Report identifies disability as a diversity. The simplest understanding of diversity is differences, seen and unseen (Healy, 2017).
Globally, evidence of the benefits of diversity to organisations and companies has been growing. Analysis by BCG and Technical University of Munich showed that diversity at all levels of management– not just executive management– creates “more revenue from new products and services” and boosts innovation. This is rooted in the fact that diversity furthers “cognitive action in ways that homogeneity simply does not”.
Having said this, I have often wondered about the lack of diversity in the Irish charity sector; particularly INGOs that work in middle- and low-income countries and could have development immigrant professionals on the team. The local level knowledge – say, from professionals with lived experiences – could be leveraged as a rich resource pool. Such knowledge should not be viewed as “knowing less”, but “knowing differently” that could lead to “better outcomes, increased motivation, and more dynamic design process”.
However, I know immigrant development professionals like me who now call Ireland their home, but have been forced to adapt and/or reconsider their careers because of this glass ceiling. So, as a first step towards initiating my research, I want to tell you some of the stories of immigrant development professionals and their experiences with the Irish charity sector.
This is Mina’s (name changed) story:
I am a social worker from India who came to Ireland for a Master's in International Development with a full scholarship and over 3 years work experience. Despite my qualification and experience, my job-hunting experience was nothing short of a nightmare in the development sector. Hence, I moved away from the sector altogether.
I tried looking for jobs in the development sector in 2017 & 2018 but opportunities are scarce and I have been told that candidates requiring visa sponsorship will not be pursued. In the event of progressing to final rounds of interviews with a couple of charities, the salary offered was shocking, equivalent to interns as they were entry level positions. Candidates are expected to have experience working in the Irish charity sector.
Requirements like “experience working in the Irish charity sector” are systematically exclusionary for immigrants who relocate to Ireland as adults and may not have had the opportunity to volunteer/ intern/ work with Irish charities. Another challenge for immigrant professionals is the reluctance to hire non-EU candidates on grounds of visa sponsorship. It is imperative that HR professionals stay updated on current immigration policies or types of immigration vis-à-vis work entitlements to avoid automatic exclusion. And while vacancy listings for most INGOs specify requirements for “field experience” or “field-based role” with NGOs in a “developing country setting”, the preference is for Irish overseas volunteers and not non-Irish professionals as shared by Maya (name changed).
This is Maya’s (named changed) story:
I am an Indian woman currently living in Dublin with my Irish husband. Despite my degrees, work experience, references, and a really well-tailored CV, I have found it extremely hard to find even a basic admin/content writing/animal-related role in Ireland. Lately, I added my husband’s last name to my CV (as I have a traditional name), which increased call backs for interviews.
An Irish friend of mine has been lauded for volunteering in Africa and landed a fantastic job almost straight out of college, while my experience with native animals in my country has been termed “proficient in exotics” and has been a mark against me.
As an Asian, I have experienced and seen fellow Indians with years of experience and degrees having to scrape by on jobs that look at them as cheap labour to be overworked. I feel that the Irish hiring process is intrinsically exclusive, a fact that is not widely accepted. There doesn’t seem to be a way out of this, which hurts as I’m trying to make Ireland my home and don’t feel welcomed.
Where is the Inclusion?
It can be easily argued that these stories cannot be generalised and should not be. To be fair, some INGOs have diverse staff in their HQ offices in Ireland and are proactively seeking to change the status quo. But unfortunately, inclusion is elusive and still an aspiration. Diya (name changed), who works with an INGO at a higher position shared the obvious “absence of diversity” and poignantly pointed out how there is “an increasing need for inclusion and diversity in the leadership spaces”.
Lia (name changed) works with a well-known INGO in Ireland and shared this insight about the workplace culture:
When I first joined, I was so enthusiastic with the prospect of working for a charity. But with time, I realised, even though the organisation works for improving the lives of the poorest around the world, it’s very biased within the office.
I am not sure if it’s intentional or unintentional, but Irish nationals are preferred for promotions within the organisation. I have seen flattery/favoritism during the time of promotion or salary rise. The way the senior management team gives in to favoritism among themselves and other Irish nationals is sometimes so clearly visible that it’s disgusting. I have seen long term employees leave under the current management.
Wondering why I am still working for them? I am stuck with the idea of being employed for a Humanitarian Organisation, even if the employer (’s actions) are harmful for both mental and professional health.
Ireland is no stranger to emigration and in recent years, witnessed an increase in immigration of various Nationals seeking to study, work, and/or live here. With this increase, we need to go beyond Development Education; we need to be more action-oriented. Specific to INGOs, development professional immigrants can bring in their wealth of experience and knowledge to provide a unique insight and facilitate “southern-led voices” in the workplace. I believe that strong intercultural professional and personal interactions are the future for an inclusive country. I am an accidental story teller and as I continue to build my life here, my stories will continue to inspire me and bear witness to my identity. I am grateful for the opportunity to tell these stories and I hope to someday be telling a story of a more diverse and inclusive workplace.
 CRA (2018). ‘Social and Economic Impact of Registered Irish Charities in 2018’
 Dóchas (2020). ‘The Status of Disability Mainstreaming and Disability Inclusion in Development and Humanitarian Practice’
 Healy, S. (2017). ‘Introduction to Diversity & Inclusion’. Slides accessible here
 Lorenzo, R. et al (2017). ‘The Mix that Matters – Innovation Through Diversity’, Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Article accessible here
 Levine, S.R. (2020). ‘Diversity Confirmed to Boost Innovation and Financial Results’, Forbes. Article accessible here
 Druin, A. (2013). ‘Inclusive Ownership of Participatory Learning’, Instructional Science, 42, pp. 123- 126
The views expressed in this article are that of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the views of Dóchas or its members.