30 November 2021

Harm Reduction International’s Anti-Racist Pledge 2021

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Harm Reduction International recognises the racist, colonial and capitalist structures that determine the distribution of wealth and power globally, and the distinct relationship between racism, colonialism, global health and international drug control. This pledge is our commitment to anti-racist practice and the re-structuring of unequal racial power dynamics.


This pledge aims to:

  • set out an understanding of racism within Harm Reduction International (including among staff, consultants and board members) and with our partner organisations;
  • commit to incorporating anti-racism into all aspects of our work;
  • and be accountable and create sustainable goals.


Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, emphasises the negative impact of coloniality, racism and the oppressive structures embedded in the global health architecture, which disproportionately affect Black people, Indigenous communities and other groups in the Global South. Dr Mofokeng argues that ‘substantive equality’ should be at the centre of the operationalisation of the right to health – substantive equality seeks to address structural and indirect discrimination and takes into account power relations.3

The murder of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Elijah McClain and others by police in the USA in 2020 (and beyond) showed the realities of contemporary racism. In the UK, justice has not yet been delivered for the families of Sarah Reed, Rashan Charles and Mark Duggan who are just some of the people who have died at the hands of UK police or in police custody. The 2017 Lammy Review shone a light on how institutional racism operates in the UK criminal justice system, and included the finding that England and Wales imprison a larger proportion of their Black population than the US.4 In 2021, the UN Working Group on People of African Descent found the UK’s Sewell report normalised white supremacy when it claimed it did not find evidence of institutional racism in policing and health (this claim was later amended).5 Covid-19 has also shown how racism impacts public health, with Black people dying at four times the rate of white people in the UK according to the Office for National Statistics.6

The Colour of Injustice (2018) found that Black people are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched on suspicion of drug possession than white people. Black and Asian people were convicted of cannabis possession at 11.8 and 2.4 times the rate of white people. Since 2011, arrests of white people who have been stopped and searched in relation to drugs have halved, but the arrest rate for Black and Asian people has stayed the same.7

Similar dynamics exist around the world. As Dr Kojo Koram notes in his work on colonialism and the war on drugs, ‘the twentieth century project of global drugs prohibition has consistently reinforced racial or ethnic divisions within and between the nations of the world.’8

  • In the Western Cape of South Africa, ‘coloured men’ are almost 2.5 times more likely to be arrested on suspicion of drug possession or dealing than other racial groups.
  • Of the 700,000 people detained in Brazil, 64% identify as Black. A study in the city of São Paulo in 2017 found that Black people were more likely to be sentenced for drug trafficking, and with lower quantities of drugs, than white defendants.
  • Racism is also evident in the use of the death penalty around the world. In several Asian and Middle Eastern countries, foreigners are overrepresented on death row and are half as likely to be successful at appealing their death sentence. In Saudi Arabia, at least half of the people executed for drug offences in 2018 were foreign nationals, mostly from Pakistan and Nigeria. In Indonesia, there is evidence of racism in the judicial proceedings involving people on death row for drug offences.

The UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent captured this global impact in its 2019 statement:

The war on drugs has operated more effectively as a system of racial control than as a mechanism for combating the use and trafficking of narcotics. … [it] has disproportionately targeted people of African descent and disregarded the massive costs to the dignity, humanity and freedom of individuals.9

HRI recognises the work of anti-racism is allied to that of anti-discrimination and the dismantling of inequities based on gender, including gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, caste, religion, ability, class or socioeconomic status. Noting the work of Emma Dabiri (which in turn draws on the scholarship of Angela Davis and Bayo Akomolafe)10, HRI seeks to build into its anti-racist work the idea that advocating for more inclusion into a system based on inequality is insufficient. Rather, in our anti-racist work, HRI seeks to support the creation of new systems or parallel institutions.

HRI stands in solidarity with people committed to anti-racism work as well as the Black Lives Matter movement, which seeks to create a world in which all people are treated as full human beings with all rights and fundamental freedoms. Racism is traumatic and continues to negatively impact the bodies of Black, Brown and Indigenous people and other people of colour in many countries around the world (referred to collectively in this pledge as ‘people of colour’). This trauma is intergenerational, and it is compounded for the descendants of those who have been subjected to the violence of colonisation and the non-consensual expansion of western empires.

As an NGO based in England, HRI is determined to reckon with the colonial roots of the non-profit sector and understand the ways in which legacies of colonisation continue to cause harm, exploitation and power imbalances internally with staff of colour and with partners in the Global South. HRI is committed to working sustainably over the long term, in a reflective and accountable way, to ensure that anti-racist practice is implemented across the organisation’s policies and culture, and is built into our research, advocacy and convening work. As we engage in this process, HRI will continue to re-evaluate ways of working and develop new approaches that are aligned with a transformative-justice approach.11

Our commitment to being anti-racist in our internal policies and practices

HRI will build into its 2022-25 strategy an anti-racism lens with clear targets. We will develop a culture of care and embodied, trauma-informed12 reflection to sustain solidarity and anti-racist practice within the organisation. The labour of organising anti-racist work will be shared, rather than being sustained by staff of colour.

We will set targets for our internal goals and review these targets annually (we will review progress against targets and the adequacy of the targets themselves).

Learning and reflection
1. We commit to an annual training or a day-long reflection session to assess progress and whether we are reaching our targets.
2. We commit to a monthly staff learning-and-reflection hour to ensure that practical understanding about race and oppression becomes part of daily work culture across the organisation. This can also act as a dedicated space to discuss anything that may be arising within HRI or in HRI’s efforts to dismantle racism in its outward facing work.

Workplace practices
3. We commit to promptly addressing microaggressions in the workplace as they arise, with intention and support. We will do this by drawing on an iterative embodied check-in process13 to address daily forms of harm and provide practical resources to guide progress. 14 We note that the traditional grievance process may not be nuanced enough for a first response to microaggressions and subtle forms of racism. We will document our processes for responding to microaggressions (with respect and care for the people involved), and continue to build and improve them.
4. We commit to making accessible, and using, formal complaint mechanisms to encourage people who experience racist behaviour to report it. There will be consequences, up to and including termination, if racist behaviour takes place and is not meaningfully addressed or repaired.

5. We commit to continuing to strengthen our staff and consultant recruitment processes, including:
a. Working to reach more people of colour and Global South candidates with every hiring process with a view to strengthening our diversity, perspective and legitimacy as an international organisation.
b. Creating a remuneration scale for consultants to ensure consultants from the Global South are paid equivalent rates to consultants from the Global North for their expertise, recognising that unequal rates stem from exploitative practices that dominate the global health, human rights and development sectors.
c. Prioritising local expertise for work in Global South countries.
d. Expanding organisational networks and connections with organisations led by people of colour and those focused on racial justice, with a view to reaching a wider range of applicants for advertised roles.
6. We will ensure that our commitment to being anti-racist is clearly stated in job descriptions and contracts and discussed in all interviews.

7. We commit to continuing to implement, and updating as required, the board of trustees’ skills and diversity framework.
8. We will include reviews of our anti-racist practices in the board’s work plan and in the HRI operational plan (which underpins the HRI strategic plan). We will create accountability by reporting annually to the board on progress towards our goals (following our annual day of reflection).
9. We commit to supporting learning and growth in a number of ways. We will include our anti-racist values in our processes to ensure that partners, consultants and conference delegates can give feedback, and we will reflect on this feedback and integrate it into our work to improve our culture of care. We will also continue to seek out and adopt good practice guidance.

Our commitment to being anti-racist in our outward facing work

HRI is committed to continuing to reflect on power dynamics with our partners to ensure we move beyond ‘amplifying voices’ to shifting power from the Global North to South.

We recognise the underlying colonial, and inherently exploitative, nature of the majority of funding available for our work in the non-profit sector, as it derives from capitalist markets and/or the exploitation of people and resources in Global South countries. We commit to an ethical stance on funding and continuing to assess which donors to accept funding from. We will be transparent with partners about the dynamics associated with certain funders. We aim to find funding sources that do not support the perpetuation of colonial dynamics, white saviour mentality or paternalism. As part of this, HRI will review the origins and values of our current funders and future donors before we partner with them. In our fundraising, we commit to engage in partnerships with community and civil society that re-distribute power to the Global South.

Within the drug policy, public health and human rights sector, HRI will take a stance against racist practices that reinscribe colonial dynamics. We commit to calling out oppressive approaches and colonial dynamics in the sector when we see them. We will make it clear that drug policies disproportionately impact people of colour around the world, regardless of whether they use drugs. We are committed to standing with, and in support of, global partners (rather than in front of them) and to recognising when and where a national or regional voice is more appropriate than an international one.

In relation to our conference, we commit to continuing to increase the participation of people of colour, who are most impacted by drug policies yet vastly underrepresented in the drug policy sector. We will integrate this approach at every step of the process, including in conference tendering, selecting local partners, supplier and consultant relationships, conference programming, delegate participation, and monitoring and evaluation.

In our research and advocacy work, we will monitor, analyse, report and act to redress the disproportionate impact of drug policies on communities of colour by disaggregating data and calling on institutions and governments to do the same. We will set goals for this in our strategy and incorporate targets across teams. For example, including case studies on coloniality and racial justice in every chapter of the Global State of Harm Reduction, addressing colonial influence in our research and advocacy on funding, and continuing to emphasise the intersection of race and ethnicity in our human rights submissions to the UN.

We will highlight the importance of translation in our discussions with donors and work to ensure we have budget to translate resources and interpret dialogues and events.

We commit to a culture of care in which simple acts of dignity are prioritised and a person is asked about their safety or comfort in different environments. HRI staff, consultants and board members commit to learning how to properly pronounce people’s names before introducing them. HRI aims to influence other organisations working in drug policy, public health and human rights to undertake actively anti-racist work and join the movement towards transformative justice and a more equitable world, one that is no longer based on racial hierarchies.

This pledge has been developed by HRI staff with the support of consultant Camille Barton of the Collective Liberation Project through a series of discussions, with oversight from the HRI board. The pledge incorporates our initial plans for developing mechanisms that will support increased awareness around anti-racism and transformative justice, building on existing practices within HRI that work well, drawing on best practice in the field of diversity, equity, inclusion and culture change, and creating systems that will build trust, accountability and sustainable growth.


1 In Daniel, C., Aluso, A., Burke-Shyne, N. et al. (2021), ‘Decolonizing drug policy’, Harm Reduction Journal, 18, 120.
2 This pledge was generated with the support of a one-hour embodied resilience session and a three-hour context and discussion session led by Camille Barton of the Collective Liberation Project, plus internal discussion and research.
3 UN Human Rights Council (2021), Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Tlaleng Mofokeng.
4 UK Government (2017), The Lammy Review.
5 OHCHR (19 April, 2021), ‘UN Experts Condemn UK Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities Report’ [online statement, accessed February 2022).
6 ONS ‘Updating ethnic contrasts in deaths involving the coronavirus (COVID-19), England: 24 January 2020 to 31 March 2021’ [web page, accessed February 2022].
7 Stop Watch, LSE, Release (2018), The Colour of Injustice: ‘Race’, drugs and law enforcement in England and Wales.
8 Koram, K. [ed] (2019), The War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line, Pluto Press, UK.
9 OHCHR (14 March, 2019), ‘Fight against world drug problem must address unjust impact on people of African descent, say UN rights experts’ [web article, accessed February 2022].
10 Emma Dabiri is a teaching fellow at SOAS and a Sociology researcher at Goldsmiths, UK. Her books include Don’t Touch My Hair (2020) and What White People Can Do Next (2021).
11Transform Harm defines transformative justice as: a political framework and approach for responding to violence, harm and abuse. At its most basic, it seeks to respond to violence without creating more violence and/or engaging in harm reduction to lessen the violence. It can be thought of as a way of ‘making things right’, getting in ‘right relation’ or creating justice together. Transformative justice responses and interventions: (1) do not rely on the state (e.g. police, prisons, the criminal legal system, immigration police, the foster care system) although some transformative-justice responses do rely on or incorporate social services, like counselling; (2) do not reinforce or perpetuate violence, such as oppressive norms or vigilantism and, most importantly, (3) actively cultivate the things we know prevent violence, such as healing, accountability, resilience, and safety for all involved.
12 HRI’s trauma-informed approach is underpinned by six attributes: (1) safety, (2) trust and transparency, (3) peer support, (4) collaboration and mutuality, (5) voice, choice and self-agency, (6) cultural humility. Source: Lumos Transforms
Trauma-informed care is an approach that assumes an individual is more likely than not to have a history of trauma. Trauma-informed care recognises the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledges the role trauma may play in an individual’s life, including the lives of service staff. At an organisational or systemic level, trauma-informed care changes organisational culture to emphasise respecting and appropriately responding to the effects of trauma at all levels. Source: University of Buffalo Center for Social Research.
13 The iterative embodied check-in process draws upon techniques shared by Camille Barton during our learning sessions.
14 We will invite all check-ins about microaggressions to begin with an embodiment practice, which supports people to be present. Sources on microaggressions: Murray, R, ‘This Is the Right Way to Respond to Microaggressions at Work’ [web article, accessed February 2022], Washington, EF. (3 July, 2020), ‘When and How to Respond to Microaggressions’[web article, accessed February 2022], Nadal, KL. (2014), A guide to responding to microaggressions. Hahna Yoon covers Kevin Nadal’s work and Dr Derald Wing Sue’s techniques, including disarming microaggressions with micro-interventions , in the 2020 New York Times article ‘How to respond to microaggressions’ [with paywall, accessed February 2022].

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