17 diciembre 2015

Fighting racism: 5 lessons learned from affirmative action policies

By Raquel Scarpari and Adam Ratzlaff*

Para leer en español, hacer click aquí
How effective are affirmative actions to fight racism? Despite initial criticism, in recent years several Latin American countries have implemented public administration and university affirmative action policies, a trend that continues to expand. The design and implementation of these laws can, however, be tricky. This makes it critical to examine existing policies for suggestions and lessons learned. Here are our top five:

  1. The importance of effective targeting: Critics of affirmative action policies often point to the creation and reinforcement of a minority elite class who are able to capture the majority of the benefits of these policies. While this has been the case in some countries, such as Malaysia, other countries have not had this problem. To address these concerns, Brazil’s federal university quota law specifically targets graduates from public high schools, a proxy for low and middle income students, and then sets aside a portion of these spaces for Afro-Brazilians based on the size of the local population.
  1. A one-size fits all approach may not work: In fact, when implementing affirmative action policies it can actually have negative consequences. Demographic differentiation between states and municipalities can make developing a national quota level difficult to set. While in some areas the quota may be seen as a pittance, in others it may be infeasible.

    To address these challenges, affirmative action laws in Ireland and Brazil’s university affirmative action have made variable quotas, where the size of the quota is based on the demographics of a given locality. In addition to improving the functionality of the affirmative action in areas with smaller disadvantaged populations, it challenges areas with larger populations to actually make policy shifts that benefit traditionally marginalized groups.

  1. Without public awareness, they don’t exist: Affirmative action policies are doomed to fail if the target populations are unaware of their existence. Finding ways of advertising jobs to marginalized populations is key to boosting diversity. That’s why as part of the São Paulo Diverso program, the municipal government is developing networks to connect the private sector with Afro-Descendant professionals.
  1. Only quotas? That’s not enough: The void of role models and mentors within some spheres can limit the effectiveness of affirmative action policies. By complementing quota laws with mentorships, internships or similar programs, retention rates (one of the common challenges to affirmative action policies) can be addressed. In addition to financial assistance, Colombia’s Acceso con Calidad a la Educación Superior (ACCES) provides indigenous students with tutors and counselors to assist with the transition into university life.
  1. Buy-in from private sector makes a difference: An increase in the number of traditionally marginalized individuals with university degrees or experience in the public sector should lead to increases in employment in the private sector as well. However, regardless of qualifications, some studies have shown discrimination in the labor market.

    In order to address these biases, companies need to be on-board with promoting ethno-racial equality. While some countries, like Ireland, have implemented affirmative action laws in the private sector as well as the public sector, there are other ways to encourage buy in from private companies. These can include showing the benefits of a diverse workforce on productivity and creativity as well as incentive programs, like the São Paulo Diverso program proposes.

This post began with a question: How effective are affirmative action policies at fighting racism? They can be very effective, but are not easy to implement. Please help us expand this list of lessons learned and develop best practices for affirmative action policies.

Post*Raquel Scarpari is a consultant for the IDB Gender and Diversity Division, where she works with the design, implementation and monitoring of programs for social development and inclusion. She holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of São Paulo  (Brazil) and a Master in Public Policy from Brandeis University (US).

*Adam Ratzlaff worked as a consultant with the Gender and Diversity Division on the Development with Identity Initiative and is currently a Sié Fellow and M.A. candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver (US). He holds a B.A. in International Relations, Economics and Latin American from Tulane University (US).

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