Inclusive development  is gaining momentum on the global agenda, but is the international development sector actually listening to its own advice?

Inclusive development means ensuring that the benefits of economic growth and social progress reach a broad base, generating improvements in the lives of the most vulnerable. Whereas GDP growth was once the primary target of international development initiatives, we now understand that economic expansion does not always translate into improved quality of life for the majority. Inclusive development aims to convert economic expansion into human well-being.

Whether it’s the Inter-American Development Bank’s Opportunities for the Majority initiative or the World Bank’s gender mainstreaming efforts, the world is waking up to a more inclusive vision of growth. International development contractors, NGOs and agencies have long been the biggest advocates of this approach, mandating gender equality, encouraging local content, promoting the development of small and medium-sized enterprises, and trying to extend opportunities to economically vulnerable groups, such as smallholder farmers or people with physical disabilities.

The paradox is that the main champions of inclusive development struggle with inclusiveness in their own ranks.

Consider the staffing and the supply chain of a typical NGO or development agency. To what extent are women, historically disadvantaged groups, low-income people, or physically disabled people included or actively promoted in the supply chain and leadership? Most organizations are inclusive in theory but few are even representative in practice.

More than 100 billion dollars in bilateral and multilateral aid is disbursed every year to international development NGOs and contractors. Properly channeled into staff and businesses, the industry could move millions out of poverty in both industrialized and lower-income countries. Not just as beneficiaries, but as contractors and employees. But this would mean ensuring that our sector’s supply chains and human resources are representative and inclusive, especially of people at the base of the pyramid. Without mandates, performance indicators or internal initiative to foster diversity, we still are far from reflecting the global community we serve.

Inclusion of women: Although women are highly represented in the social and public service sectors, they still only comprise 12 percent of directors on the boards of top US NGOs and 27 percent of the boards of top UK NGOs.

Inclusion of people of color/non-Western origin: Despite the fact that most international development programming occurs outside the Western world and affects people of color, these demographics are not reflected in the sector’s leadership. Consider the fact that among the top 100 NGOs, only 8% of board members were of African descent and only 6% were Latin American.  Even multilaterals like the World Bank have been accused of racially discriminating against core constituencies.

Inclusion across the socio-economic spectrum: Despite a stated objective to help economically vulnerable people get jobs, relatively few international development organizations have programs to specifically employ low-income or historically disadvantaged people. And this refers to both recruitment of staff and procurement from companies. On the contrary, our sector typically recruits from top-tier universities and transitions entry-level staff from unpaid internships, thus inadvertently excluding candidates from low-income backgrounds. Compared to the private sector, the international development industry has significantly fewer pipeline programs  to recruit people from vulnerable backgrounds or to groom local leaders within low-income countries.

Most people have good intentions; they are usually the impetus for entering this vocation. But if there is true solidarity with women, nationals of developing countries, historically disadvantaged groups, low-income people, and people with physical disabilities, then these groups won’t just be involved as beneficiaries. They will be involved as equals, partners and leaders, fully present and engaged at multiple levels of the institution.

To achieve demographic representativeness would require operational shifts and cultural shifts. It means going beyond immediate social networks and even adding capacity development to recruitment. For example, it means Google offering training opportunities to both women and minorities in order to make its staff more representative. It means creating pipeline programs for more diverse supply chains, like USAID’s mentor-protégé program.  It means investing heavily in local staff, starting from entry level, like IBM’s Lead Africa Program. It means letting go of assumptions, opening channels of dialogue and making significant investments.

All the data suggests that these measures would yield valuable results. After all, a statistically significant sample of companies across the globe showed that companies with the highest share of women in their senior management teams outperformed those with no women by 41% in terms of return on equity and by 56% in terms of operating results.  And a meta-study of 506 US organizations showed that those with greater racial and gender diversity performed better in terms of sales revenues, number of customers and market share.

Finally, academic research on organizational development has indicated that employees who share demographic characteristics with their customers may develop a better understanding of customer preferences and attract customers by connections within their communities. This research has implications that could lead to more effective development programming and better long-term outcomes.

If we are serious about inclusive development, we must embody that change, starting with our own organizations.

Tara Sabre Collier is an impact investing specialist at GroFin Capital, a pan-African impact investing fund.