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Anti-discrimination policies are a step towards anti-racism and inclusivity

Written by Vidya Diwakar

In the road to zero poverty, ensuring policies do not discriminate against marginalised groups is a minimum requirement. Developing policies that are anti-racist and help eliminate all forms of discrimination is a more commendable aspiration.

Discrimination on the grounds of race continues to limit access to a range of sectors in ways that can limit upward socioeconomic mobility, and keep certain marginalised groups trapped in forms of chronic poverty.

Anti-discrimination policies create a more equal society

ODI’s rigorous review of anti-discrimination policies in the labour market, education and political participation within low- and middle-income countries finds these policies play an important role in promoting a more inclusive, equitable society. This is particularly the case where they are promoted within a supportive political and economic context, backed with adequate resources and efforts to change attitudes.

There is some evidence, for example, of reserved seats increasing the proportion of representatives from marginalised racial groups in political participation. The review finds that presence of social justice-oriented political parties is an important ingredient in addressing drivers of marginalisation. This representation tends to be greatest where political parties are organised around racial identities.

Many studies within the review about the impact of large-scale anti-discrimination labour market programmes and policies on marginalised racial and ethnic groups come from Brazil, South Africa and Malaysia. In Latin America, existing policies often target people of African descent. In Malaysia, affirmative action policies were found to have contributed to a reduction in poverty among the formerly disadvantaged Bumiputera group, though this has more recently come under scrutiny. In South Africa, efforts are focused on providing remedial action but the lack of clarity or compulsion in the legislative framework undermines its effectiveness.

The review also finds that mother tongue or bilingual education in early primary school years benefits marginalised racial groups who do not speak national languages. Race-based reservations in higher education can increase inclusive participation for poorer children, particularly when coupled with financial support and catch-up courses.

Policies must consider multiple dimensions of marginalisation

However, as the review notes, there are also tensions that permeate discussions of anti-discrimination policies, particularly where social movements emphasise racial justice. In some cases, as argued for example in Ecuador and Brazil (subscriptions required), race-based reservations can entrench social categories and discrimination of marginalised groups by demobilising collective action.

Where it has resulted in an elite leadership being politically co-opted, such reservations may contribute to a reduced sense of urgency on the very social justice issues they sought to advocate. There is also a concern that race-based reservations might lead racial categories to be deployed in racist ways.

In other cases, affirmative action policies have had mixed results. In South Africa, black people often still dominate low-end to middle-range jobs, and there is some evidence (subscription required) that black economic empowerment has predominantly benefited a small black elite. In these instances, responding to compounded marginalisation due to race and other inequalities – such as by wealth, gender, location, age, disability, to name a few – would be necessary to yield equitable outcomes.

At the same time, caution must be exercised to not conflate these categories where there is crossover. The pathways through which representation is achieved and its impacts for marginalised groups are likely to vary substantively within and across categories.

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