Racism and Racial Discrimination from a Systems Thinking Perspective

Reynolds, M. (2021). Racism and Racial Discrimination from a Systems Thinking Perspective. Submission as part of Advisory Group of Experts: Joint Investigation Unit (JIU) Review “Measures and Mechanisms for Preventing and Addressing Racism and Racial Discrimination in the Institutions of the United Nations System”. United Nations.


The report draws together two related traditions of practice – systems thinking and developmental evaluation – in order to support the development of a benchmarking framework for identifying incidences of racism and racial discrimination generally, and more specifically in the workplace of UN agencies, as examined by the UN JIU (Joint Investigation Unit) Review. It is helpful to conceptualises the underlying Review in terms of exploring an interplay between systemic racism and systematic racial discrimination. Benchmarking racism might be regarded as a system of interest at the meso-level (system level) inviting questions in relation to manifestations of systemic racism at the macro-level (supra-system) and manifestations of systematic racial discrimination at the miro-level (sub-systems of, say, individual practices). Building on ideas of systemic triangulation with boundary critique, systemic and systematic dualities to look for in association with racism might be regarded in terms of three sets of activity couplings pivoted around core principles of addressing discrimination in the workplace; Justice, Trust, and Governance. These couplings can be understood respectively in terms of (i) results-based transformation (planning interventions); (ii) values-driven evaluation (implementing interventions); and (iii) adaptive-assured governance.

Each coupling can be expressed in terms of being ‘developmental’. Developmental evaluation (DE) is integral, rather than external, to or separate from, an evaluand (e.g. UN agencies). In this regard, DE can be regarded as small ‘e’ evaluation contrasted with conventional big ‘E’ evaluation sometimes regarded as evaluation by ‘external audit’. DE can be facilitated by ‘experts’ but ideally requires all stakeholders to be ongoing developmental evaluators (a deeper integral form of participatory evaluation). DE involves a continual interplay between (i) ‘summative’ systemic evaluation - understanding the value dynamics of the evaluand including dignity, equity, inclusion, diversity (DEID) – and (ii) more ‘formative’ systematic evaluation – developing trust, integrity and dignity to the evaluand; that is, developing value in contrast with the more judgemental exercise associated with big ‘E’ evaluation in determining value.

Building on these two traditions, a theory of change is proposed as a means for informing a benchmarking framework for the Review. The ToC draws specifically on critical systems heuristics (CSH) as a particularly powerful reference system to explore the dynamics of systemic racism and systematic racial discrimination. Drawing on principles of systems thinking in practice and particularly ideas from CSH some key alerts need reinforcing. Firstly, it is important that any benchmarking (system) design remains provisional and partial, hence the reason for keeping the benchmarking system responsive and purposeful rather than fixed and purposive. Secondly, any new purposeful system being recommended needs to be continually open to conversation amongst stakeholders – including of course the victims of racism and racial discrimination, but also decision makers as well as working practitioners associated with any proposed new or revised system.

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