Tom Sawyer

18 Nov

Almost through the Tales From the Hood rock ‘n’ roll marathon…

Here’s the fifth tune in the playlist:


A modern day warrior

mean, mean stride

Today’s Tom Sawyer

mean, mean pride

I once asked rhetorically whether or not aid blogging matters. Now I’m telling you straight up:

It matters. It matters a lot.

The conversation about what international development and aid are, what makes them effective, how they should be done, and what they’re capable of accomplishing is dominated by simplistic, happy, and  occasionally even plain dishonest messaging about how this NGO or that is eradicating hunger or making poverty history.

It’s not that I or anyone else wants to be known as “negative” or “cynical.” But right now independent blogs like the ones in my extended blog roll are the only place where you can consistently count on an unfiltered alternative to the meticulously crafted stories that you get from branded NGO websites, blogs, and published reports. Or, similarly, to those usually too-long, over-edited, jargon-intensive and generally LAMEified summaries coming out of those famous life-saving high-level workshops and forums where intelligentsia and aristocracy gather to discuss “the bottom of the pyramid.” No, it’s not that we want to be negative or angry or cynical as a matter of principle. It’s not that everything said within the hallowed halls of the HRI-affiliates is wrong or inaccurate or suspect, or that everything said on aid blogs is spot on. But vibrant, diverse discussion adds value by definition and is a good thing as a matter of principle.

The whole blogging thing may seem too messy, too emotive, too unfocused for you. The aid blogosphere may feel like and maybe even be so much opinion, conjecture, hearsay, assuming facts not in evidence. It may annoy you, all the cynicism and negativity. It may make you plain angry.  You may hope and pray for the day when this reality will change, but until the aid industry gets past its own dogma and NGOs get past their fears of internal diversity of thought, these blogs do matter.

Oh, and before you condescendingly wonder how I can ever find the time, or go on about how you’re too busy working to waste time blogging, let me just say: everyone finds the time for what they think is important. Some of you follow sports or collect stamps. Some of us blog.

Though his mind is not for rent

don’t put him down as arrogant

His reserve, a quiet defense

Riding out the day’s events…

I get it. The real world is about give and take, about compromise, about finding middle ground. Fair enough.

In my day-to-day work I am committed to finding those workable compromises – without compromising the bottom lines of what makes good aid good aid; to engaging in the give-and-take in a collegial way. At any given time there are multiple, contingent and competing realities. I do get this. I am not naïve. I get that humanitarian work, at least as we know it now, requires the architecture of an organization behind it, and that both the work and the organization(s) require resources in order to continue existing, and that those resources have to come from somewhere.

But let’s just be very clear:  This all as may be, the way things currently are in the aid industry is not the way that they should be. The natural tendency of the industry is not toward good aid.  The political economy of this industry just wants to favor someone other than the poor. And left alone, that’s what it will do. All of which means, in my opinion, that no matter where any of us sits in the humanitarian industry, whether we’re on the front line handing out food parcels to disaster survivors, or buried deep in the bowels of HQ, managing spreadsheets and sending life-saving emails, it is our job – every single one of us – to be steering our spheres of influence in the direction of “the way things should be.”

Yes, I understand that at the level of individual inter-departmental or inter-agency transactions we have to cut deals and compromise. But in all areas and at all levels of our industry right now the status quo is simply not good enough.

I don’t care who you are, if you work for or are in some other way affiliate yourself with an NGO of any size, if you claim for yourself the title of humanitarian, then it is your job to move the needle towards the way things should be.

What you say about his company

Is what you say about society

Catch the mist, catch the myth

Catch the mystery, catch the drift

Maybe you think that all of us aid bloggers are just a bunch of stuck-up elitists hiding behind our computers, out of touch with how the real world works? (Well, you’re wrong about me hiding behind my computer. I get out in it on a regular basis.) But I am an elitist, absolutely. I see no reason to compromise on the principles of good aid. Maybe my views create an inconvenience for you. Maybe you don’t like what I have to say or how I say it.

Maybe you think my tone is too harsh or (heaven forbid) snarky. Okay, fair enough – I sometimes shout into the void here. I don’t mind admitting that after a day or a week or a month of playing all nice, whether in in-house strategery or coordination meetings in the field, I need a space where I can crank the volume up to 11.

But this doesn’t make me wrong.

No his mind is not for rent

To any god or government

Always hopeful, yet discontent

He knows changes aren’t permanent

But change is…

We all have our own intellectual lives that extend beyond the logos on our namecards. Mission statements are words. Organizations, like their taglines, come and go. But the humanitarian imperative remains.

Discontent with the way things are in the industry is not the same as disloyalty to an organization, and different still from unwillingness to perform. Most real aid workers that I know would rather spend a few rounds of cynical, self-deprecating pub-based reflection than go to a company pep-rally. Seriously, the sports metaphors and high-fiving leave us cold. But that doesn’t mean we’re not on board with the program.

Discontent? Sure, we have some of that. But if we weren’t at least a little bit hopeful, we wouldn’t be here.

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One Response to “Tom Sawyer”

  1. solemu 19 November, 2011 at 1:02 pm #

    Excellent post J! Have a good weekend :)

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