I was genuinely pleased and a tiny bit surprised to see a comment from Mo-ha-med on my previous “honesty” post. I like his blog “The Traveler Within” and have followed it for some time. Check him out. Although I don’t think it’s really possible to measure, I have thought quite a bit about the suggestion that what we get as aid workers is most important and meaningful in the context of what we give – there should be a positive balance of our contribution, compared with what we take.
I’ve touched on this before (here). And in fact this was sort of the theme of the very first post ever, back on the blogspot version of Tales From the Hood: We need to keep our actual contributions in perspective.
Simply that. Or maybe not so simple.
In the course of being honest about what we give, I think we need to constantly remind ourselves of two things:
We need to stay focused on the beneficiaries: I struggle, sometimes daily, to keep the work about those people that we’re supposedly doing all of this for: “The poor” It is far too easy to fall into a routine of meetings and email and deadlines and inhuman numbers, and to let those things become the raison d’etre. This is the perennial challenge of working for an NGO. There are systems that must be maintained, policies that must be adhered to, and procedures that must be followed. It is a huge challenge just to remember to step back (I try to do it daily) and see the bigger picture, to situate those meetings and emails and deadlines in the context of what they mean in the lives of those our programs are meant to help.
And in my experience it is just as easy to make this mistake, to be distracted in this manner in “the field” as it is at a regional or head office. Whether we’re based in Brussels or Washington D.C. or Managua a remote village two Bajaj-hours from Mymensingh, the actual work of aid work can very quickly become focused on immediate tasks. The aid world is as much a rat-race as the for-profit world. It is the tyranny of the urgent. It is manipulating documents (proposals, reports, budgets…). It is responding to a cacophony of demanding voices, the loudest of which is never that of the beneficiaries.
It’s hard. Deadlines do have to be met. Reports do have to be submitted. Proposals do have to be well-written. But none of that releases us from the individual responsibility of making sure that we see the big picture and keep the work about the beneficiaries.
We need to guard against overstating our own accomplishments. I’m talking about our own accomplishments as individuals, and also as organizations. Part of this comes from the much-discussed aid world culture of fear around bad evaluations. No one wants their program to receive a negative review in the L.A. Times or get slammed in the blogosphere for some out-of-vogue advocacy initiative. But wanting to paint the rosiest possible picture is still not the whole story either.
I think as well that we’re very often simply too quick to judge our programs one way or the other. Everyone knows that good development and positive sustainable change take time. Years. Maybe decades. And so it seems to me ironic that we’re very quick to document best-practices or declare our projects successful after just two or three years. And at least one result of this is that very often we evaluate as success, what is in reality simply the absence of obvious failure.
Part of the answer, I think, is to refuse to believe our own propaganda: we understand that marketing and PR colleagues need to communicate in certain ways to certain audiences; we understand that reports have to be written in certain ways if we want follow-on funding (of course we want it). But we have to be honest with ourselves and our circles about where the gaps and shortfalls and open questions really are, not just to make ourselves feel better about having “been honest”, but with a view to specifically doing better.
I’m not saying trumpet our failures. I’m not saying that we should all beat ourselves up constantly about where we have failed professionally (though there are scenes from my own professional past that replay themselves in my head when the nights are dark…). I am saying, everyone needs to bring the “we totally ROCK” rhetoric down a couple of levels. I am saying that we need to more honestly assess what it is that we actually give to those that our organizations and programs are meant to help.