By now most anyone with serious interest in the humanitarian sector or the UN has come across this article, a “peace, out” (farewell) excoriation of the United Nations system by a Mr. Anthony Banbury. I Love the U.N., but It Is Failing.
I’d be willing to bet beer that the majority of those now busy Facebooking and retweeting the link had almost certainly never heard of Anthony Banbury prior to his #dropthemic op-ed (I hadn’t). I’ll even go out on a limb and guess that most people Facebooking and retweeting the link cannot say with any real certainty what a UN “Assistant Secretary-General for Field Support” actually does (I couldn’t).
But all the same, “I Love the U.N., but It Is Failing” strikes a resonating chord. It seems to confirm what we already think we know: The UN is an inefficient, bloated bureaucracy; a dystopian relic, the spawn of twisted minds. We need look no further. “I Love the U.N.” is a scathing indictment by a long-term insider who resigned from a senior post in protest of the graft, incompetence, and inefficiency we all knew was there but until now had no proof. Every righteously indignant voluntourist, every low level aid worker who thinks she’s too important to go to the cluster meeting, and every P2 who’s grumpy because he got passed over for promotion to P3 now feels vindicated.
These articles and blog posts come out occasionally. “I’m breaking up with aid, because, you know, I just can’t…” Some long-time (or not) insider has had enough, wants out, and wants us all know that he/she has had enough.” For those who remain, though, these breaks up and the know-it-all flurries that invariably ensue can be incredible disenchanting. I can’t claim 30 years in the UN system, but I have been around long enough know from personal experience what it’s like for those in the trenches when someone supposedly important and high-profile makes a big splash about leaving.
To those who remain, who still believe, or who simply are not able to resign in protest, this is for you:
The behavior displayed by Mr. Banbury has a name: Displaced dissent. Displaced dissent is an actual thing that has been studied. Plenty of information out there on displaced dissent, but you can start here. In short, displaced dissent is whinging about the boss at the pub after work. Displaced dissent is blogging about your workplace frustration, or if you’re senior enough in a high profile enough organization, getting an op-ed in the NYT.
It’s important to understand that displaced dissent, by definition, is not an effective means for affecting organizational change. Displaced dissent is what workers resort to when they feel it is unsafe to dissent internally through established channels, or when they have simply given up hope that their dissent will make a difference.
So, basically, the UN will not change because of “I Love the U.N., but…” You can retweet the link all you like, you can post it on Facebook with your comments, and to cut straight to the spoiler, nothing will happen.
If you want to change the system, you have to do something other than resign and then make a big deal of telling everyone why. Join the flurry of know-it-all and whataboutery if you must, but manage your own expectations about any likely outcomes.
This is just a job. None of us thinks that everyone stuck in the cubicles of Philip Morris’ corporate headquarters is a smoker. No one believes that every employee of British Petroleum is an eco-terrorist, or that every employee of Chrysler a climate-change denier. Most people—including those of us in the aid system—go to work, get salary, pay bills. We agree or disagree with our employer’s corporate identity or policies. We complain about our bosses at happy hour, gossip about incompetent colleagues or ridiculous policies in the coffee room. But some level we all make a conscious or unconscious calculation about the extent to which our disagreement with our employers outweighs our tangible need to actually make a living.
Mr. Banbury chose to leave the UN system in protest. But to go to what? What’s he going to do? Consult? (probably) Start his own NGO? Work for the corporate sector?
Many aid workers express rather extreme moral and ethical elitism around the water cooler. But let’s be clear: It is not cynical to disagree philosophically with the organization or system we work inside of, and also to continue to work inside that organization or system. It is, rather, a recognition of how the real world is and how it works. And also a recognition that our mortgages, car payments, insurance premiums, and educational loans don’t simply pay themselves.
It is possible to be a good person, to do good work, and to make a difference in the world for good, within a broken or dysfunctional system. For those of you still in the system, whether UN or other, now questioning whether or not you’ve thrown in with the crew of a doomed ship, this is important:
One disillusioned individual who can no longer take it is not proof that you’ve wasted your life.
I’m not sticking up for the UN or the aid system, and if you’ve read my writing here and in other places, you know that I certainly have my issues with both. But it’s important to understand that when it comes to the aid system you will find what you look for. You can find evidence of systemic failure. And you can also find evidence that good things happen. There are people around the world today who have an objectively better life because aid workers not unlike yourselves, whether somewhere on the front lines or buried in a warren of cubicles in New York, showed up for work.
Be introspective, be self-critical, do commit to excellence, do be clear-minded about the real contribution of your role toward the big picture, and do remove yourself from toxic or dysfunctional situations when you’ve had enough. But do not let the fact that some high-level bureaucrat went all “peace, out” be the thing that shakes your faith in what you’re doing.
Identify your own triggers. Think now about what it would take to make you walk. Simple as that. What lines would have to be crossed for you to up and leave your employer? The aid industry as a whole? At what point would you rather be unemployed than work another day in the system? Is it about salary or benefits? Would it be over some matter of technical approach or programmatic delivery? Would it be over some in-principle issue?
It doesn’t have to be all fraught and dramatic. And you can always change your mind later. But think about it now. Otherwise, you probably will find yourself 10 or 20 or 30 years later, disillusioned and bitter, but unable to articulate why, and with no real alternatives. Anthony Banbury will not hurt for livelihood options. He had the luxury—and make no mistake, it was and is a luxury—of being able to resign in protest. Most of the rest of us are in no such situation.