Peace, out…

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.

"Peace, out..."
Peace, out…

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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.

[How loyal are you (to your NGO employer)?]

 

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.

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Basic Premise

I’ll be vulnerable and just admit that I’m supremely bored with the usual critiques of the aid system.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the aid system is in great shape, or even good shape. I don’t think that things are acceptable the way they are right now. And I do think that some things need to change.

But when I look at the substance and tenor of the vast majority of what passes for online discussion about the aid world and what’s wrong with it, I begin to get the feeling that most of those doing the discussing are bringing drama rather than substance. They’re not very skilled at guiding their existential angst around to some kind of grounded conclusion. More than anything else, I get the sense that there is a disconnect, not between what people think it’s going to be like and then what it’s actually like, but rather a deeper, more fundamental one: Disconnected thinking and expectations around what the aid system is for and how it actually works.

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I’m going to guess that most people who sign up to be police officers accept, perhaps implicitly, the basic premises of police work. That police forces are local extensions of state power, for example. Being a police officer is about imposing the will of the state on a local population. There’s nuance and variation within the system, of course. But at the end of the day, that is the basic premise of police work. Many people have issues with the basic premise of police work, and predictably these people do not aspire being police officers.

Similarly, I’ll guess that most people study to be paramedics have accepted the basic premises of pre-hospital care. They don’t cure cancer. They don’t provide end-to-end service. Emergency Medical Systems (EMS) are set up to respond quickly to situations where people have suffered physical trauma or acute medical stress, stabilize them, and then get them under the care of someone who can provide more comprehensive diagnosis and treatment. If you reject the tenets of pre-hospital care, then paramedic is not the right job for you.

The basic premise of being in the military is that it is your job to enforce the will of your country nationally or internationally. There might be different ways to go about this, but that’s the basic premise. If you want to be a soldier, you need to get to the place where you’re okay with this basic premise.

The basic premise of being a teacher is that you impart knowledge and skill at the standard of whatever educational system that you’re in. The basic premise of being a bus driver is that you have to drive a set route, rather than wherever, whenever you please.

Accepting the basic premises of whatever line of work you happen to be in is key to being able to go to work and do your job, day after day. Thinking through and understanding in as many words what those basic premises are, in my opinion, simply part of being a grown-up.

I think it may be time to have a quiet chat about some of the basic premises of humanitarian aid and development work. There are three:

This is a global system. There are two parts to this one:

The aid system is a system, and yes, you are part of it whether you’re the head of OCHA, leader of the OFDA DART, a programme officer for CARE Malawi, or the founder of some self-started charity that collects bras for women in India. You are part of the system, even if you don’t participate in any kind of coordination or share your programmatic data with the UN. You are not off the grid. You/your organization/your project exist within a framework of control and accountability.

Second, it is a fact that the aid system exists globally. As I wrote in the prior post on this blog, there are roles and jobs within the system that legitimately need doing almost everywhere. Many of the roles and jobs can literally be done from anywhere there is Internet. Some of the roles and jobs really do seriously need to be done can only be done in specific places. Maybe Kabul. Maybe Malakal, or Erbil, or Port-au-Prince. Maybe Washington D.C. Maybe Geneva.

Go ahead, figure out what role you want to have in the system. Take some time to discover where your knowledge, skills, and experience can be brought to bear to do the most good. But if you cannot come to grips with the premise that no matter what you do and where you do it you are part of an integrated global system, then you may want think carefully about whether international aid and development are really the right place for you.

 

This is about affecting change. I am honestly baffled by the number of times that I have to have this particular conversation, but here we go again: The world can be a pretty crappy place. We look at a situation somewhere (could be local, could be in another country) and arrive at the conclusion that things need to change. We further believe that we can be personally part of that change process. Then we implement what we believe our role to be. Whether we’re a donor or an implementer or something in between, we are part of making change in the world. At a very basic level, you literally cannot embrace the status quo and also make the world better.

That is one of the basic premises of aid and development. We—you, me—are part of making change happen. Aid and development are about causing change.

Yes, we must be honest, reflexive, and introspective. Yes, we should follow good process (which can mean many things). Yes, we must take it seriously. We should not be cavalier or arrogant. Yes, being part of a change process implies necessarily that we pass judgment on conditions somewhere. It implies that we think we know or can do better. Yes, it is audacious.

But at the end of the day, if you cannot accept this basic premise of international helping, then perhaps this is simply not the place for you.

 

This is about power. Maybe you don’t feel powerful as you sit and debate the format for this year’s annual report. Maybe it feels ludicrous to talk about power when your life is an endless series of capitulations, when you’re endlessly hounded over petty bureaucratic details, or when your typical day is a lot of fighting for the obvious. It may feel silly to talk about power when global humanitarian and development assistance is a small fraction of, say, global consumer spending on technology.

But make no mistake: Aid and development are about power. Aid and development are very specifically about reducing the power of the powerful and increasing the power of the less powerful. The aid system, like it or not, is about exerting the will of donors on beneficiaries, even when donors insist that beneficiaries get to choose (being forced to choose, to participate as a requisite for assistance is another kind of submission to power). The aid system is about exerting the will of donors, many of whom represent political power, on communities and countries. Even the stridently self-described “neutral” NGOs still impose their agenda for change on the world, and by so doing use power.

As a participant in the system, you, too, use power: you influence resource use and allocation decisions (not saying that you always get your way); you influence outcomes at the level of end-users. If you are in the aid system, you are part of that power-wielding and influencing structure. You are part of often complex negotiation of moving resources (and by extension power) from one party to another. And the same caveats as the above point also apply: None of this is license to be arrogant or cavalier.

This is one of the basic premises of humanitarian aid and development work. The system at all levels is about power, and you also posses and use power if you are in the system. Now is not the time to get all obsequious and self-loathing. The aid system is about power. If you cannot live with this premise, then perhaps you should not be here.

Sub-101

Can we please raise the level of blogosphere and secret aid worker commentary to something higher than the current vapid, “OMG, this isn’t as awesome as those Invisible Children videos made it seem”, sub-101 journeys of self-discovery

Probably asking too much, I know.

Some of you seriously need to wrap your heads around the reality that there is no correlation between how crappy or not crappy the ambient living conditions are in the country where you live, and the extent to which you are actually “doing it” or “making a difference.” There is no cause/effect relationship between the extent to which you sacrifice material or social comforts in the name of The Cause, and the extent to which you are good at your job. There is no connection between how far you are from the capital and how effective you are as an aid or development worker.

Similarly, some of you seriously need to wrap your heads around the reality that the aid system exists globally. There are roles and jobs within the system that legitimately need doing almost everywhere. Many of the roles and jobs can literally be done from anywhere there is Internet. Some of the roles and jobs really do seriously need to be done can only be done in specific places. Maybe Kabul. Maybe Malakal, or Erbil, or Port-au-Prince. Maybe Washington D.C. Maybe Geneva.

There I said it. International do-gooder heresy. There is legitimate, important aid industry work that can only be done in Geneva. There is legitimate aid industry work that has to be done and that makes a difference, that cannot be done in a village in Nepal at the point of delivery. Call Nick Kristof. Tweet @ Sean Penn. Start your own NGO, if you must.

Here’s some more heresy: It is a reality that aid and development involve people traveling to other countries to do (some of) the work. In other words, expats. Yeah, yeah, lots of complexity around expats. Some are jerks. Some are bouncy and hyper. Some are dour and cynical. Some are worse: Some are objectively horrible people. Some are incompetent and should be fired. Some are dealing with personal issues, and some of those make the mistake of bringing their issues into the work place. Newsflash: That is every job in every industry, ever. None of these things mean either that the system is broken or that it is illegitimate to bring send people internationally to do the work.

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After a few years of life on the edge in some far-flung, exotic field location, it will undoubtedly feel decidedly less edgy when you take that job in one of the world’s humanitarian capitals. It’s normal to look at the menu and mentally do the calculation: the cost of a café latte in the place you live now is twice the legal minimum hourly wage in the place you just left.

And by the same token, it may feel absurd to work in a nice office in a nice city where the budget for the coffee room for one year is more than your entire operating budget in your last job. It can feel colossally unfair to spend your day focused on discussions about, say, internal HR policy, when you have strong opinions about, say, refugee resettlement policy. And… and… and…

But it’s important to be clear. As jarring as these things might be, they are not in and of themselves an indication that The System is somehow broken. Liking your life and liking your job are not reasons to think that something is wrong.

 

**Sigh**

Rant over. Just tired of the chronically sub-101 plaguing the online aid industry discourse of late.