I came across this little gem in my reading today : Where are the interesting aid thinkers? from the blog, Blood and Milk, which is a good, mind-tingling read from time to time.
The blogpost is essentially a transcript of an interview with Paul Currion who had written an article posing that same question – where have all the interesting thinkers in aid gone? Surely they are no longer doing aid work, they have gone on to doing better and bigger things, in contexts perhaps a bit friendlier to new and innovative thinking, than the archaic but hallowed halls of “development”.
The blogger behind Blood and Milk sought out Currion to carry on this discussion and raised a few very good points, one of which particularly hit me – ‘ you don’t make it far in development if you’re not a “team player”.
What’s a team-player? Someone who doesn’t go against the grain, step on too many toes, someone who follows the instructions, listens to the policies and who toes the party line, skips to the beat and doesn’t rock the boat. The two authors discuss how, the development and aid industries don’t encourage interesting thought that goes against the grain, or even too loudly spoken criticisms. Frontline workers are rarely listened to, and the whole industry is shaped from the higher echelons – the UN systems, the board-rooms, the places and persons with power – where someone who is not a team-player has a very slim chance of getting to. Those who are outspoken, daring and critical, more often than not, have to do so, knowing they are killing their careers with a sledgehammer, after all, what respectable aid organization wants to hire a troublemaker over a team-player?
This all got me thinking critically into this whole idea of the development and aid industries, structurally suffocating innovation, critical thinking and daring, exciting moves – choosing instead to go the way of ‘once the donor’s happy, my butt is safe in a cushy chair, and my bank accounts are well-padded, it’s all good.’.
I’ve seen in my own experiences how this is true, the development world, while it should be so exciting, so daring, so cutting-edge, so intuitive, flexible, passionate and all-or-nothing, (after all, we deal with humans, the most dynamic, constantly changing clients there could possibly be), we are anything but these. We are slow to respond, archaic in our practices, we don’t respond well to change, we are academic, calculated, self-seeking, we are the self assured teenagers who don’t want to receive any criticism, and we’re boring.
Over and over again, we have the same ideas, repackaged with slightly different branding or champions. We recycle age old thoughts, we’re stuck in a rut from decades ago. We’re boring, and it seems like we’re content with that.
Interesting would mean us doing something different, interesting may mean, we no longer have the budgets to run around in shiny ATVs, interesting might be scary, interesting may mean, we work closely with local people, interesting may take longer, interesting may actually mean time in the field (long-drops and hot beers) interesting may be dirtier, it is riskier, it is harder, and interesting may label us as failures. Because it doesn’t always work, to try something new, or to be someone new.
Interesting ideas in development though, rarely even make it that far, they are more often than not, shut down, long before they even gain any traction. We only talk about it, we share the ideas, we post new theories, we say this, we stand for this, maybe even a few of us implement it, but on a large, industry-wide scale – interesting hasn’t been taken up yet. Interesting is still just the weird, left of center, stuff we blog and rant on Twitter about, till our throats are raw.
So where are the interesting thinkers in aid? They are behind computer screens blogging for free. They are working, on their own, deep in villages, jungles and warzones. They are interviewing soldiers and rebels with freelance identification tags. They are drinking hot beer and eating foufou on roadsides. They are sleeping beneath torn mosquito nets in sweltering heat. They are riding in rickety CAA aircraft, holding onto dear life. They are studying native languages and alphabets by candlelight so they can communicate the next day. Their sunglasses are side of the road designer. They are the doing things differently. Their ideas can’t fit into log-frames.
They are frontline, but they are unheard. Because the higher echelons don’t want interesting right now, they don’t want new, they don’t want daring, they don’t want their livelihoods to change, they just want to continue. Development and aid…have become industries of continuance, not of breakthroughs, or of solutions, just a boring, continuing thing.