This morning I read a post on ‘the trouble with aid’ written by yet another white guy who runs a multi-million NGO. It was the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. Here’s why.
The list of humanitarian workers’ blogs that deprecate the state of aid work, criticise NGOs, and call for a radical change in the system is numerous. I have often enjoyed reading their analysis, and chatting with them in the field. Not any more. I’m pretty tired of yet another self-aware white guy who lets us know how terrible humanitarian organisations are, while probably doing nothing to change the very organisation he runs. Long gone are the times when few dared to criticise aid, now it’s all too easy to say that the ‘aid system’ is bust. And while it’s still a well-kept secret from the average citizen who contributes to a good cause, from within it seems quite trendy to be aware of the failures of the charity business. But awareness alone will not heal a burnt-out industry, where snark and cynicism have become a substantial part of a toxic way of working, which damages both aid workers and ‘beneficiaries’.
The so-called ‘aid system’ is made up of individuals and organisations, and it is the way these very organisations are bureaucratically run, and hierarchically operate that is part of the problem. With their ‘Jurassic’ structures they refuse to transform themselves while wanting to change others. Often, the trouble with aid is…aid organisations.
It’s actually becoming depressing to see how good NGOs are getting at recognising the shortcomings of ‘the system’ and then not changing a thing about their own organisation. Talking about ‘the system’ projects all the faults out there, as if that system existed independently of the very organisations that are part of it. With all good intentions, this self-loathing is becoming another paternalistic form of PR. Self-criticism and self-awareness makes NGOs feel quite good about themselves. The problem is that they then just carry on as before.
There are some amazing people out there, exploring new possibilities in a changing world. For once, the new buzzwords – complexity and chaos – are in synch with reality. I, for one, am interested in new ideas, new models, new experiments, new conversations that can enhance the life of individuals and propel organisations interested in transforming our world, forward. While critical thinking is needed, self-criticism will not change the world. Cutting-edge ideas, innovative individuals, and organisations that dare to transform themselves, will. Because ‘changing the world starts from within‘.