(wherein @giantpandinha ends her relationship with Development and posts her open letter here….)
By the time you read this letter I will be gone. We have been together a total of five years, with a long separation in the middle when I nearly eloped with social anthropology…. In our first stormy year, I was the “local hire” expat on a bicycle. The other four, I have been based at headquarters, where the biggest crises seem to revolve around lack of milk for tea.
I studied you, Development, at university, never really imagining myself working for an INGO. I was always more interested in culture, history, the lived experience of people coming out of colonialism than in “you,” the economic development part. Okay, so I was interested in human rights, but that was an indulgence – I always perceived that the rights obsession has its own perverse consequences in certain contexts.
I have been lucky in the two jobs I had – both allowed me to dodge the massive compliance edifices being constructed around me. These jobs allowed me to make other friends, they were not the jealous types.
In my last job, at an organization majority funded by individual supporters, people gave to us for who we were. Something I thought could free our hands to focus on the causes of poverty and to avoid what I have seen in many agencies. You know, the ones more dependent on government monies hence spend so much time bean-counting and measuring that they are unable to work with the people closest to the reality on the ground… the ones that treat development like a massive Rube Goldberg machine, where you put some inputs in, a series of technical and scientific interventions are applied… et voilà. People are pulled out of poverty, and “sustainably,” at that.
Thanks to Andrew Nastios, I learned that this approach is actually more Ford and McNamara than Rube Goldberg. That the reason “development” feels so bankrupt to me is that all of its tools, its systems, its approaches emanate from the managerial thinking that gave the world the car culture, and that made the Pentagon so powerful.
In my latest post, I worked in an environment of total cognitive dissonance. Where the language was of solidarity, of partnership, but in our day-to-day we tangled with massive compliance systems. Forcing them on social movements and NGOs in the Americas, Africa and Asia. All of these systems totally overdone, considering the level of trust our supporters had in our work. Obviously we needed strategy and to know partners were doing good work – but systems balloon and mushroom out of control. Even those creating them recognized their Frankenstein(s).
I was one of the only people given the slack to actually get to know our partners without jamming their words into required tools and reporting forms. I often wondered why people did not express greater envy about my job – the fact they did not was worrying in and of itself.
Against this backdrop, I was involved in trying to create a responsive, light monitoring and evaluation system that would “protect” the work we did on the crucial stuff that Duflo and co. cannot “randomize” – campaigning, policy influencing and social change. A worthy thing, and I feel almost like I am betraying those I have worked with on this by quitting now.
But our leadership does not really get what is at stake. Even in my relatively enlightened corner of the aid business, people are busy just simply being busy. Defending their little corner. Stuck building systems that are not for people but for abstracted automatons.
Our leaders are not serious about scanning the horizon, about admitting that the public is right to scrutinize aid. I hear none of the kind of serious soul-searching that the moment requires.
We repeat transcendent values like dignity and justice as mantras yet we are blinded by bureaucracy and relentless self-interest. We keep running into the breach and doing the work that governments must do for their own citizens. As much as Dambisa Moyo annoys me, why can’t we set a date for when this should be over? What would it look like if INGO staff actually dedicated themselves to the sensible cliché of “putting themselves out of a job”?
People all over the world want to feel good, or even maybe just more ok. Even though most know humanity is screwed in the long run, people yearn to go where the energy is. Yet INGOs keep appealing to them with the same negative images, and collecting cold data for their institutional donor patrons. Individuals, and I would venture even taxpayers, do not need experts to spew evaluation data at them. They want to feel a stake in what is generative, what is life affirming. Statistics have a role, but their role is a backstop. People in the US and Europe want to support others in their struggles to make things better, and they want to see the connections between here and there.
In the end, the truth is that I feel very exhausted. And hurt. How is that possible? I am not hurt because of a failure of leadership per se, or a lack of vision in the sector. (I am more than aware of my borderline pathological disdain for authority, which I done my best to keep in check.)
What hurts is being there. Taking this daily battering of double-speak, seeing my peers stripped of illusions slowly becoming jaded, mercenary aid worker hacks. Or seeing them simply jump ship to do the same thing elsewhere, like a change of scenery will make everything better. Or even worse, seeing them bury their heads in the sand.
Oh, Development, no amount of earnest critique, satire, or wounded camaraderie can save our relationship now.
So while I am disappointed in you – I tried so hard to make it work – I am not bitter. In spite of this hurt, I remember back through the last couple of years. You introduced me to amazing people. Some of these mutual friends we can keep. (That is if you do not make a voodoo doll of me after reading this letter.)
I am going to be starting some projects with like-minded friends, that are not about the same old patron-client relationship, repackaged in managerial logic and dragged out for post-colonial generation after generation. These projects are about trying to link people of good will, with energy that does not come from a knee-jerk guilt reaction.
If I fail, great, but I have failed as a human and not a cog in a lop-sided machine.