On Motherhood & Sanity

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Shoot the messenger. wait that's me! Ironies & contradictions of Aid Work

So I have a funny job. It revolves around a basic concept: I waltz in, I have a look around, I read, I ask questions, come to conclusions and write ‘em up.

Conclusion that seek to help people do their job better, that seek to learn from the experience so that the same mistakes are not repeated, so that good things are replicated, so that the international aid community is accountable.

It has one basic flaw; no one really wants to hear what I have to say, not if it’s bad anyways.

The country running the project because no one likes to have a know it all walk in and make them look bad, tell them about their job, their country, what they are doing wrong and what they could be doing different.

“we are different”, “you don’t understand”, “you didn’t spend enough time to see the detail”, ” you didn’t get it"

The irony is that the ones that hire me don’t want to hear negative comments either because it implies that they fucked up somehow. That they did not choose right, that they didn’t judge the proposal adequately, in sum; it makes them look bad too.

So where does that leave me? in a funny place indeed.

As an independent observer there is another flaw: you may be independent, but you rely on these people to get work. You rely on their recommendation for more business. You are basically criticizing your client, which pretty much goes against all basic marketing tools, akin to a photographer telling a client

“you are dead ugly and a bit fat, so the picture is not going to look good unless you start eating healthy, do some exercise, get a haircut and a facial”

true and fair, but will they call you back? I don’t think so

Except they do call you back because, for the most part, once the knee jerk reaction to criticism passes, they understand you mean well, they understand it’s useful, because usually it’s productive criticism, because usually it’s ok.

But every now and then you are put in a real bind: when there is something really bad or really suspicious going on. Then you’ve got two choices:

a) you do your job and may the chips fall where they may. pray that you are getting it right, that you are being fair, and that what you say will be useful

b) you masseuse the info as much as possible, you potentially even turn a blind eye to certain things, which probably weren’t in your terms of reference to begin with, and decide it’s not your problem, or that it’s above your pay grade

As a consultant you are at the bottom of the food chain, and at the same time untouchable. What you write goes, but no one is going to stick their neck out for you if it gets ugly. The easiest person to kill when you don’t like the news is indeed the messenger.

But I’ve got a problem: I give a damn. I try to remind myself who my real client is, and it’s not the NGO nor the donor but the beneficiary, so I cant (shouldn’t) keep my mouth shut.

Which leaves me in a funny place indeed.

I’ve got one card up my sleeve though: I don’t need this job; I don’t need it to eat, and I don’t need it to feel important, (I had to find alternative sources of identity and self worth after I gave up my job when my kids were born).

I’ve got the kids, the writing, and all the imaginary voices in my head to keep me company.

Except of course I do need it because I love it.

So a toast and a prayer:

The toast: may I get it right, may I be fair, and may I be useful.

And a prayer: here’s to hoping I get more work after I press “send”


Jamie, the Very Worst Missionary said...

Oh my God, you're like my *hero*. I wish there were a billion more of you in this world, doing that thing you do, where you tell people the truth even though they may not like you/hire you/say nice things about you in the future.

Awesome post!

Fran said...

You make me proud as always!

Anonymous said...

This is so very true. Consultants are at the bottom of the food chain, but one good reason to be a consultant is to keep/give some honesty in aid work. We all know sometimes it is about the politics and not about the issues. So feel proud to give voice to something that is a check and balance mechanism.

Jennifer Lentfer said...

That's a toast and a prayer for all aid workers:

"May I get it right, may I be fair, and may I be useful."

Amen. Thanks for sharing. Feel free to check out my new blog:

"How-matters.org explores the skills and knowledge needed by all international “do-gooders” (professional and amateur alike) to truly raise the level of human dignity within international assistance and to put real resources behind local means of overcoming obstacles."

vanilla north said...

A big difference between working to live and living to work.

Like you say, you do what you do because this job IS you. Keep doing it, keep being yourself. Daring freelancers are, in fact, the ones that eventually succeed the most.


angelica said...

thanks guys, really needed the support.

You are all cordially invited to the public hanging which is scheduled for mid September