Monday, 15 September 2008

There's nothing romantic about saving the world...

... OR things that wide-eyed hippies thinking of going into NGO/Development work need to know:

1. This is a job. It's a thing you do for money or passion or because you're a glutton for punishment. Contrary to what the movies and the brochures might have suggested, you will not, at any point, be surrounding by a group of like-minded, equally-intelligent young activists who share your ideals and will stand beside you to the end. The people you will spend most of your time with will be practical admin and implementation types. Learn to treasure them - they are the people who make your world go round. If you ever succeed in any way in what you are trying to do, it will be because of them.

2. Buy a year planner and a diary. Approximately 25% of your time will be spent planning the practical, mundane aspects of your job. This will be your most productive time. It should be prioritised over spending time talking to indigent people, going to conferences and holding rallies. If you don't really like planning and prefer to act spontaneously 'as the moment takes you', find something else to do. In a situation of limited funds, limited time and infinite need, noone has time for sponteneity. Planning is the key to success, sponteity the enemy of getting anything done.

3. This is a deadline. Make friends with the deadline. If you fail to meet deadlines, your wonderful ideas will not happen. No, no-one cares that they are wonderful ideas - when people's lives/well-being/future is at stake, your wonderful ideas are much, much less important than the deadlines that make our work possible and effective

4. Your warm fuzzy feeling is nice and sweet and utterly irrelevant to getting things done. We're happy that you connected with the barefoot child and suggest you write a heart-warming story about it but right now it is less important than the work you need to do

5. If you cannot write reports, correctly and on time, go straight to somewhere else. Do not pass begin, do not collect $200. Reports are the backbone of what you do. Reports are also your friend. Plus, without accurate reports, it's impossible to measure success, get more money or learn how to do this better. Seriously, you best friend.

6. The accountant is special because he runs the money. The logistics coordinator is special because she books the correct flights every time. The CEO is special because she writes useful, actionable business plans that the funders like. You are not special just because you care. We all care. That's why we work hard. Stop going on about it already and get something done!

7. These are numbers. Make friends with numbers. They are important. Yes, right now they're more important than the precious child who touched your heart last Tuesday. Make friends with them and put them in your reports.

8. This is a log-frame (logical framework). It outlines exactly how our intervention addresses the problem we have identified through research and consultation as the thing we are trying to fix. It then outlines how this intervention is implemented, when, with what outcomes and outputs and to reach what targets. This is our strategy. THIS defines what you do. It is an excel document. It is logical and rational and structured. It is the most important document we have. It does not respond well to fluffy bunnies and the heart-felt desire to give the poor children a Christmas party.

9. No, the heart-breaking story of the poor little girl you saw yesterday is not a good reason to change our strategy. I'm sad for the child but we have work to do, serious work to do. If you can't maintain some distance, can't keep perspective of the big picture, stay out of the realm of strategy! (see point 8 above)

10. BREAKING NEWS: It really isn't all about the children. The children/poor/environment are important. The cause is important. It's the core of the log-frame (logical framework) on which the strategy is based, from which operational plans are developed, complete with targets and monthly plans. In your ordinary, average, day-to-day job, what is important is the targets and the numbers and the deadlines and the reports. The happy children are the ultimate goal, out there, when we succeed. As such, they have actually very little to do with you. The children will be happy when you submit your reports.
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Somewhat tongue in cheek, of course, but also with a serious point. The NGO world, the field of development and social change is littered with bleeding-heart liberal hippie martyrs - people who can't bare to walk past a poor child, even if it means they miss a crucial meeting that could seriously further their cause; people who are compulsive volunteers because they can't bare to see a good idea left undone because noone has the time (and then are unable to do it themselves because they don't have time). It makes me exceedingly angry, not because I don't value passion and committment to a cause and beliefs, but because martyrdom - especially in the form of taking on everything and doing nothing or refusing to stick to the plan in favour of sponteneity and creativity - is more damaging to the causes than not doing anything at all.

This is serious work. Changing things, saving people's lives is far, far more important and high-risk than simple, profit-driven business. How is it possible, then, that we are willing to accept a lower level of committement, competence and strategic thinking in this field than we do in the corporate world? I believe in what I do. That means I'm hardcore, distant and strategic. Others in my field spend a lot of time placating and wooing the passionate hippies. I'm not convinced it's worth the time. I'd rather be getting things done.

"A martyr would rather suffer death at the hands of an oppressor than renounce his beliefs. Killing yourself and innocent people to make a point is sick, twisted, brutal, dumb-ass murder. And let me leave you with this thought before I go searching for the apples that were rightfully mine: we don't need martyrs right now. We need heroes. A hero would die for his country but he'd much rather live for it..." Bartlett, West Wing, Season 3, Ep 1

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