Monday, 25 May 2009

The altruist

"The only task big enough for an honorable man is the restructuring of his world" James A Michener, Centennial

This post has been many conversations and rants. This issue knaws at me. Partly because of the fact itself - and the resulting inefficiency - and partly because it affects my chances of succeeding in a field I would dearly love to work in for the rest of my life.

When I talk about the altruist, I'm talking about that person (male or female) who does it all 'for other people;, the person who puts in 100% to charitable causes and is willing to work very hard for someone else. Spotting the altruist is a relatively easy matter and often simply involves listening for those dreaded words, "it's all about the children". He/she probably says this a lot. So much that it may become irritating. Often while other people are getting on with doing the work that needs to be done in order to make a small difference to said children.

These are very often people who are extremely good at organising wonderful gala events to raise a few rands for a worthy cause. Fewer rands than the cost of the outfit they wear to the event. They will tell you, or get someone else to tell you while they disclaim and blush loudly, how they put in hours and hours of their time (often free of charge) to organise the event and made several hundred rand for a cause that needs a few million. Or organise once-off treats, like a christmas party for some street kids or a clown's visit to an orphanage.

The altruist glides through life spouting bland cliches about duty and honour and how today's youth have no respect for others. The altruist will spend hours talking about how TV and rap music are destroying the values of society. Hours that their listeners could probably ill-afford in their highly stressful working day. The altruist believes in values and duty and honour, fervently and from a moral highground that so clearly illustrates his/her superiority.

The altruist dismisses with a click of the tongue those who try and ask for payment for their work in this field and, equally loudly, at anyone who tries to introduce the issues of money, efficiency or serious monitoring into discussions about helping the the 'poor'. He/she believes that everyone involved should glory in the act of giving up his/her time to work with the altruist and help other people - with the startings of a halo growing around their heads being sufficient reward - and never for a moment consider worldly matters like money and result.

The altruist conflates every different development issue because helping is helping and he/she likes the idea of being able to (single-handedly) fix all the world's poor/victims in one go. So, for example, a project aimed at training pregnant mothers in proper childcare suddenly ends up with less than competent trainers because the altruist insists on helping homeless, recovering drug addicts (who have never had children) by giving them a job, and sees no reason not to kill two birds with one stone.

Because the altruist is driven by a desire to 'help people', the project is sometimes driven completely off-course, on a total tangent, by the heart-rending story of one individual. These stories drive and encourage and 'feed' the soul of the altruist. He/she is never as happy as when he/she is giving one of these personal stories a happy ending and/or talking about the most recent story. Irrespective of whether that person or that story has anything to do with the current project or is someone who wandered in off the street and has now hijacked the aims, goals and directions entirely.

The altruist is very often a lovely, well-meaning person who really believes what he/she says. He/she is also a narcissist. 'It's all about the children' is doublespeak for 'it's all me'. An altruist works very hard at being seen to be helping other people. They regularly reject complex, integrated development projects because they won't be in total control so someone else might get the credit. These are the type of people who start up little charities or NGOs to help the homeless in communities where the sector is already oversubscribed, simply because they're absolutely convinced that they can do a better job than anyone else. They're people who will never work effectively with government or other NGOs because they're 'all about the children' not all about the real, quantifiable results.

These are the people who are so extremely bad for the field because they perpetuate the myth that image is what matters and prove the stereotype that development people are more interested in the warm fluffy feeling than in actual results. They're very bad for efficiency and efficacy, they're extremely resistant to monitoring and they are unlikely ever to achieve real, lasting change - partly because that would jeapourdise their reason for existing. And the system is that it's designed to find the altruists and value them at all costs, putting them in charge of everything if at all possible. Because the expectation is that the person in charge will be the one who cares most about the 'children'.

There are many frustrations in the field of development. But almost all of them stem from the fact that development projects so often exist, and increasingly exist, more to glorify the narcissistic altruism of the person in charge than to achieve real change. I don't do this because of honour or duty or because it's 'all about the children'. My satisfaction comes from monitoring numbers and rigorous evaluation of successfully implemented projects and strategies. My aim is to fix things and problem solve. I like effective, eligent solutions and am a fierce believer in integrated development planning. So I am the square peg trying to restructure the world while the round-hole altruists have successfully found the most socially-acceptible more of narcissism in the world.

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