Highly leveraged people or how the truth plays hide and seek (a frothy rant).
I heard a story earlier this week — a familiar story from an unfamiliar angle. A young Australian, compelled by the wretched circumstances of the world’s poor, takes flight to whatever sub-Saharan blasted land of disease takes her fancy. Informed by the latest mimetic theories of international development (ID), she founds an organisation that is hip, modern, and has significant elevator pitch appeal. It’s impact capital ready, sociofinancially sustainable, carbon negative, empowers women through capacity building, has an inclusive value chain, targets bottom of the pyramid consumers through last-mile distribution, and provides a product that meets Real Human Needs.
Okay okay—making fun of corporate speak is a lazy literary blood sport. This organisation I’m referring to was actually a good organisation, or at least it had a good business model. However, these urbane neologisms matter more to people back home than they do to the people you are trying to work with. They’re a weapon to be used sparingly to connect with a certain audience — funders, in particular — and if used to excess and without the conceptual rigour behind them, they quickly become empty vessels.
In the developed world, being fluent in ID-speak is considered proxy for actually making a difference. This includes aforementioned neologisms but also impassioned personal narratives (feat. personal crisis, spiritual epiphany) and requisite infographics that obscure more than they show. Management consultants in the room know this elusive art of hide-and-seek, a process which is itself obscured through terms like “reframe,” and “pivot.”
Consultants are the real hotshots here, for people in ID it’s like total fucking child’s play in comparison (hide-and-seek truth-wise, I mean). Rosy-cheeked youngsters with all the twee appeal of a bow-legged toddler discuss an organisation on the other side of the fucking Indian Ocean, burdened only with a demonstration of basic competence vis-a-vis aforementioned neologisms. Consultants have to justify themselves in a cutthroat for-profit market, whereas ID people seeking some piteous amount of funding only have to offer their funders a kind of psychic fellatio by evoking and subsequently solving subterranean white guilt.
For some, this is an addictive feeling. Storytelling in the developed world becomes the primary tool by which they support their ID org. It’s easy to get hooked, really — scratch-lotto sized sums of money in Oz or wherever might be a year’s salary for your floor manager back home. The gruesome work of building an organisation in the marginal world is both less exciting and profitable than telling a story about building an organisation in the marginal world.
For our aforementioned girl, she got hooked on this buzz and decided maybe the organisation would be fine with her managing things remotely from Australia, which it totally wasn’t/isn’t, and the short ver. is that a good idea basically turned to goo. It didn’t turn to goo before it got a whole lot of giddy financial support from myriad do-gooders however, and so the damn thing lasted five excruciating years in a state of unprofitability. This endurance owed largely to the local manager of the org, as is my understanding, who was tasked with sort of holding it all together so Australian girl’s story had a faint referent.
This is where the story gets super depressing, because in our entrepreneurial cult of “flearning” (failure + learning, would you believe), simply trying is considered proxy for success. So now Australian girl, bless her, now gets to talk about having tried and flearned. So commence the plenary sessions, Q&A panels, FM-band fifteen minute slots, personal dot-com address with professional headshot, 500+ connections LinkedIn cap, and a soft landing in to some primo local gig (probably consulting).
For a well-meaning 20-something, an enthusiasm-powered ID organisation can be a fulcrum against which to leverage some serious career gains. These human sub-prime mortgage crises spin stories off stories off stories like a collapsing, involuted fractal, and presumably this goes on ad infinitum, and we can only hope our hero is at least nagged by a ghostly sense of incompetence.
It’s hard to know what’s really going on, you know. If you’ve ever tried to buy ethical clothing, you know what a nightmare it is to try and understand where that Uniqlo V-neck came from. Maybe the factory pays proper wages, but imports slave cotton. Maybe they’re Forestry Council certified, but the Forestry Council is an industry-created front that hands out accreditation like hard candy. Maybe they’re environmentally friendly but engaging in tax evasion. You get the idea. Truth-seeking quickly becomes a headache.
Understanding a well-meaning 20-something delivering a pitch is no different. It’s hard to know if the organisation really produces those outcomes, or if they used some lax survey they designed themselves. It’s hard to tell if they’re really thinking strategically, or if the strat plan was devised on a Tuesday evening low-bandwidth Skype call with a cheap consultant. It’s hard to tell if there’s really a succession plan or if it’s just our well-meaning Australian trying to get the hell out of there whilst preserving their image. You can bang a lot together on a long-haul flight.
If you’re like me, you’re generally pretty forgiving and regard most of this stuff as well-meaning people telling contorted, ego-preserving stories. It’s not wilful evil or conscious careerism. We like neat stories with resolutions and morals, so we get pretty good at crafting versions of our experience that make narrative sense.
Creating an enduring organisation in the developing world requires a serious amount of hard work, nous, cross-cultural competence, and sparing but essential use of our connections to the rich world. The life-cycle of an NGO or social enterprise is long and gets less romantic as time goes on — the honeymoon period of frenetic support and bold ideas leads to a long march of financial and social sustainability, and finally there’s the ultimate challenge of handing over the reigns to a local who probably doesn’t have a Masters in ID from a sandstone university. I’m not sure how long this takes, but my best guess is about ten years.
If I had advice to give funders, I would maybe suggest that we treat a donation of $10,000 to a developing nation with the seriousness you might treat a donation of $50,000 in Australia. Try to get a sense of the long term plan — financial and social sustainability, and eventual succession. Get numbers and stories of people on the ground where possible. People who truly wish to do good work will invite your scepticism and rigour: It suggests you treat their development work as seriously as you would treat a private investment or a local initiative.
Above all else, though, I would offer the advice to not elevate those who have started their own organisations. The young ID social entrepreneur holds a very particular and wacky place in our cultural iconography, one that paradoxically both celebrates their work and beckons them to abandon it. These short-lived organisations do little for long-term community development. This view also frames developing countries not as places to situate but merely to visit, a playpen for people who will do their serious work back in the “real world.”
For the like young person who wants to go abroad, the best advice I can offer is to work with an existing organisation. Young people are too obsessed with creating their own organisations. Self-appointed CEOs of non-profits with a five-figure annual turnover (Australian or abroad) give me the colossal shits.
Instead, find a role where humility is part of the package and give it your all. If you’re lucky, you’ll find your raison d’être by accident—maybe it’s educational access for girls through sanitary products, democratic participation through mobile technology, or education for agriculturalists.
Find the thing that gives you a psychoethical hard-on and you’ll be captivated by problems, solutions, people, and places, rather than a particular image of yourself. This will keep the story and the referent tightly bound, preventing postmodern drift. Only under these very particular and elusive circumstances should you contemplate starting your own NGO.