personal reflections on human rights...and other stuff

On NGO jargonmania and the futility of pre-meetings

A friend of mine emailed me a top ten list a couple of weeks ago that really hit home. Entitled, “Top Ten Reasons You Know You’re Working at an Aid Organization Headquarters,” almost every item on the list rang true. The first reason pretty much sums up the convoluted, impossibly heavy jargon-laden language we use in the non-governmental organization (NGO) field. Here it is:

You just had a pre-meeting to discuss your strategy planning session for the new initiative to reduce poverty by increasing access to safe water/credit/food/health care through fair and equitable distribution to those with the right to said good or service through engagement with duty bearers in the government and other stakeholders and civil society organizations.

Jargon is one thing, acronyms is another. I’m careful about over-acronymizing my speech. While living in Ghana as a Development Worker with World University Service of Canada, I was a policy advisor in the Girls Education Unit of the basic Education Division in the Ghana Education Service, reporting to the Ministry of Education. In other words, I would introduce myself as the WUSC DW in GEU of the BED in the GES of the MOE.

But that first reason above points not only to excessive jargon but also the speed at which decisions are made in NGOs. Having a “pre-meeting” and a “strategy planning session” to discuss eventual engagement of a cornucopia of stakeholders (sorry! jargon alert) sounds to me like nothing meaningful will ever take place! There are times when working for an NGO when you honestly feel like things aren’t moving as quickly as they should. I know that’s not exceptional, after all I also worked for the government and it was much the same. But the causes for the most part are inherently different: in government (based on my experience working for the government here in Canada), things move at a glacial pace because any decision-making has to follow a precise and slow-moving path of approval. It was much the same in Ghana when I worked for the ministry of education, only there the problem was compounded by a bunch of good employees who were unmotivated for a number of reasons including meagre salaries and being stuck in an environment rife with corruption and ineptitude. With some NGOs the decision-making is participatory to a fault; everyone has to be consulted to the point where no one ever ends up making a decision, or if a decision is ever made it takes an inordinate amount of time to actually be taken. Sad to say, but “pre-meetings” do exist in the NGO world. Just have the meeting and make the decision then!

Pre-meetings are annoying but manageable; it’s when a lack of effective and timely decision-making ruins important opportunities to “do good” that really irks me. Read any number of stories of humanitarian assistance coming from Haiti and you’ll discover plenty of small-scale initiatives from dedicated NGOs (both national and international) that are doing wonderful things to restore human dignity to those who have suffered. Then contrast that to wide-scale initiatives from larger organizations that are responsible for millions of dollars worth of aid and they royally bungle things up. Irk!

This irking is longstanding with me. A lot comes down to the people within the NGOs; many have their hearts in the right place but not necessarily the skills to manage an organization. This is in sharp contrast to the business world, where many leaders have the skills (honed either on the job or through education) to manage others. As one leader of an NGO remarked to me once, “We fell into our positions as managers, and we’re still learning.” To those NGO leaders who are still learning on the job, please take some advice: stop the pre-meetings, or pre-anythings. Meet, decide, act, be responsible and accountable, applaud successes, acknowledge failures (and call them that if that’s what they are, do not couch them in terms of “lessons learned”), and move on.

However, it’s unfair to dump a lack of prompt decision-making squarely on the shoulders of NGO leaders. Let’s be honest, any organization – NGO or otherwise – can have its share of leaders and slackers, and the latter can have a serious effect on an organization’s effectiveness. The NGO sector is no different. When I started working in international development in the early 90s, I was instantly thrilled and dismayed at the people who made international development a career choice. To be quite honest, most the people were fantastic: dedicated, caring, eager to collaborate and listen to others, intent on fostering change, creative and willing to take risks, intelligent and indefatigable in their efforts. The rest were total morons: idiots in the truest sense of the word, people I am convinced were totally incapable of finding a decent job back home. I can think of at least one man I had to work closely with for a few months who was a racist and a misogynist. His love for monstrously bloody steaks, hunting big game and watching the antics of would-be wrestlers in the World Wrestling Federation did nothing to endear him to me.

This was quite demoralizing for me as a newcomer to international development. In my naïveté, I suppose I never stopped to think that I would be going into a field – just like any other – where there was a huge range of people in terms of their competencies and motivations for doing this type of work. Perhaps things are no better now than they were when I started in international development all those years ago, but I’d like to think that the general public is gaining a much better understanding of the work that NGOs do, and that in turn is forcing NGOs to become more accountable for their actions, more transparent in their work, and clearer in identifying tangible results of their programs, and that’s something everyone benefits from in my opinion. 

And to go back to that top ten list, number seven was "You realize that your favourite and most frequented cafe is locate in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam." Not true! It's at the airport in Singapore.



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