Identifying for Good

Over the last twenty years I’ve had no reason to doubt my career choices. It felt very comfortable, reassuring and affirming to decide to work in the non-profit sector in 2000, having come out of brief dalliances in both the public and private spheres, and that hasn’t changed since.

For each new organisation with whom I committed my time, the binding employment contract I accepted came second (in my subconscious, perhaps, at the time) to the far more important criteria of attaching my own modus operandi to each new organisational mission that hired me.

I moved first through the genres of disability and cancer, before being lured into to what has ostensibly become my main discipline, namely the role that the private sector plays in social development.

It was then inside the world of international development, from 2006 to 2019, whilst working for CARE, that I probably become the most entrenched. If adopting today’s parlance, I would go further and say that it is with this “group” of people (ie working in similar roles inside of global NGOs) that I identify with being closest.

It feels like the older we get, the more potential there is for us as individuals to incorporate areas of knowledge from our professions, alongside some of the other identifiers available to us, such as gender, geography, religion, politics, race, age, and on and on.

For the best part of 11 years now living in Saigon, I’d be adding “ex-pat” to the list of characteristics that define aspects of who I am and how I come to process truth, make decisions, and show up in the world.

This, in addition to: originally being from the UK (from the “South-East” of the country and also for a long time as a “Londoner”); to being a father; to feeling more artistically oriented; to requiring more collaboration and contact in my everyday; to being Caucasian; or, even, through to being a committed dawn runner, and perhaps various other things in between.

What I’ve enjoyed from working in the development sector has been the connections with so many different people along the way, the collective interest in bringing about change for others, and finding solutions in different contexts.

I don’t see that altering now, either. As a freelance consultant, my radar is set to a similar setting, the rewards from which, for me, feel the same as before. Success through connection and through the working out of problems together.

One difference I’d like to posit, today, is to pose a question about the under-pinning of how organisations working in social development (and I’m particularly thinking about the likes of CARE) might benefit from a radical reframing of their mission statements.

By which I am specifically asking: does an organisation categorising groups of people around the world as “most vulnerable” or “marginalised” or “poor” in fact compromise their own efforts in fulfilling their mission to bring about “change” or “positive impact” to these groups by using categorisation in the first place?

One academic exercise I won’t carry out at this point (as I’d like to try and entertain the idea that a few people reading this might persevere and make it to the end of the blog) is to ask what we mean by each of these words in quotation marks above? Answering that question is important but not for right now.

Instead, I’d like to suggest that, in arranging society into these categories, and then by claiming that the logical change you want to bring about would be to stop a “poor” person being poor, could be a highly flawed claim to be making.

Testing one’s central hypothesis for such things is key, and many development entities would tell you that their approach to change is rooted in “localised” ideas and solutions to local issues. Or, that they fully consult with the groups they are seeking to help.

As a process for validating an assumption about what might work, this type of inclusive approach is fine. I wouldn’t also suggest, too, that the aid industry hasn’t in fact moved away from its foundational principles of why it was ever necessary to give aid to others, back in the mid-forties when the Marshall Plan was established. Much has changed since then, in terms of how to achieve impact. Technology, innovation, learning lessons, sharing models – such things are helping streamline operations and interventions.

However, does it still make sense to orient an end state for all, that seeks out equity, balanced prosperity, equal rights and opportunities for all, that aims to harmonise and align societal norms and behaviours so that all voices are heard and all valued?

I don’t think it does anymore. And this is the first time I’ve really challenged the assumption.

I’ve been finding social media can perpetuate aspects of what I’m describing here, and maybe that has been the trigger for this post.

Internet platform such as Facebook or Twitter, offering everyone the space and the audience to share truth-seeking philosophies is, in my opinion, creating an out of control paradigm, where identifiers are more important than facts, and have more online utility than scientific data. As well as predominantly being platforms through which young people curate the content and the processes for public discourse, the result of which is seeing substantive numbers of moralising arguments, solely based on identifiers, rather than based on knowledge.

I don’t see this new reality changing much in the near term, either.

What I would advocate for would be longer form discussions, debates and shared learning about solutions to what, of course, remains a long shopping list of social and environmental inadequacies, inequities and injustices. We should always want, and need, to find ways to discuss these topics, however, is social media the right vehicle for doing so?

It seems to me that, whilst the world has advanced and evolved, and can lay claim to some significant achievements over the past 75 years, many individuals are not currently living the lives they want to live. Many people, similarly, can’t fully follow the dreams they have. Or, are unable to access services and products they need. And this is happening across many countries, of differing dynamics and historical contexts.

A commitment to changing this, would be a good commitment to have. But not at the expense of dehumanizing people through categorization, and in such an assumptive and alienating way.

In some religious dogmas, the after-life is represented as a utopia. For non-religious organisations such as CARE, this utopia is typically summarised in a vision for a world “with no poverty”, or such like.

I would argue against visioning or believing in any form of utopia. Which is not to say one shouldn’t work hard in life to be supportive and compassionate, and to display qualities of grace and forgiveness, and ultimately to want to make improvements for oneself and for others.

What I think is missing, in these grandiose organisational mission and vision statements – the language and sentiment of which is used to professionally baptise employees from Day 1 – is a more fundamental enquiry and validation of whether these outcomes are the rights ones to be targeting?

Otherwise they simply become meaningless sound-bites, and monikers (onto which one can spend disproportionate amounts of time pinning aspects of one’s own identity) and which can then pull people away from the actual task in hand of addressing critical societal questions.

In my work going forward, I will continue to delve into these elements of enquiry. Across the diversity of organisations and individuals with whom I engage, I think, in many ways, this might be the most important pursuit to try and honour.

The answers might not always come back as we should be investing in “organisational development” or in “brokering multi-sector partnerships and collaborations” (all popular rubric from the past 15 years) the answers could instead be to leverage social media in new ways, or to catalyse a new way of learning about what change means and how to make it happen.

The answers could be all or none of these things.

What matters, perhaps, is that, on this particularly journey of learning, we are each “empowered” to ask and answer these questions along the way.