The Revolution Will Not Be Professionalised

Carol Ballantine discusses the effects of professionalisation on the international NGO sector

Many international development charities claim to work for social justice and human rights. Can they? It’s a huge question, which attracts passionate debate, especially within those same organisations. Rather than explore the many detailed arguments, these are some personal reflections on how hard it is to try.

In a sector overloaded with trends and fashions, one of the popular ideas right now is “thinking and working politically”. And yet the way international Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) work often militates against this aim. It’s easy to value the “professional” over the political. Of course these don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but often they are.

A few years ago I spent some time travelling around rural Malawi in a team of 12 people, mainly local NGO staff. One of our group, a consultant, referred dismissively to some of our Malawian colleagues as ‘the pencil skirt brigade’. They were elegantly dressed and highly-educated young women (for the most part), who would step out of the 4×4 into a village with a certain discomfort, pocketing their phones and checking their shoes. The purpose of the visit was to develop a programme of work on governance and human rights, and our interest was in the rights of the people living in deep poverty in those villages. Working for a social justice INGO, I wished that I was travelling with activists rather than office workers.

It is easier to maintain control by holding all the expertise, and demanding particular outcomes

I worked for ten years in the international development sector, and I was part of the system called partnership: grant-funding and supporting local civil society to bring about sustainable social change, working together on advocacy at multiple levels. Over that time I observed the nature of partnership change. The changes were nominally about accountability: a clearer knowledge of where our (the INGO’s) money was being spent and what difference it was making. I don’t think anybody can argue against this, when you’re doing important work with other people’s money. But once our work was being documented outcome by outcome, I observed a growing discomfort with the political, a desire to contain the outcomes within clear technical terms. Sure, this kept the donors happy. But it was appealing for other reasons: it maintained things within a tight sphere of control, reduced risk, and worked within the status quo.

After years of receiving dodgy reports from partner organisations, handwritten and faxed through with dramatic newspaper clippings, the digital revolution gave INGOs the space to demand standardised accountability. We knew the charismatic leaders of partner organisations weren’t going to spend their days at a desk, so we – the social justice INGOs – told our partners: “you’ll need some people who can write reports and complete logframes, and obviously do budgets… and you’ll need to train your board and to raise more money.” None of this was unreasonable. But I had to face up to the truth: it was the social justice INGOs that created the pencil skirt brigade, certainly in our own partner organisations.

In my time in international development, I often missed the concept of community development, an idea which is increasingly under attack here in Ireland. The United Nations defines community development as “a process where community members come together to take collective action and generate solutions to common problems.” This is inevitably a political project. Giving power to communities to take collective action is risky, uncontrollable, and ultimately involves taking sides. It is easier to maintain control by holding all the expertise, and demanding particular outcomes.

Social justice organisations understand the need for consciousness-raising, organisation and mobilisation, but it’s hard to sustain in an agnostic donor environment. In order to keep the badly-needed money coming in, local civil society recruitment favours the technical experts, and above all the bean counters: monitoring and evaluation specialists, grant writers, Excel whizzes. The pencil skirt brigade is a class of people with masters degrees in agronomy or economics, public health or public policy, for whom an NGO job is a good salary, and to whom the reality of a life in poverty is distant – yet much too close for comfort.

It’s tempting to believe that solidarity can be achieved with and through money, and that our solidarity and righteous indignation can be transmitted across oceans by means of a donation. Certainly money helps. But it’s not clear that international charities can deliver that money without smothering it in the trappings of professionalism – and drowning out the politics.

Carol Ballantine is a PhD student researching the social impacts of violence against women in developing countries. Previously, she worked for international development organisations in Ireland and overseas.

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