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By Arpita Das
I find myself increasingly disillusioned with the development sector, even though it has been my professional home for nearly sixteen years. I may sound unenthusiastic, but this is not how I began. Like many others, I began with an aspiration to “change the world.” I wasn’t entirely naïve, though. Early on, I had realized that entertaining lofty ideas of changing the whole world is self-indulgence. What each of us can aim for is changing our little worlds, beginning with ourselves, extending to our circle of family, friends, and colleagues. The idea is for this circle to expand to reach out to the larger community and create systemic change. However, sometimes that may not be possible; in those instances, I would strive to work, grow, and create with this small, sometimes expanding and sometimes shrinking, circle.
As an activist in development, I started out as a counselor on issues of violence against women, which was both exhausting and stimulating. Since a vast amount of challenges I encountered within this field was to do with sexual abuse and violence, I moved on to work on gender, sexuality, and rights. Ever since, I have engaged on issues of comprehensive sexuality education, sex selection, HIV and AIDS, LGBTIQ rights, sex work, reproductive technologies, disability and sexuality, and young people and sexuality. My activism has been related not just to working with grassroots communities, but also with communities of young people in colleges, working with activists and advocates across South and Southeast Asia to develop accessible resources and publications, and working towards creating spaces for dialogues across various groups.
This article is my attempt to discuss why I feel disillusioned, to figure out for myself (and hopefully engage some others) what is it we need to make our contribution effective. How can we make this development workspace more inclusive? This is an exercise for me to keep moving and keep reflecting.
An important self-disclosure: I am a feminist. I am aware that my ideas of feminism may be different from many others. That awareness is also a part of my feminist belief that there is room for difference, dissent, and diversity. Many of the thoughts that I share here emerge from my ideas of feminism, and are about being self-reflective of my own work and conduct.
We must be accountable
Importantly, working in the development sector necessitates being primarily accountable to the issues, a larger vision, and most importantly, to the people. Talking about our work in the development sector inevitably generates a lot of appreciation (there is also the occasional chatter about activists and NGO bosses jet-setting across the world or amassing personal fortunes, but let me get to that another time) for the sacrifice and courage that we activists sometimes symbolize for the general public. Working in this sector as a feminist activist is about courage, but mostly courage to believe in your convictions, and to choose a non-conformist lifestyle. However, since this sector is about working for and with people, we must be accountable – to our beliefs, to the larger vision, and to the people we work for and with. This accountability must percolate to the decisions we make, the grant proposals we write, the ways we choose people, including the funders we work with, and how we spend these funds. We are accountable for being transparent in our actions and the alliances we make/break, to leave our individual egos aside and work towards what is good for people, and to express dissent when we don’t agree with things. Above all, we must acknowledge and be accountable when we occupy positions of power and privilege.
Examining privilege begins with an awareness of colonial, regional, economic, and other power dynamics—both individual and organizational—and working towards addressing it. Our jobs in the development sector often require us to acknowledge these in our funding proposals and organizational diversity policies. Too many times, however, this stays at the level of lip-service. How many NGO workers from Europe or North America are interested in knowing, for example, if a particular time for a Skype meeting is inconvenient to their development country colleagues? Would many of them support a rotational meeting schedule to accommodate different time zones, so that at least on some days their colleagues from the Global South can accommodate a conference call during their regular work hours instead of at 1:00 a.m.?
While I am a big fan of shorter work weeks and healthy levels of rest and recreation through stipulated leave time, I have found that our Northern colleagues are sometimes unaware of their privileges. It is important to be aware that many NGO employees from developing countries may be overworked or balancing a lot of different things, given the structural and systemic challenges they face on a day-to-day basis. Of course, I wouldn’t want to generalize and treat everyone in the North or the South as part of a homogenous community. It is also not as if our desire in the Global South for regular and scheduled breaks, or to spend time with our families, or for engaging in our favorite hobbies is any less; we simply don’t often have the same choices. The reason that I write this is not to propose cutting down on leaves and breaks for our Northern friends, or to increase break time for us in the South. Instead, I argue for an empathic understanding of Southern realities and challenges from our Northern colleagues. When you can so often say that you cannot make it for a certain meeting, or that a certain project deliverable will be delayed because of your upcoming vacation time, be prepared to allow for reasonable timelines from us for a host of different reasons. Please stop wearing your funder’s hat (just for a little while maybe) and remember that none of your funds would find any value if not for much of the work that we invest at the grassroots level.
This is not however, a rant against my Global North colleagues, as I have been privileged to work with many who are aware of and question their own privileges. Even within the Global South, there are huge discrepancies in how policies within organizations remain opaque and discriminatory towards younger and less experienced employees and how it manifests in disproportionate workloads and pay scales.
Honesty is still the best policy
As activists and organizations, we must be committed and honest to our work and the communities we work with. We need to critically examine who gets to decide on projects and funding. Knowledge from communities is valuable and any intervention that engages with these communities (in ways that are constructive and respectful) will need a long-term approach. They are the best judges of the challenges they face and are often aware of the remedies. As activists, we need to listen to and invest in these communities, not for a funding cycle or two but for as long as these communities require.
I joined the development sector with the intention of committing to a certain set of values, and not to the idea of serving organizations or individual leaders within organizations. Commitment to one’s organization and its vision, though important, can be narrow and limiting. It is through commitment to the work and the larger vision, that we can facilitate real change. This entails working across organizations and learning and engaging in work that we may not be directly associated with, because ultimately it’s our cumulative work that brings the desired change. This also means working collaboratively across borders, organizations, agendas, and regional dynamics. This means being genuinely excited if, for example, a colleague from a different organization (with a shared vision and agenda) gets to present at a much-coveted space such as the United Nations, even if we don’t get to do that ourselves. It must not be about individual organizations but about common vision.
We need to examine our ideas of leadership – whether in NGOs, academia, communities, or the United Nations – and challenge practices of leadership being restricted to a few individuals. While this could happen for several reasons, including smaller organizations with limited funds and a high turnover rate that results in access to decision-making processes and leadership being limited to a few, we need to examine our practices when this becomes the norm.
Leadership should also be examined in situations where established leaders have chosen to leave the organization allowing others to take on leadership roles, and yet there is hardly any movement/change within the institutional mindset and work practices. While this may not necessarily be problematic, it is symptomatic of an unwillingness to change positions, and possibly getting too comfortable in ‘tried and tested’ ways of working, thus arguably stifling innovation and creativity. Revising and updating the vision, in keeping with the changing socio-cultural and political contexts as well as the dynamic nature of the development sector (sometimes in response to the changing nature of funding), indicates that the organization encourages debate and dissent. To cultivate such a culture, it is important that leaders allow staff to make mistakes, as being allowed to err without the fear of being reprimanded and learning from one’s mistakes is probably one of the best environments to thrive and grow. My biggest learnings have come from being allowed to question and challenge ideas – my own as well as those of others around me.
It is however, not only organizations with single visionaries or leaders that restrict growth. Instead, this is also applicable to organizations that don’t allow for more horizontal structures–not looking at structures merely from the perspective of designations and lines of accountability but also horizontal in their reach to every single person with whom the organization works directly or indirectly. It is about how we enable and facilitate supportive spaces for discussing and debating, encouraging nuanced and untested ideas, and how we treat people who photo-copy for us or clean our offices. It is not about reaching the goals but looking at the process of reaching those goals. It is about valuing and nurturing each person that we come to work with along the way.
The idea of singular visionaries not only restricts the idea of organizational growth, but also creates a sense of burden for the leaders who must always bear the responsibility of work and vision, never getting respite. Allowing for multiple and different leaders allows for new and fresh ideas, energies, and also for established leaders to feel assured their organization is visionary and dynamic.
Lastly, good leaders start first and foremost with themselves. How we conduct ourselves as leaders—in the ways we talk and listen, in supporting and helping every person in the team to feel valued and connected to the larger vision, supporting new ideas and challenges, handling critique, and in nurturing the idea of the team—goes a long way in creating a feminist and just environment, and is the most effective way of nurturing the soul of the team and the organization. A leader is nothing but her team.
Writing about these disillusionments is a cathartic process. I chose to write about my frustrations and struggles not because I am ready to pack my bags and leave. I joined this sector because of the passion and love that I have for this work, and it is not something I am about to give up on, at least not without a good fight. I write this because this sector is as much mine as anyone else’s. It is therefore as much my job to acknowledge and talk about what’s wrong with this sector, and take action. I might be disillusioned with certain practices of individuals and organizations that continue with a silo-ed approach although I continue to have immense faith in the goodness of most people and the intentions with which many of us join the development sector. While there are individuals and organizations that remain centered around themselves, there are plenty others which evoke faith and renewed hope. In writing this, I intend to harness that energy—for myself and for others. I write this because acknowledgement is action.
Arpita Das is a social worker with fifteen plus years of experience in working with NGOs and civil society organizations. She has authored academic papers on sexuality, queer theory, violence against women, intersex, and disability issues. She has co-edited themed issues of the Graduate Journal of Social Science, an online peer-reviewed academic journal, on disabilities and sexualities; sexuality in focus; and men, masculinities, and violence. Of late, she has been enjoying writing shorter articles (“Dissenting and Dangerous,” “Intersections between SRHR and disability rights,” “8 Things I have learnt while working with young people and SRHR“) that have been published on various activism blogs. She is pursuing a PhD in gender studies at the University of Sydney.