Published in the Daily Star Forum in July 2010.
This piece runs a critical eye over the do-gooding industry.
Yet another meeting, yet another round of completely pointless discussion. Each session sounds the same: a model project, awareness campaign, broad national agenda, working with the government — but no funding, no project; no one at the meeting can actually guarantee any funds — must check with supervisor to see if funds are available; but this project is crucial for further empowerment, community mobilisation, strengthening institutions … so it goes.
Same old cha-nashta. Two pathetic pieces of apple stare at me with cheap biscuits to add to the palette. The cost-saving lemon tea gets cold while I listen to yet another soap-box monologue in a strange Bangla-English concoction, filled with clichés and development jargon.
Blankly facing the over-enthusiastic program officer from yet another terribly acronym-ed organisation, I start thinking of the e-mails I have to send, the friends I have to meet, and the groceries I have to buy.
Shahana’s attention has left the meeting!
The monologue stops. Everyone is impressed because he used the terms “strategic planning,” “consultations,” “stakeholder engagement,” and my personal favourite, “capacity building” here and there. The last 10 minutes gave no direction, no sense of what this organisation wants, needs, and can do. Yet, they have the audacity to ask for money.
Worse yet, there are people who are even considering giving them funds!
Welcome to a typical non-profit development sector meeting, oops, sorry, “consultation” — where nothing really gets done but people love to hear themselves talk. We use every term in development lexicon, seriously believing that verbal diarrhea will end world poverty.
An entire industry has grown out of poverty in Bangladesh, and with that, a cadre of development practitioners who have made a career out of it. I am very much a part of that cadre.
All to often, I stare at many of such soap-box preaching program officers and wonder about their paths that brought us to yet another time wasting meeting.
Thank God for poverty
The development sector is in many ways Bangladesh’s bread and butter. Pictures of poor brown faces, of a rural woman with a cow, or naked children playing in the local pond, are what we sell to the world for aid and investment.
We have successfully created a social science laboratory out of extreme poverty, violence against women and children, disaster (and now of course climate change), and overall lack of opportunities to a decent, respectful life of the millions who continue to live in horrible realities.
And we term this as “social science lab” with great pride. Along with the ethical contentions the term raises, what is more objectionable are the “scientists” who are carrying out these social experiments.
How many of these “scientists” are in fact trained in the ethics of social science? How many development practitioners are aware of how their programmatic interventions actually change people’s lives and social fabric? How many of the development practitioners in every level, entered this sector with heart and not as a second choice to a government or corporate position?
The flip-side to these questions can very easily be, is it a pre-requisite for development practitioners to have the passion, the heart? Can this sector be treated like any other and hence the roles viewed like any other job? Is it time to change the entire attitude towards the development sector and approach it as “social business”?
The development sector, especially NGOs, is only recently being seen as a career path by the second and third generation of development practitioners.
The first generation of practitioners entering the sector had the spirit of the post-war reconstruction. Nationals secured positions in international agencies thanks to the disasters, death, and deluge of early 1970s that created positions to be filled by the country’s educated class. Others created their own organisations working mainly on reconstruction and economic empowerment.
The “old-schoolers” always say that they stumbled upon this path. There was certainly a general socialist approach to development, the conviction to do something about the extreme poverty. But it was not a career any of them dreamed of.
In many ways, they are the ones who created this sector, gave us the likes of Brac, Proshika, Gonoshastro Kendra, Grameen Trust, and retained the national operations of the international organisations such as Save the Children Alliance, Care, Concern, Oxfam and of course, the global giants like the Word Bank and the UN.
The second generation is in many ways the worst of the lot. They neither had the aspirations of the first generation to reconstruct Bangladesh nor did they ever want to come to this sector the way the third generation has. The systematic desecration of the national education system, the high barrier to entry into the civil service due to corruption and favouritism, and the failure of the private for-profit sector to create enough jobs left the generation coming to age in the 1980s and early 1990s with a grim future.
NGOs of that time provided employment for many of the graduates of that era. Coming from various disciplines, they did not have the formal or professional training to work in the fields or at the policy level.
And now, with the third generation, my generation, development sector has become a career choice.
Public and private university students know more about the development sector and are able to make informed decisions on their career paths. Internship programs are now popular among all university students, both studying in Bangladesh and abroad.
The aim, however, is always for that LSE, SOAS, Sussex masters degrees in any of the development related programs. A couple of internships at any of the leading organisations in the motherland, masters from a leading international university, proclamation of undying love for Bangladesh, and we are set for a glorious career in development. We are the generation that thinks globally, acts locally.
So, we take upon the “NGO look” (cotton sari, teep for the women and khadis for the men) during office hours and attend the “intellectual” gatherings at night. We are the coffee club debating, fusion music loving, Facebooking, Foucault- and Nietzsche-quoting, procession and art gallery attending, all-that-is-ethnic-is-beautiful generation.
While we partake in all that is “Bangali,” we are also the best negotiators for the higher pay and better positions at the leading development organisations. Of course, we deserve the high pay irrespective of our limited experiences and even more limited access to the local communities. After all, we are English-speaking and Bengali-thinking — the bridge between the East and the West — the generation who will take Bangladesh to the digital, global era.
Making a big difference
Every year, NGOs employ thousands of project managers, field officers, researchers, evaluators, and other made-up titles that usually do not really mean anything, who are unable to think beyond their specific projects and intervention sites.
From my own experience working with a range of agencies in the development sector, only a handful of the middle-managers are able to look beyond their specific projects and interventions.
Many of them, through their experiences in the fields, develop a strong sense of ethical questioning of whether all these fund pumping and project drafting and evaluating are, in fact, improving the lives of the people.
Changes in project — additions, eliminations, alterations, no matter how big or small — can have a significant impact on the beneficiaries. But how many practitioners understand the programs and their changes trickling down from some international consultant who typically spends three working days in Bangladesh and based on “best practices from around the world” drafts a project that affects millions of lives?
A consultant wrote it, so it must be true, it must be right. And if it isn’t, we can always hire another international consultant two years into the project for an “external evaluation,” and another one for a “progress report.”
Not that the national consultants are any better.
Anyone with somewhat decent English writing and speaking skills can pose as some kind of expert, on violence against women today to investment climate tomorrow, to indigenous rights the day after. What is your development flavour of the month?
If we are not running after foreign consultants or trying to make quick bucks from our own consultancies, we are looking out for new positions in some other institution.
There is a saying in this sector: There are no goodbyes — will see you at another organisation in about two years!
Professionals hit the ceilings too fast without any provisions for upward movement. The typical career trajectory is: two years at a local, unknown NGO, then two more with a project office of any of the leading international organisations; if performance is strong, a short-term contract with the funding organisation; and then after over four years of hard work, low pay and mediocre management of a project, the ultimate entry onto the World Bank or UN gravy train!
Once there, we forget about the years of complaining about the two big brothers (especially boro dada World Bank); we forget about the anti-post-Washington Consensus papers written during the masters program, and articles in The Daily Star blasting the neo-liberal institutions.
That was once upon an ideal time. We didn’t know much then. We didn’t know any better, we didn’t know about the salary structure and the fringe benefits!
Somewhere between job changing in the name of career building, doing consultancies in the name of becoming an expert, and acquiring the second postgraduate degree (with elaborate titles with “development” neatly inserted somewhere) from a “foreign” university, and all the sitting, eating, meeting, over a decade goes by, and ideals and beliefs disappear. We want to believe we still do this for the people, for those brown faces we put up in our reports and slideshows, but truth be told, it stopped being about them a long time ago.
Everything written above is a testimony of everything I am today. I still try to remember what did that 18 year-old think when she held the slum children with boils everywhere and came home and cried to her mother?
The tears, the fire, the impatience, the determination, the conviction to make a change, to make it happen: where did it all go? How did we become so desensitised? When did it become about a career based on the people but no longer about the people? When did we learn to trick ourselves to believe that we were in fact doing good, developing our nation?