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Friday, December 28, 2007

Truth about the NGO sector

Having spent my professional, working life in the non-profit sector, I really identified with this speech made by Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. A few key points from his speech:

There is something about the relationship between the not-for-profit sector, the government, the foundations, and the donors that creates a massive incentive to lie — flagrantly, and often....Program officers at foundations, donors, and philanthropists are just inundated with lying, false crap. And they know they're being lied to. If you took all your annual reports and just read them end to end, you'd have to conclude that we're now living in a socialist paradise. Everything's going well, people are being served, and all the children are happy. And then you look at any newspaper, and it's very clear that we might be fudging a bit.

So my experience has been that donors and program officers love to actually get the truth. They don't punish you for it if you learned something. I think if all of us started to confess a little bit more, we would learn a little bit faster.

This is so true. I've seen deception on a massive scale within the NGO world and a hell of a lot of annual reports from NGOs sound like updates from an ongoing and successful revolution, usually followed with a request to the donor for more cash. Donors often have such obscure and pedantic regulations that NGO staff spend a lot of time figuring out how to circumscribe these rules to be able to do some work. The temptation to bend the rules (and the fear that honesty may mean that your budget gets slashed by the donor) is strong.

Full-time activists are often turned into clerks in the process of filling out reports, budgets, financial reports, fundraising, keeping track of media reports, and a variety of a hundred different other administrative and logistical tasks. Further, small, political NGOs (like the one I work for) are chronically underfunded and understaffed; if your PC breaks down, you have to fix it. None of these activities are why activists work in the sector, often at low-wages and long hours. For example, I'm really never off "the clock", as I'm one of the spokespersons and have to deal journalists at any time, which has included the middle of night, on holiday, etc.. I'm permanently wedded to my cellphone.

The next point:

But we turn those minor differences into adversarial wars. It's fine to hate your enemies if you must. Jesus, Gandhi, other people would argue with you, but if you insist, fine. Hate your enemies. But most of the people you see every day are not your enemy. I've got emotional scars and damage from being in this work, and I've never even met a Republican! Even with people who fundamentally agree with everything I think, we just fight and hurt each other and say mean things, and think mean thoughts. All the time! That's called the movement. That's called the progressive community, right?

Oh man, the left and in particular the South African left. I spend so much time making sure that my back is covered against they very same people who are supposed to be on my side. For some reason, the South African left is fractious beyond belief, with petty fights breaking out on an almost daily basis. Sometimes these disputes break out into major disagreements (usually within organisations) that are fought with the absolute ferocity of a Mongol horde. Anyone who's been engaged in political activism for any decent period of time has been through one of these stand up and bleed fights; quite a few people leave progressive society because of it. Imagine it, here you are, supposed to be fighting against global capitalism (which has you thrashed in terms of money, human resources, political connections, time (while they are figuring out how to deregulate a market, you're trying to fix your PC), logistics, etc.) and some fuckwit is trying to drag you down in a fight over a relatively minor point and you've now got to defend yourself. This means you've got get allies, especially if said fuckwit is from within your organisation, our else you'll get expelled. That means you've got to engage in internal politics, and that is a very, very time-consuming exercise. And, you have to do it. Don't and you'll be slashed to pieces.

Furthermore, the left is a pretty small world when you get down to it. Not only do you engage with other activists on a political basis, they are more often whom you drink with, socialise with, and fuck. So, when two activists have a personal problem, this often manifests itself in the political arena, sucking in friends, families, casual relations. This and burnout (see below) are why I've avoided any kind of romantic relationship with someone active within the left; it is just far, far too messy. Piece of advice; if you are an activist, date someone who isn't (but who is supportive).

Engage in left politics for long enough and you'll be as hard as steel. A process, I might add, that does wonders for one's psychology.

I'd been in all these coalition meetings, and it occurred to me that over the past couple years, in every meeting I'd been surrounded by idiots. I had to deal with them, and point out their flaws, and stop them from wreaking havoc, and... I was burning out, and I didn't know it. I had to take about two years of counseling, therapy, learning to go to the gym — things I'd just never done — just to be able to get back to doing this work.

My dad was an alcoholic, so I'd said, "Well I'm not going to do that," but then I was into this workaholism thing. I pulled out of it, and when I came back I saw that it was just everywhere. So what I want to say to you, very clearly, is that you have emotional needs. You have physical needs. You need to get them taken care of outside of this work.

You need to have something outside of this work where you go for re-charging, where you talk to people who don't do this kind of work, so you can keep it in perspective. So when you go into those board meetings and you go into those coalition things, you're coming with something. We who believe in freedom have to rest. We have to rest.

Burnout is a constant occupational hazard. There is always another demonstration to organise, another group of people to talk to, meeting to attend, paper to write, burning issue that has to be addressed, problem to be solved. It never ends. The scale of social injustice, environmental destruction and political repression is so vast that activists are never out of battles to fight. I'm permanently in a conflictual relationship with one or another corporation or government department.

Thinking about it, I'm probably burnt out at the moment.

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