This is from my column for the University of Bath’s student paper, a lighthearted look at my placement job.
When I first started working in a human rights charity in that London, it struck me how peculiarly insular the world of ‘Human Rights Defenders’* was. It seemed like everyone in the sector knew everyone personally, people who definitely don’t work in my office are constantly being casually thrown around with no explanation.
“Is Anton going to this transparency thing on Monday?” “Oh no, he can’t make it, he’s going to Gavin’s thing the night before.” “Gavin’s having a thing? We didn’t get invited – did you ask Rebecca for one? She-” WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?
Added to the insufferable acronym plague that afflicts all third sector work, cosy first name dropping makes starting a job like mine feel like you’re working in an impenetrable fog while faceless people shout incomprehensible strings of letters at you.
At first, I thought that having an outsider’s perspective would allow me to identify problems and maybe even help me come up with useful suggestions for how to improve the ways things are done. I made a few suggestions with this aim and, to my chagrin, not only did I not receive any medals OR parades I was largely, but politely, ignored. In retrospect, I don’t think my suggestions were particularly bad or out of line but I realise that a) no one wants the new guy to be critical and b) people freakin’ love their own personal work habits. I should have known that last one is true: as everyone at bathimpact is well aware, I can’t write articles without my dressing gown, 1000 brown M&Ms in a brandy glass and the constant chuntering of Sabbatical officers droning on witlessly about libel.
After about two weeks, I stopped thinking of my outsider-ness as being quite such a useful thing and decided that I should probably attempt to dig down into the mysterious world of human rights activism.
While I cannot claim to have actually learnt who all the mystery people are or what conferences/forums/meetings my colleagues are attending, I no longer worry about it. This might be considered a natural progression to lazy apathy, as a result of the ‘new job!’ buzz having worn off, but I have a different theory:
- Maintaining an aloof, outsider’s perspective is hard work. Being detached and James Dean-like (Ed: In your dreams) takes up quite a lot of time and effort. Take lunch: you have to eat lunch alone – disappearing at lunch = mysterious – which means you have to eat further away from the office to reduce the likelihood of bumping into colleagues. Traversing said distance cuts into your eating time which means getting smaller meals which means malnutrition and, probably, scurvy.
- Thinking you can fix everything if only people would let you will give you stress ulcers. Ask anyone who has ever had ‘superiors’. That constant, burning sense of injustice at the nature of the world is actually heartburn.
- Not really understanding what people are talking about is counterproductive. Ain’t that right Rick Perry? (Yes, I am doing satire.)
Now, don’t get me wrong, this is not me saying that change is bad. If organisations become stagnant, unchanging monoliths, they will probably be horrible places to work and, what’s much worse, they probably won’t be very useful. In the world of do-goodery, not being useful is about as bad as it gets. Often, outsiders voices and opinions can be incredibly useful catalysts to induce change – hell, the entire global development industry is pretty much built on that premise. But, just as in global development, it’s important to realise that if you do not integrate insiders into such change, you’re doing something very wrong.
My transition from ‘outsider’ to ‘insider’ is by no means either a completed process or, frankly, a particularly important one. But if you look at the development as a whole you see that it is exactly this transitional paradigm that people have realised is incredibly vital. The noted development blog, A View From The Cave, put it this way in a recent post,
We continue to do a disservice to the poor if we insist on innovating on their behalf.
If I want to help people I want to be able to facilitate them to help themselves. That means I need to be very good at widening discussion, communicating and including people in various sectors – sectors that are normally as closed off and bubble-like as the human rights one I find myself trying to invade at the moment.
I am not a human rights law specialist. I work with them, find them quite impressive and what they do, often, hugely above my head, as such, I feel rather alienated from their work. I suspect many of you feel the same way. Does that mean you and I don’t care about human rights issues? No. Does it mean we can’t help? Again, no.
A panel discussion at LSE recently highlighted the problem of distance – between victims and those who help, between sufferers and onlookers – as being one of the biggest hurdles in development. The Chief Executive of the Disasters Emergency Committee, Brendan Gormley, said something very interesting,
Distance is reduced by your advocate being your mate.
If someone you know down the pub tells you about something awful and how you can do something about it, you’re more likely to respond to it then watching some god-awful, identikit charity appeal. This is, for me, an exciting thought. It means that those of us who aren’t world leading experts within our little do-gooder bubble can, as Gandhi put it, be the change we want to see in the world. It’s much less intimidating than it might seem!
*I can now genuinely list my occupation as this. As it makes me feel like a superhero, I welcome submissions for suitable theme tunes – send them here.