As the ComDev autumn term was coming to an end, I had a discussion with a student about development work, career paths and the changing organizational landscape of the global aid industry. But it was actually on my bike ride home that I started to think more about my encounters with one particular, and often criticized, type of them: Large, traditional, bureaucratic organizations. I am talking UN system and international organizations, well-known INGOs or traditional bilateral donor agencies and national ministries. I have encountered them for almost twenty years. As early as a pre-university internship, throughout my research and professional work in the past 10-14 years and, even though it is not a development organization per se, through my academic employment at a Swedish university with more than 1,600 staff members. In the current climate of ‘Do-It-Yourself aid’, (social) entrepreneurial discourses, a start-up- and ‘maker’-culture, new philanthropic endeavors and something-or-other featuring ‘disruption’ it is easy to smirk at those dinosaurs, their bureaucratic procedures and organizational cultures that still block access to facebook and require approval by 2 managers to post a Tweet.
But when I thought about it further I came to realize that there are actually a few important aspects that those large organizations can teach us and that are worth experiencing first hand at some point in your career. Hence, I am arguing that as tempting as ‘field experience’ sounds for the next summer internship, or as enjoyable as your freelance career is at the moment it is worth engaging with one of the large tankers of the industry before dissing the white Land Cruiser culture, non-digital expense forms and global meetings where strategy documents are discussed by the sentence.
1. Large organizations can teach you valuable people skills
I do not mean skills like ‘sucking up to the boss’ or ‘circumventing protocol to finally get some work done around here’-only a few Michael Scotts (from The (U.S.) Office) work in large aid organizations. I mean genuine skills and skills that most of us would consider quite relevant for development: Empathy, listening skills, participatory approaches or working with sometimes stubborn bureaucrats. Our work and writing focuses a lot on ‘the action’, the field and helping others and administration is reduced to ‘overheads’ that any small organization wants to keep to a minimum because 99 cent of every dollar are supposed to go to program work…in reality, many days in the office are filled with small encounters where you can learn and apply good development skills, learn about compromise, persistence and power. That is why you chose to work in development and not in finance and that is why some colleagues put their family/children (or sometimes pets) before work. Learning to be a good citizen in this environment is actually not much different from being one in a refugee camp in Darfur or running a workshop in rural India.
2. Large organizations are more self-critical than you think
…they just don’t like to talk about it in public.
As development work has been absorbed by trade and foreign affairs departments in Australia, Canada or Denmark and US leadership at the World Bank is debated more openly than ever, large development organizations are aware that they operate in a changing global political environment. And it is a paradoxical environment-one that still believes that France and the UK are world powers in the sense of ‘permanent members of the UN Security Council’ and one that sees ‘development’ as a waste of resources in a globalized world where consumer capitalism is supposed to lift more people out of ‘poverty’ than any development program. Organizations change slowly-as does most of the rest of the world outside the innovation hubs in San Francisco, New York or Nairobi.
On an individual level, in many smaller teams and innovative country offices (see below) such changes are discussed, of course. As with most work places and organizational environments in the 21st century, the number of ‘lazy’ people who went into ‘internal emigration’ (I love the German ‘innere Emigration’) when Ronald Reagan was elected is shrinking; most global civil servants and bureaucrats are aware that their job may not disappear, but that their professional lives may become more uncomfortable if they do not put in a minimum amount of communication and ‘PR’. I believe that we will see more of these deliberations and debates in semi-public arenas in the future as large organizations become more transparent and approachable.
3. Large organizations have smaller filter bubbles
I am sure some will disagree. And yes, there are still broad mission statements in place and ‘corporate communication’ people who push a unified, sometimes apolitical message (see above) to the ‘members of the public’ and other stakeholders. But large organizations have eyes and ears in many places (which sounds a bit creepy in the our age of surveillance…) and they do have some diversity-staff affiliated to a previous government or leadership team and in international organizations diversity in backgrounds, nationality etc. This is a different culture from the Invisible Children approach to development or more generally when a small organization or company feels compelled to reinvent the wheel-often with a charismatic leader at the top who thinks that good intentions and a good idea are enough.
In the end, every organization has filter bubbles, but large organizations have at least more than one-they need to be attuned to the political machinery in the capital city/cities, but they also need to keep an eye on ‘the taxpayer’ or developments on the ground. As with my previous point, I hope that large organizations will become more transparent and willing to pinch some of these bubbles. The recent Save The Children discussion is an interesting example where global staff protested against the award for Tony Blair and ‘corporate communication’ pushed for a unified message.
4. Large organizations treat development as a ‘job’
Why is the colleague from HR never at her/his desk after 4.15p.m and why do travel reimbursements seem to take forever? Maybe these are actually signs of a healthy organization. Development is an industry, we often discuss health and well-being of aid workers and on numerous occasions we are reminded that humanitarian and aid work is for professionals, not a hobby for do-gooders. Large organizations often offer a work-live balance, benefits and the good feeling that if your project comes to an end in 6 months time you will probably be assigned to a new one without re-applying and re-locating.
In that sense large organizations are reminders of the long-term, complex nature of ‘development’. As I wrote in my first point, large organizations are often reminders of our values that are supposed to drive the sector-and that includes a colleague working from home looking after a sick child and emails not answered on Saturdays. Such an environment may not work for everybody for an entire career-but it’s worth experiencing it to make more informed decisions how and where you want to be placed in the industry.
5. Large organizations innovate and preserve at the same time
I already drafted one of my next book reviews, Martin Barber’s Blinded By Humanity. I do not want to go into detail here, but among other things the book is an important reminder how the UN system has worked on standards, treaties, binding documents and coordination of humanitarian affairs-and yes, this actually sounds a bit boring. But it is a reminder that this is part of what large organizations do-and it is not just ‘paper pushing’ for the sake or creating a new coordination secretariat. New research on ‘organizational progeny’ in international politics also shows the role and power of international organizations and senior staff to shape global governance in both innovative and preservative ways. We are not talking about development saints here, but skilled professionals who make sure that innovation does not automatically turn into disruption and that preservation is not necessarily just to cement the status quo.
Luckily, there is no Uber for humanitarian law or the coordination of millions worth of aid (and some critics will probably say that there should be one…).
Large organization have some historical and long-term memory and many wheels have already been invented in development so careful innovation probably trumps quick disruption in many areas.
So what’s the ‘tl:dr summary’ of this post?
Look beyond bureaucratic stereotypes when engaging with large development organizations; these organizations can offer a lot of insights into the development system, are often better at ‘practicing what they preach’ and can teach you skills and views that are still essential in a ‘digital’ world; do join one at some point in your life and career!