Belief in social change – an NGO debate to quench a thirsty development soul

Tina Wallace
Co-editor Aid, NGOs and the Realities of Women’s Lives: A perfect storm

logoBelief – a big word not often heard in current NGO debates, but the theme of the 12th Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship 2015. Not my natural habitat; I entered with trepidation wondering what claims and achievements would be trumpeted.

I had a surprise. For the first time in ages I was immersed in a debate dominated by values, passion, commitment and questioning; the centrality of the power of story telling and humour; the need for hope and creativity; by concepts like risk taking and pushing the boundaries; the importance of who we are as well as what we want to do in the world.

Passion, humour, hope, the celebration of local people’s initiatives… concepts redolent of my first encounter with NGOs some decades ago, now rarely heard in those same circles. That discourse now is more driven by concerns such as proving value for money, demonstrating relevance, optimal models, effectiveness and efficiency, as well as showing that millions in need can be reached on small budgets and within minimal time scales. The work is often characterized by compliance and even fear, a concern to meet donor demands and to complete paper based or computerized frameworks of every imaginable kind even if the narratives become ‘Alice in Wonderland’ as reality in all its complexity is twisted to fit current aid priorities. In these NGO circles many staff with a vision, passion and energy for change often feel thwarted and alienated.  Staff turnover is high and many young people find a very uneasy fit between their aspirations and the grind of current development bureaucracy.

9781853397790Much of what I heard at the opening Plenary of the Skoll World Forum was water for a thirsty soul, increasingly parched and frustrated by the all embracing paradigm of command and control, top down planning, the reliance on systems not people, on paper not relationships, on image over substance. These are trends that have grown and become embedded over many years and I have documented in Practical Action Publishing books, The Aid Chain and Aid, NGOs and the Realities of Women’s Lives.

Of course the speakers were exceptional and among the one thousand plus participants (invitation only) would surely be many I would disagree with and even disapprove of. A speaker at the closing plenary wisely reminded us that the energy and excitement of the conference was not the world in which people have to cope with the daily realities, frustrations, ups and downs of their work.  But there is no denying the positive energy, the sense of possibility and the hope; above all was the focus on who we are as development agents and the critical importance of our values driving the multiple development agendas.

When the role of the relationships and creativity become central to the development story, the questions to be asked and the ways of working to promote positive change can shift.  Rather than boxing development workers in with requirements, conditions and unrealistic demands, the focus of the Plenary was on enabling people to develop their creativity, use their energy to work well with others, and to find new ways of solving problems and addressing challenges.

So what was it about the first Plenary, open to the public, which allowed my spirits to rise? Of course being in the presence of Desmond Tutu was a huge privilege and wonderful experience. A man in his final years was able to command a theatre filled with hundreds of people and connect to each one of us. His depth of experience and understanding, his harsh experiences of cruelty, his relationships with so many around the world and in SA, his humour twinkling and mischievous, his stories of being ‘a nobody’ in apartheid SA, all were so powerful. Here was a man of enormous experience able to make us laugh and cry, feel human and remember that the connections between people both far and near are the heart of humanity and change.

His daughter brought laughter, warmth and passion into the room as she spoke of her understanding of belief and religion; watching their interaction was both moving and a delight. Ophelia Dahl talked of the magic her father brought into her childhood to build her self-belief. All the panel speakers talked of what influenced them growing up leading on to who they have become, where they now draw strength and inspiration. They discussed the positive and negatives around strong beliefs; the power of religion or ideology to drive and inspire or limit and exclude.  They talked of the need for beliefs and values to be clear yet fluid and open to others in different contexts and facing different challenges.

The essential role of values as the lodestar for what to do and how to do it was the dominant motif in this opening plenary. Something many development people know and yet is often sadly absent in some of the very organisations that were originally built on aspiration, ideas, values and a sense of creative possibility.

The closing Plenary highlighted the rich variety of life-enhancing creativity, essential for change.  These included the power and danger of humour; the role of all the arts in providing new and challenging frames, promoting positive shifts in understanding and challenging abuses of power. Issues such as exclusion, the lack of voice of so many, critiquing current paradigms, the need for community and cohesion were addressed through singing for hope, using pianos placed on street corners and in unexpected places in the USA, photos bringing new perspectives and bearing witness to things often hidden, satire to highlight abuses of power. The power of art, eloquently presented by the Director of Ford Foundation, to educate, to raise awareness, to promote action was explored; the role of laughter in challenging authoritarianism, injustice and cruelty was shared by Bassem Youssef, originally from Egypt but now living away from home. The importance of story telling and the power of stories to promote new thinking and action were highlighted.

Beyond creativity, the panelists advocated the need ‘to dare’, to take risks, to be bold, to accept failure, to ask questions, to trust people, to learn from others, to be humble, to promote dignity and respect, to persevere and keep focused on the purpose. All of these resonated with the audience.

Coming from every speaker was the power of ideas and relationships, of multiple ways of seeing and understanding the world, and the urgent need for connections. The “quick fix” was eschewed by one presenter, the need for imagination and belief encouraged by another, the need to fight fear and repression with laughter by a third.

Using music, photography and video, jokes were promoted as part of the many ways to unlock creativity, ideas and new ways of working.  And conversations – expertly chaired by two inspiring women – were used to draw out a complex and interesting exploration of the role of belief in social change, the multiple approaches needed to find ways to relate and be courageous, to find our joy and compassion, to use our humanity and to bring an awareness of the unmeasurable and unquantifiable into development and social change.

I am often angry, sad, frustrated and highly critical of much I see in the world around me, and in myself, but last week I felt that the narrow world of debate that I find so inappropriate for addressing the realities of marginalisation, poverty and inequality, had been opened out through the sharing of serious and thoughtful analyses as well as deeply personal stories and experiences. Why did it make me feel so much better? Because, it connected me to inspiring people, it talked to issues I care about especially the role of values, relationships and who we are as people in development; above all it brought me enjoyment, laughter, inspiration and hope.

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12th Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship 2015

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