Why do people become humanitarians? Is it because they are all hippy types, wanting to spread peace and love? Sure, there are some that are like that. Is it because they are altruistic souls, who think only of dedicating their life to the service of others? Possibly. Is it because they love new contexts, cultures and countries and integrating into them to learn as well as working on projects that they really feel will improve lives? I feel like we are getting a little bit colder with that one. Or is it because they are high-achieving, outgoing, ambitious, and competitive Type A personalities who thrive under high stress environments? In my humble opinion, there are definitely a lot of the latter in the general humanitarian cohort, and it doesn’t always make for the easiest working environment.
It is my opinion that roughly 90% of decision making time in humanitarianism is lost due to competition. That is, many a time, humanitarians feel the need to turn meetings, emails, Skype calls etc into pissing contests to prove they understand more about a concept or a context than their colleagues.
I am most certainly guilty of this; I have seen myself do it and I feel it in myself during meetings, scanning for the ‘ah but’ moment when I get to put the boot into a colleagues well-thought through plans and prove that I have thought about an angle of human existence that they didn’t consider when organising lunch for tomorrow’s workshop.
At first it feels exciting; all these ideas bumping around, things getting bigger, and better, and more complex, trying to cram everyone’s opinion into your work. But after a while, you crave the day when a colleague can just tell you, ‘this is a good piece of work, you’re doing well,’ instead of crapping all over your carefully thought through concept as a means to illustrate to everyone copied into the email chain just how clever and important they are.
Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it’s completely warranted; we’re not all experts, we don’t
all have knowledge of every element of humanitarian practice, since to do that, we would probably all need Einstein sized IQs. We’re talking about the needs of human beings after all, and let’s face it; we’re not exactly a simple or globally coherent bunch. It’s not the advice and input that I object to, it’s the attitudes and methods in which it is often dispensed. How many times have you had a good idea and raised it, only to have someone in the meeting rather too smugly outline all the reasons that it’s actually terrible and will set mankind’s development back at least 50 years? It happens at least once a week, right?
There are those who are shameless about it. One colleague in Syria would literally shout over others in meetings, declaring that she was an expert on this particular subject (it appeared she was a expert on a number of diverse and non-related issues). But as we all know, there are those who have far more devious tactics to get ahead in the race. The worst is when discussions have been ongoing around a particular project amongst a group of colleagues for some time; you’re all in agreement that it’s a great idea. But when it comes to committing these thoughts to paper, the project’s biggest advocate then decides to trash it totally, supplementing their own and – in their opinion – far superior ideas, but only because the boss is in CC and in no way should this look like a collaborative effort.
It’s not that competition isn’t healthy or necessary; it is the way that it is done that is often the kicker. You would think that as humanitarians we’d be used to dealing with people who are desperate – for food, for water, or just the sense that what we’re doing might just be effective and worthwhile – but we sometimes our desire to prove our specialist knowledge tramples over the ambitions and growth opportunities of others. And we don’t even feel remorseful, instead we feel vindicated. Satisfied. Smug.
In the past year, I have become less and less confident in my abilities as a humanitarian, despite the fact that I have gained more diverse experience in the last year than I have in my previous four years working in the sector. I think part of the reason for that is that I feel I am in competition with my colleagues, that my ideas are not enough, that my skills are only basic, and that I still have a long way to go. It can be the smallest things that throw me off: a curious glance from a colleague in my direction whilst I am explaining something to a team-mate; a meeting where I can’t make a point because other colleagues are too eager to ensure they are heard over the expense of inclusion and listening; a tut, roll of the eyes and head shake from a colleague at the back of the room whilst I am stood training at the front. Alright, that last one is just stone cold mean.
What worries me most, is if this is the attitude we take with each other – validating our own need to ‘win’, our need to be the best, our need to prove we know it all – what happens when it comes to working with disaster affected people and communities? When those people know their lives, culture and problems better than we can ever dream to, are we still going to try to prove we know it all?