One of my notes from February’s bystander training sticks with me all these weeks later:
Often your first intervention will not work. Try another.”
The maxim suggests to me patience and persistence with experiment. Focusing on results and using outcomes to assess people or programs won’t always make room for that. It also implies the kind of long-term relationship where parties can stay connected and mutually evolve.
As such, it speaks to me of humility: knowing you don’t already know best and leaving room to learn from life and others. Not much social learning or relationship is possible without humility, and a lot of otherwise well-intentioned projects go off-course without it.
This is a recurring theme among non-profit administrators who field volunteers’ requests.
“I once started a project to help give people what I thought they needed,” one administrator wrote recently. “Turns out they needed something different.”
What made that a good story rather than a cautionary tale is that the administrator was able to adapt with the community’s newly articulated needs rather than either shut down and stomp away because they couldn’t receive what the administrator intended as help or forge ahead and do it anyway regardless of whether it was going to be helpful.
The dynamic also applies to organizations as well as people.
As individuals, we can easily deceive ourselves into believing that we do not perpetuate global inequities and discriminatory attitudes we claim to oppose. Organizations are no different.” —Fairouz El Tom (May 26, 2015)
Remember, for example, the organization Invisible Children, which launched the viral Kony2012 video campaign five years ago? Shortly after that campaign against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Invisible Children started participating in intelligence gathering for Uganda’s government.
Rather than staying focused on the “invisible children” being kidnapped by the LRA, Invisible Children pivoted to supporting the military interests of Uganda’s 30-year president, Yoweri Museveni, and American defense contracting funders intent on destroying the LRA through more conventional means.
Reports from this year show that the organization has pulled covert human intelligence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic, and other central African states into its regular programming, but not solely by foregrounding the White Americans who drove its initial marketing effort.
Today, Invisible Children equips African informants with radios and its continental staff (some of them are “volunteers”) work with private military contractors and the United Nations’ peacekeepers to report on LRA activities in the region.
That isn’t the model of change that co-founder Jason Russell aimed to get the media so excited about in 2012. It takes a lot of corporate energy to make a mission shift that significant. Perhaps it helps that, according to Russell’s bio, he still has the same philosophy he did years ago: “If you want to change the world, you have to be crazy enough to believe you can. [Jason] does, has, was, and still is.”
In Teju Cole’s more sober assessment, “The world is [still] nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm.”
But enthusiasm isn’t all that’s needed. Some international development workers are beginning to explore race, power, and influence as well as personal passion: it’s a necessary, challenging industry-wide conversation, and humility opens the way.
After all, just because you change, doesn’t mean the change is good.