You (They) wanted an aid industry – you (they) got posh white blokes

In a detailed and well written piece for opendemocracy, Guppi Bola reflects On posh white blokes and her discussion she had with Ben Phillips, the original writer on ‘Posh white blokes-holding back the struggle for a fairer world?’ in development and NGOs.

But what is very interesting in Guppi
s list of key enabling factors of PWBs (Internships, pay inequality, rights of short-term contract workers, decision making & hierarchy, all male panels, training for solidarity and equal opportunities) is that many of these areas of the aid industry are discussed along very similar argumentative lines elsewhere:
Sarah Kendzior just asked in an excellent piece
Should academics write for free?, the launch of the German edition of Huffington Post started a widespread debate about the future of journalism (Huffington Post's German edition launches to mixed reception)
and Mother Jones recently presented Silicon Valleys Awful Race and Gender Problem in 3 Mind-Blowing Charts
So academia, journalism and the start-up sector - all under different pressures to perform well in the capitalist market place - are having similar problems that the current state of continuous transformations favors posh white professors, bloggers and IT gurus. And then there are those well-known debates about women and leadership in the ‘normal’ corporate sector, of course.

In my short post I will argue that ‘posh white blokes’ in development are an integral part of the move towards a more ‘professional’ aid industry, that PWBs come in many different shapes, sizes and colors and that development may be able to overcome some of the challenges as more middle-class diverse people are entering the industry.

It’s the economy, stupid!

Whether we like it or not, the aid industry has become more professionalized over the past ten to fifteen years in an accelerated speed compared to the thirty or forty years before.
And, generally speaking, the aid industry has taken on board many corporate and managerial facets, pretty much from the birthplace of core PWB problems.
Colleagues are calling for a ‘big push back’, but the push for ‘evidence’ and ‘impact’ is also a push for more PWBs with PhDs, more consultancy firms and more Generation X or Y people with good intentions. At the same time, the capillary system of development has been well expanded into BRICS and many other parts of the world. The ‘Southern’ NGO industry, the growing industry around corporate responsibility and many other reiterations of development favor the mindsets, work- and lifestyles of PWBs – even if they come in different shapes and colors.

What about the elitist brown guy?
Or the arrogant black woman?
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to finger-point just because I am a middle-class white guy myself. But the aid industry has created a new (?) global elite where passports, skin color and probably to a lesser extent, gender, no longer matter that much.
A, say, Greek NGO activist can be more of a champion for a fairer world these days than a Western-trained accountant who works for a global consultancy firm in Kenya, Nigeria or India that administers UKAID or similar projects.

We are constantly told that the taxpayer demands better implementation of aid and by-way of exporting the right tools and software we also exported the PWB culture of global education, global travel and global standards of measurables and deliverables. We brought the board room into development and reduced the exposure to some of the
‘dirty’ realities of working class men and women, activists and those with fewer qualifications - it is a bit like Michael Douglas and Martin Sheen meeting in Wall Street.
For any enterprise in the aid industry that is interested in growth and exposure you have to be more ‘burning the midnight oil’ and less ‘let’s have a nursery for staff’ and focusing on campaigning for the right target group rather than unionisation.
To break some of these power structures you will need white men just like any other stakeholder.

Will the ‘posh white bloke’ just disappear by itself?
Although I am comparing the aid industry to other industries, the fact is that unlike, say, commodities trading, a disproportional number of women are entering the aid industry through development studies programs etc. There are also many organizations, saving groups, small enterprises, schools, CBOs etc. that are not influenced by PWBs – either literally or figuratively. But, as I am pointing out time and again, old power structures are difficult to break and the OECDs of the world are still very much dominated by PWBs. But numbers may work in favor of more diversity.

We also need to make efforts to look beyond the PWB grazing places such as celebrity charity events, social enterprise award ceremonies, policy summits and large academic conferences to identify diverse talent.
And last not least, we need to be (more) critical about how the underlying structures of the aid industry may favor PWB’s mindsets – from frequent travel to unpaid internships.

It will be a long and difficult path, but I also do not want to end on a cynical note, so I believe that the aid industry will have the space to accommodate non-PWBs better than other corporate entities, ideally by speaking up and out for more diversity at all levels and walk the talk-even if that means you have to increase ‘overheads’…

Comments

  1. On your conclusion: "the aid industry will have the space to accommodate non-PWBs better than other corporate entities". Seems to me that the risk is that whether we are posh white blokes or not, the unspoken culture and underlying structure of aid organisations asks people to behave like one, speak like one, eat like one, etc.

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