Thoughts from Ross Brinkert

Some thought-provoking words from Ross Brinkert:

“… despite uncertainty, meaning and action are important. An uncertain world allows us to justify either meaninglessness or meaningfulness. Most would agree that the latter makes for more attractive lives and relationships. It also makes us more likely to act with intention. Action is important because it helps construct the environment we act into. Acting may mean making a leap and exploring a model even though we might later apply another.

… it is useful to act with curiosity. Many people find that a curious mindset is helpful for remaining comfortable with uncertainty and diversity, in various forms.

… my assumptions about conflict itself. The assumptions are as follows: 1) conflicts are a part of everyday life and have positive potential, 2) the nonviolent expression of conflict should be generally encouraged, 3) developing both individual and shared responsibility for conflict is valuable, 4) voluntary participation in conflict management is likely to increase the overall success of the process and 5) a general openness to differences is helpful in a pluralistic community.”

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“Add Creativity To Your Decision Process”

“Add Creativity To Your Decision Processes,” by G. David Hughes of the University of North Carolina.

Very interesting article that weaves together creativity, the failure of 20th-Century modes of thinking, the triune brain, and leadership. I like the definition: “innovation is simply creativity that adds value.”  And two quotes the author cites from other work:

  • “At the end of the twentieth century, our seventeenth-century organizations are crumbling” – from Wheatley;
  • “… stability, harmony, predictability, discipline, and consensus, which are central to most Western management practices, are all wrong.  Instead of equilibrium … we need bounded instability, which is the framework in which nature innovates” – from Stacey.

Food for thought, and action.

“Trust or Control? Private Development Cooperation At The Crossroads”

Willem Elbers, Luuk Knippenberg and Lau Schulpen, “Trust or Control?  Private Development Cooperation At the Crossroads”, Public Administration and Development, 34, 1-13 (2014).

This very interesting article considers whether or not organisations that see development as “social transformation” can, at the same time, adopt practices that the author denotes as “managerialism.”  It examines “how the belief systems and practices of northern NGOs are changing because of the diffusion of managerialist ideas and methods, and whether the managerialist approach is compatible with a number of widely shared goals, values and assumptions related to social transformation.”

Most INGOs face this issue, at least the good ones.  Our organisations were, mostly, founded to overcome poverty and injustice, and our responses are designed over the long-term, strengthening local civil society and duty-bearers; enduring solutions come from structural and transformational changes.

Over the last few decades, our organisations have responded to increasing demands for accountability and value-for-money by adopting what Elbers and his co-authors describe as “managerialism” – practices (often) brought from the private sector and government donors – emphasising effectiveness, efficiency, and transparency, underpinned by financial audits, strategic planning, log frames, etc.  This move has shifted our attention towards project management and tangible (rather than transformational) results.

Projects have their place, of course; but our best projects fit into a wider framework that seeks to overcome the power imbalances and injustices that underlie deprivation.

So the article asks an interesting question: as we get better at managing projects, can we remain true to this structural view of poverty?  I like the table in which the differing institutional logics of social transformation and managerialism are compared; it’s a good way of describing the differences that create some of the tensions that emerged when INGOs began to adopt business practices, as I described in an article I published some time ago

The authors use two empirical case studies to frame their response: the experiences of Christian Aid (based in the UK) and ICCO (from the Netherlands).  Both agencies began as “solidarists”, “placing strong emphasis on addressing the root causes of poverty and social transformation.”  But over time, “elements of the managerial logic also bec(o)me visible” as the organisations respond to the “growing emphasis on tangible results and accountability.”

The article contains qualitative impressions of staff members, over many years – indeed, the longitudinal nature of the study is a great advantage.  Even with “managerialist” pressure, both agencies “still primarily follow the social transformation logic”, which is to be commended.

Is this sustainable?  Will it be possible for organisations like Christian Aid and ICCO to balance these two “logics” internally, or will this balancing act produce increasing symptoms of organisational schizophrenia?

The authors think that the balancing act “will increasingly challenge and even force northern NGOs to make choices about their future direction.”  We will either move in the managerialist direction, with the option of continued or increased government and donor funding, or we will continue to focus on “civic values and a more politicised role in development” with “reduced access to official funding.”  

The corresponding author is Dr W Elbers, W.elbers@maw.ru.nl.

Highly recommended.