Week 2: The Italian NGO guy with really good questions

some thoughts from the 2nd week of my recent work trip

Aid workers fall into a few very distinct categories. I can think of three which describe the bulk of us, at least in this country: donor country peeps, NGO (non-governmental organisation) folk, and UN (United Nations) staff. I assume there is mutual scorn all-around. At least I take comfort in that assumption – I’ve always fallen under the NGO category and my colleagues and I definitely scorn the other two. So it’s only fair for them to scorn us back.

We particularly scorn the UN. It is such an enormous bureaucracy which marries an enormous degree of responsibility with an utterly breathtaking level of ineffectiveness. As individuals, its staff are as lovely people as any other aid workers we may meet, and indeed are an amazing bunch considering they are probably the most ethnically diverse institution that ever did or ever will exist. But as aid workers, they strike us NGO folk as being simply useless.

In a workshop I attended, I experienced this, as our hosts – a UN “secretariat” (whatever that means) – asked a bunch of NGOs to sit through a series of educational presentations given by UN staff. The presentations were interesting, but their content bore only a slight relevance to our work environments and indeed taught us little we did not already know. I felt a little bit like the 20-year veteran teacher attending a refresher course taught by a 25-year old who just completed a PhD in Education but never taught in a real live school. Insulted intelligence, yaknow?

Bless his heart, a representative of an Italian NGO, managed through his own innocence to reveal their ineptness. He was asking honest questions, simple questions with no hidden agenda. But they were so far removed from the reality of the presenters that they had no idea as to how to answer them. But we did – this is an important question for us.

One presenter talked about how you can understand everything about a sensitive situation using this simple methodology which he described for us. “And, let me show you an example!” bubbled the presenter. “Look at this: in six hours, we generated ten whole pages worth of data!” The Italian NGO guy raised his hand and asked, “How do you know that this data helps the sensitive situation rather than harms it?” And the presenter hadn’t a clue what this question meant.

I think the Italian man’s success was due largely to how he presented himself. He has gray hair and very bushy eyebrows which also contain quite a few gray streaks. He sits in the back scribbling everything down in a notebook. And he explained to us that he is new to this context so he doesn’t know as much as he’d like to. He’s an agronomist by trade and knows little about the topic we were discussing today. We were all disarmed. But his question was spot-on.

Another presenter shared his UN agency’s strategy for making this country a better place. Again, the Italian NGO guy blithely joined the discussion by asking who had had input to the strategy. Clearly the UN presenter had not spent much time thinking about this. Tssssss – take that, UN!

And then, later on, when the discussion was really firing up – the NGOs finally had a chance to share their own experiences… again under the patronising tutelage of a UN staff representative, we were all getting excited about sharing our ideas but constantly being brought back to a reasonable level of frustration by our facilitator… the Italian guy raised his hand again.

“Now I have a lot of questions!” he said, completely ingenuous. Several of us couldn’t hold back the giggles.

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