The Importance of Being Serious

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I have struggled with writing this chapter. I’ve not been able to find a hook or narrative thread to carry the story forward. It isn’t that I didn’t do anything or was underworked as a manager on the rise. On the contrary I took to management with gusto and a sense of delayed entitlement. I was earnest in promoting the organizations and companies that employed me. I consciously tried to become a better manager, especially after a few bosses pointed out this was one of my weak areas.

I loved travelling to meetings and conferences. The lofty discussions about policy and politics, fundraising and cooperation models were fresh ideas for me. A lot of my peers on the panels and committees were scarily smart. I enjoyed basking in their reflected glory and intellect.

I did learn quite a bit too. After the terrorist attacks in Bali in 2002 I led a Red Cross team to assess the damage. For the first time I had to deal with Board members who had no idea of operational realities in the field and wanted nothing more than to hand out medals and awards to everyone for doing ‘such a magnificent job’ over a cup of tea. I learned how to manage up.

During and after the terrible tsunami in 2004 the organization I worked for went a bit beserk. A new CEO brought in a set of tightly suited ‘content-free’ managers with zero experience in international matters and put them in charge. I learned jungle survival skills.

I resigned after 12 months of unending stress and interference from above to sit at home and sob. I licked my wounds and felt sorry for myself for the better part of a year. But then I learned one of the biggest lessons of all. There is no such thing as a job for life. Get over it.

I guess that period was one of professional and personal growth which I’m glad I experienced. It wisened me up a fair bit. But as this is a tale about why I left aid behind my reflections on stressful emergency operations are not that relevant. Though they were stressful and horrible for the family (14 hour days for months on end) big emergencies are adrenalin rushes too.

Indeed, it was probably the paucity of major operations that contributed to the slow descent of my career. Between the Bali bombs and the tsunami, work was as predictable as a train timetable. It became boring. For the first time in my life I actually enjoyed the long haul plane trips more than the meetings and conferences which rarely excited me.

I’ve tried to pin point the exact time in history when this happened. When the ‘issues’ we discussed with such earnestness turned from stimulating to interesting to stultifying. I haven’t been able to identify the year but sometime between 2001 and 2004 the cart flipped over.   That I had never been a true believer undoubtedly played some part in the short shelf life of my interest. The finer points of management (dealing with difficult staff, negotiating budgets and leading planning exercises etc.) as well were not robust enough to maintain my curiosity.   Add on to that predatory and certifiable bosses and whatever sweetness remained in the fruit leached right away.

But ultimately, what really got my goat was the aid bubble.   The echo chamber that rang with our sincere, well meaning words and palpitating hearts. All our Quixotic charges up the hill only to scramble down again before surging forward once more the following year or next disaster.

The lack of oxygen in the bubble was remarkable. All the brilliant intellects from the panels and committees could come up with nothing truly innovative for the sector or organization. Neither could we really shift government or Board policy for all our efforts and carefully word-smithed submissions. We talked and drafted documents and hammered out ‘new models’ that were usually abandoned partially completed. In the next cycle of meetings the same issues would be discussed again with enthusiasm. A new report or strategy or Plan of Action would be drafted and duly lost in the heavy haze of fuzz that enveloped an overstretched under-resourced organization.

We laughed at the circularity of the situation. Like clowns in an asylum. But we also did nothing to stop the circus.

A few days before I finally called it a day some colleagues took me out to one of those wonderful open-air Malaysia cafeterias where you can gorge on biriyani and Malay-Tamil curries for less than $3. “What advice do you have for us, based on your two years here,” a colleague asked me over coffee.

I was stumped. What advice could I offer to a system and organization that seemed instinctively closed to change? Unexpectedly, somewhere between my second and third bite of stale cheesecake, two words came to mind, “Get serious.”

Everyone, including me, twitched. What did I mean?

“We know what the issues are. We know what needs to be done to address them. We’ve known these things for 10 if not 20 years. They are not mysterious or esoteric. We don’t need more consultants and review committees to tell us what we all know. If we want it to change all we need to do is get serious.”

And that sums it up. In the end, who wants to work within a system that is not serious about doing what it knows it should and must? I may have had 28 years up my sleeve to spin my wheels but suddenly I was fresh out of time.

I got on a plane a few days later and bid farewell to aid.

But those words kept ringing in my ears.    “Get serious.”

 

 

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6 comments

  1. Cameron B-Jennings (@oldozdog) · February 5, 2016

    Word-smith is an accurate word for the writer who understood the various cultural, social, political and economic environments and the challenge that required and effective solution, Whilst the writer is able to comprehend the humanitarian problem, like so many others, the writer is not able to accept the external problems that retard the process from identification to resolution. I felt the writers frustration and understood the idea presented as I read the words at the end “Get Serious”.

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    • Mr Harmonium · February 5, 2016

      Hi Cameron. Thanks for taking the time to comment and share your thoughts. Those two words have had quite an impact within the readership. Which is wonderful because they are important. In regards to the ‘external problems that retard the process’ well I think that is in fact what we need to get serious about. To stop looking at ‘external problems’ as a stopper. Our JOB as aid workers is to deal with external problems (and we usually do it quite well) it is the INTERNAL problems that are more troublesome. It is those overwhich we have control! Yes we work in a very challenging environment but in terms of the issues I’m talking about they have very little influence on the decision to take action and get serious.

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  2. Mathew Schraeder · February 7, 2016

    Nate we don’t know each other but we worked in the same place albeit at different times in different roles and I could not agree more with you.

    It is exactly that reason that after years of trying to be serious in a setting where serious means back patting and word smithing and wriggling out of solid commitments due to “complex politics”, left me reeling with the fact that Aunties was the highlight of the day, not the actual getting your hands dirty & stepping up to the plate to do what is serious & right.

    Tragically it is not only allowed but it is what is supported and elevated. Actual true seriousness in words & actions is something most of the industry is uncertain of. Straight shooters, serious talkers and folks of action are boat rockers. Fear the man who weighs his opinion in neutrality and not in the seriousness of the situation. Get serious indeed.

    I want so much for the ideals to translate into something serious and much more than just special volunteer days, social media activism and that all enveloping warmth of the auto-reassuring bubble. The day is near where aid work will hear the bell tolling and its ring will be serious and it will be rung by those who receive that aid and the supporting donors who expect seriousness.

    Best
    M

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    • Mr Harmonium · February 7, 2016

      Hi Mathew, Thanks for reading and sharing your views which are broadly consistent with a whole bunch of others who have written in in response. It is so true and you’ve said it very well yourself. What has been your response? Are you still involved? How do you cope? Nate

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  3. McKerrow Bob (@bobmckerrow) · February 7, 2016

    Thanks Nate. This was a much appreciated personal perspective that I can identify with. I am now working with IPPF and must say working in the field of family planning and sexual reproductive health has given me lenses to see the humanitarian world differently. But there is a need for major reform. I started in 1971 working for the NZ Red Cross in Vietnam and in those days we spent 98% of our time working hand in hand in villages and we didn’t even write a monthly report. I just sent a Super 8 Video home when I felt there was something important to share. Sadly today, accountabilty is a misnomer for more meetings, more strategies, more indicators, and more time justifying ourselves to donors. I think I have said enough. Wait for the book that I am writing…….

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    • Mr Harmonium · February 7, 2016

      Hey Bob, nice to hear from you. and Thanks for reading and comments. I indeed can not wait to read your book. If there is a story in aid and lessons to be drawn you’d be in the top 10 to tell them. Enjoy the work. Where are you based?
      Nate

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