Newton’s 3rd law of humanitarianism

This is mentioned in the university careers rant, but I do love it so. Having worked in development and humanitarian networks, I’ve been privy to sector-wide conversations and perspectives. And once you see a few of these topics come up, two things become clear:

1.”What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” – Ecclesiastes 1:9 (a rare and unintentionally religious quote there for you)

Whether you want to see it as futile rehashing and relabelling to give a false sense of progress, or you see it as further attempts at moving the needle on a worthy ideal, there is little that comes across as new. Which is why technology seems so innovative. Because it didn’t exist before. The ideas behind it, the functions it may serve, well, that’s different matter. For more on the lack of newness, check out Tania Li’s book: The Will to Improve and you’ll get the idea.

2.To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction

There is a huge push for beneficiary feedback mechanisms at a senior level. Amazing. The political, the powerful and financially enabling subscribe to this wonderful principle of participation, of locally owned and driven projects. Transformative participation, designed in Northern cities. That come with specific parameters and metrics and ones that, if missed, lead to funding going away. Issues. But this generally positive drive is also counterbalanced by a huge boost in Value for Money requirements. Seeing people as agents of their own change, we immediately want to quantify the immediate efficiency of that. You know what looks good on the most popularised interpretations of value for money (VfM)? Rigid, unchanging, simplistic activities (like basic distributions) that are swiftly and cost effectively delivered. Ahhhh. So about that transformative thing. Well, that’s hardly VfM tingling is it? The value it generates can only be robustly proven over longer periods of time, and regardless, prove difficult to conveniently quantify. And so transformative participation becomes extremely hard to make VfM arguments about, especially in the predominant language of evidence of our time. The statistic.

Interested in another example? No? Och well, it’s my blog and I’ll whine if I want to:

Finally great weight accumulates at a political level for localisation. Possibly as part of a continuing drive to reduce responsibility and the associated resource required by key Northern actors. The pragmatic driving the principled – the tail wagging the dog, but it’s progress (at least in principle). But along with this comes a hugely diminished risk tolerance. And that’s damaging for localisation because of how risk is perceived, assessed and managed by the powers that be. Strict, Northern-defined requirements are applied to Southern organisations without the resource to meet them. And that resource won’t be provided because large contracts that include centralised costs won’t arrive without being able to meet those requirements. It’s a little chicken and egg – which inhibited localisation first? Thusly, the action towards increasingly local response quickly finds its more than equal and opposing reaction.

So where does this leave us? Hardly inspired, but somewhere not far from the Taoist parable. In saying that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, that’s not to say that change can’t occur. It just usually has to occur with various forces of influence superseding the forces of resistance. If something stays still, we assume it is through a lack of force, rather than a balance of forces. It’s very linked to everything being complex, dynamic, pluralistic and relational. A complex, moving, pushing, pulling bending web of forces. What I’m trying to say is that if something stays in place, that’s because of complex number of forces holding it there. Maintaining the status quo requires energy and influence. We’re about 2 sentences away from bringing Foucauldian, so let’s bring it back. To films. Weirdly I’ve seen the best visualisation of that in the Bond film, Skyfall – the algorithm designed to move and adapt. A 3D web of interconnected dots and lines. A system of multiple, moving, interactions and influences. That’s how my bizarre swede pictures it as best as it can. 

And honestly, I don’t know how to make any of that practical. Other that to hold on to your altruistic horses when you see ‘new’ movements towards a future sector you’d like more to be a part of. First consider the counteracting forces and, if possible, try to preempt them and mitigate them. Removing barriers is a significant part of what we can and should do. Being able to see them, especially those internal to organisations and even people, that is often the hard part. For the rest, it’s sometimes relates to motivation.

Added since first publishing:

Being additional appears to be the most attractive form of action. Why? Maybe it’s old evidential considerations – such as being able to establish our own contribution or causality. Which speaks to our individual egos and echoes into how we manage our role as humanitarians and results frameworks too. We measure what we do, what we add to a situation, not what we remove. We try to assess what we improve far more than what we reduce and especially more than what damage we cause. And yes, tugging at this thread brings a few other familiar concerns into play. But let’s Moloko it for a second and bring it back. A friend of mine once asked why, for example in Somalia (where remittances famously out weigh humanitarian financing) we don’t work on ensuring that people have greater access to remittances? Through providing charging points, mobile data points or wifi for example. Why don’t we work on removing barriers as opposed to adding new, often detached, layers? That’s a whole other story and an extremely important question. But if we’re to talk about opposing forces, the value in understanding and removing inhibition is nothing short of necessary, and is something I don’t often see done well. If it something that any of us try to change, well, I wonder what opposing forces it will meet.

*Cornwall and Brock (back on about the fuzzwords again) do a lovely job of examining the consequential causality of misinterpreted (some may say purposefully reduced) principles and ideals.

Newton’s 3rd law of humanitarianism

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