Who represents the representative?

In my posts I usually try to put forward an argument or perspective, and usually a relatively firm one. One that has occupied some time and reflection, albe-they never remotely infallible. This one is an open question because I haven’t been able to get close to an answer. I’m nervous about sharing it because the initial argument to be picked apart gives a false illusion of a political leaning. It’s a symptom of a process I, and many, follow. Find an argument that you want to understand better or that doesn’t ring true. Pick at it. Root around for causes until they form principles. Then see how far and wide they can be applied. Find the boundaries of an argument and test them. So bear with me, please.

The question in hand lies around representation. And, much like who watches the watchmen, I want to know what represents representative? What is representative and who can be one? Yeah, this is likely to get fruity. So let’s start broad and topical. Hipsters.

Whilst hiking a dormant volcano in Mexico, as all good hipsters do, I stumbled over some rubble and into an interesting conversation. The participants? An American of Mexican descent who feel acutely tied to the country. An American of unknown descent, who seems keen on being vegan and travelling. And a Brit whose light links to their Scottish side mainly manifested in love for certain mid-90s films and supporting Scotland in the rugby. It no longer seems spurious to categorise as hipster eh? Don’t worry, it gets more hipsterile.

A conversation about cultural appropriation comes up. You can imagine the relative positions taken. Our world travelling hipster, slowly killing the earth every time she visits a new part of it, is wide-eyed, optimistic that we can all relax a bit more and embrace easy solutions. Our proactively Mexican taking a relatively fierce position, unsurprising given recent, distant and in-between histories. Our Brit – mild-mannered, unaffected but not uninterested, becomes the devil’s advocate / facilitator. A nice abstinence coming from a country rarely, if ever, abstinent from interfering. 

The conversation starts with questions of consent, copying, coopting and bastardising cultural artefacts, including food, music and more broadly too. Consent being a critical word here. If people proactively use food as a means to make a living in a new country. That’s their choice right? Or is a factor of various tranches of racism that other lines of employment were far from porous? What if they felt they had to adapt their food, a central piece piece of social performance and cohesion for centuries, in order to meet the delicate palates in this new place? What if they did so willingly? What if it was begrudging? And what if other people, of their culture, felt it was bastardising it? What if they franchised this out to others, relinquishing the reigns? Does that mean that they relinquish rights to it too?

Unwittingly this becomes exactly the point. Who has the right to decide? Could I sell my mum’s recipe for macaroni cheese? What if my sister didn’t agree with it? What about if Italians didn’t? And which Italians would have the right to? Those related to the early users of macaroni? I’m not even sure where the China-Italy water-softening-starch debate comes in, but as you can see, this is a thread that expands to various cloths.

Back to the conversation. The vegan says that she dressed up as Frida Kahlo for a fancy dress – in a way that indirectly, if not directly, asked the question of whether or not that counts as cultural appropriation. Clearly she wasn’t asking me [tangential but incredible link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8l1PMVvfjDM]. So, onto the ‘ask the Mexican’ segment. The response was yes, it’s a problem. I’m not to argue that point. Frankly I don’t know either way, hence the questioning element to this. But it raises thoughts. If an American woman can’t dress up as Frida Kahlo. Can any Mexican man? And one living in Mexico now as opposed to within the specific conditions within which she grew up? What if the American, whilst disconnected and therefore unrepresentative on lines of nationality, was an artist? What if she had suffered from polio? What if she tried to express similar observations and reflections as Frida Kahlo did? 

The ultimate question is, at what point does someone become representative? That’s not to say people need to be individually and culturally identical to claim some form of power or ownership of something. And especially within our neoliberal context (I’m surprised it’s taken so long to use that word too), the call for greater, stronger representation is essential, especially of things that have historically been plundered without consent and usually with force. So, unsurprisingly this seems to be about power. Who gets to hold it? Who gets to share in it? Who decides? And who represents the unrepresented?

Shift to politics and we have clear state-led rules on who qualifies to take part in the processes of choosing representation. But, as recent and distant history shows us, even in open and democratic processes, representatives are not always representative. Large proportions of peoples’ direct votes say otherwise, let alone their experiences, perspectives and cultures. Take it to the sector. Villages leaders are often unrepresentative of those they represent. They are especially unrepresentative (usually) of minorities and the socially marginalised – hence why they haven’t been marginalised. Could we honestly say that INGOs are representative of the people they serve? I guess that’s a trick question, because they more represent those they serve than those they are supposed to. And that’s a whole other topic about how NGOs are fundamentally structured as service providers, mostly for foreign governments. I know, no surprises there, but the more you look at it, the more you see NGOs as simply service providers, but ones who need to justify everything they do and do little apart from what was contracted. Even so, how do they try to become more ‘representative’. Hiring continental staff (which feels strange for reasons of breakfast references), or national staff? Hiring staff that know relevant local languages, or who are from the area themselves (but clearly moved away)? At what point do we say ‘yes, that’s representative’. And who decides? And I guess I’m inadvertently articulating one of the main problems. I, like so many, am looking for hard answers where in fact there may be none. But either way, who gets to decide that too? Yep – full wool brain time.

Consent and representation are not small things to discuss, in either scale or significance, history or future. But that’s why they’re so important to explore. I don’t presume that there’s a hard and fast rule that explains everything I’ve alluded to question above. But I’m stuck on it. I’m baffled by it. And it’s fricking intriguing. So answers on a postcard please. Help me step out of this bath of gross ignorance I’m currently sat in. The water is swiftly moving from tepid to cold.

Who represents the representative?

The value of nothing

So, here’s where the idealist hippy in me comes out, as indiscreetly hidden as it has been, lights a flare and with a fierce orange glow of optimism, quickly subsides without reciprocating fuel. Values. Yep, another concept primed for buzzwords and fuzzwords chatter, often articulated as shallow genericisms on a website. ‘What’s so unique about us is: we’re exactly the same as everyone else.’ And there are two problems with this. Identity is a product of differentiation as much as it is commonality. It’s an unpopular notion, for rampant socialists and especially the solidarity over charity faction within it. What makes something unique, by definition, is its difference. Great minds don’t think alike. That’s the point. They don’t think like anyone else – that’s what makes them truly great. And as we know people are capable of responding incredibly differently to individuality. Rarely, if ever, acting with distinction. 

Let’s extend this out as it links to various other points. If everything is a priority, nothing is. Yep, it’s a classic and I feel it’s extremely relevant here. Take NGO’s strategies – they are often so broad that even the invitees of a garden party in a West London private square could, in theory, become beneficiaries. It’s the banality of what was supposed to be an aspirational vision. It’s murderous placidity. And let’s be very clear – this isn’t about finding gaps in markets nor is it about identifying USPs. It’s about maintaining a focus, a distinction, to improve quality and thus integrity. If I played 5 sports growing up instead of 1.5, I’d be perhaps OK at 5, instead of pretty good at one (and pretty terrible at the 0.5). It’s a very simplistic example, but there are principles that underpin this. And it’s about specialism, the value it provides and how it is created. This isn’t to say generalists, as individuals, don’t have a place. It’s to say that NGOs that cite immediate emergencies, prolonged emergencies, poverty, inequality and migration are showing exactly what their priority is. Everything. Nothing [one for the die hard Ridley Scott fans there]. The cynical among us could argue it’s to keep funding options available to all sources. Because nothing is ruled out. Others could argue it’s a lack of imagination or leadership. The optimists could argue that cross-cutting skills are more important than sectoral specificity. I’m yet to see any evidence of that, especially as areas classically defined as cross-cutting usually should become sectors in of themselves. 

If there is something less whelming than a vague and meaningless strategy, it’s values, and the derisory attempt to peddle them. They’re written on websites with all the gusto of an empirical general and all the confidence of a dog that just farted. ‘What we’re really about…what we’re really really about, is accountability. And impartiality. And being apolitical. And independent.’ Wait, so independent you’ve listed exactly the same distinguishing features as 88.2% other NGOs? So apolitical that you don’t accept funding from the most overtly political entity of all time, governments? Values are nothing without integrity, but that’s not excuse to add ‘integrity’ to ever list of organisational values either.

It’s not that I don’t value values. In fact I love them and, if used in certain ways, they can become strategies of their own. I think there’s something honest about values being central to what we do. Whether ultimately self-fulfilling or not, very few end up in the industry or behave in it with overtly self-serving motives. That may change over time, and abuses are prevalent of the trust that this hypothesis extrapolates to. But if they mean so much, values, why are they rarely, if ever, functioning parts of a strategy? If what gets measured, gets done, why are they not measured? If one of our values is accountability, why is it so hard to find out just how well we perform to our values?

At the Start Fund we played with this idea like a resin until it hardened to something more robust. It wasn’t sectoral specificity that was being sought. It wasn’t particular axes of sociological inequality. It was funding. And funding in a way that was different. Not entirely uncommon to anything else, but definitely in the progressive minority. So we tried to strip it all away and find the roots, however idealised or idealistic they were. What was it meant to be all about? And not in complicated sentences that say so little with so much inefficiency. We did it in a word each. Two at a stretch. And once we put a few heads together, it didn’t take long to provide form to what was once a heady yet formless cloud of ambition. 

And what came out? Well, what we were really about. Being timely. Flexible. Decentralised. Informed. Collective. And these are just single words, but from them, we built ways of catching data that could articulate how we were doing. We were specific about what we really wanted to do and we focused in on that. No matter how much our personal values would have liked other elements to be included, we kept to what the Fund was about and what our role was in the sector that we hoped to support. There were better, more focused and more specialised organisations who work on accountability. But there weren’t many funding mechanisms that were faster to make decisions. More flexible with needs to change activities. More collective in their decision-making. That made financing decisions in-country and relied on the insight garnered by 42 potential agencies (plus partners and additional available sources). And it wasn’t perfect. But it provided a framework, ultimately built on 5 words. And it was catching. 

The Network and its central team – for all its diversity of action, found a way to articulate the problems it seeks to solve, the things it does in order to do so and the outcomes it aspires for under three headings amounting to 6 words. Localisation. Collective innovation. New financing mechanisms. Broad topics, yes, but addressing three key problems with the humanitarian sector, and in many ways, it is well placed to do so. And then we built indicators around them. And whilst that’s not ground-breaking, it did mean that, relatively quickly, we have theories of change and results frameworks built around values. We built a system through which we could be accountable to them AND speak to the work. Because they’re not so different, or at least they shouldn’t be. And that’s different. It’s distinct. And it meant that values weren’t cursory glances at integrity on a webpage. They didn’t amount to staff awards or recognition cards. They were how we measured ourselves. How we presented ourselves. How we knew whether we were making progress or not. And, whilst it may be on quite an abstract and incomplete level, that’s a decent slice of accountability to me. And that is sadly often unique.

The value of nothing