Confessions of a humanitarian: I’ve never met a meeting I couldn’t sleep through

As you might know, my research is on inter-agency coordination. So, today’s expressive description of coordination meetings in the guardians ‘confessions of a humanitarian’ series drew my attention. The pseudonym aid worker Dara Passano starts her amusing rant with a telling opener “I’ve never walked into a development meeting that I couldn’t fall asleep in. Sometimes I resist; often I don’t.“ She continues to describe how she has tried everything to stay awake in these meetings from drinking caffeinated beverages to inflicting self-harm, but to no avail. Clearly, the author has not stayed objective but instead indulged into the full subjectiveness of her experiences. And probably, she exaggerated and simplified the spectrum of her own perceptions to one important argument: there is something fundamentally wrong with these meetings.

Some people have gotten stuck in the details, reproaching here to have invented some of these stories. In seems unlikely that she ever really invented data, and who cares? Her point is that no one would notice if she did, so it does not matter what the detailed truth is. Besides following the series’ title of making a confession, the literary writing style is probably more effective in bringing the point across. It definitely is more entertaining than a thorough analysis and finger-pointing (that is about to follow).

Some people could be offended by her text. It mocks many hard working people that spend a lot of time and energy to communicate across institutional divides. Some of the conveners, for instance Goma’s former protection cluster coordinator, are incredibly dedicated and capable. In addition, it ridicules development work which makes working in the sector increasingly difficult. Through the feedback loop of public opinion and policy-making, tarnishing the aid world’s reputation reduces trust and might just result in tightened regulations. Sympathetically, I would argue that the author is very much aware of the urgency and the consequences of flawed coordination (beyond the level of individual meeting participants). Arguably it is this awareness that motivated the piece.

Nevertheless, I have two issues with this text:
1) She does not really say why these meetings are so boring. The closest she gets to an analysis is by stating that “some organisations mandate ‘active participation’ in order to raise their profile; staff must create complications in order to be recorded, in the all-important meeting minutes”. She adds general stuff about people that like to talk, repeat themselves etc. But, if her criticism is not just making fun, then she misses out on telling us what is wrong. Is her messages so banal as that sitting in meeting is boring? Or does she think that there is something peculiar about the aid sector? I think the half-done analysis would have much more bang if she would actually address a problem. But then again, this is my interpretation, the author does not claim such a thing as an agenda.
2) Connected to the lacking identification of an issue, the character doesn’t do jack about this non-issue. The Zen challenge of the character is to sit in these meetings, not to do anything about them. Yes, the story is honest and exaggerated at the same time; the reader quickly understands how challenging and frustrating such meetings must be, but it remains a story. So then, why does the aid worker have to be mainly cynical? Given that this series is probably read mainly by aid workers, why can there not be something more inspirational than staying awake long enough to see the others napping off? Or did I just miss the wake-up call?

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