When two worlds collide: Aid Agencies, Academia and Reflective Practitioners

Over a year on from the safeguarding and abuse scandals that rocked Oxfam, Save the Children, Medecins sans Frontieres and revealed challenges across the whole Aid Agency sector, and despite their intention in an open letter of  continuing to deliver vital aid but also changing fundamentally.’ the UK International development committee finds too little has changed. Its most recent evidence session intends to call back both charities and private aid companies for further discussions. Meanwhile the Charities Aid Foundation, responsible for UK charities, finds that that public charity donations are falling, and ally this to erosion of trust in charities, including Aid Agencies.

My book ‘Making Aid Agencies Work’ looked behind the headlines to ask what was needed to achieve real change, arguing that Aid agencies are locked in to a structure and a system which makes it difficult to do so. It suggested that ‘If Aid agencies could shift their focus away from the treadmills they are on to listen, learn, become change agencies, things might be very different.’

How could this come about? I believe the key to it is the abiity to think critically, to take a step back from the extreme activism which characterises aid agencies, to reflect on action, question it, and identify ways to work differently and better, to become ‘Reflective Practitioners’, a term coined by Donald Schon, suggesting that it’s the job of a professional to reflect on action, to think critically and to seek better ways of doing things, rather than just following procedures and processes.

My book suggests that activists find this hard to do, and that the structure of the aid industry makes it even harder for aid agencies to stop, take stock, act innovatively or disruptively. One way out of this bind would be if the world of aid agencies collided with another which offered that ability to reflect, analyse, question and innovate, leading to real change. What better place to look than academia? In principle the job of academics is to do all those things. Here’s how I put it in the preface to my book:

Academics have much to offer when they think questioningly and imaginatively and show others how to do that. I particularly like the way they can look in on the day-to-day from outside and see things often unnoticed. This is critical thinking. What’s not so great are the career and financial pressures which turn academia into an inward-looking industry, writing stuff that’s more and more obtuse just to impress or even outcompete colleagues.

Practitioners I’ve worked with in the aid industry are almost invariably passionate about their work, concerned to make a difference, energetic activists, determined change agents. The trouble with the treadmill many of them are on is it gives no time or permission to stop, think and ask whether this is the best way things can be. Activists find it very hard to learn and have little patience with thinkers, researchers and academics

Both need time and space. The opportunity to take a step back from aid industry activism, but also time and space apart from the research and publications treadmills academics face. For example while part of a civil society network I invited a university research unit to work with us. The reply was:

‘Unfortunately it falls, for us, at the wrong time in our government-imposed academic cycle. All staff have to focus on high-quality academic publication for the next 18–24 months, and we have to turn aside from pretty well any other work. So while this was just the sort of thing I set up to be doing, unfortunately in practice we are unable to help.’

The recent reports which opened this blog suggest aid agencies are struggling to learn and to change. I suggest in my book that aid agencies and academics need each other: ‘You can see why if the two could bash their heads together creating a blend of the best of both we might learn better.’  The two worlds need to collide and to do so both have to find ways to unshackle from their paymasters, creating time and space to take learning and change seriously.

External Links

Aid agency open letter: https://www.islamic-relief.org.uk/letter-from-uk-aid-agencies-on-safeguarding

Aid sector action to tackle abuse ‘completely unsatisfactory’, say MPs

Fewer Britons donate to charities after scandals erode trust https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/may/07/fewer-britons-donate-charities-after-scandals-erode-trust

Making Aid agenciesWork: Reconnecting Aid agencieswith the people they serve: (2019) Terry Gibson, Emerald. https://books.emeraldinsight.com/page/detail/Making-Aid-Agencies-Work/?K=9781787695122

Donald Schon:  Schon, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner . New York, NY: Basic Books.

Article Details

Terry Gibson,
Doctoral Researcher & Operations Director, Manchester University & Global Network of Civil Society Organisations for Disaster Reduction (GNDR)

Date Published:

July 2nd, 2019


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