Dealing with Criticism

I promised a response to GL’s guest post on how conservation NGOs respond to criticism, and here it is.

The first thing to note is that I don’t think this analysis is particularly unique to NGOs or the conservation sector. Governments, donors, hell probably even academics can come over all defensive when their pet projects are criticised. I, at least, am no saint and I reckon I must have used several of the strategies GL listed over the years. Unfortunately, as in all walks of life, such defensive responses can get pretty nasty, even potentially career threatening, and although truth may win out in the end, this can be scant consolation at the time.

The second thing to note is that it is always easier to criticise than to do. Critics of aid and development projects, and academic critics in particular, can be amazingly naive in their lack of understanding for the myriad pressures and resource limitations with which a project manager must cope. Critics sometimes push their own pet agenda without regard for the bigger picture. My own favourite example: when, as a tiny start-up NGO, we were criticised for not having a “working definition of poverty”. We didn’t have a working definition of the forest we were trying to conserve, but we didn’t believe that was constraining our work. (GL’s own work, I know, has rather more meat than such petty complaints.)

I see several aspects particularly germane to NGOs working in the international conservation and development sectors:

  1. Tax payers in donor countries seem to have a pretty jaded view of official international development assistance and have already priced in expected levels of corruption to their views. Although I have no data to support this, I would imagine that BINGOs as a whole have an almost squeaky clean image in the minds of many people. Whilst I am sure they back that up with an absolute intolerance of internal corruption, most people in developed countries may not have even considered that BINGOs may fail with many, or even any, of their projects. The idea that your personal donation was or might be money wasted is a pretty big turn off for future donations. So BINGOs perhaps feel they have to cultivate an aura of unerring invincibility? On the other hand, given the sheer scope and size of some of these organisations, you would have to be pretty naive to not expect a substantial non-zero failure rate. Do any NGOs, large or small, ever report these? I know we don’t, or at least not publicly on our website, unless buried in an otherwise long, and generally positive report.
  2. Overall, international conservation and development have a patchy record at best. If you went back 30 years and asked people then working in those fields, my guess is that most would have hoped / expected that things would be a lot better now than they are. However, the international aid is very bad at recognising failure (Owen Barder singles out lack of adequate feedback loops). Instead there is a culture of declared project success. BINGOs may have better systems than most to cope with this, but the interchange of staff with bilateral and multilateral aid organisations means that they cannot be immune to this kind of blinkered approach creeping into their work.
  3. The obvious corollary, and much remarked upon, is that international conservation and development is difficult, really difficult. With limited resources at our disposal many management decisions may be taken at the project level which are not as fully informed as we might like. So there is always likely to be plenty to criticise. Good project managers will recognise this, accept the criticim, and move on, but that isn’t always that easy because …
  4. … for most people working in conservation and development their work is a vocation not just a monthly pay cheque. Criticism, especially unsolicited criticism, nearly always has a personal impact, whether or not it is intended that way. However, when critiquing someone’s development project, you may be cutting a lot closer to the bone than, say, dissecting a company audit. In our sector people take their jobs home with them in the evening; shrugging off criticism is a lot harder when it matters more.
  5. Hence when delivering such criticism, diplomacy is advised. As I’ve previously remarked, it is easy to cause offence and or blunder across unseen cultural boundaries, even when you’ve got plenty of experience. BINGO staff might be paid handsome international salaries, but that does not mean they will have left all their cultural ties at the door, nor would we want them to do so. That said, the BINGOs could also do with getting rid of the bad apples, regardless of any immediate fallout; I’ve come across some astoundingly unprofessional people working for BINGOs (a tiny minority) who appear protected because no-one wants to face up to the challenge of booting them out the door.

I ordered the above points in this manner because it gave them some kind of logical flow, but, to my mind at least, they are in clear diminishing importance. Often NGOs seem to be regarded in almost saintly terms – indeed I do not think I am immune from this fallacy – but the reality will always be much messier. This blog exists in part to document the ‘ugly side of conservation and development’. Whether the general public is ready for such nuanced views is less certain. (A question crying out for a good research project, surely!) In the meantime, we can expect BINGOs to continue to gloss over their failings and be rather less tolerant of criticism than their saintly image might imply.

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One response to this post.

  1. [...] Blattman. Indeed this blog has covered NGO unconstructive responses to criticism before (here and here). I also like the study design which reminds me of those experiments where identical CVs were sent [...]

    Reply

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