Are you feeling patronised?

No-one likes to depend upon charity hand-outs. The poor are often “wretched” perhaps because they’re also reduced to the begging bowl. This is a universal problem for all sorts of charitable endeavours; a British homeless man’s pride must be as battered as that of many Least Developed Countries. I suppose after a time one gets numb to many of the indignities. (Another symptom of aid dependence?)

I was lucky enough to be born into a reasonably well-off family in a rich country. I’ve benefited from the odd freebie, but, by and large, I can assert with pride that I have achieved my successes mostly under my own steam, and earned my comparative riches through my own hard work. But that does not blind me to the rather patronising nature of the work in which I am now embarked. We provide the funds, because the country where I work is too poor, and we provide some of the expertise, because that is either missing too or too thinly stretched.

When working with the poor, rural communities our organisation targets, one  is concious of the huge gap in wealth, usually manifested most obviously in the gadgets we bring. However, that huge gap also seems to inoculate both sides against some of the worst aspects of patronising charity; the wealth discrepancies are so big the communities mostly just seem pleased that we’re helping them, perhaps in the same way I wouldn’t feel guilty about accepting a gift from a multi-millionaire who can definitely afford it.

When the gap is smaller, however, the issues of patronisation arise. Mostly I encounter these when dealing with local professionals here (government types, academics, some NGO staff and consultants), but I also sometimes detect hints of similarly strained relationships between these professionals and poor community members. Wounded pride leads to push-back; heads get stuck firmly in the sand, political agendas come to the fore, and awkwardness reigns. It can be extremely frustrating; the same people who eagerly write in their own strategies that they need “capacity building” (usually supported with generous per diems), then get shirty when given some of the advice they so clearly need. I presume they are frustrated too!

Building local ownership is the best solution, but this ownership (and capacity) building can take a long, long time, during which time the ruling elites are benefitting but the intended ultimate beneficiaries are going nowhere. This is one of the major dilemmas of international aid and development, and inevitably results in twin-tracked approaches which compromise that crucial local ownership. (And can you truly own something which someone else is paying for, any way?)

A significant portion of my job involves managing inter-organisational politics. Sometimes it is pure ‘rent-seeking’ behaviour, but frequently one can detect a strong subtext of push-back against patronisation. And, as frustrated as I may sometimes get with it, I always try to remember to put myself in their shoes. The desire for self- assertion is natural and reasonable; it must be magnified several times over each time you’re reminded that someone else is paying (so you’d better keep them happy: conditions on aid grants seem particularly patronising to me) or one of  their representatives apparently knows better than you. Are we ‘development partners’ or ‘development patronisers’?

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Before anyone comments, yes, I am aware that a long blog post explaining how one is patronising someone is itself pretty patronising …

    Reply

  2. […] the obvious: paternalistic approaches are inherently condescending and patronising, and can rapidly descend into sexism, racism and probably a bunch of other undesirable -isms too. […]

    Reply

  3. […] their output is lacking a necessary level of sophistication? Arrogance does not become one, and us oh-so-enlightened Westerners are guilty of that far too often. Smooth diplomacy, however, can only get you so far: either you need to accept the product […]

    Reply

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