Aging donors need young talent

Development Policy12 Aug 2010Reinout van Santen

Just before sitting down to write this blog post, a news website showed me a small article about the inability of Dutch development organizations to hire talent. Hiring talent, which in the hiring-of-staff world of course means: hire young and gifted people that have an aptitude to do certain things. Not recognizing this as a staff advisor, head of internal affairs or manager at any level of a developmental organization, would make you unsuitable for the job. Not being able to hire talent as an organization would mean that you have set course towards that big iceberg. Whatever professional organization makes the choice by reason to chase away talent, should seriously reconsider to take part in the race for MFO.

Sadly, this is the case for a lot of organizations. The Dutch developmental sector is aging. It is also losing contact with its beneficiaries as these people are mostly young, proactive and vibrant people.

The fallacy arguments, used by developmental organizations in the Vice Versa article to defend their decisions not to hire young people, show exactly how great the urgency is for these organizations to hire young people. Gemma Crijns has already appropriately criticized all arguments of developmental organizations for not to hiring young people, by reasoning that the development sector should put their money where there mouth is and act according to principles of corporate social responsibility. But I don’t even need any arguments to show the treadmill way of thinking that is offered to us, again.

Translated, some organizations say, ‘Hiring young and gifted people that have an aptitude to do certain things holds us back. Hiring young and gifted people that have an aptitude to do certain things means that the quality of our work will reduce.’ The best one of course being, ‘Hiring young and gifted people that have an aptitude to do certain things is an “unnecessary accessory” to our organization’.

As a person who is inclined to believe that civil society organizations matter in achieving the developments that we all would like to see, this reasoning shocks me. Professional organizations claim their work is about doing professional, high-quality development work. But obviously these organizations are not doing that. They fail to hire talent and choose to make the same mistakes over and over and over. Developing countries are mostly populated by young people that do not need paternalistic, aging development workers.

ViceVersa takes a positive approach to the problem and gives the example of talent with great ideas that actually show how young people prove the opposite. As we, on this blog, think it is more fruitful to kick a little bit harder, I would like to give you the ‘old donor fart’ anecdote. Taking this anecdote from my own experience would be too confronting and it is much safer to tell you someone else’s story :-). Therefore, I will tell you a story from a ‘significant other’ in Bhutan, one which gives me an appropriate name for the people that are doing the ‘quality’ work in the development world.

A couple of weeks ago, the Bhutanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs organized a day trip for the ‘international community’ to one of the national parks, for a showcase of Butanese nature preservation. After a one-hour drive, the attendees were divided into smaller groups to make a short trek through the forest. One of the fellow ‘dependants’, a member of our intimae (the small group of JPOs), risked being placed in a different group to us. This person, an international ‘significant other’, said jokingly to me, but loud enough for others to hear, ‘Reinout, I don’t want to be in the groups with the old donor farts’.

My friend knew one of the old farts because this person had asked him to do some work for the international aid organization. I would like to remark that the old donor fart was accompanied by other old donor farts dressed in the same style, talking the same and walking the same. There was no sign of any young talent.

The old donor fart had asked my friend to look into the possibilities of funding a Bhutanese NGO that had requested them for an amount of money. My friend did a small inquiry into the organization, talked to some staff, looked at their plans etc. I don’t need to go in to details about this inquiry, but my friend basically found that the planned activities would not contribute at all to the objectives of the international donor, and that almost all of the money would end up in the organizations core budget, while not really achieving anything programmatically. The significant other reported this observation to the international organization. But the old donor fart would not accept these recommendations. Moreover, the decision had already been made and the money had to be spent, otherwise the donor organization would have underspent.

Well, fellow treehuggers! People who know me know that I am not the type to make easy generalizations … nuance is my middle name. But I got to hear this story, and it sounded familiar in many ways! I am quite sure that the mistakes and false arguing of this old donor fart sound familiar to everyone in the Dutch development sector.

At least the financial officers should hear a ‘ping’ and see a light bulb. And then to say this fart was not alone. There was a whole group of powerful, money-giving old donor farts at the showcase of the Bhutanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs that day. Imagine: they all have the same reasoning and their work does not only have a neutral impact but also a negative impact. Money does strange things to a small country like Bhutan, with not even a million inhabitants. You wouldn’t need a ‘young genius’ to teach you that giving away large amounts of money, without taking into consideration the ‘do no harm principle’, could be quite harmful.

Giving away money because you would be underspending is unethical. Still, a lot of Dutch organizations are giving away money, while the performance of their partners is often very poor. Again, I do not wish to make easy statements here, such as, ‘young people wouldn’t make these mistakes’. But I would like to argue that hiring more young talent, making organizational plans for talent to grow within the organization, and making sure that young people are also given positions where their creativity matters, could have a positive result on your organization’s achievement. For instance, entrenched thinking and accepted malpractices would be questioned more often. Experience is not always, and not only, a good thing.

So, the statements and questions for discussion are clear. Wouldn’t it be better to have some fresh ideas about, for instance, giving away money? Do all these talents have to start their own project (like the 1% club, bid network, play it forward etc) or would it be better to incorporate these ideas into existing organizations? Is experience always a good thing? What would be the actual reasons to hire young people? What are possible advantages and disadvantages for organizations when hiring these ‘inexperienced talents’? Most importantly, in the light of the new MFS round, what will be the specific policy steps for organizations to hire young people?

The questions are all open for discussion. Fire away!