The paradox of stability and instability

I am working with an organisation in the UK that supports a social movement in many different countries overseas. One way that staff in this organisation does so is to help members of the social movement form organisations. These latter are usually membership organisations which are led by elected committees. The committees are elected to represent their members, and to attract new ones: by no means everyone who needs help is a member of the organisation. So the committee, and the president or chair has to have in mind not only the running of the organisation which keeps accounts, bids for money and runs activities, but also seeks to elicit the needs and wishes of the existing members, as well as the vast majority of marginalised people who they might represent were they to become members. So they are elected to represent, argue for, lobby and advocate on behalf of members and potential members.

These membership organisations are in a uniquely difficult situation, then, having to be stable and unstable at the same time. On the one hand they are obliged to operate according to norms, to become recognised and formal institutions. On the other hand they are obliged constantly to open themselves up to undiscovered needs and wishes, and to adapt themselves to accommodate members whom they have not yet attracted. Staff in these organisations also need to be able to destabilise themselves and their ways of working so that they adapt to meet new needs rather than imposing institutional ways of working on new members.

I enquire what it is that the staff in the organisation I am working with in the UK do to offer support. One response is that they offer ‘capacity building’. Capacity building seems to amount mostly to training courses. Training courses in what? Training in leadership, accounting and organisational development. They support them to do strategic planning, to write their constitutions. Some of these skills are necessary if they are to support what needs to be stable in institutions: it is important to see where the money goes for example. What is being conveyed, however, in the curriculum for leadership training (and these are leaders who have already emerged from among the movement they have come to lead)? The curriculum consists in the same theories that would underpin management training for any institution operating in any domain. Strategic planning is offered within the same paradigm of predictability and control that posts in this blog have critiqued. This kind of training is understood as ‘technical support’, which has the ring of neutrality and of science.

I would contend that this is not neutral support which is value-free. The kind of thinking that underpins most leadership training programmes arises from systemic understandings of the role of managers, who are to be principally concerned with alignment and conformity. Management training, as we have seen in our discussion of strategic planning in some of the posts below, often privileges the programme of the institution over the needs of the people the organisation is set up to serve, shaping the needs of its constituents and potential constituents to fit the categories of staff have already designed.

The creation of institutions which arise out of social movements is one enduring manifestation of the power of the movement. However, it can also be the cause of its downfall if the institutions no longer remain alive to the needs of its members and potential members. The very same UK staff who are offering management training to staff in social movement organisations go on to complain about how some leaders in these organisations can lose touch with the needs of members and potential members. They become self-serving and grow their institutions to make themselves more powerful. This partly points to the seductive nature of the accumulation of power and status but may also partly arise from the kind of training being offered, with its accompanying ideology about what leaders and managers do.

Leadership training, capacity building, and support to movements has to take account of the necessary paradox of stability and instability that keeps institutions honest, alive to the emerging needs of those they are set up to serve.

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