The structure of self-organisation

I am working with two organisations who co-operated together in responding to a natural disaster in a developing country. One is based locally where the disaster occcured, the other is based in Britain. We meet together to discuss how the co-operation has fared: what were the points of difference and difficulty? Where did the co-operation work well?

One of the strong themes of the day was the inherently political nature of large scale emergencies. The local organisation has its own constituency, which is a minority in the country affected. Every action and statement that employees make from this organisation could be misinterpreted by the majority community so there are different threads of opinion within the minority community about to behave in the crisis. Members of the Board of the local organisation have to make the best interpretation they can of the rapidly unfolding events to decide how staff should respond. Meanwhile, following global media coverage, the country becomes awash with foreign journalists and aid agencies, UN dignitaries and politicians who are flying in to file stories, see how they can help and also perhaps promote their own agendas. Everyone is pushed and pulled this way and that as money and other donations in kind flood in, some of the latter completely inappropriate. The money pouring in begins to drive the work: see we have sent you money, now why aren’t you doing something?

What the UK organisation brings is expertise in particular disciplines, water and sanitation or emergency housing for example, which has been gleaned from other crises around the world, as well as experience of working in disasters. However, they have never worked in this particular country before, they do not speak the language. They are there to support and advise and unusually are convinced that it is not a good working method just to take over.

Although both organisations share a common value base,  and are working in solidarity, power relations, trust, authority, leadership all quickly become prominent in relationships between people as they try to decide how to organise together. In fact, the local organisation has already been organising in response to the crisis. Local staff have already opened up their facilities to warehouse donations, have already opened a separate bank account to receive donations, have already responded by buying up winding cloth so that the dead can be buried appropriately, have sent  truck loads of food, water and supplies. They may not have the same experience built up of  years  of emergencies of this scale but they have a very good sense of how to start out by responding to this one. It is their own country, and these are their own neighbours.

There is a lot of negotiation to be done about how to work together, and there are things that the UK-based organisation can tell the local organisation about what is likely to happen. It is clear that some of the things they have to say are not at first believed and the local organisation has eventually to come round after experiencing them to be true. But it is also clear that some of the UK-based staff do not recognise the organisation that has already taken place and they say so in this review meeting: they refer to the initial responses of the local organisation as ‘unstructured’, and by this they mean that staff in the local organisation did not carry out a proper needs assessment, or have fully detailed plans that would be recognised by the UK organisation as a plan.

In order to sustain a response to an extended crisis staff from both organisations would indeed need to make plans together and be able to account for the money that was being spent showing how this met the needs of the people affected by the disaster. They would need to structure their ways of working and review them over time. But whose structure predominates, and what do we recognise as structure in the first place?

This kind of partnership requires mutual recognition which implies a potential shift in identity and ways of understanding in both parties. There is a danger however, that outside organisations laying claim to generalised expertise, systematised ways of knowing which have arisen from similar situations but in very different contexts, can both confound and undermine, the very people with whom they would seek to work in close co-operation however unwittingly. They may fail to recognise the structuring of self-organisation upon which they might graft their own support and suggestions, and instead, smother it.


One thought on “The structure of self-organisation

  1. sbilling

    Wow Chris, I am struck by the hugely significant events you are dealing with here and the clarity of your description of the different dynamics at play.

    This is a fantastic example of the interaction of diverse agents – the local people who understand what it takes to get things done in that area / country, and the experts with general knowledge of natural disasters. Combining the two perspectives has the potential for new and very effective responses.

    Imagine if it were possible to discuss the power relationships, trust, authority, leadership operating here – in a crisis this would no doubt be impossible and even in a review would be very difficult. This post is a fabulous example of the different dynamics operating in situations in which the fundamentals of human existence are at stake.


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