‘He who would do good to another’, wrote the poet William Blake, ‘must do so in the minute particulars’. I was reminded of this quotation when undertaking some work recently in an NGO, which, like many NGOs has an explicit moral mission, and where this mission is adduced by managers in support of various schemes of management. Such and such an initiative is being undertaken because of our commitment to be accountable to the poor and marginalised, or this particular change is needed so that we can demonstrate our accountability to our beneficiaries. As we have noted in previous posts, these broad, idealised values are very important and make us who we are. In this case there is an attempt to broaden the circle of empathy beyond the ambit of our immediate acquaintance to include the poor and excluded about whom it is easy to forget in the hurly burly of our privileged lives.
However, my suspicion is always aroused when senior managers justify certain actions with an appeal to such broad and abstract idealisations, particularly if in so doing they then end up by treating people badly in their immediate organisation. An appeal to values or a moral mission is also a form of social control. The initial moral impulse is used to justify subsequent actions which can themselves be questionable. It is good to be reminded of our commitments to what in international development is known as the majority world, but empathy and compassion towards a collective is not separable from empathy and compassion towards the people I am immediately working with, it arises out of it. It is hard to maintain a commitment to a generalisation, which is why human interest stories in the media and in charitable fundraising material makes more concrete what it is that moves us about the human experience of others like ourselves. In the philosopher GH Mead’s terms, it enables us to take the attitude of the other – we try to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes.
Accountability in NGOs is not just about accountability towards the objects of our moral concern but must also arise in our daily dealings with each other. Ends and means are entangled. An effective way of discovering our accountability to each other in the workplace is reflection. In reflecting with others we find ourselves sharing our view of the world and having that view rounded out, supplemented, even opposed by others. In reflecting with others we find ourselves moving both in terms of our understanding of what we are considering and our attitudes towards ourselves – we become reflexive. It is not always an easy process and inevitably results in the exploration of difference, which may also be conflictual.
So this is the root of my suspicion when highly idealised values are adduced in support of some managerial scheme or other. In escaping to an idealisation, we may be covering over being accountable to each other. Who could possibly be against demonstrating accountability to the poor? Questioning management decisions risks appearing to question the moral mission, and who would be on the wrong side of that?
If reflection is routine in the daily practice of working together we will be obliged to give an account to each other of why we think what we think, and why we have done what we have done. If we are rushing around ‘delivering’ not only do we risk not asking ourselves what we are delivering and why, but we also avoid giving an account of ourselves to others.