The great nineteenth century German sociologist, Max Weber, wrote brilliantly and presciently about the tension between charisma and bureaucracy while the modern administrative State was being formed across Europe. He noted how charisma inevitably ‘retreats’ in the face of bureaucracy or becomes ‘routinized’.
The retreat of charisma from humanitarian organizations is a challenge for us all.
Humanitarian action certainly needs effective administration and the well-organized allocation of resources, which a good bureaucracy provides. Bureaucracies and bureaucrats do provide important services like institutionalizing and sustaining values, creating and spreading sound policy, achieving wide coverage and scale, and giving people careers. Weber notes that the ‘permanence’ of bureaucracies is their great strength, while charisma often bursts into light at moments of crisis to fade again when it has changed the course of events.
There are important things which bureaucracies struggle to do, like making quick decisions, cooperating with one another, showing a human face and giving their employees a vibrant sense of agency and impact. Bureaucracies also, of course, tend to develop deep vested interests in the status quo.
The humanitarian sector needs transnational administration, but it also needs ingenuity, agility and energy to create new forms of humanitarian action to replace the dominant practices of humanitarian bureaucracies if their pace and approach is at odds with the times.
An earlier charismatic age
When I joined Save the Children UK in 1983 as an enthusiastic 22-year-old theology graduate, setting off to Morocco with a suitcase, typewriter and guitar, the humanitarian sector was still small and led by a few striking individuals.
Save’s London Headquarters were in a former girls’ school in Camberwell, London. People worked together in old classrooms and the school hall was partitioned between logistics, fundraising and accounts. An old store cupboard was used to hold a basic supply of emergency medicines.
It was in here, the day before leaving for Sudan in 1985, that the legendary John Seaman, one of only two global medical advisors, gave me the necessary vaccinations. This included the old gamma globulin jab which took a while to sink in, making it best not to sit down for the rest of the day. At this time, Save had one accountant for international operations and one personnel officer for international recruitment.
The UK Government was much the same. DFID, the Department for International Development, was then called the Overseas Development Administration and a remarkable woman called Dorothy Cherry was in sole charge of the UK’s emergency funding. “Ring Dorothy” was a phrase often heard at peak moments. In Ethiopia, the British embassy had one very energetic and able diplomat in charge of all British funding and response.
Most emergency medical supplies for UK NGOs at the time were sourced and delivered by ECHO. This was not the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operation of today. The “E” stood for Evangelical, not European, and it was a small charity founded and run by two deeply Christian brothers who specialized in supplying missionary hospitals in Africa.
There was not much paper work but there were a lot of decisions. Our spirit was ambitious and amateur, in the best sense of doing something we loved. We were a very small part of global politics and had the gutsy can-do attitude of the plucky underdog as we applied medical and nutritional expertise to situations of extreme mass suffering.
There were discussions, orders, discipline, lots of personal initiative and the usual inter-personal dysfunction in some teams. There were hardly any communications – mainly telex, typed letters and telephone – so we all tended to be given broad objectives and instructed to get on with it. We were then checked up on regularly in visits by ‘Field Directors’.
And we were young. Most of us were in our 20s and early 30s but always guided by a few older people at the top who had done this before in Biafra, Bangladesh and the previous Ethiopian famine. This experience gave me a lasting admiration for the operational energy, courage and judgement of young people. No major operation of any kind should be mounted without young people out in front. They are the great change-makers and the great risk-takers. Seeing the world for the first time brings a special insight, just as seeing it for the umpteenth time brings a particular wisdom. The two go well together.
The culture was one of great enthusiasm, pragmatism and humor mixed with staunch complaining in the quintessential British manner. Many of our people were charismatic outsiders who had found a place of relative freedom and autonomy beyond more conventional and bureaucratic jobs at home.
Our organizations were relatively light and face-to-face. Our operations could be flexed or re-purposed relatively quickly and people along the operational chain from project to capital to headquarters had high levels of discretionary power. Our donors took less power than they do now and were content with broader reporting and a few specific measures of success.
Nobody could have honestly described Save the Children as a bureaucracy in the 1980s. We were more like an enterprising and fast-growing company – mesmerized and intrigued by what we could achieve, and slightly amazed that we could do so much from an old school building in London.
At the same time, it was clear to everyone that we needed a bit more bureaucracy and accountability. The sector also needed to achieve greater scale to match the vast effects of large conflicts. In the 1980s, annual global humanitarian assistance was always under $2 billion but huge numbers of people were affected by war. An estimated four million people died in armed conflicts during the 1990s and there was an average of 35 million IDPs and refugees throughout the decade, with global humanitarian aid peaking at just over $5 billion.
The sharp and steady rise of humanitarian funding started in the 2000s. Today it stands at $29 billion for 2018. With this budget expansion came steady bureaucratization.
Bureaucratization and its challenges
Today, the humanitarian organizations that oversee and spend the vast majority of this $29 billion are big transnational bureaucracies, and there is a sense across the sector that the pendulum has swung wide enough towards administration. A better balance between dynamism and bureaucracy now needs to be struck as we work on the cusp of global climate crisis and increasing conflict.
There are perhaps eight key features of bureaucratization which tend to stifle and inhibit more creative and fast-moving humanitarian cultures of charisma, adaptation and renewal.
- Managerialism. Large organizations genuinely require more specialist and detailed management to handle an increasing amount of standardization, protocol and routine practices. This means the balance in an organization’s staff shifts over time from a critical mass of creative and operational people to a larger proportion of experts focusing on process and systems.
- Elaboration. The longer humanitarian action has been in play the more elaborate it has naturally become in its aspirations and methods. Today there is an ever-thickening social, economic, engineering and evaluative science around humanitarian action. We need to take account of political economy, social relations, law, principles, new technology and impact over time whenever we plan and implement humanitarian acts. We are including ever more categories of persons in need of special treatment and discovering new fields of action like mental health, disability, urban services, digital aid and climate adaptation. Even if each new area is charismatically discovered and proclaimed, they soon bed down to become another complicated field of allocation and management.
- Overpopulation. The thickening of fields and the elaboration of new tasks mean more and more people are hired and Parkinson’s Law kicks in fast. This holds that “officials make work for each other” and “every official wants to multiply subordinates, not rivals” in any bureaucracy. Many officials duplicate one another’s jobs, creating massive overlaps of personnel where a poorer organization would just have one person in play. As the population explodes in a bureaucracy, face-to-face decisions become more difficult to make; meetings and working groups multiply, and the decisions that are eventually made are often late and worn down to a form of consensus which lacks daring and change.
- Task-impact distance. Bureaucracy tends to develop long chains of cumulative actions which put enormous distance between individuals and operational results. This makes it common for bureaucrats to have no real sense of agency and little proof of specific differences they have actually made. Thus, they regularly lament: “but what have I really achieved?” as another year goes by.
- Ageism and the suppression of talent. Bureaucracies struggle to remain flat power structures. They soon become deeply hierarchical as they define multiple calibrations of rank to accommodate more and more people inhabiting the organization for longer and longer careers. This hierarchy often makes age and time served a typical but highly inappropriate proxy for ability and talent. Many humanitarian bureaucracies attract young people but then do not let them fly, seeing them as ‘junior’ well into their thirties. This is ridiculous and a terrible waste.
- Habit. One of the worst things in a bureaucracy is habit. People do things in a certain way because they have always done it this way, and because they are comfortable doing it this way – especially if other possible rivals don’t know how to do it this way. Force of habit is deeply resistant to more simplistic change.
- Cognitive dissonance. The mismatch between a humanitarian bureaucracy’s rhetoric and reality leaves many agency staff and observers in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. Three areas of particular dissonance today occur around claims made by massive bureaucracies that they are innovative, close to the people and ensuring most of their money reaches the hands of people in need. Such claims can seem very odd to thousands of staff sitting in front of screens and, indeed, to people in need.
- Wicked leadership problems. Leaders are prominent in humanitarian bureaucracies. They are given global status as ‘high-level’ operators and projected in a charismatic role with enormous power and influence. In reality, however, bureaucracies are notoriously difficult to steer and change. Most humanitarian leaders face genuinely wicked problems in driving and transforming their organizations, and very few have a one touch control panel. Most humanitarian leaders are left with little choice but to pretend they are changing their organizations more than they actually are.
A better balance between dynamism and bureaucracy?
What can we do to reduce the culture of bureaucracy in humanitarian organizations? Maybe nothing at all. Perhaps bureaucratization is simply the very nature of size. Weber is probably right that charisma and bureaucracy do not naturally go together. Charisma arises at pivotal moments of change and then recedes in the face of re-structuring.
So what shall we do with our big bureaucracies? We could try a few things.
First, we could apply Ockham’s Razor a little more frequently. William of Ockham, a thirteenth century Franciscan critic of an overly developed Papal bureaucracy, was a staunch supporter of simplicity in thinking and organization. His famous rule of Ockham’s Razor, insists upon the principle of simplicity and urges that we cut away unnecessary complexity if we can get to the same result with simpler reasoning or resources.
This injunction to “keep it simple” is a useful mantra for us all. If a simple and minimal solution is workable then always use it instead of a more complicated and expensive one. In other words, do not hire a new person or build a new team for every new problem or task. Prioritize decisions over meetings and working groups. Do not assume that the collective intelligence of many will be better and faster than the intelligence of one or two people. Breakthroughs and innovation usually come from individuals, not groups. Collectives often default to a consensual fudge.
Secondly, we could reduce and repurpose humanitarian bureaucracies around local actors and so change our business model to one of genuine partnership and localization. We could take localization and South-South solidarity seriously and become investment partners more than expeditionary operators.
Here, of course, we may hit a paradox that in de-bureaucratizing ourselves we then bureaucratize others. In 1970, Oxfam helped seed fund a charismatic organization called BRAC with a grant of £10,000 in Bangladesh. Today BRAC is a near billion-dollar agency and, no doubt, a bureaucracy too. But at least it is an Asian bureaucracy.
Thirdly, we could put young talent in the vanguard of our organizations and enable it to be more dynamic. Youth often both carries and attracts charisma. This is obvious in many social movements. People often look back at the leaders of the civil rights movement in the USA and imagine them as mid-lifers. In fact, most were in their late teens and early twenties. Martin Luther King was one of the oldest, at 28, when he became a leader of the movement.
Young people should be free to fly in our bureaucracies in the same way the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has always deployed young volunteers on the frontlines.
Fourthly, we should remember Weber’s caution that charisma is a ‘value neutral’ phenomenon. We need charisma, but we must be sure it is authentically and constructively humanitarian, a goal often best guided by wisdom and experience.
Finally, we bureaucrats should expect to be surprised, bemused and threatened by new charismatic forms of humanitarian ingenuity. New good things often sound strange at first because they see change before we do.
The composer, Robert Schumann, was another great German who died shortly before Max Weber was born. In the two years before he died, he became mentally ill and detached, but wrote many new pieces for piano. One of these was a song cycle called the Songs of Dawn. His wife, Clara Schumann, another great pianist, noted how they were “very original as always, but hard to understand, their tone is so very strange.”
Today, these pieces are easily heard as exquisitely beautiful. We can expect new bursts of humanitarian ingenuity to be the same. Strange to us and ahead of our times but essential for the times to come.
Hoping for something surprisingly good
Bureaucracies drive continuity. Charisma drives change. In this moment of global transition, we need ingenuity and charisma once again in the humanitarian sector – a new founding moment, driven perhaps from Asia and Africa rather than Europe and North America.
Perhaps the current 80s model of humanitarian action is reaching its peak. It may need to undergo a revolution to make itself fit for purpose in this age of climate emergency, popular activism and new great power competition.
Even if big humanitarian bureaucracies still command a valuable place in meeting human needs at scale, we also need more dynamic approaches to bring about the deep levels of community-based adaptation and survival required in the 21st century.
If humanitarian bureaucracies cannot bring about these changes themselves then we should at least look out for positive charismatic change by others, and then stand back and learn from them as people shape new ways of rescuing and protecting one another in the 2020s.
 From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, translated and edited by H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London 1948, pp196-251.
 Global Humanitarian Assistance 2000, Inter-Agency Standing Committee, May 2000, p1.
Other blog posts by this author
- Trust me – I’m a Humanitarian, October 24, 2019
- The Power of Humanity: On being human now and in the future, July 30, 2019
- Masculinity and War–let’s talk about it, March 15, 2018
- Impartiality and Intersectionality, January 16, 2018
- Habitat III: The smartest city is a safe city, October 24, 2016
- Remember the millions of people living in urban violence, July 4, 2016
Thank you for this thought-provoking piece. I’m heartened to know that somewhere in the bureaucracy there is also still room to take a step back and reflect, possibly sowing the seeds of the next charismatic moment.
Very glad you enjoyed the article Natalie. Thank you for reading, and for taking the time to share your reactions!
Thanks a lot Hugo, this is a perfect reading to start the day full of energy, convictions and hope 🙂 Sylvie
Very glad you enjoyed the article, Sylvie. Thanks for reading!
This is excellent – and should be a must read for commercial companies that are struggling to fulfil their governance and transparency obligations, without having the bureaucratic dog wag the entrepreneurial tail. Excellent generic lessons to be learned across sectors. Thanks!
Hi Adam! Indeed, there are lessons here that are apply way beyond the humanitarian sector. Thanks for reading!
Thanks Hugo, stimulating, insightful and uncomfortably recognisable!
What you have described related to humanitarian activity is possibly even more true in long term development, where the urgency created by immediacy of suffering and media coverage is absent.
One important multiplying factor in all of this is the extent that one party in the funding/ delivery chain imposes bureaucratisation on the next level down; and with a “value” chain as long as exists in many humanitarian situations , you end up with a series of requirements that may end up being a greater driver of action than the suffering that the response exists to alleviate. Each requirement may makes sense on its own, and they do add value and reduce waste, but the end result is that responses are slower, more cautious and more top down, and that grant would probably never be made to BRAC today!
So maybe the solution involves getting the leaders of those agencies near the top of the value chain together to develop their eight initial responses to your eight features?
Thank you, Mark, for the insightful extension of this analysis to the development sphere. Certainly, these eight points are not limited to the humanitarian sector, as you note. Indeed, your comment and suggestion of linking leaders of top agencies builds upon the evergreen discussion of the “triple nexus” of humanitarian, development and peacebuilding work. Please feel free to submit a blog on the topic linking to humanitarian action, if you find the time and inclination! Meanwhile, thank you for reading.
Dear Hugo. Enjoyed reading. Lots to reflect. SEEDS, a humanitarian organisation that I co-founded works much in India and the region, is going through a similar transition and in a critical phase of turning into a bureaucracy that you refer to. Moreover, I have observed that even in global south we seem to be perpetuating the same systems that we inherited from our donors in the North. Your article gives useful directions on the need to be young, agile, and objective oriented with our feet, hands and ears always pressed to the ground. Time also for us to redefine partnerships incorporating the nuances that you mention. Thanks once again for the inspiration.
Thanks Manu, for your comment and for reading!
Very nice article. World needs such humanitarian action again.
To begin with, can you look into a very basic rule at ICRC. The FAM position at ICRC is only open to people who know both French and English, no other positions follow this rule. This keeps almost 70% of the passionate and motivated global candidates with such skills, away from ICRC. For Francophone countries, this makes a lot of sense but for other locations, it somehow doesn’t add up. One fails to understand the logic, no international org including UN asks all the candidates to know both French and English. Language should depend on the location. Doesn’t this amount to bureaucracy and complexity? Is this a rule created by someone working from a headquarter where most of the people are bilingual? There may be many reasons to have such a thing in place, but there are also many reasons to not have this in place; one of them being humanitarianism.
Humanitarianism isn’t bilingual!
Thank you HM for sharing your thoughts, and for reading!
I am not a robot.
Thank you, Hugo, for framing this so nicely.
I am under the impression that bureacratisation is frequently treated as the favourite bogeyman by our colleagues who do such an excellent job at complaining.
This piece allows to move this debate towards a more productive territory.
I have a few comments/questions:
You seem to suggest that culture and shared values can replace the bureaucratic apparatus as the glue holding organisations together. In case of the 1980s paradise you describe Christianity and Britishness seem to have played at least part of that role.
My own observations tell me that the ICRC has a particularly strong corporate culture of its own. And it is this culture that stifles innovation, fast decision making and agility more often than bureaucracy does. But apparently culture changes last…
On ageism, I do agree in general that it is a problem at some levels, although other exclusionary factors may be even more important. However, we also hear from field colleagues that the exponential growth of the organisation in the last decade has forced us to promote fast and give positions of responsibility to increasingly junior people. How do we reconcile the two views?
Lastly, on innovation, you seem to suggest that all large humanitarian organisations are incapable of innovation due to their bureaucratic nature. My experience in the ICRC is that there is an overwhelming number of grassroots innovations. The problem we have is that the successful ones are rarely, if ever, scaled up to replace the old routines. But how do you achieve scale without flexing the bureaucratic muscle?
Thanks again for the timely piece!
Hello Maciek and many thanks for taking the time to share your reflections! All very interesting points. Please let me know if you would like to submit a blog on the points you explore here. And thank you for reading!
Timely reflection on humanitarianism.
Bureaucracy goes together with financial resource “filtering” that sees less and less reaching the needy people. This doesn’t mean localization doesn’t filter financial resources too, but as you put it re BRAC, filtered resources would stay at local level.
Thank you for your comment Pasteur, and thank you for reading!
Thank you for this courageous and provocative analysis which I hope will serve ICRC’s recently appointed new DG in his declared efforts to streamline and rejuvenate the present self paralyzed mega bureaucracy the institution has become.
It will take a lot of efforts and courage (and a bit of time…) on his part and his future team to restore the indispensable confidence young staff have totally lost but absolutely need to have in their leadership. They hopefully will learn once again to take indispensable inventive and sometimes risky initiatives and resist the temptation to become the “Yes men” (and women) most have become today for fear of loosing their jobs. They will learn again their right to make mistakes and to make their voices heard to challenge their technocratic and megalomaniac bosses who have taken the institution on such dangerous side tracks…
Friendly regards from a not so distant past when respect for the Fundamental Principles and protection work were at the core of this great organization’s mission.
Thank you, Francis, for this honest evaluation and constructive reflection. And thank you for reading!
it gives me hope to see that there are people “up high“ that are still critical and reflecting and not bureaucratised in their minds jet. As a 42 years old first missioner I’m still seen as junior, and a criticism send up high came back with the question “do you really want to share this? Some people regretted afterwards…“. Made me sad, makes me feel small, powerless, stupid little first missioner. Makes me loose interest.
Byebye, back to my old job or on to something else.
My main concern is the growing distance between the field and the decision makers by bureaucratisation. The pyramid got too big. My little voice is not loud enough to reach up there, it’s too small to matter, it’s too unexperienced. I’m 42. Loads of experience. But not within this particular bureaucracie.
Why didn’t I give my real name here? Well, “some people regretted afterwards…“
Hello and thanks very much for your comment and for sharing your experience. And thank you for reading!
Humanitarian bureaucracies seek to serve the poor and vulnerable, but can raise money only by appealing to the wealthy donors. This leads to the dissonance (point 7) which you write about. ICRC and other donor-funded humanitarian agencies need to satisfy the accounting, political, cultural, and other demands of the funders, before they can begin to address the needs of the poor and vulnerable. In this context, the dissonance (and often cynicism) emerges.
If you stick to Max Weber’s analysis, another good read is his “Politics as Vocation.” There he writes of the tension between the “Ethic of Moral Conviction” which asks politicians and agencies to keep an eye on their high principles, and “Ethic of Responsibility” in order to placate the constituencies that keep the organization humming along. The trick for the new Director General of ICRC will be to identify when to stiff the donors’ accountability requirements in order to take risks that may (or may not) assist the vulnerable. The trick in the field, is do you pay a bribe to get a truck through a checkpoint in the short run or not? Balancing these two ethics is more difficult in humanitarian agencies than in “normal” bureaucracies found in banks or government agencies.
Interesting points, thanks very much for reading and for sharing your reflections and insight, Tony!
what a pity for our ICRC that you are leaving but at least it is with the legacy of this again impressive blog & your other most insightful & valuable (& often humourous) contributions!
Another metaphor for what you describe as Charisma & Baureaucracy can be derived from our neurological point of view on our two cerebral hemispheres & the functions exerted by them as best described by Iain McGilchrist in his “The Master & His Emissary. The Divided Brain & the Making of the Western World”. And we can look forward to his new book which will come out later this (still young) year.
With kindest regards & all best wishes! And if at Oxford: take a sip of a half pint of Lager on my behalf (preferably near Wadham College or Blackwell’s bookshop)
Thank you for your kind words, Jurg, which I will be sure to pass along to Hugo. And thank you for reading!
Thank you Hugo for another insightful and timely piece which I greatly enjoyed reading.
I left the NGO world in 1985 and worked for a UN humanitarian agency for the next 21 years. I have lost count of how many times during those two decades I thought, and often verbalized, “Whoever set up a bureaucracy and then tasked it with responding to emergencies!”
At these moments I would ponder on one of the few things I remember from my briefing when I joined the UN and was being sent immediately out to the field. The head of the section I had been assigned to told me never to forget that the organization was made up of the “priests” (bureaucrats) and the “warriors” (Charismatic? field staff). I was informed that I had been recruited as a warrior. The warrior’s job was to “win the war” by what ever means were necessary but, at the same time, to avoid being “burned at the stake” by the priests.
This advice stood me in good stead as I navigated my way through quite a number of humanitarian emergencies and is a lesson I try to pass on to my students today.
Excellent anecdotes and metaphors Tony- thanks for reading and for sharing your experiences!
A quick word Hugo to say thank you for such a wonderful article
It so resonated on a personal level, and made me laugh out loud, having launched my self into the aid world as a young naive Australian Volunteer in the early 80s (also with guitar in hand ), and then onto a long career in both the aid and humanitarian world
What struck me the most was your reflection about the energy courage and judgement of young people. This was most certainly my experience throughout my career yet I am concerned it is so much harder now for young people to gain entry into this world without a string of qualifications or significant experience which is hard to gain.
As a young aid worker I was full of the passion and determination you describe however I was fortunate to have the counsel and steady hand of much wiser and experienced mentors and managers Such an important consideration about how to create opportunities for young people and provide appropriate mentor ship and guidance
Thank you again for such a great read and with warmest regards from down under
Thanks very much for sharing your reflections, Jane. I couldn’t agree more with his points on youth, with my favorite line surely: “Seeing the world for the first time brings a special insight, just as seeing it for the umpteenth time brings a particular wisdom. The two go well together.”
Thanks for reading!
This is a bit dated, and probably applies to NGO arenas more so than government bureaucracies.
The latest catch-phrase in government is ‘innovation’ and an old vanguard at the top tiers of government bureaucracies has stacked its closest advisors with young and impressionable ‘innovators’. These young people serve 2 or 3 years in entry level positions and suddenly become ‘Senior Advisors’ overnight without competitions or other mechanisms for testing knowledge or experience. Instead, they are credited with some kind of ‘innovative’ idea (reducing single-use plastics in the office, creating a new spreadsheet to monitor excessive use of paper clips, proposing a challenge to employees to climb stairs for improved health, proposing unisex toilet signs to help Trans people feel better about themselves, etc.), get a bunch of awards whose selection criteria are completely secret, and then they disappear into senior levels of bureaucracy where their jobs are a mystery but their promotions keep appearing every 2 – 3 years.
These new ‘loyalists’ are basically the equivalent of political staffers, who are there to hide their senior bureaucrats’ weaknesses from public view. Their role is to deflect any direct challenges to senior management’s self-serving decisions by attacking dissenters from the latter’s edicts. At meetings where someone questions management’s decision to ignore a court ruling as a ‘risk management’ strategy, these Loyalists will accuse the questioner of creating a toxic environment, or of not possessing the data seen by higher level managers, or of being ignorant of the advice provided by Legal Departments, or basically any lie or distraction that will delay discussion of the decision until the meeting is over. The questioner then finds him/herself being disinvited from subsequent meetings, and mysteriously fails future competitions for promotions. They are eased out of any process by which major decisions are made and end up in some obscure cubicle handling Access to Information and other admin tasks until they retire.
What’s saddest of all is that young staff are so eager to fill this satrap role that they start volunteering to perform menial tasks in offices of senior management just to get noticed. They’ll volunteer to substitute for a secretary on vacation, or to clean out storage rooms on management floors, or organize charity fund raising campaigns for senior managers. Sucking up is a fact of life but when it ends up with rewards that place ignorant people in charge of national policies just for the personal benefit of individual managers and staffers, then it’s the country that suffers.
Bureaucracies are doubling in size in many Western governments that are falling victim to this kind of self-serving, neoliberal mindset. Senior bureaucrats are being inserted from outside ranks with no knowledge of the programs they are supposed to administer, and to hide their ignorance and incompetence, they promote these ambitious young people to serve as their representatives who don’t hesitate to sacrifice the public interest for their self-benefit. Meanwhile, the expertise and warnings of experienced staff get lost in the obsession with branding, self-promotion and screeches of ‘innovation’ from these highly politicized manipulators.
It’s disingenuous to claim that young people’s ‘fresh’ ideas are somehow automatically meritorious. Without the knowledge and modification of experienced expertise, these ideas can result in massive waste or cause considerable harm. One is supposed to learn the job and its complications over time before rushing into new concepts. The fact that governments (and the media) no longer reveal huge government losses through rash adoption of new concepts doesn’t mean that injecting ‘fresh blood’ has resulted in success. It means that the politicization of bureaucracies has been successfully hidden from accountability reviews, in part due to the collusion of the same ‘fresh blood’.
So, if ICRC young staff are sick of being overlooked, come up with a catchy idea for a new Twitter campaign for a government bureaucracy, and pitch it to a senior bureaucrat at the next government fundraiser you come across. You’ll become a Director or Director General and earn 6 figure salaries within a few months without even knowing the name of that Department. Just be sure to check your conscience and soul with your coat when you arrive.
Resonates with Natsios article in 2020 on bureaucracy and ‘obsessive measurement disorder’.
We can also make a connection between increasing bureaucratisation and the undertone of ‘distrust’, in people. Every more supervision, monitoring, control, appraisal, evaluation…why not more attention to hiring people for attitude and responsibility, instead of just for technical skills?
A concept – and perspective- that has come to shape my reflections in this, is the ‘compliance tax’.
How much of every 100 dollar now goes to that, as a direct cost (and an indirect one, in terms of missed opportunities because we couldn’t respond in time to a window of opportunity, as we were waiting for the required authorisations.
Finally, don’t equate all ‘age’ with loss of dynamism and creativity…the body grows older but the mind can stay fit and young. You may not see those characters of course, as they leave the bureaucracies!
Small reflections, triggered by an excellent and timely article. Thank you Hugo!
Thank you Koenraad, for reading and for taking the time to share your thoughts!
Many thanks indeed, I both enjoyed the article as well as some of the subsequent debate… Indeed that Tsunami of humanitarian bureaucracy and so often just overwhelming requests for, or bombardment of, information that so many practitioners spent more and more time either feeding or trying to figure out a way around. A number of years back, over only a matter of days, I listed out many of the top lines of a programme managers inbox: guidance materials, new formats, reviews, reports, resources, templates, mapping exercises, bulletins, minutes, updates, agendas, security alerts, action plans, sitreps, matrixes, markers, baselines, log frames, annexes, budgets, snapshots, handbooks, tool, strategies, the list went on. Today it really does seem like that list just keeps on growing and rather like a checkpoint, much of it easy to put in place but much harder to take away! I have often though a really worthwhile “audit” would be of our emails with some kind of formula as to which actually lead to helping with the success of the mission and which are just an abstraction! One immediate suggestion is to ask ourselves what part we individually play in all of this and how we can lighten that load.
I do also recommend taking a look at Margie Buchanan-Smith HPG October 2011 article “Humanitarian leadership and accountability: contribution or contradiction?” that touches on many of these issue even then!
Managerialism, Elaboration, Overpopulation, Task-Impact distance, Ageism and the suppression of talent, Habit, Cognitive dissonance and Wicked leadership problems – you’ve crystallized the challenges I feel I have been addressing for the past years – thank you 🙂
My only question is whether we can overcome them with revolution, or evolution towards a ‘teal’ organization …
Thanks for sharing your thoughts Robin, and great question: revolution or evolution? Sounds like an interesting opinion piece… Let us know if you know of any thought leaders we could approach to tackle it or feel free to submit a blog yourself. Thanks for reading!
Success is to simplify complex problems and then do it.
This is excellent! It reminds me of my 20s as WATHAB project manager, that I could achieve allot within a short period of time, comparing to now drowning in paperwork and nothing moves faster.
Really loved this. Thank you Hugo! It got at the tension between start up culture and getting to scale. We’re in the business at Mulago of finding and funding social entrepreneurs that can have big impact at scale (pretty sure if Dorothy was born today she’d make a kick-ass social entrepreneur).
We long taught early stage organizations that those who have gone before them and got huge – the BINGOS – would be a path to scale. That these behemoths would be desperate to take the new whippersnappers on the block’s bright ideas and run with them. Then we did some research. We couldn’t find a single example of the systematic scale-up of social entrepreneurs’ solutions by a BINGO. Nadda. Zilch. Your piece get’s at the problems of these bureaucracies – I really hope they’re not all intractable.
Thank you for this insightful reflection, you have managed to shed light on many of the tensions in the sector I have been struggling to come to terms with for years.