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The unglamorous work of doing good (1)

The side of the tracks

Among the most rewarding pieces of “good” that I’ve ever done was to start a micro-savings group for a small community of men and women who lived along a railway line in West Jakarta.

It was hard: hot, dusty, dirty and smelly from the rubbish that they recycled for a living, always smokey from cigarettes or burning plastic. Sometimes it was lonely and awkward (sometimes no-one came at all apart from my colleagues and me). And improvements in the group’s financial position came incredibly slowly if they came at all.

But it was clearly a good thing to be doing,such a good way to try to help, and getting to know the group’s members and understand even a little bit about their lives was a privilege. And they so clearly needed something that it had felt good; the work even had a sooty sort of glamour. As a bonus, it was easy to talk about to others.

I’ll be forever glad to have known them, glad for the few successes we had: the motorbike saved for; the surgery paid for; the times that members showed initiative and ownership of the group and invited friends to join too. But the truth is, we didn’t make much of a difference in the three-plus years that we ran the group.

A change of scene

My work now is far less glamorous: I spend much of my working time in an office. With varying success I lead and manage a team, trying to grow a small charity as we develop literacy resources for Indonesian teachers and train them how to use them. I write reports. I fund-raise. I spend a lot of time trying to sort out what seem like trivial concerns or conflicts between team members.

We have fun too, of course, but it doesn’t feel nearly as rewarding as working by the railway lines on the best days. And yet – I’m confident that this work of building an organisation – this admin (I used to sneer at the word) – is doing and will do more good.

As in the fighting of wars, a huge part of the struggle – the enabling part – is planning, management and logistics. It’s grand strategy and long-term thinking rather than tactics. You can’t win without tactics – ever – but it’s easier to find someone else who can execute your game plan than it is to find someone who will take responsibility for a whole campaign, find the people and resources needed to win it and get them in the right places at the right time with the right training to make change happen. Repeatedly.

So should we all become administrators? I don’t think so. But you need to ask to what extent you might need to become one. It’s less glamorous and less rewarding, but might be the direction you need to move in if you want to see deep, lasting change.

More tomorrow.

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