Nostalgia, fragility, age and management consultants: 4 Scandinavian conversations

September 11, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a day in Sigtuna, a lovely lakeside town just outside Stockholm, doing my usual blue sky/future of aid thing with big cheeses from the 5 Scandinavian protestant church agencies of the ACT Alliance. The ensuing conversations were full of lightbulb moments, including these four:

Nostalgia as a political force: across the region, including in the Swedish elections on Sunday, a yearning for a largely-illusory past of rustic homesteads, pitchforks and whiteness is driving the rise of populist, anti-immigration movements like the Swedish Democrats or the ‘True Finns’. The same can be said of populism in the US or UK – it all took me back to Gil Scott Heron’s great song, ‘B Movie’ about the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan:

This country wants nostalgia
They want to go back as far as they can …
Even if it’s only as far as last week
Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards

And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes
Riding to the rescue at the last possible moment
And when America found itself having a hard time …
Facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne
But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan

The Left has its own nostalgic narratives of course – in the UK, they often pine for the clarity of the post war Labour government setting up the NHS and nationalising coal. But overall, they seem to be losing the Nostalgia Wars. Anything good to read on the origins and politics of nostalgia?

Working on Fragile and Conflict-Affected settings: Should aid agencies allocate more money and effort to working in FCAS, and what should they be doing differently there?

Arguments for greater priority: that’s where the poverty is/will be; where the aid money will go; any success will be likely to replicate as other organizations pick it up

Arguments against: much harder to get results in FCAS; greater risks to staff and partners, especially where being foreign is politically toxic (an increasing number of countries)

What kind of work makes sense in FCAS? Humanitarian response; thinking more about power and public authority beyond the state (eg the role of faith leaders in the case of ACT). Positive deviance approaches often make more sense when everything else fails.

What are the relative advantages/disadvantages of doing advocacy/campaigns with young v older people? I’m always sceptical of unthinking ‘we must do more with youth’ statements, but the conversation went deeper than that:

Why work more with youth? They move fast, are connected and creative, so you can get rapid and large scale change on things like norms and behaviours, and loads of new ideas. They are more ready to mobilise in public, if that’s the nature of your campaign. What’s more, if you change the behaviours of a 15 year old, you get results for a lot longer than with a 70 year old!

Why work with older people: they are better connected, have more knowledge of power and how advocacy targets like companies or the state work; they may stay with the campaign longer than young people whose lives are going through rapid change (college, work, babies).

Should CSOs partner with Management Consultants? An increasing number of large bilateral aid contracts (DFID, USAID) is being channelled through Management Consultancy companies, who have set up aid management arms – the kind of thing I was looking at in Tanzania recently, with a consortium run by Palladium. When they are putting together their bids, many approach CSOs to join their consortium. How should CSOs respond? How do we sort out the companies with a genuine commitment to development from the purely profit-oriented? Could someone put together a questionnaire for the top 20 aid contractors and publish the results? I tweeted a request for advice and which questions to ask and got the following:

  • ‘Watch out that you are not being used as bid candy. Insist on full disclosure of the whole bid.’
  • ‘Do they transparently pay their taxes around the world? Do they make a lot of money helping others not do that? Do they shame the memory of a major Scottish economist and philosopher [can’t think who that refers to….]? Do they have a track record of building capacity in-country, or of extractively profiting?’
  • Talk to another contractor, compare offers; Beware overlapping partners; Have defined, project-critical outputs beyond year 1 & key named personnel.
  • Questions around transparency, and whether there are any domestic firms from partner countries involved in the consortia.
  • Give us (at least) two references, that we can follow up, from CSO partners who have worked as part of consortia with you, and with the specific staff members leading this bid.’

Any other suggestions, or offers to take on the questionnaire idea?

September 11, 2018
Duncan Green