On Working Without Guarantees and the Necessary Grief of Change Work

I have a Gayatri Spivak problem.

Early on in my ‘career’ in development, I kept coming face-to-face with her idea that the work of development ought to ultimately end at some point. That in order to claim effectiveness, development workers must work themselves out of their jobs. It’s an idea that forces us to rethink any approach to change that doesn’t tackle the structural roots of inequality. In a global context of rampant inequality, it’s a hard pill to swallow. We know that, ultimately, a functional public system of any kind (health, education etc.) is the most effective way to address our failing society. Whilst they serve as necessary bridges, programmes that plug gaps within broken systems can only go so far and reach so many people. If development practitioners fail to recognize this and incorporate it into their work, we run the risk of becoming part of the problem we are trying to solve.

This is a difficult reality within which to work. Change – especially monumental structural change – is slow to come if at all it does. So what does it mean to truly fight for change? Through my years – and my tears – working for a variety of different development initiatives, I have come to understand and appreciate the central tenet of Spivak’s argument. Working towards change means working without gurantees.

This refers to guarantees of a concrete nature (job security and career trajectory, funding, for example) as well as those that are existential. To be effective, development work has to be freed of strict allegiance to any paradigm or framework. It is to accept the use of paradigms and frameworks as tied to particular circumstances and contexts. And once those paradigms help us to change what does not work about those circumstances, we must reassess and adjust for the next mile.

This is all obviously easier said than done, for a number of reasons. The structures within which development and change work happens – global philanthropy, statutory institutions – tend to frown upon flexibility in approaches to structural change. It’s the stumbling block most of us know all too well. How do you explain a shift from an approach centered on in-community presence and modeling and scaling, to one that is concerned with the often-invisible work of lobbying and advocacy? How can you explain holding both within the same funding cycle, if at all you find a funder who is open to supporting both?

We already know that is difficult to do this, to work as we constantly adjust the ground beneath us. What if we faced the difficulty head on, not just as a painful side effect, but as a necessary part of development work? Change – even positive, progressive change – is hard. It brings with it loss, and the paroxysms of grief. Working without guarantees means accepting that grief and giving it voice in our spaces of planning, implementing and evaluating.

For me, it has meant finding the courage to voice my grief. I am usually the pessimistic bummer in any meeting room, pulling everyone back and urging caution. It’s annoying as fuck and it earns me no friends. But it is an expression of grief and resistance to the shifts we must accept. Acknowledging helps me move on – when I’m ready – from my pessimism, and find ways to work within contexts that are and should be ever-changing.

Working without guarantees is thus becoming aware of the vulnerabilities and blind spots of one’s power and representational systems. It is accepting failure, or put positively, seeing failure as success. The implication for development is that we need to learn to be open, not just, in the short-term, to the limits of our knowledge systems, but also to the long-term logic of our profession: enabling […] while working ourselves out of our jobs.

Ilan Kapoor, Hyper-self-reflexive development? Spivak on representing the Third World ‘Other’

As esoteric as this all seems, it is much easier than a world in which we are tallying workshops held, and numbers of attendees, and spend on office stationery. It brings to bear the truth that those of us committed to development work know: this is heart work. We are in it because we are or want desperately to be helpers. Our hearts are in it. It makes sense that there will be heartache and grief involved. By facing this, and being honest with ourselves and one another, we perhaps give ourselves a real shot at being part of radical change.

Featured image by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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