We must encourage CSI troublemakers

By Jillian Reilly

For me the combined 20th anniversary of democracy in South Africa and the death of Nelson Mandela has meant reflecting on the kinds of courage and troublemaking needed when you’re trying to “change the world”. There simply isn’t enough of it about.

That was his name, after all: Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, and Rolihlahla means “troublemaker” in Xhosa. He was, of course, passionate and principled, a global symbol of moral courage. In essence, he was a troublemaker.

I fancied myself a little bit of a troublemaker when I came to South Africa 20 years ago. I had bucked convention to leave my comfortable Midwestern American life to be witness to apartheid’s end and to a country trying to remake itself.

I was sure that mine would be to speak out against injustice, to “stand beside the oppressed”, to do the right thing. That’s why we get into this social change work, because we are compelled by horror at injustice, suffering and oppression, right?

And for a while I really did believe that I was a brave world changer, working as I did for a human rights organisation, and then for an capacity-building NGO that sought to “empower” South African NGOs with skills and training.

It was easy to feel brave in South Africa from 1993 to 1997, when the possibilities for change seemed at once endless and within reach.

But then I went to Zimbabwe in 1997 to run an HIV-AIDS programme and my questioning started. I was put in charge of a US$5 million project to reduce the impact of HIV-AIDS. A dream job, in fact, with me a director at age 27 tackling a big problem with big money. What more could a do-gooder ask for?

It didn’t take me long to learn that development is a multi-billion dollar business with all the politics, bureaucracy, and conventions of any other business. I learnt that the job of NGO director in this business is primarily to move money around because if you don’t move money then nobody gets more money – “use it or lose it”.

And soon came the lesson that the key at every level of development work is simply to secure as much money as possible.

That means that the donor is your client, rather than the beneficiaries you’re trying to help – after all, it’s the donor who pays salaries and keeps NGOs alive. So your primary preoccupation is meeting donor needs, and fulfilling their regulatory wants.

Another quick learning was that development work is not the stuff of mavens and risk takers. Rather, it is an incredibly conservative industry that rewards the technocrats and bureaucrats who produce the tidiest reports and the prettiest proposals.

I learned that the byword to success is “compliance” with donor demands. And that when you’re preoccupied with compliance, it can be very hard to show even the smallest hint of defiance.

Thus I sat in the middle of the world’s biggest HIV-AIDs epidemic, running beautiful workshops, facilitating really well conceived and executed training sessions. Indeed, if success had been measured in flipchart paper, I would have been a rock star.

Actually, I was fiddling while Rome burned, and my donor absolutely loved me, mainly because I knew how to move money efficiently, while perpetuating a belief that progress was being made. This happened even though none of us had any real-time, useful data to tell us if we were diminishing infection rates. Mostly my donor loved me because I didn’t make any trouble.

I wish I had. Just once I wish I’d had the difficult conversation or spoken the uncomfortable truth. Instead, I attended so many funerals of people who’d died of “headaches”, held workshops with school principals who doubled as sugar daddies on Saturday nights, wrote monthly reports for incompetent officials whom I knew wouldn’t read them, taught women how to put condoms on because we were too afraid to talk to their men.

Frankly, we ignored the everyday misuses and abuses of power that perpetuated the very problems we claimed to be trying to solve every day.

My colleagues and I were so busy keeping our heads down and trying to be clever, efficient and polite that we forgot that social change is a messy, complicated business that inherently requires you to sometimes upset the status quo by challenging conventional thinking and by holding leaders to account. It requires us to address issues of power.

Twenty years and billions of rands later, many in SA are as concerned about the country today as they were back at democracy’s dawn. Because nobody knows where the leadership for real bottom-up social improvement is to come from.

This unease exists the world over – desperation for principled leadership reduced to using hashtags to spur action.

Yet there are no tidy, technical solutions to injustice and oppression, only courageous ones. And who among us has the courage to take the risks required to really change this world?

When, in 2000, I realised that I didn’t have that courage, I left my job in Zimbabwe. That country didn’t need another efficient American aid administrator. It needed bravery, anger, passion. And every day since I’ve been trying to find that passion in my work again; I’ve been looking for courage.

For imagine if we brought developmental innovation and activism together to support SA’s visionaries across society, and so to take a real crack at helping positive social transformation. Imagine doing this without assuming to have all the answers in a process of trial and error that even welcomes failure?

Perhaps then society’s progress would again seem a thing of endless possibility, and yet somehow within reach. But for to happen, this country should nurture troublemakers in development, rather than over-emphasise “compliance”.


  • Reilly is the author of “Shame – Confessions of an aid worker in Africa”. This is a shortened version of her address to the Trialogue CSI Matters conference in Johannesburg last week. First published in Business Day, 12 June 2014.