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#64 Being Strategic

June 13, 2011

The really awesome thing about modern aid work is that there can be almost infinite conceptual space between that vague notion of “wanting to help” and “actually doing something.” And so, quite rightly, a substantial majority of those life-saving workshops, those dialogic multi-stakeholder meetings, those lengthy-yet-urgent documents, are all focused on that wide middle gulf. They focus on the one thing that Expat Aid Workers love almost as much as drivers and pictures of burqas:

Being strategic.

One really great thing about being strategic is that precisely because it focuses on that wide gulf between thinking that they want to do stuff and actually doing stuff, being strategic offers an almost inexhaustible gold mine of things to do, all within the general rubric of “aid”, without actually doing aid. In other words, there are few better catch-all categories under which one can stay busy, funded, push one’s own agenda, get sent to workshops around the world, or generally rise to power without any real experience, all without doing any actual aid work, than being strategic. An entire career can be built around being strategic, if one plays one’s cards right.

nothing more exciting than "being strategic"

Being strategic also gives EAWs a sense of security, safety and unity of purpose that even the most well-articulated vision statement cannot. It allows them to know where they’re going and how (hence the frequent analogy of the “roadmap”). And one result of this is that being strategic is the ultimate smackdown to put on those activities that are, you know, un-strategic.  “We can’t really undertake this initiative until the ongoing strategic planning process is complete…”, for example, is a great way to squelch any pesky new ideas, without appearing passive: you have only the best strategic interests of the agency at heart, right? Bring organizational dumbassery to an immediate halt by playing the “being strategic” card.

It is absolutely critical that anyone being strategic never be questioned because being strategic is always a good thing by definition. If you’re not strategic, the world most probably will end. Properly implemented, being strategic has the potential to be an intervention in its own right – the actual doing of deciding what to do.

Another reason that EAWs love being strategic is that it is one of the few definable things that really separate the “professionals” from the “amateurs.” Amateurs rush in and just start doing, but the seasoned, experienced EAW knows that it is important to take one’s time, to gather context, to have a master blueprint, to be – in a word – strategic. You see this play out in interagency meetings as well, where the ability to articulate the strategic vision of one’s employer is the on-the-clock equivalent of comparing infections or talking about poop at the pub after. For example:

  • Seasoned EAW chairing the meeting: “Please go around the room and share, briefly, your organization’s strategic direction in [COUNTRY X].”
  • Seasoned EAW representing a huge INGO: “Our basic strategy is to deliver an initial relief package to displaced persons in [DISTRICTS Q, R, and S] for 3 months, at which point we’ll transition to an integrated livelihoods recovery model, using a rights-based approach in targeting peri-urban artisans and their capacity to deepen private sector linkages…”
  • [murmured approval]
  • Newbie representing small start-up: “Well, we don’t have a ‘strategy’ per se. We’re really just trying to spend down our private revenue, maybe win a few small grants, and help some poor people here in the main city…”
  • [everyone scoffs, rolls their eyes, and makes mental notes to not go drinking with those losers]

One of the best things of all, though, about being strategic is simply that doing so enable so many more favorite EAW activities. Good process, working groups, facipulation, planning air travel, proper word choice… all in part brought to you by being strategic.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. amelia permalink
    June 13, 2011 12:32 pm

    Organizational dumbassery beware!

  2. June 13, 2011 12:57 pm

    Oh so very, very true!! It would be interesting to research how much activities around ‘being strategic’ actually absorb in financial terms.

  3. June 13, 2011 3:47 pm

    Finally someone understands the importance of what I’m doing. Thanks J!

  4. June 13, 2011 4:16 pm

    No plan survives the battle field!


  5. June 14, 2011 3:54 am

    I just returned from a highly strategic meeting in a foreign country. Overall it was a great success – excellent facilitation, sharing by all participants, several roadmaps discussed, no actual work done.

  6. June 14, 2011 11:48 pm

    This misses the point. In fact, expat aid workers like being cynical about others being strategic. When they themselves are being strategic, it’s The Way it is Done. My strategic approach effects meaningful sectoral change in transitional States. I see the bigger picture. Yours is just fake work.


  1. #68 Bitching about HQ « Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like

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