Sometimes We Need to Step Back

The development and humanitarian fields are chalk full of people who are super committed (interspersed with the people who don’t know when to retire and people who have confused development professions with ‘charitable giving back’. But I digress).

Super committed people are one of the best things about these fields because they sacrifice so much in order to really make a difference for others. They are also the reason that the behemoth of international development and humanitarian bureaucracy actually results in something. You have to be dedicated to go toe-to-toe with procedure and planning and LOAs and MOUs and the finance people every day. (And don’t forget the IT people – they can be terrifying. I think I downloaded a virus trying to access information from a highly questionable source today. I’m terrified to tell them. On the other hand, my office access card isn’t working and ALL of the IT guys are in a workshop this week so no one is around to fix it. So I have to knock on the security glass every time I need to go somewhere… including the washroom).

Anyway. Super committed people. Without them, development organizations would be everything their detractors say they are. I like to think I’m a super committed person (before I had children, 70 hour work weeks were the norm, without complaint, because…. Well, because. I felt rewarded when something substantive was achieved (that time that government procurement system was up and running… boring, I know, but made a world of difference to the government officials who actually had to do procurement.) But one of the downsides of being super committed is that sometimes we don’t know when to step away. When we can’t separate ourselves as individuals from the people we are aiming to help. When their problems and challenges unwittingly become our own. Sometimes we have to step back.

I know so many people who really should do this (L, I’m looking at you). It’s important because we can get so wrapped up in the problem we are trying to solve that we can’t see the forest for the trees. Specifically, the problem begins to overwhelm to the point that it is difficult to see what the solution might be, and for nearly every problem there is a solution (yes, even for Syria, even for South Sudan, but that has nothing to do with aid workers).

I’ve noticed this with myself these last few days. I’m working on a project that technically should be by the books, but it’s just not. The problem we are addressing is more complex than we’ve faced in the past and the standard approach could work if we engineered square pegs into round holes. But the outcome would be useless. My problem is that the issue we are addressing sits right in my heart. It affects people I know personally and it’s why I volunteered to lead the team even though there were probably more qualified people (although my boss said he would have been hard pressed to find someone more passionate. It was a nice compliment but I’m not sure how successful I can be on compliments alone). Anyway, the last few days I have felt like the answers to this square peg round hole would reveal themselves if I just worked harder, if I just focussed more, if I reread the data just one more time.

Right. A practical person knows this is unlikely to work. Personally, I don’t have a stellar track record with this approach. And sometime around 1pm today I remembered that. I remembered that even when you are being paid to do this and only this, you have to step away. So I took the afternoon off. I read nothing about the topic (even on social media). I reread and rewatched the takeaways from the US Presidential debate (it’s funny, so it’s relaxing). I picked up my son from school. We splurged with some cartoons before dinner and read an extra book before bed. And I can feel like the solution I have been desperate for is floating around in the far corners of my brain. I can just about reach it. I’ll get my husband to remember what it is while I look for my phone so I can note it down (the phone is… somewhere. Life with kids).

We have to remember that sometimes no matter how hard we work, the solutions will only be apparent when they’re apparent. Sometimes we need to take a step back (for a few hours in my case today, sometimes a few days, or even weeks or months for others). We cannot be effective when someone else’s problem becomes part of us. We cannot provide practical, strategic solutions when we don’t give ourselves space to think them out. We need space to bend theories and frameworks to make them work for the people we are aiming to help, not just the organizations we work for. And sometimes we need to step back to rally the courage to say that, too.

Anyway, I’ve just about got it. I need to go look for my phone.

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