Over at the Anthropology & Environment Society’s “Engagement” blog, Janis Alcorn has a pretty fascinating post about some of the social inner-workings of large bureaucracies. In this case, USAID–an organization that she has 25 years of experience working with. The post starts off with a quote from an interview with Andrew Mathews, who argues that bureaucracies function by “bleaching out local context and coming up with big simplifications.” Alcorn disagrees:
I would counter by positing that good bureaucracies do not bleach out local context. Instead, they create big, simplified umbrellas that cloak the complex, dynamic range of local circumstances and thereby give the staff of government bureaucracies the space to address local circumstances despite changes in political direction.
Later in the post, Alcorn brings up one aspect of USAID’s bureaucracy that resonates a bit with some of the things I saw in my own fieldwork. She writes:
I entered USAID during the transition from President Reagan to President George H.W. Bush. There was a flurry of activity creating documents for “transition teams.” In effect, those documents served as ideologically-aligned, simplified umbrellas that shielded the professional, non-ideological work of the agency.
This shielding of ideological/political work is really fascinating, and it reminds me of a few cases I encountered while doing fieldwork, in which certain organizations were used as a sort of “scientific” or “objective” screen to cover over individual members’ political desires and perspectives. I’m not sure how I am going to write about this at this point–it’s something I need to hash out a bit more as I look through my notes and interviews. For the most part, what I am highlighting is pretty different from what Alcorn discusses in her post, but there is one consistent theme: the often overt contradictions and differences between ORGANIZATIONS and the real PEOPLE that populate (and run) those organizations.
In some of the organizations that I encountered, the members themselves were very active, often opinionated participants in local communities, and they certainly had their own personal ideas about development and conservation. The discourse of the organizations, however, stuck to a more neutral position, often employing a lot of language about “science” to explain goals, ideals, and missions. When I asked a key member of one of these organizations what sort of development vision her group had, she told me there was no vision; it all depended on what the people of the community wanted. That was the official answer: it’s all for the people. In other situations, it was pretty clear that she had her ideas and politics, and was doing what she could to make them happen. This was not the only case in which the organization played it neutral while the members did not.
Within the organizational landscape, however, there were plenty that were overtly activist and political. Some of these groups had no reservations about stating what they wanted, loud and clear. Other, more middle of the road groups may have agreed with the radical organizations, at least to a certain degree, but this was often hidden, at least in formal channels. In person, it was all pretty clear–which is something that made the stated goals of some of the groups all the more contradictory. But what was really striking was that these contradictions didn’t seem to be a big problem. It was always interesting to look at the structure and public face of these organizations,on the one hand, while sitting down and talking to the real people who staffed and founded those organizations, on the other. The differences between the stridently non-ideological narratives of the organization were quite striking when compared with the obviously political–and sometimes personal–ideas and desires expressed by the staff. Alcorn’s use idea of “simplified umbrellas” that create room for these sorts of machinations seems pretty useful, but in my case I think the organizations were the umbrellas that created room