James Plunkett wonders why there are so few men working at the grassroots levels of NGOs.
In 2012 I traveled to the town of Gulu in northern Uganda, home of the notorious violence of the Lord’s Resistance Army and also of the incredibly resilient Acholi people, to study post-conflict transformation. I became especially interested in the effect of the conflict on traditional gender roles in the domestic setting.
A widening gap between men and women was created due to people being forced into Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps by the government for nearly a decade. The intervention of crude women’s empowerment programming in the camps transformed the gap between men and women into a violent fissure. Now, in the post-conflict setting, men blame emasculation, lack of work, and women’s empowerment for their alcoholism and depression.
I became fascinated with this complex situation during my time in Uganda and chose to study the shift in gender roles more closely. Many of the once naïve organizations began implementing incredible programs that incorporated men’s groups and community teaching programs. De-stigmatizing women’s rights, feminism, and economic justice to husbands was crucial in the successful implementation of women’s empowerment programming. As it turns out, humanitarian work cannot occur in a cultural, social or economic vacuum.
Throughout my seemingly endless interviews, group discussions and meetings with empowerment groups and non-government organizations I began to notice something. Regardless of the policies or programs, regardless even of whether or not the non-profit in question had anything to do with women’s empowerment, I came across almost no men. Of course, this discovery was not new. It is well known in the humanitarian community that men rarely work at the ground level of relief work. Indeed, if you walk into a Save The Children or UNICEF office anywhere from Bahrain to Mombasa I can almost guarantee a majority female work force.
If there are indeed men in-country, they are more likely than not in managerial or executive positions; hardly getting dirty at the grassroots level. Of course, this is not applicable to all organizations the world over but for a vast majority this is a definite reality. With this in mind, especially for organizations seeking to empower, mobilize or program (some NGO buzz words for ‘help’), communities in a holistic way I must ask one question:
How can non-profits implement policies of equality and human rights when the inherent structure of humanitarianism works on a basis of inequality?
Indeed, I must ask, where are the men in aid? I am now an intern at a women’s empowerment organization in Ngara, Tanzania called WomenCraft, which seeks economic justice through social entrepreneurship. After my time in Uganda I was interested to get here and see what was really going on in terms of the NGO structure itself.
As I expected, I am the only male intern and, in fact, only one of three male employees in the entire organization. I was pleasantly surprised to find, however, that WomenCraft is a miraculous exception to the non-profit rule: women fill all of the executive positions, including that of founder, deputy director and manager. Had there been a global paradigm shift turning the patriarchal-capitalist world structure on its head during my seven-hour layover in Doha, Qatar? Was the old-boys club of aid suddenly the glittering example of egalitarianism?
Well, unfortunately, no. But I will say that working for WomenCraft this past month has been an incredible experience. Along with a strict dedication to economic and social empowerment for women, the internal framework of the organization is also very impressive. I think it is quite important for a white American male such as myself to be at the bottom of the positional ladder in such an organization – if for no other reason than to attempt to balance out the massive workplace inequality in humanitarian organizations across the globe. And, at the risk of inciting global panic, I would like to tell men interested in humanitarian work, especially for those exclusively enticed by the corner office in Addis Ababa or the Directorship in Dakar:
The water, here in the grassroots, is perfectly fine.
–Photo: Serengeti National Park, Tanzania by Denis Messié/Flickr