David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, recently published the book Bullshit Jobs, where he talks about “jobs which even the person doing the job can’t really justify the existence of, but they have to pretend that there’s some reason for it to exist.”
Bullshit jobs are not the same as shit jobs — which are essential jobs but may be under difficult conditions or low pay.
According to Graeber most of those who think their job is bullshit typically work in white-collar middle management — especially in corporate settings, but also in the education and health sectors.
He gives an example in universities, where there are many who get promoted to fancy roles like “Vice Chancellor,” even though such a job might be completely unnecessary.
And because the Vice Chancellor wouldn’t want to look like she’s not accomplishing anything, she assigns similarly unnecessary tasks to those below her so she’ll have a job to do.
These pointless tasks soon add up, until teaching personnel are forced to redirect their time away from their actual tasks — that is, teaching — to fulfill endless paperwork.
There is little wonder, then, that those at the academic frontlines are unhappy. As of writing this, the University and Colleges Union in the UK are on strike.
And this is not just because fulfilling bureaucracy for bureaucracy’s sake takes a psychological toil on the worker.
But this is primarily because futile roles and tasks are diverting away the already scarce resources that could have been used to hire more professors, or improve their stagnating pay and precarious employment contracts.
Given all this, one might ask: is the humanitarian “industry” similarly plagued by bullshit jobs?
At this point in time, there has never been more aid organisations and aid workers. By latest estimates, there are some 5,000 non-governmental organisations and 570,000 staff working in the humanitarian sector.
And yet there is a sense that this growth in humanitarian agencies and jobs doesn’t always correspond to the improvement of the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and instead simply enables relentless churn of the bureaucratic machinery.
A quick job search on ReliefWeb yields titles like “Business Transformation Lead” or “Senior Operational Excellence Specialist” or “Optimisation and Innovation Programme Manager”. But what do these roles actually entail?
Looking at one of the job descriptions, it says the role will “analyze system deficiencies and recommend changes for improved performance,” and “create dashboards and reports that depict performance.”
Sounds like a job a Vice Chancellor could do.
There are many factors that lead to the proliferation of bullshit jobs — within and outside aid. Some of these are driven by global social and economic trends, while others are unique to our sector.
One such factor, Graeber argues, is our entrenchment within capitalism. We have been conditioned to value “productivity” despite the fact that in many Western societies, production is more efficiently done by robots than humans. Because of this, Graeber says, “we just kept inventing bullshit jobs.”
Other factors lie in the specific way in which our sector operates — that is, the “humanitarian business model.”
The donor-driven audit-heavy compliance-focused approach of allocating humanitarian funding requires many of us to spend hours reviewing contracts and writing reports. The sometimes excessive sub-granting delivery chains that we’ve set-up needs multiple middle men. And our indicator-obsessed logframe-ridden means of providing assistance necessitates an army of consultants.
There are a few others common across many workplaces. Like how jobs are given to people who are hard to get rid of (and this may be particularly true for our sector, where recent scandals have shown not even sexual abuse could get you removed from office). Or creating managerial positions for teams who may not need managers.
Let me be clear: the professionalisation of humanitarian aid over the years has undoubtedly led to more good than bad. We are slowly getting rid of “cowboy humanitarians” and voluntourists who do more harm than good. The reforms we’ve introduced — including improving technical standards, ensuring were accountable to people and communities, and more recently, preventing sexual abuse and exploitation — are necessary if we are to deliver high-quality assistance.
These reforms require us to hire more people and build more complex systems. But one can’t help but ask: how are far are we from crossing the line between essential bureaucracy and bullshit jobs?
One person Graeber interviewed for his book said:
I do digital consultancy for global pharmaceutical companies’ marketing departments. I often work with global PR agencies on this, and write reports with titles like How to Improve Engagement Among Key Digital Health Care Stakeholders. It is pure, unadulterated bullshit, and serves no purpose beyond ticking boxes for marketing departments. . . . I was recently able to charge around twelve thousand pounds to write a two-page report for a pharmaceutical client to present during a global strategy meeting.
Currently, there are 32,291 ‘analysis,’ 9,369 ‘assessment,’ 4,226 ‘evaluations and lessons learned,’ 4,857 ‘manuals and guidelines,’ and 128,273 ‘situation report’ documents on ReliefWeb. While no doubt many of these are valuable, how can we tell if this is a little too much?
To be fair, compared to the corporate world, and perhaps to the education and health sector, we’re not that bad (despite charity CEO pay having made the headlines in the past, it is dwarfed by a Vice Chancellor’s salary).
And it’s not our fault as individuals either. The humanitarian sector is full of incredibly hardworking, dedicated, capable people who continue to sacrifice so much — deploying in insecure locations, living far away from loved ones, and often risking their own lives — for a very worthy cause. I’m sure even the bullshit-iest jobs in our line of work is likely less bullshit-y than in others.
But with so many in need, and so little funding, there is an argument to be made for peeling back the bureaucracy, scaling down instead of up, and re-scoping our mandates to focus on what matters most.
Aid Re-imagined’s mission is to help usher the evolution of aid towards justice and effectiveness through deep, radical, and evidence-based reflection and research — unafraid to venture beyond the realm of development and humanitarianism, using insights from philosophy, economics, politics, anthropology and sociology, as well as management. Aid Re-imagined stands for a more just and effective aid for our new, ever-changing world.