I'm back in the saddle teaching introduction to international relations at a local undergrad uni and it's spurring on a whole variety of generational questions for me. To play off an earlier post on our theory and practice of institutions, I was asking a student over coffee this morning what he "hoped" to do with a degree in international relations. The answer, not at all particular to him, was land an NGO job somewhere.
The mystique that surrounds "NGO's" has never been stronger. Why? What is about these decentralized, charity funded outfits that fires the imagination of the next generation of culture makers? Why aren't they—for example—fired by a similar vision for the once heralded Canadian foreign service, whose admission standards and training were once considered the gold standard of developed countries?
The answer may partly lie in the steady decline of traditional institutions like the foreign service. The answer may lie in the assumption that "states" are no longer where the international action is. States have too many rules, politics and pressures. They may be too militarized. Perhaps youth is more idealist than boring government service: they want to be the Blackwater of the development world, just getting it done; "just feeding people, man."
It's a shame though. The foreign service is still a top posting. States are—absolutely—still at the center of the action. And the many rules, politics and pressures they have are part of their democratic nature, which arguably is a more just way to proceed with foreign and development policy. Their tiresome rules are often hard fought, long earned principles that protect lives, safeguard projects and create public accountability. Is it the independence and decentralization that inspires the next generation, or the hurdles of aspiring to elite institutions?
This is question #1 for me this semester, and working at an NGO and a private university I have ample opportunity—as all great teaching moments do—of turning it back upon myself.