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7 things you need to speak truth to power

Financial mismanagement. Lay-offs of local and international staff. Inappropriate conduct by leadership. Finally, a visit planned from headquarters to see what’s going on. What do you do?

A superior continues to make passes at you. You find out you’re paid less than someone doing your exact same job. Someone takes undue credit for work you did.

The rules don’t work for us? Guess we have to stand up for ourselves and change those rules. This will not happen by letting power go unchecked or unchallenged, on a personal or a sectoral level.

Telling a donor or a boss to go fly a kite is an intimidating experience, but there is a point when we have to speak up, no matter how uncomfortable we may be or how much power someone else has.

From my experience, here are seven things that can make these encounters a little less frightening.

1)   Use of the powerful’s own language and tactics. Like it or not, sometime we’ll have to “play the game” in order to get the access to change the rules. I tend to favor infiltration and influence. But the words of a friend and fellow writer often also ring in my ear, “Sometimes, you also have to also scream and yell to get a seat at the table.”

2)   Consideration of the counter-argument. Anticipate how people may object to what you are saying. If you can, by acknowledging their perspective, you may “head them off at the pass” and defuse their opposition.

3)   Your peeps. I tend the tribe as a source of my power. Allies ground me, validate me, are friendly adversaries, help lick my wounds, and share their own tales of speaking truth to power. Invaluable.

4)   An ever-thickening, yet still permeable skin. When speaking truth to power, you will receive criticism yourself. Some of it will need to bounce right off your exterior. Some of it will be necessary to reflect upon and move you to the next level.

5)   A new definition of vulnerability. Powerlessness is only a perception. But I find that if I can acknowledge my own vulnerability, I can find a more secure place from which to advocate. In fact, my vulnerability emboldens me in a way, knowing that push-backs are necessary.

6)   A back-up plan. Whistleblowers often have to start anew. It’s the price they pay for speaking truth to power. But personal risk is often over-estimated. Bureaucracies and organizations benefit from our fear of losing our jobs. But we are not our organizations and it is foolish to equate income with security.

7)   Non-attachment to outcomes. You win some. You lose some. Real change is due to many factors outside of your control. So keep the long arc of justice in mind and let it rip anyway.

Why is it important for people to speak their truths within their organizations and within global development circles?

Because if you haven’t noticed, it is all about power.

So let her rip.


A version of this post first appeared on the Women Working in Aid and Development blog and then on

It was hard not to yell back at the red-t-shirted young people, “It’s not that simple!”, but who wants be a downer to their enthusiasm?

From the article: “We can’t think that when the foreigners close their doors, we will shut ours too,” Sawash says. “We need to have the independence to help each other.”

Can’t help but think of this quote from Chet Tchozewski of Global Greengrants Fund: “We all want to support the kind of people whose good work would not stop if you paid them to quit. That’s what small grants can do best.” 

One of the many(!) brilliant discussions inspired and fueled by @Semhar & @InnovateAfrica on Twitter. If you’re not yet following these #Diaspora leaders, you should be. They are friends and fellow Foreign Policy Magazine #FPwomeratti

What would marketing gurus tell grassroots activists about improving their image among government officials? What would you?

Writing for the CIVICUS 2012 World Assembly blog.

Suitcase NGOs: How widespread is this, really?

  • I wish a development PhD candidate would investigate the phenomenon of “suitcase NGOs” – I suspect it’s not as widespread as purported. I also suspect some donors/INGOs have deeper issues than others due to their “partnership” approach.
  • Aid practitioners, what else would you like to suggest for development dissertation topics for PhD candidates?

Friday’s Poetic Pause: “Because I Am a Girl, I Must Study” by Kamla Bhasin

A father asks his daughter:
Study? Why should you study?
I have sons aplenty who can study.
Girl, why should you study?

The daughter tells her father:
Since you ask, here’s why I must study.
Because I am a girl, I must study.

Long denied this right, I must study
For my dreams to take flight, I must study
Knowledge brings new light, so I must study
For the battles I must fight, I must study
Because I am a girl, I must study.

To avoid destitution, I must study
To win independence, I must study
To fight frustration, I must study
To find inspiration, I must study
Because I am a girl, I must study.

To fight men’s violence, I must study
To end my silence, I must study
To challenge patriarchy I must study
To demolish all hierarchy, I must study.
Because I am a girl, I must study.

To mould a faith I can trust, I must study
To make laws that are just, I must study
To sweep centuries of dust, I must study
To challenge what I must, I must study
Because I am a girl, I must study.

To know right from wrong, I must study.
To find a voice that is strong, I must study
To write feminist songs I must study
To make a world where girls belong, I must study.
Because I am a girl, I must study.

          ~Kamla Bhasin

This poem originally appeared on, which invites you all to find out more about Kamla Bhasin’s women’s empowerment organization in New Delhi, India, Sangat. An interesting interview with her on the women’s movement and the role of NGOs can be viewed here.

To learn more about girls’ empowerment around the world, also see Reaching Girls at the Grassroots – A Sound Investment (Part 2) and Plan International’s campaign by the same title as Bhasin’s poem, “Because I am a Girl.”


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Friday’s Poetic Pause: “Utopia” by Wislawa Szymborska

Friday’s Poetic Pause: “Life” by Bev Reeler

An aid worker’s poetic journey