On being a catalyst

At a wedding this weekend, I was talking with a chemist friend from college about the word catalyst. In chemistry, it’s a substance that creates favorable conditions for a reaction to take place, but does not itself interact with either of the reactants.

In development, we love this word, because it says so well what we aspire to be. Most development NGOs now are past the era of doing things for people, and are full-swing into the era of creating favorable conditions for people to do things for themselves. We are catalysts!

But we too often forget the other half of the definition. That bit about “does not itself interact with either of the reactants.” This is part of the collective fiction we tell ourselves in this do-good industry – that our simple presence on the scene causes no changes in the people and institutions we work with.

However, as light-touch as NGOs try to be, it’s inevitable that sometimes, they’ll resemble the bull in the china shop rather than the friendly, hidden chemical intermediaries.

We can cause reactions to take place, but we are always part of the reaction too. So planning our own role, and anticipating & measuring its impact, should be part of our analysis. Indeed, NGOs can use their power and influence for great good, to affect policies and the power of rights-holders to improve their situation. Assuming that our very presence has no side effects is naïve, or even dangerous. Our language affects our perceptions of the world, and though we may call ourselves catalysts, we should never quite believe it.


About developingnathan
I am a reflective person. I am an introvert, a friend, a brother and a son. I appreciate a well-crafted glass of beer, piece of music and turn of phrase. I am a professional of international development, a good pianist and a Green Bay Packers fan.

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