Definition: a person who takes an obsessive interest in the minor detail of policy
The etymology of the term wonk is a derogatory one used to refer to geeks, but it sometimes seems nowadays to be a badge of honour within development circles. Undoubtedly we need wonks in the world, including development wonks, but are NGOs the right place for people to indulge any wonkish tendencies?
I’m not sure they are for three reasons:
1) Most NGOs even sizeable ones like CAFOD have relatively few policy or research staff. We can’t afford to have people who get too immersed in the detail even if those we are trying to influence have hoards of experts. We are not an academic institution, we are an NGO – the two things should not be confused, although of course we work closely with academia, and I am not arguing that academia is full of wonks (oh dear have to be careful here)!
2) The purpose of NGO policy and research is to make a difference to the lives of people living in poverty. By working with our partners we have direct access to those people and our added value and indeed primary duty is to bring their experiences and voices into the policy debate and corridors of power – to show how policies and practices impact their lives and what change is needed as a result.
3) People who are too immersed in the detail can fail to see the bigger picture. At CAFOD we believe that it is not just policy that can be at fault but the values, the principles and the beliefs that inform that policy. Our deep and living roots in the Catholic faith mean we take seriously Catholic Social Teaching and Gospel Values in informing our policy and advocacy work and we have an excellent Theology team who helps us to do this. And we believe there is a fundamental shift in worldview that is needed by those in power. Most other NGOs I know have a strong sense of values and principles that inform their work whether that be a Rights Based Approach or an implicit belief system.
I hope I haven’t stirred up a hornet’s nest. Views and comments as ever are welcome, particularly from self-confessed wonks.