Wednesday, January 9, 2013

"We are a charity" is not an excuse for failing to listen to people

The National Childbirth Trust (Britain's largest parenting charity) is in the news again. It all started when pregnancy writer and blogger Linda Geddes appeared in a Radio 4 discussion about the NCT. As you'd expect from the author of Bumpology (a promising looking new book which adopts a science-based approach to pregnancy and birth), Geddes expressed some critical ideas about the NCT during the discussion, claiming in particular that the organization's classes gave her poor advice and unrealistic expectations due to their overwhelming ideological bias towards natural childbirth, discussed here and here. The interview might have passed without much comment had Kirstie Allsopp (a well-known British TV presenter) not tweeted about the show, echoing Geddes' criticisms and describing the NCT as "a very politicised, dogmatic and in my experience, scary organisation."

This is far from being the first time the NCT has been criticized for being overly obsessed with natural childbirth, breastfeeding at all costs and so on. Allsopp had another similar spat with the NCT last year, I had my own little go here, and this thread from Mumsnet gives a decent overview of the complaints that many NCT members have about the organization. Many women have fantastic experiences joining the NCT and participating in its classes and workshops because there are many great people who work with the organization. There are also a lot of crunchaloons who are giving the NCT a bad name. Every time the NCT is criticized in this way, the organization protests that the criticisms are unfair, that the organization is inclusive and is becoming more so, that they are making efforts to embrace different ways of giving birth and to expand beyond the "middle-class mothers" who make up their core group and so on. How genuine these protestations are is kind of questionable, however, as Pauline Hull of Cesarean Debate recently pointed out.

But there is one defense of the NCT which I'm constantly hearing, and it is really starting to annoy me: the defense that "These complaints are unfair. NCT is a charity, not a business, and it's staffed by volunteers, many of whom are mothers themselves. You can't expect it to be run perfectly."

Now, here's the thing. If you talk to anyone who has worked on the ground in, say, the developing world or among disadvantaged groups anywhere, they will tell you that this kind of attitude is at the heart of what is wrong with so much charity and philanthropic work--the idea that charities (unlike businesses or governments) do not have to be accountable for their actions or responsive to feedback, the idea that people receiving charity should be grateful for whatever they get (even if it's crap), the idea that that it doesn't matter if charities upset people because even badly-run charity work is better than nothing at all, and the idea that ITS MEEN to criticize anyone who works in a charity, because charity workers do nothing except from the goodness of their hearts and you surely can't have a problem with that, right?

Well, actually it's all a bit more complicated than that. Because the problem is, charities have their own agendas which are sometimes not completely altruistic--for example, trying to further their own political, social or religious views (fundamentalist churches "fighting AIDS in Africa" through abstinence-only education being merely one of the more egregious examples). Sometimes charities do actively harmful things to the people they are trying to help, often as a result of these agendas, which means that it's not always true that bad charity work is better than nothing at all. Sometimes, bad charity work is indeed better than nothing at all--but that doesn't mean that it couldn't be better, or that charities shouldn't be aspiring to do better. No private-sector business would be okay with the sort of feedback the NCT was getting from a lot of posters on that Mumsnet thread. Maybe the NCT could do with operating a bit more like a business--a process that starts with listening to the people you are supposed to be serving.

In any case...take a look at the sort of complaints being levelled at the NCT in that Mumsnet thread. I mean, if most of the complaints about the NCT were things like "the venues for the classes are cramped" or "my email inquiry didn't get answered straight away," well... okay, maybe these issues would be somewhat understandable in an organization run by volunteer mums in their spare time. But I really don't see how complaints about instructors demonizing cesarean sections, epidurals and bottlefeeding in NCT classes have anything to do with its charitable status. There is no reason on earth why an unpaid volunteer can't give classes and workshops that offer a balanced view of birth and infant feeding; it's not as though it would cost more to do this. (And to be fair, many or most NCT instructors are offering reasonable and balanced advice; it's just that the NCT doesn't seem to be very good at weeding out the instructors who spend their classes beating the "obstetricians-are-out-to-get-you" tom-toms and telling mothers that they won't bond with their babies if they have surgical births, etc.)

If there are some NCT instructors who are saying things that are contributing to depression and anxiety in new mums, and if the NCT is failing to do anything about this because of its agendas and beliefs, then that is a problem, regardless of whether or not the organization is a charity or not. And the NCT needs to start engaging with this issue unless they want the complaints to continue and get louder.


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  2. This is a cracking article. Not least for including the workd "crunchaloons".

    And for the record my nct classes were fantastic. It's a shame that isn't the experience for everyone.