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Tuesday 25 April 2017

This is how a collaborative person works: 11. remember there is no such thing as a free lunch

(This post draws heavily upon the experiences of Paul Macalindin as described in his book Upbeat, which chronicles his inspiring work with the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. To read more posts in this series go to the March to August 2017 Blog Archive on your right.)

'We always incurred horrendous catering costs for a whole orchestra over two or three weeks, and if they didn't like it, we ended up throwing good money and food away each day. We all agreed the players would carry some costs, for each other if need be, whenever necessary. The relief I felt that they could agree to this not only came from keeping our budget down, but also bringing them into the process of taking responsibility for the orchestra.' 

From Upbeat: the Story of the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq by Paul Macalindin

Collaborative initiatives require partners that contribute and take responsibility; this is obvious. However, the nature of some collaborations (specifically those which need to engage with people who are disadvantaged, isolated by circumstance or otherwise disenfranchised in some way) leads to this requirement being downplayed and sometimes even rejected.

This happens because encouraging involvement rather than seeking contribution is understandably perceived as a priority for the above mentioned collaborations, especially during their initial stages, and this way of seeing things often becomes habitual. When it does, it blinds a collaboration to the fact that eventually (if it is to develop effectively and genuinely succeed) it must seek contributions from all of its partners and participants.           

The above tendency is made even stronger when people falsely equate treating all partners and participants equally with providing everything for free.

This is what happened during the first few years of the NYOI's existence. The young Iraqi musicians were certainly disadvantaged in respect of support and opportunities to develop their talents, and they were clearly isolated by circumstance. In the worst cases, they were disenfranchised by their own communities and society.

Given this, it is understandable that Paul and all those setting up and developing the NYOI would do everything they could to help these young people (including providing virtually everything free of charge).

Providing free access to the audition process, musical tuition and many other things was obviously essential to the purpose of the NYOI and its desire to engage with and support the most talented young musicians in Iraq, whoever they were and from wherever they came.

However, a more detailed look at the circumstances of many of these young people's lives reveals the dangers inherent in assuming that treating people equally must always be about providing things for free:

 'These young people were turning up in BMWs and Range Rovers with poor quality or broken instruments. At the end of each day, as we sat in the pristine, beautifully furnished director's office to share our daily feedback, we began to get a clear picture of what was really going on here.'

The above quotation makes clear that although the young Iraqi musicians were musically disadvantaged this was not always the case for other aspects of their lives. For the NYOI, therefore, treating people equally was eventually likely to become less about always providing everything for free (free provision being increasingly restricted to those things vital to the NYOI's purpose and mission) and more about providing opportunities for all the young players to take, and help each other take, some responsibility for the upkeep of the NYOI.

Asking for a contribution to the NYOI's catering costs, and for the players to help each other make this contribution, was a simple and symbolically significant step in this latter direction.

When collaborating with people remember there is no such thing as a free lunch (even for those who are disadvantaged, isolated or disenfranchised in some way). The likelihood is that even the most disadvantaged will be willing and able to contribute something in some way and be eager to take responsibility, as long as they are provided with opportunities and others are given opportunities to help them.

Balance free and easy access with opportunities for all those involved in and benefiting from your work to make contributions, support each other and take responsibility.

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