21 July 2011

Aid's God Complex and Bloggers Groupthink

I had this sitting in an open tab for a few days to watch. I knew it would eventually end up here. Tim Harford discusses the God Complex and the value of trial and error in his TED talk. If there was ever a time that I happened to teach a university level class on aid and development, this video and probably Tim's book would be one of the first assignments I would give.

This ties into another post I have been mulling over. Shawn Ahmed wrote a post on aid work and Islamic extremism a few days ago. In the post he takes on aid blogger groupthink over the subjects of orphanages, overhaead and professionalism. He made some salient points, but I think missed some of the finer details. Dave Algoso offered a retort which then spilled into the comments section. I will not summarize what the two say since it is far better to read it yourself if you did not see either post.

The accusation of groupthink leveled by Ahmed is the part that bothered me most about what he wrote. It is possible that cognitive dissonance is at play, but I believe it to be untrue. Dave points out and I agree, many aid bloggers and aid workers are not in complete agreement.  Some love and some hate RCTs.  There are ICT evangelicals and those who think we are a long way off from them making a significant impact.  In fact, most aid bloggers, myself included, will often admit that they do not know all or any of the solutions. If there is a commonality, it is the agreement that the current systems are far from perfect. Some interventions do more harm than good.

Although he does not feel comfortable with the title, Shawn is an aid blogger. He uses the medium of writing and video to share his thoughts and experiences in working alongside Save the Children in Bangladesh. That is not the same role as others, but that is no less varied than a group of people that includes a communications associate, a number cruncher, a field researcher, a knowledge manager and a campus advocate.

What is also shared is that nobody claims to know all the answers. It is not a popular stance. Bill Easterly tweeted the other day something to the effect, "it is hard to get funding when saying that I am not sure if aid works." Ambiguity and complexity are not interesting to most. If Oxfam was discussing their GROW campaign and said, "there is a chance it might work if things line up correctly and even if they do it might fail," it would have fallen flat.

So, Tim Harford is right. We need to accept failure and realize that trial and error is part of the process. Some will argue that lives are at stake and we should not be treating recipients like guinea pigs. Fair point. However, I believe it to be irresponsible to implement solutions with the assumption that they are correct.

This would be like assuming that a properly trained rookie left fielder on the Phillies will bat a perfect 1.000. Then, if he utterly fails he is kept on the team because he is trying really hard. Or, if he succeeds, nothing is done to make him better or understand why he has been successful. Baseball is the perfect analogy because it is rife with failure. In fact the best hitter in baseball right now (avg), Jose Reyes, fails 65% of the time.

The batting average is not a complete picture.  Like Rosling's graphs, it tells larger trends but misses on the finer changes.  Reyes is notorious for running up the count to two strikes.  Does this contribute to his present batting average?  Did he change his approach this season?  Making the wrong decision to take a pitch rather than swing, guessing fastball and swinging too early on a curve, trying to take an inside fastball to the opposite field; all are small failures or mistakes that can lead to success, like a broken bat single, or failure, such as a strikeout. Isolating each instance is extremely hard. Randomistas will claim that they do it best and I think that they are on to something.

Critics of research will decry the wonky conversations that do not address the issues at hand. Some will say that things need to get done and it is a waste of resources and time running an evaluation.  Things do need to get done, but speaking so generally is problematic. The real waste is supporting solutions that do not work. I am not sure quite what works in aid and development. I don't think that anyone knows all or even the majority of the answers. This can change when failure is admitted, shared and embraced.

What that looks like? I don't know.