15 April 2013

Getting Past False Dichotomies: Technocratic Humanists Exist!


Most people enjoy a good fight; some prefer bare-knuckle brawls while others want to see a verbal lashing that causes an audible, collective cringe. Those of us who follow development eagerly await the next Twitter barrage between development economists like Jeffrey Sachs and Bill Easterly. 

And, because people tire easily of old battlefields, they are on a constant search to find a new one – even if it’s a false plane, more virtual than reality. The latest battlefield is between the “technocrats and humanists,” as Hugh Roberts describes it at the Guardian PovertyMatters blog. It’s Bill Gates vs. Amartya Sen; the technocratic robot accountants vs. the humanistic touchy-feelies. 

That doesn’t feel right, though; it seems a false dichotomy, one that muddies, rather than clears, the waters. It’s a little like the “Trade Not Aid” debate in how it ignores the overlap between two things, when really the overlap is where the most interesting – and most important – work occurs.

And it seems that, in this case, the distinction is so faulty as to be almost meaningless. Let’s start with Roberts’s example of the prototypical “zealous technocrat,” Bill Gates – someone who advocates “technical, often technological solutions” and believes in “a science of human affairs.” That certainly sounds like a good description of the man and his work. (With the possible exception of Windows Millennium, which wasn’t, in any sense of the phrase, a “technological solution”)

But I doubt Gates wants to reinvent the toilet for bragging rights, and I don’t think he wants to eradicate malaria because it sounds like a neat thing to do. It seems far likelier that wants to reinvent the toilet because he understands the toll that unsanitary conditions have on children in much of the world, and that his desire to eradicate malaria stems from grieving those that lose their mothers, daughters, and selves their life to the disease. 

When Gates is described as a technocrat in Roberts’s model, it devalues the deep humanist impulse that drives his work; he may be in favor of technological solutions, but only in the service of humanitarian goals. 

Certainly, there are those that are more technocratic than others; Gates is an excellent example. But when we restrict our understanding of a person or an organization to the technocrat/humanist binary, we lose sight of the most salient fact: someone can be both a technocrat and a humanist – and one impulse often strengthens the other.

Technocratic humanists exist. Humanistic technocrats exist. 

Roberts uses Rwanda and Ethiopia as an example showing the supposed “faultline” between technocrats and humanists, arguing that if you are pro-growth – even at the expense of political rights and free speech – you are a technocrat, and vice versa for humanists. He makes a similar argument using the “randomistas” who favor randomized controlled trials (the technocrats) vs. the skeptics (the humanists). 

These aren’t helpful distinctions to make. Surely someone who leans technocratic can appreciate the concerns about rights in Rwanda and Ethiopia, and humanist-leaning individuals want to find out how effective an intervention is, at, say, increasing access to education. With these concerns in mind, someone who favors technological solutions could create a platform for anonymous posting of human rights violations, or to monitor the uptake of education in a community. 

Towards the end of the piece, Roberts begins an assault on the prevailing technocracy, arguing that,
“Ours is an age of technocrats. It has brought stupendous advances. And it has brought us to the edge of several abysses…. But there is now an urgent need to balance our technocratic approach with a new humanism. Otherwise we'll face our greatest challenges without our greatest intellectual resources, and the development community will be unable to reimagine itself for a dramatically changed world.”
But he doesn’t mention any such abyss caused by technocrats. And he assumes that our greatest intellectual resources are under-appreciated and silenced humanists; he makes it sound like disparate perspectives are drowned out by an overwhelming wave of randomized controlled trials, a flurry of metrics, and the entire results-oriented establishment. 

This doesn’t ring true to me. But even if it did, it’s still far from clear that the technocrat-oriented individuals would exclude all discussion of the “new humanism” Roberts espouses. A variety of perspectives – from those that lean technocratic to those that lean humanistic, and everything in between – is critical to the discussion of how to make development work. But there’s no need to create arbitrary teams and false fissures to do so. Sure, most people enjoy a good fight now and then, but let’s at least make it a fight worth having.

Permissions