KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Black and White

with 5 comments

[A short rant for a Friday]

It’s human nature to categorize things. We like our arguments broken down into yes and no. Right vs. Wrong. Aid debates are no different:

  • Planners vs. Searchers
  • Government vs. Private
  • Fee vs. Free
  • Amateurs vs. Professionals
  • Local vs. International
  • Conditional vs. Unconditional
  • Transparency vs. Secrecy

What’s more our style of learning and argumentation encourages us to take a position then to stand by it, at least until it becomes untenable. Our political, academic and legal systems encourage  us to be adversarial and opinionated.

The problem with this approach is that we tend to ignore evidence that does not back up our existing worldview, and we tend to be combative with people who hold an opposing view, finding every way to defend our beliefs and to counter those of our “opponents”, rather than looking for common ground.

Why is it so difficult for us to accept that the answers might be nuanced. Maybe the evidence doesn’t all point int he same direction, maybe what works in Uganda doesn’t work in Angola, what worked in the 1990s doesn’t work in the 2010s. Or sometimes two seemingly inconsistent ideas can coexist side by side – Maybe the State Department is against Wikileaks but really is in favour of press freedom, and maybe Julian Assange has selfish motives, but is still advancing freedom.

The world is a complex place, and there is so much we don’t know for sure. We need to make simple models in our head of the way the world is in order to help us understand it, to help us make decisions without being paralysed, and to help us identify who we are as individuals.

For small things this doiesn’t matter. I mean in the development world who cares if we don’t agree on our favourite flavour of ice-cream or whether Bristol Palin should have been kicked out of  “Dancing With The Stars” sooner or whether Russia deserved to host the World Cup in 2018 – and who cares if we can backup our opinions with any evidence.

But when these things touch on our work – and how we act to promote development and human rights then it starts to matter a lot more. We too often forget that the theories, ideologies and grand approaches  (or best practices) are just models, they are not reality. They are only useful in so far as they are helping us move forward with our work. When they don’t keep delivering results for us, or when they lead us into debate which becomes about the people and the positions, about being right rather than supporting us to make progress, then it’s time to take a step back.

Am I wrong?


Written by Ian Thorpe

December 10, 2010 at 8:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. fantastic post ian. I couldn’t agree more. I’m of the idea that usually there is a need for “both”. You need academics to do the long term research. You also need practitioners that are willing to go beyond the theory to what work. But neither on its own is enough. There’s a place for healthy private competition, and for the government to ensure the gaps are filled. Another big one for me in development is field vs HQ. Both needed, both key, and too often both “sides” disrespect and forget the role of the other… which is why I wholeheartedly believe in the importance of going back and forth.

    sorry, my own little sunday rant


    December 11, 2010 at 5:09 am

  2. […] post: Black and White AKPC_IDS += "8147,";Popularity: 50% […]

  3. This is a really, really great post. Succinct but also clear and comprehensive. I really couldn’t agree more. Was a pleasure to read it. Thanks for writing!


    December 28, 2010 at 11:26 am

  4. […] also wrote in “Black and White” about how views on development issues often become polarized into for and against positions […]

  5. […] just maybe, both the detractors and promoters are overstating their case (another example of black and white […]

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