KM on a dollar a day

Musing on knowledge management, aid and development with limited resources

Up in the air

with 8 comments


Apparently one way to get more hits on your blog  hits is to mention celebrities. Tricky on a blog about knowledge management, but here goes.

Many of you will have heard about the George Clooney project to use satellite imagery to help deter possible genocidal attacks following on the South Sudan independence referendum. Many people much more knowledgeable, and witty than I am have called into question the wisdom or likely utility of this project.



But what what got the twittersphere abuzz yesterday were Clooney’s own remarks in response to his critics:

“I’m sick of it,” he said. “If your cynicism means you stand on the sidelines and throw stones, I’m fine, I can take it. I could give a damn what you think. We’re trying to save some lives. If you’re cynical enough not to understand that, then get off your ass and do something. If you’re angry at me, go do it yourself. Find another cause – I don’t care. We’re working, and we’re going forward.”

As Joshua Keating rightly notes in this FP piece ” This kind of “at least I’m doing something” rhetoric drives development scholars absolutely bonkers and for good reason”. While we might feel morally compelled to do “something” or “anything” about a pressing problem, that doesn’t mean we should. In fact by doing the wrong thing we might even actually make things worse. But I’d like to unpack this a little (from a knowledge management point of view of course).

It’s rare that we either have either:

i) no knowledge whatsoever about what to do, but decide to do something anyway or

ii) enough information to be absolutely certain that we are doing exactly the right thing (see related post “the truth is out there”).

So in practice we’re frequently faced with a compelling problem, but with incomplete knowledge about how to handle it. Different people will feel they need a greater or lesser sense of information and confidence in it before they act. In aid work, where there are a lot of unknowns, there is often  a need for a judgement call as to when to act and when not to act based on what we do and do not know – with advocates erring more towards action and researchers more towards “needs more research”. So perhaps the difference between Clooney and the aid commentariat is not necessarily a difference of approach, but simply of degree along this continuum – he’s more of an advocate than a scholar.

A couple of additional points:

1. If we have a potentially useful idea, but it’s never been researched or tested in the current set of circumstances, then the only way to really find out is  just to do it. We’d be foolish to tell people that it is certain to work, and we will need to carefully and honestly monitor it to see if it does work, or if it has any negative unforeseen consequences, and be prepared to modify or drop it if needed.

2. Of course while we can’t know everything before acting, it would be extremely remiss not to consider information about the approach that is already easily accessible before deciding whether to go ahead.

So on this basis, if I had to say what I thought about Clooney’s project and his reactions to critics I’d have to say,  it’s up in the air…


Written by Ian Thorpe

January 11, 2011 at 10:10 am

8 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ian Thorpe, Ian Thorpe, Lauren(ist), Peter Dörrie, Saundra and others. Saundra said: Other posts on the Clooney debate Up in the Air and Criticizing Clooney […]

  2. The Satellite Sentinel Project is such a great way for the United States government to monitor the oil fields in Central Africa and keep an eye on what the Chinese are doing there. Kudos to George Clooney for becoming a propaganda tool to ensure American economic supremecy in the world.

    USA! USA! USA!

    [extreme snark intended]

    Michael Kirkpatrick

    January 11, 2011 at 11:35 am

  3. I thoroughly agree with you. Aid is not a science. you cannot wait until you have all the variables under control. there will never be two sets of circumstances that are equal in all fronts. Everyone is doing what Mr Clooney is. we are all trying, some harder than others (there are plenty of “legitimate” aid workers who seemed rather uninterested in efficiency, accountability, or their beneficiaries), Clooney is famous, so just like he manages to bring attention to the plight just by being there, he attracts more criticism. Just like the UN is usually at the eye of the hurricane, not because it does a worse job than anyone else, but because -as the largest most symbolic organization out there- it gets a lot more scrutiny


    January 11, 2011 at 2:46 pm

  4. […] as a scholar, I generally fall into the “needs more research” camp described by KM on a Dollar a Day.  I won’t pretend to have more expertise than I do but I also recognize the extent to which I […]

  5. I thought this was an interesting audio discussion from The Guardian on how & when celebrities might be effective in international development

    Bonnie Koenig

    January 11, 2011 at 3:21 pm

  6. […] Ian Thorpe dissects Clooney’s response a bit further from the perspective of knowledge management (of course) and what uncertainty means for decision making. […]

  7. Hi, Ian,
    I was actually only passing by to get your URL, and now I am commenting: that is what a great post achieves.
    Great one! You certainly have a fan – who had not expected to regularly read a blog about aid
    ps: thanks for the trick with celebrities, perhaps my next post will have the title “KM does not stand for Kate Middleton” or “What JeLo thinks about Knowledge Management – if she thinks at all”

    Gerald Meinert

    May 5, 2011 at 3:04 pm

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