“Smart Aid”: A cautionary note

by David Week on 24 November 2010


Thanks to Good Intentions for inspiring this post, which started life as a comment.

I have some qualms about the very idea of “smart aid”.

It seems to imply that this is something new, while all has been done in the past is “dumb aid”. I think of the development of aid (the development of “development”?) as a kind of evolutionary process, in which we wouldn’t be where we are today but for the workers that came before us. You know that statement of Newton: “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” I think that we need to thank even the people who have made huge mistakes in the past, because it’s only because of them that we aren’t making the same ones now.

The idea of making lists of what constitutes “smart aid” seems to suggest that there’s some kind of method of “doing it right” which we will can approach, or even arrive at. There are three reasons I believe this is self-deceiving — though I too am wont to get enthusiastic about new solutions.

Reason 1: Aid and development touch on every aspect of human life (food, gender, enterprise, finance, institutions, governance, corruption, catastrophes, rights, laws, justice, culture, the relationship between cultures… ) and almost every variety of human circumstance. If we had a “method” for aid, we’d have a “method” for living, and — pace Marx and Fukayama — such a “method” does not exist. Life is by definition more complex than we can understand… because if it was simpler, we’d use our intelligence to complicate it until it was beyond us.

A concept I learned much from: “the fog of war.” I think we all operate in the “fog of aid”. No matter how clear our thinking and theories before we enter the fray, everything becomes much murkier in the thick of things.

Reason 2: Aid and development is multi-perspectival. Thousands of different roles and cultures and professions and political views and histories are involved, and each sees “success” and “failure” in different terms. There is no one overarching “God’s-eye view” from which we can look down on the variety and turmoil and deem: “Yes, this is good.” And that’s the nature of society, politics, and again… life.

Reason 3: This irreducible messiness is good. Let’s say that we did reduce all aid programs down to 10 principles… only they were somebody ELSE’s principles, antagonistic to your own. It would be a nightmare. It would be soviet, centrally planned development.

It’s good that there are a lot of little initiatives out there that nobody thinks are any good, but are allowed to exist (consider the early days of Apple Computer, or the American Revolution); and it’s good that no particular formula or perspective becomes elevated to the status of Development Dogma. (Remember when dams and roads and giant ag projects were the Development Dogma?)

In sum:

“Nobody knows anything.” These are the words of the scriptwriter William Goldman. He says that in Hollywood, people just act like they know something, because so much money is involved. It might be true for aid as well.

We’re all muddling through: in the fog of aid.

Development is irreducibly messy: because it’s about people.

So what else is new? There’s no method to life. I like this dictum from good ol’ Søren Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

That being said, we shouldn’t be too harsh on what today looks dumb: it could look smart tomorrow. (I say that even though I am by nature a harsh critic, and often have to bite my tongue.)

We should aim to help each other out in a friendly manner: the target of tomorrow’s devastating critique might well be us.

We should value the vast variety of what’s out there. All things start small. Mhd Yunus, when he started out, looked no doubt like a flaky academic lending pennies to peasants. If we knew in advance what social innovations were going to succeed, we’d all be billionaires from our stock market investments. I’m not. Are you?

That said, I agree with almost all of the principles and precepts that are touted today as “smart aid”. But I’m trying to hold my beliefs lightly, taking the long view that almost all of them, I’m sure, will one day be seen as very naive or even completely misguided.

The purpose of holding them lightly is not to drop them completely, but just make it more difficult to beat other people over the head with them, more difficult to hold on to them when they’re clearly not being helpful, and easier to swap them for other ideas, when those new ideas appear promising.

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  • Joe

    Yeah, that actually sounds a lot like Kierkegaard – believing in the universal ethic (i.e. the notion that there can be processes which lead to ‘good aid’) whilst at the same time holding onto the tension that there can be a prophetic (i.e. ways of doing things which make no sense compared to the prevailing way of things) and that the universal ethic might be wrong and need to be reformed by off-centre ideas.

    For me, the critical thing is knowing how to tell the difference. How do you hold onto the concept of an ideal (and presumably there are logical reasons for designing buildings in particular ways) whilst at the same time allowing space for inspired ideas? How do you avoid getting blown along by every random idea that comes along?

    • I just visited your blog on Kierkegaard. Though I’m not directly a student of theology, I am interested in what Geertz called “Religion as a Social System.” It’s only now that I realised that perhaps what Kierkegaard was doing was preparing us for the uncertainties and groundlessness of modern life. (Of course, this is only visible in hindsight!)

      You might enjoy Hubert Dreyfus’s lectures on Kierkegaard, which you can find here:
      Dreyfus is one of Berkeley’s finest teachers.

      In terms of not getting blown along by every random idea, I think the answer lies not in theoretical knowledge (theoria), but in what is sometimes translated from Aristotle as “practical wisdom” (phronesis.) Whereas theoria is knowledge that can be applied everywhere, at any time, phronesis is knowing what to do in a particular situation. Dreyfus calls this, at one point, “cultural competence.”

      • Joe

        Yes, I’ve been listening with great interest to Dreyfus.

        I think you’ve just redefined my terms without answering the question – how do you test the relevance of phronesis without recourse to the theoria? Or in what one might conclude about ‘goodaid’, is it just phronesis, to be made up in every new situation?

      • This is why K. is an existentialist. At the end of the day, we have to make choices, for which there is no foundation, no rational basis, no frame of reference which will tell us what to do, no way of knowing what the outcome will be. I tie this existential insight to the neurological story Damasio tells in “Descartes Error”: that our reasoning only outlines options, but when we make a choice, we revert to the “feel of things”—our embodied understanding of the world.

        But that understanding is not “made up” on the spot, or arbitrary. It’s anything but. It’s the product of our life experience in the world, or rather: our expertise. And the root of the world “expert” is the same as the root of the word “experience.” An expert is someone who is experienced. So all this says is that we can’t replace human expertise with rational systems (e.g. evidence-based decision-making), in my mind because the former is just that much more complex and subtle an instrument than the latter.In sum: the development process has to be lived, not just thought about. Thinking is an important corner of the process, but still only a corner.

  • Great thought provoking blog. I tend to think there is a fair degree of space though between central planning of aid and identifying a few core principles around which good aid can be constructed.

    I do agree with you that the idea of smart aid is evolutionary and what is considered good aid will and should evolve over time – but I don’t think this means we should not try to identify what it is now, only that we should be aware we don’t have all the answers and be prepared to revise our views over time.

    There is one principle of smart aid that I think is particularly important to allow aid to evolve and improve, and that is the principle of continual learning. I’m planning to write a blog post on this aspect of smart aid next week.

    • Thanks. What I tried to express in the closing paragraph is that I’m not against constant theorising and formulating, but rather that its always contingent and to be treated with caution. I’m somewhat perturbed by recent rhetoric around RCTs, that “this is how scientists know what really works” and “without RCTs, we know nothing.” Both these statements seem wildly wrong, and wildly ideological.

      I look forward to your post on learning. I recently came across this quote, which is close to what I believe: ‘The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.” –Daniel Boorstin

  • I couldn’t agree more with what you wrote, David, “We should aim to help each other out in a friendly manner: the target of tomorrow’s devastating critique might well be us…Let’s hold our beliefs lightly.” Indeed! Development practitioners and international “do-gooders” all insert themselves in the difficult, yet ultimately fulfilling space between the inherent complexities of engaging communities in social change. Thus, I believe any notion of impact in international development will be achieved only through the awareness, knowledge, and skill of how to accept this, navigate it, learn from it, and work more effectively within this reality.

    • Thanks. I was a little worried that in posting this cautionary note, I was raining on everyone’s parade. I don’t feel so worried now.

    • I think it was/is there. I think of Weber and Durkheim, more recently of Geertz and Garfinkel. The latter two certainly turned my world upside down.

      I started my PhD attempting to underpin my work. But there are those works — films, works of art, books — which change you in such a way that thereafter the world is no longer. The turning point for me was Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By. If my counterparts were living by different metaphors… if my interpretation of their metaphors was itself shaped by my own historically-given and linguistically-framed metaphors.

      Hall of mirrors.

      So that (and much that followed from that initial turning point) really altered my understanding of development. I see it now as the ground for a meeting of two cultures, with tremendous potential (oft unrealised) for transforming both parties.

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  • Best read in the Dev. blogosphere for quite a while.

    ‘Hold your beliefs lightly’ should be put on a refrigerator magnet. 🙂

    For the past years, I’ve been thinking a lot about why development policy discourse tends to evolve so abrupt. One reason I’ve thought of is the lack of ontological considerations. Not in the sense that I’m longing for passionate but pacifying debates of materialism vs. postmodernism but it appears that an ontological awareness has disappeared completely from many strands of the social sciences. (If it was ever there)

    Any thoughts?

    • Thanks, Søren. I’m a big fan of materialism, postmodernism and social science. They all seem good tools for subverting our cultural assumptions. Ontology… I don’t know. I always associate that somehow with justifying our cultural assumptions.

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