Entries tagged with “politics”.


I am a big fan of the idea of admitting failure and trying to learn from it.  I like ambitious projects with potentially huge payoffs, but a lot of risk of failure – they’re just much more interesting than going at things incrementally.  Besides, if you are going to fail, why not fail spectacularly?  As I tell my grad students, if you are going to ride it all the way to the ground, you might as well dig a big hole when you get there.  At least people will notice the hole, and try to figure out what the hell you were up to . . . of course, I am an academic (with tenure), so I have a pretty big cushion to land on these days.

All that said, I wonder about the utility of these admitting failure efforts that I see coming from groups like Engineers without Borders.  I had the good fortune to catch up with Tom Murphy (or, as the twitterati know him, @viewfromthecave) the other day while he was here in DC, and we started talking about learning from failure.  In the course of our conversation, we came around to two key problems.  First, really admitting failure requires reframing the public image of development as an inherently do-no-harm effort, where just doing something is better than nothing.  Second, given this first problem, when we really start talking about what failure means, even in the most constructive of settings, we will call the entire development enterprise into question. How do we avoid throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

We have long allowed ourselves and our donor constituencies to believe that development work should never have bad outcomes – there is a pervasive belief (under challenge right now, at least by some) that, at worst, a failed project will not change anything – that is what development failure means. Of course, this is simply untrue – development efforts can make things much, much worse for people if they are poorly framed, designed, and implemented – a point I try to make in Delivering Development.  This has a lot to do with the very imagery of a helpless and oppressed global poor the aid world relies upon to raise funds.  When people see someone in a situation that difficult, they assume things could not get worse.  There is no discussion of what is working in the lives of the poor, and therefore the public has little sense that there are fragile things in peoples’ lives and livelihoods that should be protected as we bring new programs and projects to ground. As a result, development takes on the image of a low-risk enterprise in which social protection and “do no harm” safeguards are superfluous, as the worst we could do is leave people as they were.

Up against that worldview, admitting failure seems just fine – “hey, we didn’t really move the needle with that project, but we’ll figure out what we did wrong and try again” sounds much better than “we are incredibly sorry for utterly devastating the physical basis of your livelihoods and forcing many of you to abandon your farms because we ignored your existing land management practices.”  Unfortunately, admitting failure means a lot of the latter, and I am not at all convinced that anyone has the stomach to really wade into that.

This issue has to be combined with a concern for the scale of failure.  It is all well and good to admit failure, even ugly failures, at the project level – stuff happens.  A failed project can usually be traced to concrete causes that can then be addressed and remedied.  But how can a bilateral aid agency, or even a multilateral agency, do the same for its programs?  It is one thing for such huge organizations to talk about the failure of individual projects, and learn from them, but how can we talk about learning from entire programs that don’t live up to expectations without attracting serious challenges to the aid budget that end up wrecking even successful programs, or preventing the scale-up of things that we know work? Put another way, how can we create an environment where learning from our activities is truly possible, and balance that environment with the political reality of aid agencies and NGOs that answer to (different) constituencies that expect only good things to happen?

This framing of global poverty, and the persistent need to justify aid budgets, puts everyone involved with development on a terrible tightrope – at least for those of us interested in evidence-based programming and policy.  Just saying that admitting failure is good does not begin to get us to a world in which we can see that as more than a slogan.  We will have to unwind decades of public relations and fundraising practice, and back out of some very long-standing and pervasive views of global poverty, before we have any real hope of bringing real learning to the fore of development practice.

Or, we could just give everyone tenure . . .



The Economist ran an article on Australia’s newest efforts to green their economy, this time by instituting a carbon tax.  The Economist has its own ideas about this, as do many other people.  Indeed, there are serious debates, even among those who think that climate change is real and human-caused, about whether market-based or carbon-tax-based solutions are best (or some other completely different alternative might be useful).  I’m not wading into all that here. Instead, I want to make an observation about politics, political structures and how we address climate change.

Australia is a democracy, but its elections work quite differently than ours do here in the US.  From the Australian Government’s Webpage:

Australia does not use the ‘first-past-the-post’ voting system (where a candidate can be elected with less than 50 per cent of the total vote). Preferential voting is used for elections to the House of Representatives. Australians must put a number against each candidate’s name in order of preference. First, all the number ‘1’ votes are counted for each candidate. If a candidate gets more than 50 per cent (an absolute majority, 50 per cent plus one) of the formal first preference votes, then they are immediately elected. If no candidate has an absolute majority, the candidate with the fewest votes is excluded. These votes are then transferred to the other candidates according to the second preferences shown by voters on the ballot papers. If still no candidate has an absolute majority, again the remaining candidate with the fewest votes is excluded and these votes are transferred. This process will continue until one candidate has more than half the total votes cast and is declared ‘elected’. This voting system has been used in Australian federal elections since 1918.

To help supporters order their preferences, political parties hand out ‘how-to-vote’ cards at polling booths. The preferences that flow from less popular candidates often decide who wins. Distributing preferences can take days or even weeks.

Proportional representation is used in the Senate. Candidates must receive a quota of the voters in state-wide, multiple-seat electorates. Preferences are also used in Senate voting. The Senate currently has 76 members, 12 from each state and two each from the two mainland territories. The House of Representatives currently has 150 members.

In a nutshell, what this all means is that Australia cannot be dominated by two parties – lots of parties end up getting people elected to both houses, which often forces the parties with large pluralities (but not majorities) to form coalitions with other parties to build a majority, and therefore the right to run the government.  So it is right now – where the Labor party was forced into a coalition with the Greens.  As a condition of their joining the coalition, the Greens extracted a promise to develop a climate plan . . . right after a failed climate plan brought down the previous prime minister.  If Labor was governing by itself, do you think they would be working on climate again?  Of course not – the new Prime Minister “promised not to introduce a carbon tax” during her campaign.

This is sort of a perverse mirror-image of the United States.  In Australia, you have a party that probably wants nothing to do with climate change legislation being forced into a serious effort by the structure of their government.  In the United States, the structure of our elections and government pretty much rewards nobody for working together and building coalitions, with the result a highly polarized government that can’t get easy, obvious things (like raising the debt ceiling) done, let alone address climate change.

Political structures matter, people – and there is nothing written in stone that says we can only have two parties, or that we should only have two parties.  However, most people don’t realize there are ways to make small changes that could bring about big shifts in how we do business.  Mickey Edwards (who spoke to my incoming class of AAAS Fellows back in September 2010, and was fantastic for his candor) has an interesting piece in the Atlantic on some of these changes.  The most interesting of these, to me, was:

In 2010, Californians voted to create an “open primary” system in which every candidate for a particular office, regardless of party, will appear on the same ballot, and every voter who wishes to participate, also regardless of party, will be able to choose among them. The top two will advance to the general election, even if they belong to the same party. Louisiana has long had a top-two, everybody-runs primary system, and Washington State adopted a similar one in 2004. Their voters have a much wider range of options—Republicans, Democrats, independents, third- or fourth-party candidates. If all candidates could get their messages out through free mailings or free television time, minor-party candidates would have a better chance of finishing in the top two in an open primary than on a general-election ballot that pits two major-party giants against each other and discourages supporters of other parties from voting for long-shot candidates.

Just the act of establishing an open primary would break the partisan and ideological chokehold on the general-election ballot and create a much truer system of democratic self-government. As a result, members of Congress would have greater freedom to base their legislative decisions on their constituents’ concerns and on their own independent evaluations of a proposal’s merits. They would be our representatives, not representatives of their political clubs.

This alone could create a serious set of alternatives to the two big (currently mostly useless) parties – and perhaps get us to a place where we need coalitions to govern . . . and can relearn the art of compromise at the heart of politics, and that we so desperately need to address the environmental and economic challenges ahead of us.



Tom over at A View from the Cave has a really interesting observation at the end of his post on the Mortensen scandal the other day:

I have been conducting interviews with the Knowledge Management team with UNICEF and the one today go to discussing the access of information. I was struck when the gentleman I was interviewing said, “There are hundreds of offices and thousands of people in UNICEF. Any idea that I come with has likely been already done by 50 people and better than what I had imagined.” We need to access this information and share it with each other so that a story like this will not go the same route.

I know that this is not a new observation – hell, it is practically the mantra of the ICT for development crowd – but I want to point out something that gets lost in its common repetition: optimism.  The interviewee above was not disparaging the idea of access to information, but instead showing tremendous humility in the face of a vast, talented organization.  Tom’s point was to move from this humble observation to (quite rightly) point out that while great ideas may exist within the organization, until they are accessed or shared they are just potential energy.

This is the same thing I tried to leave readers with as one of the takeaways from Delivering Development.  As I argue:

We probably overlook significant problems every day, as our measurements fail to capture them, and we are likely mismeasuring many of those we can see. However, this is not failure; this is hope. If we acknowledge that these are, indeed, significant problems that must be addressed if we wish to build a sustainable future, then we can abandon the baggage of decades of failure. We can open ourselves up to innovation that might be unimaginable from within the echo chamber of contemporary globalization and development . . .

This uncertainty, for me, is hope. There are more than 6.5 billion people on this planet. Surely at least several of them have innovative and exciting ideas about how to address the challenges facing their lives, ideas that might be applicable in other places or be philosophically innovative. We will not know unless we ask, unless we actively go looking for these ideas and empower those who have them to express them to the world.

In short, Tom’s interviewee sees 50,000 people as a hopeful resource.  I see the nearly 7 billion people on this planet in the same way.  I am optimistic about the “potential energy” for addressing global challenges that exists out there in the world.  That said, it will be nothing but potential until we empower people to convert it into kinetic actions.  Delivering Development provides only the loosest schematic of one way of thinking about doing this (there is a much, much more detailed project/workplan behind that loose schematic) that was presented to raise a political challenge the the status quo focus on experts and “developed country” institutions in development – if we know that people living in the Global South have good ideas, and we can empower these people to share their ideas and solutions, why don’t we?

Sometimes optimism requires a lead blocker.  I’m happy to play that role . . . hopefully someone is following me through the line.

Blog The NonSequitor has a post on the use and misuse of anecdotes in discussions of climate change.  It is an interesting, well-reasoned piece that I largely agree with.  However, I think the post sort of misses the point of the politics of climate change – to get anything done on this issue requires thinking very carefully about how to communicate findings and ideas with the public.  While I agree, in principle, that arguing against climate change or climate change science by picking at an imperfect anecdote (i.e. Al Gore making it seem like 20 meters of sea level rise is impending) does not really address the underlying science, or the soundness of the underlying argument, the assumption that John Casey is making in this post is that science and truth are driving political decision-making.  They do not.

The simple difference between politics and science: in science, there are problems and solutions (or at least means of coming to a solution).  In politics, there are issues and interests that require debate, consideration and compromise.  Science and data are just fodder for that process – they always have been.  Scientists fundamentally fail to recognize this when they engage the political process, and tend to become frustrated when what seems self-evident to them ends up debated, and when obvious solutions get watered down or buried.  Folks, we are not doing science when we engage in policy – we are doing politics.  And that means accepting that people will, in fact, “weak man” your arguments by finding one imperfect anecdote and using it against the whole argument.  Yes, it’s intellectually dishonest.  It is also reality.

Politics does not deal in truth, it deals in tactics.  And that means we have to be tactically aware of what we are doing when we lay out examples and anecdotes.  It also means that we have to be aggressive in addressing efforts to “weak man” the evidence for climate change, instead of dismissing such efforts as not requiring attention (see the IPCC’s botched handling of the misrepresented melt rate of the Himalayan Glaciers).  It is good to know the fallacious arguments being used against the science – but only if we are willing to address those arguments.