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Sunday, February 12, 2017

Fiction or non-fiction in international development

I will not denounce the author of this iconoclastic drawing (Steve Hodgins), and I take all responsibility for the text that it inspires.

"Fiction" or "non-fiction"? Would we consider our wok in global health, global development as one or the other? Easy question. Right?

Well, I've long had this word stuck in my brain: "pretense". Maybe that's why Steve's drawing triggered me to post it and write a comment.

We often think of corruption as "them", these people who will take personal benefit from public efforts. This district manager who collected 90 days of per diem in just a month (truth or urban myth? but not impossible at all). This West African country where most workshops take place in a hotel in the capital, but just outside the administrative boundary of the capital city, so that everyone gets travel per diems. These many places where we allow "sitting fees" to discuss policy and programs with officials, because presumably they hold their population hostages, and, either we care so much about the populations, or we care so much about the success of our projects -- who knows? Maybe it's a mixture of the two. But anyway, these cases of corruption are--in a post-colonial mindset--"their" problem.

We talk far less of the corruption of pretense, which this picture illustrates so well.

"How does it relate to our work, really?" you may ask.
Of course all of us sometimes embellish a bit the promises of our tools, methods and proposals. But that's par for the course. We're only human. Development is a vocation, it's also a job, and -- yes -- a little bit of industry. What are you going to do? We ask.

But you see, words matter. And when our rhetorical inflation keeps "scaling up", then our words get further and further away from reality. At some point... that disconnection from reality matters. Maybe there's only so much that alternative facts can deliver...
That's why some people care deeply about evaluation by the way -- evaluation is nothing more than a methodological quest to move away from marketing and rhetoric to rediscover a little bit of truth when we can. (I often argue about the need for a diversity of methods of evaluation, and the appropriate nature of evidence given the question-context, but I never argue about its fundamental importance.)

So how bad can this wandering from "non-fiction" to "fiction" be?

I'll give just one example, because on this example I feel pretty confident that I have looked at the good, the bad, and the ugly of our work and evidence.

Here's a clear sign that you've entered the "fiction" section of international development: when you read somewhere about "ensuring sustainability", you know that you're in the fiction section:
- "ensuring sustainability" is like promising a free lunch, free money, or predicting the future. Mystics can promise it, but there's no space in scientific language for such a hyperbolic phrase. So when a donor uses it, it simply means "make us dream", or "we haven't thought so much about this, but we please tell us something that looks good". And when the proposal writer writes a paragraph about "ensuring sustainability", given that sustainability is about 1,001 necessary but not sufficient conditions, it only means "here's a selection of factors of sustainability that we think you will like as a story". Basically, it's pleasing fiction. To be sure, someone will have to come up with a list of indicators, because in that fiction section of the library someone has come up with a list of indicators of sustainability which are -- you know it - "SMART". Of course, there's not one study in the world to validate this list of indicators, but remember: we are in the fiction section. As long as there's a fit between the empty promises of the proposal and the empty request of the RFP, it's still a good score on the proposal. All is good.

Now, projects happen in the real world. And there's a lot of pressure on them. Project managers are making 34 decisions a day (I made up that number just now; I like it), and they have a very demanding job. Usually -- and I don't blame them -- slowing down the project to address all the demands of negotiation, consultation, conflict management, and forward thinking required by sustainability is not really something that they can do. Their decision space is more about reducing the unintended effects on, than maximizing, sustainability.
Six months from the end of the project, there will be a lot of attention paid to "handing over" and "transitioning". Too late, I'm afraid.
And the final evaluation will state, as it has stated 4,685,904 times before (I love this new world where we can make up our own numbers!) that -- wait for it:
be ..
from ...
<you know it's coming, right?>


But you see - until that moment - we were looking at sustainability in the fiction side of the library.

That's a form of corruption of our mission and efforts -- not the only one -- but think about this cartoon next time you see the words "ensure" and "sustainability" in the same sentence. (And maybe you'll find other examples where we corrupt our best judgement and professional thinking.)


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