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If I was a billionaire wanting to do good…

August 20, 2019

If one had to choose a single development sector, which would it be?

Several times in the past few years, I’ve quoted what I’ve come to regard as Natsioss Law: that the most easily measurable interventions are often the least transformational, while the most transformational are often the least measurable. In writing this, Andrew Natsios was making the point that, given the obsession with predicting and measuring the impact of public investments and actions, some of the most important actions lose out, because although they seek to achieve the things that matter most, they are hard to measure.

Some of the things he had in mind were improvements in governance, politics and accountability, and the adoption of tolerance, justice, respect for human rights and other values. Meanwhile, easily measurable interventions like infrastructure and the delivery of reproductive health services were far easier to fund. By this he wasn’t undervaluing the more measurable changes (the ‘hardware’, if you like); he was simply pointing out that because of the role of ‘bean counters’ in judging what was good or not good enough, international aid was skewed towards the hardware and away from the ‘software’. This remains the case today.

I wrote about this in a blog post back in 2013, and also proposed what I suggested was ‘Natsios’s Second Law’: our ability to understand and describe societal problems in sophisticated detail is in inverse proportion to our ability to address them. The ability of people in the development sector to understand the characteristics of a peaceful, developmental or resilient society had hugely improved, compared with 15 years earlier, but their ability to help people embed those characteristics in their own societies had not kept pace. It’s one thing to recognise resilience or the lack thereof, it’s quite another to become resilient, especially in the face of the structural factors make societies fragile instead, and the softer, societal factors that contribute so much towards resilience.

I also said, just because one can’t ordain a better future, doesn’t mean one should stop trying to help make it happen, and I proposed four rules for programming, to take account of this disconnect between ambition and the capacity to achieve it. (And as it happens, I still agree with what I wrote then).

  1. Don’t promise too much.
  2. Given how hard it is to chart progress in the big picture, it makes sense to work at a smaller scale: with individuals, households, communities – and support their efforts to make a difference to the bigger picture they are part of.
  3. Rather than basing strategy on ‘solving problems’, it may be more realistic to focus on a vision of a better future, keep it in view, and aim to make progress towards it. The means to get there will no doubt be different from what we might have envisaged, but if we keep the end in sight, we can adjust and readjust as we go.
  4. Perhaps it was also time to come up with institutions and organisations more fit for the purpose at hand.

I went back to reread this blogpost recently, after a friend who is not involved in overseas aid asked me how I would invest my charitable donations, if I were a billionaire. My initial, ready response was to describe the charity I once dreamed of setting up. This would use minimal budgets to seek out and support leaders in developing countries with the combination of drive, values and courage to make a difference on the ‘software’ side. I shared the blogpost I had written about this (also in 2013) with my friend. But after she’d read it, she pointed out that my proposal was relatively cheap, costing only $3 million per year or an endowment of $60 million. Not enough for a billionaire to spend, surely?

So she asked the question again, in a slightly different way: in which single international development sector would I invest a significant sum of money annually, if I were a billionaire?

Given my own long-term commitment to softer aspects of development – dialogue, local accountability projects, and the like – I was surprised at the conclusion I came to – assuming the funding was my own – i.e. that I had skin in the game.

The answer was education – the very same answer I’d have given more than thirty years ago, before I started work in the aid sector; though the reasons are perhaps a little more thought-through today.

Formation: knowledge, empathy, critical thinking and ambition for change

If I had the means to do so, I’d invest heavily in the kinds of education that develop young people’s knowledge, empathy, critical thinking skills and ambition for change. In French, one of the words for education is ‘formation’, and I’ve always thought that appropriate in English, too. By forming young people’s capability to think critically and act accordingly, on the basis of knowledge and empathy, the investment would help build the software needed to overcome, dissolve or at least sidestep some of the structural constraints to resilience and progress.

This would require a massive investment, not least because the education systems and teaching methods in so many places seem almost designed to undermine critical thinking. It would need a continued and committed subsidy for at least a generation, and a major injection of external technical assistance. It would also be able to piggy back on technological innovation. But while it would draw on international knowledge and skills, it would also have to be homegrown, based on cultures and knowledge systems in the countries concerned.

There is no guarantee that enhancing the critical thinking skills, confidence and ambition of a generation of young women and men would be enough to turn the corner in making their societies resilient. But it would at least endow them with the language and knowledge they’d need, to decide what good progress looked like in their own context, and decide whether what was being achieved was transformational enough. And in so doing, it would relieve Andrew Natsios’s bean counters of the need to measure progress themselves. And thus clear the way for more initiatives designed to be truly transformational, whether or not they were easily measurable in reports to Washington, Brussels and New York.

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