Yep – let’s start with a film reference. This one is from Charlie Wilson’s War. An amusing if poignant and potentially emotionally brutal film for anyone who has experienced the recent Afghan conflict.
Cut towards the end of the film. Celebrations. A swanky flat in DC is filled with self-congratulation through the media of music, dance, laughter and champagne. The protagonist, of both the film and the party, heads to the balcony to meet a (not uncharacteristically) sombre looking Philip Seymour Hoffman. He delivers the kind of speech, parable, analogy that manages to be profoundly efficient and efficiently profound (language warning: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e2cjVhUrmII):
“A boy is given a horse on his 14th birthday. Everyone in the village says, “Oh how wonderful.” But a Zen master who lives in the village says, “We’ll see.” ‘The boy falls off the horse and breaks his foot. Everyone in the village says, “Oh how awful.” The Zen master says, “We’ll see.” The village is thrown into war and all the young men have to go to war. But, because of the broken foot, the boy stays behind. Everyone says, “Oh, how wonderful.” The Zen master says, “We’ll see.””
When we focus so hard on an objective, we almost by definition, close off our minds to what is beyond it. And what is beyond it is a lot. And it’s complex. And dynamic. And pluralistic. And yes, it’s also relational.
To put it into an industrial coding, we focus so much on our favoured denominations of action, the project and the programme, that we are biased and blinkered to see little beyond. It’s a degree of highly incentivised active ignorance. And after they’re ‘complete’, we label them and store them away. Was it a good programme or a bad one? Did it have a good outcome? As if anything were that simple. And if anything remained that way. What was once a ‘good’ outcome can lead to a ‘bad’ one and vice versa. But we don’t see. Because we don’t look.
This speaks to something psychological and well as sectorial. Our insecurity-derived need to understand in order to control fuels a particular brand of reductionism. It’s pragmatic, but not in the way it’s usually referred to. It’s psychologically pragmatic. In Man of Steel, a young Superman/Clark Kent tries to deal with the sensory overload that his innate abilities bring him. Waves of sound and light to an overwhelming depth and weight floods his perceptions. It becomes too much so he does what all sensible kids would do. He hides in a cupboard. Until his mum arrives (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BRfpZD2ggx0):
“The world’s too big, mom”
“Then make it small. Just focus on my voice. Pretend it’s an island out in the ocean”
Despite our lack of super powers, we do this all the time. We focus, an act of prioritisation and of reductionism. We admit, on the thinnest piece of our internal diaries, in the smallest writing, that we can not process everything, at any point of time, let alone all of it. So we choose. These choices are often informed by questions of utility, urgency and value. Incentives and reinforcement. They’re shaped and reshaped. But because they’re done doesn’t meant that they should always be done. We should push the edges of our focus out to be a little wider, even if only for temporary perspective.
What I love particularly about the Zen Master / Taoist proverb is how it so smoothly brings into view both dynamism and causality. How any change has changed the immediate dynamics, and how that can in turn influence others. It challenges a myth that is so often perpetuated, that what becomes good, stays good and what becomes bad, stays bad. Or to quote Battfleck: “What falls, is fallen”.
To get personal, I have profited from my experience of grief. Not financially, certainly not immediately, and I doubt that net, overall experience could find much competition with the negative. But there were positives. And they weren’t insignificant and they were a direct result of a resounding negative. Demonstrations of the fluctuating ebbs and flows of causal influence. So we end up back at chains of events and influence. At concepts of dynamism and perspective. Of relational, intersecting forces that sway one way with knock on effects, then sway back. And if you can get all that from 30-odd seconds of a Tom Hanks film, then it must have been a pretty powerful quote.
So, moving towards a reluctant practicality, a familiar question remains. If we slice up reality into such small segments, and have little to no financial (i.e. cost-neutral) incentives to look further beyond, how do we see? How to open the key hole a little wider? Honestly, I don’t really know. Funding is always answer number one, but, despite it’s merits as an argument, it’s a convenient dissociation of responsibility and agency too. And as David Mosse so magnificently pointed out, it’s practice that shapes policy. Show something can work, align it to preexisting strategic / political objectives and then bang the drum about it. Then political space will be created for it. Perhaps.
Critically, any such change will require a shifting of expectations. Developing lighter tools, to be used more frequently and for longer after official project boundaries have passed by. If we could develop crisp, smart tools instead of large slabs of 160 question-naires, we could learn more frequently, more quickly and – critically – outside of our immediate scope. Some of the perception survey work done by Ground Truth Solutions, and especially their work with the British Red Cross on the 3-step feedback mechanism, hopes to address that. I should be transparent about my inherent bias with this particular piece of work, but light, frequent and actioned feedback will – for me – always trump large data dumps of more rigorous and less useful information. That’s one of the reasons why we worked on developing a mechanism that would try to do so. The priority is utility. A perfect piece of data collection and analysis can mount to as much as a tree falling in the woods, with no one there to hear it.
It’s an unpopular notion, but to be clear: I would rather less rigidly positivistic methods were deemed credible. That light, smart, rapid looped mechanisms were used to develop more learning/action oriented insights. And that these were given space to show their worth despite being usually dismissed out of hand by artificial laws of credibility. I would rather prioritise proximity and utility over rigour. I would rather M&E became a process of active, dare I say it dynamic, dialogue. With beneficiaries, programme teams and contextual shifts all active participants (to name but a few). Wouldn’t that be good? Hopefully, one day, we’ll see.