I find myself wondering if I am the only one dismayed by the “mudwrestling” going on among Dambisa Moyo, Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly… and others. In case you haven’t heard, Dambisa Moyo has written a provocative book on the merits of development assistance. Her book, Dead Aid, challenges some of the accepted wisdom about how to help poor countries out of poverty. I love provocative books. I love people who can stand the world on its head and say maybe the world isn’t flat after all.  We all need shaking up on a fairly regular basis, especially in the times we live in now.

For me, what ought to have happened after the publication of Dead Aid would be for more pieces like the balanced Francis Fukuyama review in Slate to find prominence and for a stimulating, constructive, multi-dimensional conversation to begin about what this might mean for development policy. Conversations that start by seeking points of agreement in the other’s work and that try to build on those points of agreement.

Instead, what I see is the sort of, winner-take-all, academic sniping that destroys without creating. To pokes holes in the foundations of  another’s argument without acknowledging or building on the sturdy parts of their foundations is not really constructive. Don’t get me wrong. I am a fan of Karl Popper. I believe that disprovability is the cornerstone of the quest for truth. Yet I also believe that compassion is as important a part of academic discourse as rationality.

George Lakoff, author of Metaphors We Live By, points out that the dominant metaphor for argument is that of conflict and struggle. And indeed, William Easterly validates this when he says that the “purpose of debate is to facilitate the emergence of the best ideas and to shoot down the worst ideas” and “it is clear to me intellectually that Sachs’ ideas are wrong, and I will combat them accordingly” (emphasis is mine).  Hat tip to another World Bank alumnus, Steve Denning, for making me aware of Lakoff’s work.  But why the metaphor of conflict?  Why not a metaphor of mountain climbers roped together scaling a summit?

I am reminded of a page from Sam Kaner’s excellent Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making in which he explores two different modes of problem solving:

Either / Or Both / And
Value System Competitive Collaborative
Type of Outcome Expected Win / Lose Win / Win
Attitude toward “Winning” To the victor goes the spoils Your success is my success
Attitude toward “Losing” Someone has to lose If somebody loses everybody loses
Attitude toward minority opinions Get with the program Everyone has a piece of the truth
Why explore differences between competing opinions? To search for bargaining chips, in preparation for horsetrading and compromise. To build a shared framework of understanding, in preparation for mutual creative thinking.
Essential Mental Activity Analyse: break wholes into parts Synthesise: integrate parts into wholes
How long it takes It’s usually faster in the short run It’s usually faster in the long run
Underlying philosophy Survival of the fittest Interdependence of all things

Ethan Zuckerman’s pointer to a thoughtful post on the blog What an African Woman Thinks is what actually compelled me to write this.  The author, Rombo, has a fresh, critical yet compassionate take on the debate.  It reminded me that compassion and critical thinking will take you a lot further in the social construction of knowledge than critical thinking alone. So, Dambisa, Jeffrey, William how about a little less invective and a little more compassion or dare I say ubuntu?  Africa certainly has no need of aid when it comes to philosophy, perhaps the other way around.

Posted by Steve Song

@stevesong local telco policy activist. social entrepreneur. founder of @villagetelco #africa #telecoms #opensource #privacy #wireless #spectrum #data