Complexity and reality in development aid

Making it simpler will not be solving the problem

Perhaps we have been approaching this communication problem all wrong. We keep saying that if we want to present the reality of development aid, we need to make it more accessible to people. And when we are saying “more accessible” what we are actually meaning is “simpler”.

However, there is a problem with that. Because, and I am paraphrasing
Einstein, simplification is necessary, but you cannot make things simpler than they actually are.

A map is not the territory

But a map is never the territory. It is a simplification of what is actually there. A good map allows the user to navigate his or her way around the difficulties that they may encounter on the road from point a to point b. A bad map on the contrary leads to user astray.

So the quality of the map is directly related to the quality of the result of using the map. And it’s pretty much the same with communication about development aid. There is a significant risk of oversimplifying the communication to a point that people think that our work is just applying principles that work in the context of our history, our geography, our society to other environments. If it only were that simple.

Western methods may actually create problems

The whole point is that we need to start our communication by establishing a clear understanding that that assumption is faulty. That in the past more problems have been created than solved by blindly adopting Western principles and assuming they would work.

A map is only readable and understandable if you understand what each of the symbols represents. A failure to clearly define those symbols sets the user up for failure when he wants to use the map. A blue line may be a road, but it may also be an impassable river.

To date, we have failed to adequately explain our reality. Our reality blew my mind when I first encountered it in the field. And I pride myself on being an open-minded person with some sense for reality.

Embracing complexity

So, in addition to explaining why we are actively engaging in development aid, we also need to explain the context in which that development aid is being delivered as well as how that context differs from the context our constituents know and understand.

So perhaps, rather than shunning the complexity inherent in our work, we need to put it center stage. Just perhaps we need to focus on explaining why development aid is inherently that difficult. Just perhaps we need to explain the symbols on our map.

This is a subject I will be returning to in the coming days, weeks and months.