Waylaid Dialectic

July 10, 2012

If not the Road to Hell then at least the Road to Nowhere…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 9:00 am

Having argued in recent posts that good intentions don’t actually pave the road to hell very often I should also point out that I still agree with the sentiment encapsulated in the name of Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s blog: good intentions are not enough.

Even if they aren’t the building blocks of the road to hell, good intentions often are, at the very least, busily aiding in the paving the road to nowhere. A good recent example: One Laptop per Child.

And yet while good intentions may be one of the culprits here, they certainly aren’t working alone. From the Development Impact Blog:

Bruce Wydick, in a guest post he did for us a few months back, suggests one explanation: some interventions are hyped without proper evidence: under that state of the world, the XO laptop becomes the next shiny solution to our problems in one area – a panacea. When I searched for the evidence that OLPC may significantly improve learning, I got this sentence on their website, with no links to any studies or corroboration: “Extensively field-tested and validated among some of the poorest and most remote populations on earth, constructionism emphasizes what Papert calls “learning learning” as the fundamental educational experience.” Based on what evidence did the UNDP, as far back as 2006, sign a memorandum of understanding with OLPC to support national governments to deploy these laptops in schools?
If I was running OLPC, I would hire a credible third party evaluator to run an efficacy trial. Whatever aspect of human capital it is that I am proposing my laptops improve (reading, cognitive, or non-cognitive), I would measure all of those things carefully under ideal circumstances: I would vary the intervention by having trained teachers or not, specially designed software for learning or not, internet access or not, allowing children to take the laptops home or not, etc. I’d also have a thorough review of the literature that suggests what kinds of long-term improvements in welfare, poverty reduction, growth, etc. such potential improvements may cause. If the trial showed no effects or effects below a certain threshold to be meaningful or cost-effective, I’d go back to the drawing board. If they showed larger effects, then I could start working with governments to evaluate pilot versions of what would look like scaled-up versions of these programs: problems with internet access, stolen laptops, teacher capacity, etc. These steps would help me deploy many more laptops, which furthers my goal as a non-profit organization.

But, at least we can understand why OLPC did not undertake these steps: they already believe that these laptops are good for children (apparently even at the current price tag)…

The real culprit in all this waste isn’t so much the desire to good, although that is no doubt there, but self assurance. The certainty that me and my tools can do good, and the idea that all that has been missing from development practice all these years was the fact that I wasn’t there.

And so my main piece of advice to anyone who really wants to improve the world is about doubt. Before you trundle off into the field learn to doubt yourself and learn to doubt your ideas. Doubt your cherished beliefs.

But then don’t let that doubt drive you to inertia. Instead let it be the road to caution, learning and evidence.

Even then there’s no guarantee of success at the end of the road, but at least it will be more likely.

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1 Comment

  1. […] such a capacity within ourselves. Which is why I totally agree with Dialectician Terence’s critique of the dangers of over-confidence and self assurance within the development sphere. Whether the […]

    Pingback by The need for self-doubt « Bottom Up Thinking — July 10, 2012 @ 11:40 pm


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