If annoying, talking down to or ‘othering’ people is a terrible way to influence them, why do we keep doing it? (research edition)

February 12, 2015

     By Duncan Green     

I’ve been thinking about how we criticize/critique people, groups and ideas recently. It started with a conversation with my pal Chris Roche who first expressed surprise atangry man reading the snarky tone of my post on a paper on NGOs (What can we learn from a really annoying paper on NGOs and development?) and then pronounced himself a bit irritated by some of the ‘Doing Development Differently’ messaging, which he sees as largely repackaging (and taking the credit for) approaches that assorted practitioners have been using and promoting for decades.

The paper I bashed last year has been revised and appeared in World Development, along with a note saying ‘The writers were inspired to write the article after a recent working paper by Banks and Hulme was criticized on a widely read blog’ (yep, that would be me). Its content is a lot better in this new version (possibly because they’ve pulled in Mike Edwards as a co-author), but as I read it I still found my hackles rising, because although the content has improved, the tone has not. Stating the blindingly obvious as though it’s a major discovery; assuming all NGOs are venal, stupid or both; not acknowledging any differences within and between NGOs; not consulting NGOs or reading their internal literature. Teeth-grindingly annoying.

So what? Well, alienating your audience to this degree is a pretty terrible way to influence anyone – taking myself as a proxy for the target audience (the paper is arguing that NGOs need to sharpen up their act) I found it really hard to read and take in the messages of the paper through my cloud of irritation.

And the experience of being on the receiving end in this case made me think about all the times NGOs (including me) dish it out in much the same way – to the World Bank, the IMF, the ‘private sector’, ‘banks’, ‘economists’.  I fear we do exactly the things I have just criticised the paper’s authors of doing – talking about ‘the private sector’ as though it’s one thing; saying ‘growth is all about people’ as though only NGOs get it; either not sending the paper to the target, or sending it two days before publication so there’s not time to revise it, however good their response.

Why do we do this? Some reasonable explanations, and some less so. On the reasonable side, you need a clear consistent narrative for campaigns, and there is no doubt that Robin Hood-style campaigning (we are heroic outlaws, they are the Sheriff of Nottingham) is coherent and effective in getting media coverage. Try writing a press release saying ‘hey they’re all different, but some are worse than others and could improve’. And in some cases you’re not looking to ‘engage’, but to build up a big and noisy opposition – in that case polarization is good.

cartoon_truth to powerBut I fear other factors are at play in the way we ‘other’ our targets. A lack of self confidence/fear of being coopted makes it tempting to divide the world up into us and them. There’s also the common psychological phenomenon called splitting where people find it easier to divide world into Good and Bad. Who would campaign about shades of grey? ‘Speaking Truth to Power’ can sometimes be heroic and necessary, but it can also be counter-productive and even self indulgent, if by alienating power, it closes off possible paths to change.

As for Chris’ ‘old wine in new bottles’ problem, the academic incentives are all aligned behind saying ‘I have a new theory/concept/approach’ rather than ‘I’ve tweaked this idea that’s been around for a while but hasn’t been taken seriously’. In any case, academics are much more likely to get noticed, and so achieve wider impact with their work, if they follow that route. Tricky – my feeling is that if you see some bigger fish stealing your ideas, you should congratulate them for their amazing new insights, quietly pat yourself on the back, kick the cat (if you need to get it out of your system) and move on.

So what might good practice look like?

–          Assume the people you are criticizing are as smart as you, and that some of them at least will already have thought about these criticisms

–          Seek them out and try and involve them in your work as early as possible

–          Find out what the sector (or your predecessors) has said/written on your issue and acknowledge it

–          Avoid lazy generalizations – be specific about what and who you are criticizing


Update: Gareth Price-Jones, Oxfam’s rep with the Geneva-based humanitarian agencies, sends me this example of trying to build a more grown up relationship with an advocacy target – in this case UNHCR: Oxfam-UNHCR common understanding on advocacy final. Any other examples?’

February 12, 2015
Duncan Green