Speaking Truth to Power

Ten years ago, this op-ed by economist Bill Easterly got him fired from the World Bank. In it, he argues:

The failure [of international aid] is so widespread that pointing the finger at any single organisation is futile. The economists, international organisations and aid donors all had an interest in overselling “solutions” to economic development that were supposedly easy to implement. But there is a multitude of things that one has to get right for economic development, which is why success is rare.

Every component is complementary to every other: equal rights before the law, contract enforcement, stable politics, accountability of public officials, low corruption, trust between market participants and so on. Progress on any one is likely to fail without progress on all.

The best the foreign aid community can do is to support genuine change on those precious occasions when it happens.

Agree or disagree with his point of view, this is a courageous move to denounce what he thought was a profound, systemic failure. There are many anonymous bloggers in the aid industry, no doubt in part because their views and opinions would likely get them fired if they expressed them publicly.

Both within organizations and across the industry, we need to do a better job at creating space for people to be able to speak out, ask questions and discuss failures.

3 thoughts on “Speaking Truth to Power

  1. As a fan of justice and transparency, I don’t like hearing one side of the story (Bill’s) without hearing the other side: what exactly was the ethical charge made against him, and on what published World Bank standards was it based?

    As a fan of care and reason, I don’t think we can deduce from Bill’s termination, or from the existence of bashful bloggers, that there is some kind of need for “space”. I think that if after 10 years Bill is going to trot out this old wound, he’s going to have to also give us access to the other side of the story. Without that, we can’t judge the validity of his. As for the anonymous bloggers: for each anon, I see three who use their own names, and the tags “these views are my own, and not my employers.”

    At a certain point in one’s career, some people decide that they’re going to call it as they see it, in a form that is considerate of facts, due process, and the rights of others. They decide that it’s their professional duty to do so. They decide that integrity is more important than a paycheque. In fact, I recommend taking this view sooner, rather than later. Life becomes so much simpler.

    No-one I know has ever been sacked for doing so.

    1. Hi David, thanks for your comment. I don’t know whether there really is “another side” to the story. Easterly’s op-ed was broad in nature, and didn’t particularly attack his employer or other organizations – in my view, he’s speaking his mind about what he thinks is a broken system. However, yes, it would be interesting to know what were the ethical charges against him, and what rules he broke.

      In my experience, it can be difficult for people to speak up within their own organizations: perhaps it’s a cultural thing, or maybe just bad management. I know that there are certain orgs (like UNICEF, with knowledge management) who make organizational learning central, and I think that is part of what I mean when I say “create space”. Also, along the same lines, MobileActive’s “FailFare” and Engineers Without Borders’ Failure Report. More organizations should make this type of learning a priority, in my view. As there are more and more NGOs – and no shortage of injustice, poverty and disasters to contend with – it would be good to see more of this self-critical capacity, and mainstream the idea/possibility of failure.

      As far as Easterly’s concerned, it’s a unique situation. He was a senior person at the WB, and probably didn’t think that this op-ed would be reason enough to terminate his employment. I would love to know more about the back story. Nevertheless, I still appreciate the courage of someone who takes clear, principled positions like Easterly did in his piece.

      1. Hi Penelope. When you expand on your topic, I agree with what you say. You might find of interest something I just discovered, a movement in the medical fraternity away from a blame culture, towards a blame-free culture. An example:

        http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19766373

        Google will reveal many more. The idea here is that there are many unnecessary medical deaths (11,000 per annum here in Australia) that are unnecessary, but not prevented because no-one wants to report the errors that would lead to improved systems. I think is a great idea, well worth exploring and importing (if possible) into aid. It would be a long haul.

        My response to your post was somewhat driven by what I thought was shallow grounding, but also to some discomfort about what Easterly did. In a democratic culture, we have free speech. However, as professionals, we are held (by the courts, if no-one else) to a higher duty of care.

        When I consider Easterly’s article, I consider risks of harm versus potential benefits. Why did he write an op ed in a newspaper? If he wanted to influence policy makers to improve the system, he already has access to them through his position. So the only effect that I can see of sending a message to the public that “it’s all a waste of money” is to undermine public confidence in the aid system, the most likely result of which would not be reform, but simply lowering of aid budgets.

        If he’s right: no harm done. If he’s wrong: big harm done. We always have a duty to consider “what will be the results of my action if I’m wrong?”

        I just don’t see that, on the balance of probabilities, this was an act that helped the poor, but I think it had great potential to harm them.

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