Fresh look, Learning

Wasted Chance: Jeffrey Sachs & narrative simplicity

“…the importance of an idea is often judged by the fluency (and emotional charge) with which the idea comes to mind”

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

Following on from Ben Butcher‘s recent post on advocacy networks in the EU, this passage from a Nobel prize winning economist got me thinking about how the third sector goes about campaigning.

The psychological research done by Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky has extended far beyond their own fields. Nudge, a political science book on the use of simple persuasive techniques to cut the costs of policy programmes (example: engraved flies in public urinals) has been photographed in the hands of a number of notable politicians. Without a huge amount of public information or fanfare policies are being implemented around you with the intention of subtly influencing how you respond to the world around you.

It is often noted that the way in which the general public perceive large or complex issues is flawed. People in the West, for example, are pretty certain that Africa has more wars than Asia, or that certain public health issues are much worse than they really are. This is understandable. There is an enormous amount of bad, misleading or downright incorrect information flying around. A recent piece in Salon documented how this barrage of hateful but clear and memorable information can radically alter people’s world-views. Psychological research (and received wisdom) tells us that people are more likely to believe something if a) they hear about it all the time and b) it is delivered with a heightened emotional charge. Enter Paul Dacre, Rush Limbaugh and Martin Ssempa.

This can happen with less extreme narratives as well.

Recently, Jeffrey Sachs has been taking a collective kicking from the development blogosphere – Humanosphere noted this rather unpleasant industry pile-on in this post. To an extent, I agree with Tom Paulson’s point here – the development community is overly insular and has far too few public champions of any substance, perhaps part of this backlash is to do with tall poppy syndrome. Furthermore, Sachs’ biggest critics have been those focused on measurement rather than message. The vituperative put downs seems like an overreaction, in the wide scheme of things.

But there is more to this debate than measurement.

Jeffrey Sachs promised a lot more than a well functioning, measurable development project. He promised nothing less than The End of Poverty. Which is a pretty big claim whichever way you look at it, even if it did have the giant red flag of a foreword by Bono.

This narrative garnered enormous support from hugely visible figures. It went far beyond the relatively small bubble of development. It was a narrative delivered again and again by impassioned supporters, replete with harrowing statistics and images of suffering all over the world. Not only was there a sense of scale for just how terrible things are in the world but, now, unlike with Biafra or the folly of LiveAid, there was a clear roadmap to how we all could help to stop it.

The simplicity of the narrative was key – as Kahneman tells us, simple ideas feel easier to think through and so seem more convincing. The other benefit of this simplicity is that it was easy to parrot, easy to repeat, easy to spread.

“A reliable way to make people believe falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”

International development doesn’t get a lot of play in the media. There are only two major news organisations that I can think of that have any specialised interest section for it (find them here). It’s an extremely complicated issue which isn’t a big vote winner – of course it doesn’t get a lot of attention in the media outside of disasters. So when somebody does get a narrative out there from the world of international development it’s a big deal for the sector. A lot of the negativity surrounding Sachs isn’t about just about measurement, it’s about disappointment that this rare chance was wasted.

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One thought on “Wasted Chance: Jeffrey Sachs & narrative simplicity

  1. Thanks Rowan,

    I agree with you that the disagreements with Sachs go beyond the critics contending he failed to set up clear metrics for his initiatives. But I don’t think simplification is always going to result in false and/or manipulative messaging. It certainly can. But Einstein, no slouch on complex thinking, said “If you can’t say it simply, you don’t understand it well” or something like that. The MDGs were successful in part because they were simple (and also quite limited, for the same reason). Lots of people are now saying we can end poverty. I don’t know that we can, or if Sachs’ approach is the right one to get us closer to that goal. But I think this is much better than everyone just shrugging off global poverty as part of the natural order – as something we just have to accept. I think Sachs (and others) deserves credit for pushing the narrative a bit higher up the ladder.

    Cheers
    Tom

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