If you haven't seen it yet, Stephen Walt's piece ("Where Do Bad Ideas Come From?") in the new issue of Foreign Policy demands a read. He starts with the obvious – that we never learn from our mistakes – but asks, when it comes to our policy decisions about the world, why?
The possibilities are probably endless, but Walt narrows them down. They come from age, a willful amnesia about what the generation (or more) before us learned from doing the same thing. They come from our optimism, or our naivete, that we can do better this time around. (David Rieff tackles narrows this particular blunder to our 21st century believe that we can technologize our way to success, a path he damned pretty persuasively recently in The New Republic.) They come from silence, imposed by political power in undemocratic regimes and by social taboo in democratic societies. They come from the strange inertia created by success. And they come from, and back to, good old interest: behind the policy that's chosen, there's always someone (or many someones) with political or, often, financial upside. (If for some reason you need any reminder of that, check out the NYT story on the Boeing-State Department, um, "synergy.")
Most of Walt's examples are about warfare – we could have learned from the French, but we went ahead and fought Vietnam anyway. And we could have learned from what we experienced in Vietnam, but we went regime-changing in Iraq and Afghanistan anyway. It's interesting that the architects of the latter policies were also involved in Vietnam and therefore the generational argument – that new generations resist internalizing past generations' mistakes – don't apply. Maybe that makes the "we can do better" argument all the stronger?
But there's another idea that begs to be part of this conversation: development. We've been at "development" for 50-odd years – or longer, depending on how you feel about the historical evolution of the whole thing. Maybe you don't think development is a "bad idea" – Walt chose clear liberal targets for a reason, I'm guessing – but it certainly shares the characteristics of other ideas he raises, namely, something we've done over and over that hasn't worked.
A few years ago, Harper's Magazine published a piece about the the first Millennium Village, in Kenya. The piece is buried behind a pay wall, unfortunately, but among the takeaways was this: Sauri, the site of the village, has been a pilot site of Great New Development Ideas before; in fact, the piece says, more than half of the research MVs at the time (2007) were built in places with histories of development projects. It makes some sense – the article says the idea was to avoid inexperience and cultural barriers that can impede development work early on – but it also makes weird science.
Last summer in Sierra Leone, I met an American guy working on a justice access initiative. He was not your Ivy League bona fide development worker. He was brash; he didn't use the empty but politically acceptable vocabulary. He had a haircut I'd never see in a major American metropolis. But he was smart and committed to his work, and as I had breakfast with him and a Sierra Leonean colleague, he said to me in passing, "I hate the word 'sensitization.'" To his colleague, he said, "What are we talking about, right?" And to both of us, or no one in particular, he said, "What we're really talking about is cultural engineering. So we should just say that, because that's what we're doing."
I thought of that guy when I read Walt's article, because there's another reason I think we repeat bad ideas: we invent and use language – even grammar – that allows us to willfully lie to ourselves. "Sensitization." "Capacity building." Even "local ownership," which I like to imagine as revolutionary when people first bandied it about at meetings, has come to feel like an empty abstraction.
It's not development workers' fault, of course. The field doesn't have final say on these, or so many other, things; it's the guys back home, contending with the politicians and diplomats who pull the budgetary strings, who sanction our language. And I'd lay the blame first at the feet of the diplomats, who have spent centuries refining this linguistic game before imposing it on the allegedly apolitical projects they fund.
But while we're on the "why" of bad ideas, I think that's one of them. Here's another I think development suggests: Sometimes, you just can't do nothing, even if every rational synapse in your brain is screaming, "This has never worked, and there's no way it can work now." And that's the rub – for development, for aid, for advocacy. What do you do with a moral imperative to act when the actions themselves are (at best) unlikely to work?