While on vacation last month (go to Colombia, it’s fabulous), I finished reading Teju Cole’s Open City. Well worth the read. I especially enjoyed it because the narrator lives near my neighborhood in northern Manhattan and spends much of his time walking around the city; I liked being able to picture his itinerary. I found Cole very thoughtful and attentive to the variety of immigrant experiences in the city. Like his protagonist, Cole was raised in Nigeria and came to the U.S. in the early 90s. So I was interested to see that he’s had some provocative things to say (yes, on Twitter) about the #bringourgirlsback campaign.
#BringBackOurGirls, but to where? In Gamboru Ngala, 3 1/2 hours away from Chibok, 336 people were killed last night.
Much as we might wish this to be a single issue with a clear solution, it isn’t, and it cannot be. It never was.
Boko Haram killed more human beings yesterday than the total number of girls they kidnapped three weeks ago. Horrifying, and unhashtagable.
For four years, Nigerians have tried to understand these homicidal monsters. Your new interest (thanks) simplifies nothing, solves nothing.
Do good work, support good work, find whatever in the inferno is not infernal, but do it from a place of understanding, that is all.
This got me thinking about a favorite topic, the nature of causal thinking in philanthropy. A lot of what I do is help funders think through their assumptions about how the work they do (their strategies) is actually expected to result in the changes they hope to see in the world (their outcomes). How realistic are those assumptions? How grounded are they in an understanding of the environment in which you’re operating, and in your own capacity to do the work?
A favorite tool for doing this work is the “pathway to impact,” a set of statements about how strategies lead to outcomes lead to impact that are meant to be linked logically. Marvelous word, that last one. It imparts objectivity, but as I think about it and I experience this work, it should probably be replaced with “empirically.” A pathway to impact is a set of statements about how strategies lead to outcomes lead to impact that are meant to be linked empirically – that there’s some evidence that it’s reasonable to expect on thing to lead to another. Improving curricula for teacher education leads to better trained teachers leads to more effective classroom instruction leads to better educational outcomes for kids. Better understanding of the needs of low-wage workers leads to more tailored employment training programs leads to improved skills leads to greater ability to access jobs leads to greater likelihood of applying for a job leads to greater likelihood of getting one…to keeping one…to improving family income sustainably. And so on, for whatever issue you’re working on.
What I see Teju Cole saying is that our assumptions about how hashtagging “bringbackourgirls” will help, you know, bring them back, are fuzzy and based somewhat on wishful thinking. Other commentators go further and say that this social media campaigning is actually harming Nigeria in the long run, because the most direct thing it can lead to is justifying U.S. military intervention. This tweet is pretty eerie in that light:
So one thing to do in these cases is to ask, what are the most likely direct results of what I’m doing here? Whose cause will I help by doing this? There are likely to be multiple answers. But it’s useful to weigh them in the balance. Helps draw attention in the West to a part of the world experiencing issues that should get more attention. Cool. Builds North-South solidarity and causes people to identify with others very distant from themselves geographically, culturally, and economically. Awesomesauce. Helps justify intervention by US forces that can have negative side effects. Jeepers.
Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t engage in this way. But play out the chain, imagine the pathway(s)…which probably means learning more about circumstances on the ground. And that can never be a bad thing.
Is #bringbackourgirls the new #kony2012? Or does it represent a genuine advance over that experience? (I remember that one of the things I liked about the video was that they did a really good job of laying out a pathway to impact…but it turned out to be wrong, or incomplete, or misguided – perhaps. A topic for another time, maybe.) What do you think?