Humanitarian aid: Understanding the tension between action and analysis

I was recently in Lebanon to look at how we might rigorously evaluate our (not yet started) education program. As I talked with both staff and with our academic partner who was with me, I saw the tension between the need to move as fast as possible (in this case to get hundreds of thousands of children into school) and the need to move slowly enough to do it well. 

We learn more each year from research about what works to improve children’s access to education in low- and middle-income countries, but we still know far too little about what actually helps them learn. And, unfortunately, even as the body of evidence grows about what does work, it is still stunted in crisis-affected settings. 

So how do we start an education program with the urgency these children deserve, based on our experience and observations from elsewhere, and yet leave our assumptions at the door, and test whether it works so we can better inform future interventions?  

We are plagued with this tension in many of our projects. Needs are enormous and unexpressed (or trampled) rights are rampant. If we sit and wait for the evidence, children may miss their only chance to go to school; women may have nowhere to turn when they experience violence; and countless people may have no place to go for health care, food and shelter.  Yet we have to check our urgent need to act with critical analysis—of the context, of the evidence of what works, of what the unintended consequences might be—in order to make the best choices of how to act.

This blog is inspired by Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. For those who haven’t read it, Nobel Prize winning Kahneman provides a short cut for how our minds work by describing it as two systems: System 1 is our intuitive thinking which acts automatically with little effort and guides most of what we do. System 2 is slower and more deliberate and can help control some of the impulses of system 1. System 1 is quite good at its job and accurate in many cases, but it has biases and limitations and can make serious and consistent errors . The book is full of fascinating examples of how our System 1 tricks us into feeling comfortable and assured of one thing that turns out to be wrong.  System 2 helps prevent some of the errors System 1 makes but takes deliberate attention and much cognitive strain. 

Of course, this thinking and research has informed behavioral economics which is now being applied in development work. That won’t be the focus of this blog although I am sure it will be an occasional topic (and I am very excited about the upcoming World Development Report on ‘Mind and Culture’ that will push our thinking on this). 

Instead we are borrowing the overall frame of Kahneman’s two systems. This blog will offer different perspectives from IRC policy and practice folks. We will provide thoughts and reflections on both system 1 and system 2 within humanitarian and development work. We want to challenge ourselves to get better at being both impatient and patient at the same time. Impatient to act quickly and boldly but patient to be deliberate, understand our biases, and try to mitigate unintended consequences.  And ultimately, if we’re able to be both impatient and patient, to leverage the tension between acting, fast and slow, we hope our programs and the people we work with will be better off as a result. 

Jeannie Annan is the IRC’s director of research and evaluation. You can follow her on Twitter at @JRAnnan.

An International Rescue Committee blog offering insights into humanitarian action, policy and development

On the IRC’s Acting, Fast & Slow blog, IRC and invited experts analyze the effectiveness of aid — from funding to delivery — and explore the tensions between acting immediately to address pressing problems and acting slowly to build an evidence base. Fast & Slow posts also reflect on how to apply these lessons to different contexts, mitigate unintended consequences and shape policies.

These posts represent the personal views of contributing individuals and do not represent formal positions of the International Rescue Committee.

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