I’ve tried to write a post on the American election several times in recent months, but the zigs and zags of the campaign have made it hard to find a vantage point for offering anything more than a reaction to the absurdity du jour or an update on the horse race—a role which many other blogs are much better suited to provide (e.g. see FiveThirtyEight, Monkey CageSabato’s Crystal Ball, or Vox).

However, yesterday marked just four weeks until Election Day. If I have anything useful or interesting to say about this political circus—other than the overly philosophical take in last week’s post—it’s now or never.

Unstable electoral coalitions

The major lens through which I’ve been viewing this election is the maintenance and stability of electoral coalitions. Party politics is all about bringing multiple interest groups together under a big tent. Different electoral systems shape this process in different ways, but America’s preference for winner-take-all elections tends to encourage two major parties (a phenomenon known as Duverger’s law).

Given the multitude of issues and opinions that are part of the political discourse, any grouping under two tents will inevitably cram together actors who don’t agree on much of anything. In contrast, a proportional system makes electoral success possible for smaller parties with more focused agendas, relieving the party of the need to manage internal contradictions; those conflicts play out in parliament instead.

Through this lens, one clear fact of this election is the fracturing of the Republican coalition. It might not lead to the complete destruction that some commentators are gleefully predicting, but it is definitely a re-alignment.

Understanding this story means starting at least as far back as the 1960s, with Nixon’s “southern strategy“—a successful effort to bring the solidly Democratic southern states into the Republican fold by appealing to racism against African Americans. It marked the beginning of an alliance between business/fiscal conservatives and hardline social conservatives.

Countless books and opinion columns have sought ways to explain this coalition between two groups that agreed on very little in policy terms. From the left, it looked like conservative values voters were being duped into voting against their economic interests. From the right, there were appeals to fundamental values like freedom that are supposedly shared across the coalition.

I take the more pragmatic view that everyone votes for their own interests as they themselves see those interests, even if others might not recognize them as such. Some people’s rational self-interest may be in voting to support policies that maintain their own dominance in the social hierarchy and slow the cultural changes that they have trouble understanding, even if those social policies are paired with economic policies that hit them in the wallet.

That sort of contradiction is exactly what politics is about. It’s a productive tension that allows two groups to both fulfill their highest priority goals. Some people may not even see this as a compromise. The human tendency to resolve cognitive dissonance through re-interpretation leads us to accept the creative explanations offered by media outlets and pundits whose own interests lie in the promotion of this coalition. Fictions like “tax cuts for the job creators” and “trickle down economics” reduce the dissonance.

Cracks starting to show

The tension between the two stayed in balance for decades, but nothing lasts forever. The business side has done quite well out of the coalition, of course, as public policies from tax to trade to social services have done much less to mitigate widening inequality than they could. The benefits of economic growth (and the recent recovery) accrue to the wealthiest.

The social conservative wing has fared worse in the deal: the arc of history is moving against many of the issues they hold most dear. To get “values voters” to the polls, the Republican establishment has long stoked their worst instincts: xenophobia (anti-immigrant and anti-muslim efforts), racism (the birther conspiracy), homophobia (anti-gay marriage efforts), transphobia (NC’s “bathroom bill”), misogyny (nearly everything they’ve ever said about Hillary Clinton), anti-government hysteria (gun rights), and so on. These aren’t the only values held by social conservatives, but their very divisiveness makes them more politically useful.

Social conservatives have sensed that they’re losing the cultural and political debate on most of these issues. What’s worse, the business side of the coalition has grown increasingly uneasy with the values espoused by its partners—an inevitable outcome given that social exclusion is bad for business.

The strains have wrenched the coalition since the late 2000s saw the rise of the Tea Party, but their revolt was mainly directed at the coalition’s brokers: the Republican party establishment itself, which has also done quite well in the deal. Off-cycle voter turnout has meant more control of the House (18 of the last 25 years) and Senate (12 of the last 25), and even more so at the state level: currently Republicans hold both legislative majorities and the governorship in 23 states, while Democrats hold the trifecta in only 7 (the other 20 states are split). The Tea Party tried to seize control of that power structure, but have proved themselves to be more obstructionist than anything else.

The cracks started to really show when the presidential primary added new pressures. The Donald is a unique candidate, no doubt, but he’s been exploiting conflicts that have existed in the party for decades. He’s fanned the same reactionary conservative flames that the party establishment long stoked, without any of the inconvenient decorum that kept the fringe hardliners wondering whether the party was truly committed to the racism, xenophobia, and misogyny that it had merely hinted at for years. That fringe heard Trump’s call.

He drew them further out of the woodwork with an appeal to trade protectionism as his campaign’s core economic issue. Trade isn’t the only factor behind the job losses and inequality that have the public in such an anti-establishment/anti-elites mood; but unlike technological change or business concentration, opposing trade dovetails nicely with the xenophobia of being anti-immigrant and globally aggressive. His economic policies add fuel to the fire.

However, trade protectionism also defies the Republican orthodoxy and the so-called “free market” principles that are necessary for keeping the other half of the coalition in place. That suited Trump just fine for the primaries, as he could campaign with a combination of personal wealth (probably less than he claims, but still not insubstantial) as well as the free media generated by celebrity status and over-the-top behavior. In a divided field of candidates appealing for party member votes, he only needed to convince a small fraction of the country to support him.

In the past week or so, it’s become clear that this combination will not be enough to get him through the general election to the White House: the forecasts and prediction markets are swinging hard against him. His lack of personal discipline and unwillingness to listen to political professionals (say what you want about the establishment, but they know how to run a national campaign) have put him on the path to defeat. Even the recent leaks on Trump’s taxes and sexual assaults are only the triggers and excuses for the Republican establishment figures to distance themselves; the deeper cause lies in their desire to not crash and burn along with his campaign.

Collapse or re-alignment?

The GOP post-mortem analysis on this election can almost be written already. It will be a fitting sequel to their 2012 autopsy, which included the finding that the party needed to widen its base, especially by reaching out to minorities. The party utterly failed to accomplish that, and in the process they’ve discovered that years of thinly (or not so thinly) veiled rhetoric against immigrants, minorities, women, etc. have left their social conservative base extremely unhappy with the idea of accommodating those groups in any way. So unhappy that they want to throw the whole establishment under the bus.

There are lot of jokes being made that this election will be the last for the Republican party. They certainly won’t do well, but even a rout doesn’t translate into the dissolution of a party. Party elders and supporting institutions (lobbyists, think tanks, media, etc.) are maneuvering to keep the coalition together. There are voters who straddle the two wings of the party, or who have loyalty to the party for other reasons.

What will result is a shuffling of the coalition. The election is like a loud, public re-negotiation of roles and responsibilities. The fact that the establishment largely lined up behind Trump for a while suggests that there’s little reason to believe it will reject his supporters. The new Trump coalition will continue to be part of the party, but not its core. It isn’t large enough to win a national election, though it can still be successful in particular jurisdictions and loud enough across the country to influence the terms of debate. Business interests will continue to support the more palatable candidates in the coalition. At the end of the day, money cares most about its own influence and interests.

The Republican coalition’s new footing will depend a lot on what happens across the aisle. The Democratic coalition is not without long-standing tensions, e.g. between labor and environmental interests. There is even a parallel tension to the one straining the Republican party, with centrist Democrats in the Clinton mold drawing more corporate money into a party whose grassroots activists view the private sector with skepticism at best, and antagonism at worst.

In fact, as the Republic coalition will need an election cycle or two before it returns to full strength, I would expect an increase in business money seeking other channels for influence and strengthening the hand of centrist Democrats. Meanwhile, the reduced competition from Republicans will reduce the need for Democrats to accommodate others within their own party. This could actually increase the chance of a schism within the party, with the Sanders/Warren wing on the rise. They kept the conflicts from boiling over in the primary, in part due to the more conciliatory personalities involved and in part due to the fear of Trump. But never discount the possibility of tensions resurfacing in unexpected ways.

Dear readers: This is a somewhat different post than normal. It addresses a question that’s been on my mind for years (decades, really) but which seems more relevant and urgent this year: how do you operate in a world with no truth? The resulting essay is perhaps too long, overly philosophical, and more American-centric than typical for this blog, but it’s hopefully interesting nonetheless. – Dave


1. Multiple realities

Politicians and pundits like to talk about “two Americas”: often referring to the split between the haves and the have-nots, but often also the split along partisan or ideological lines. That latter division is more pronounced than ever. Americans are not merely divided in their policy preferences, but seem to be living in two different, irreconcilable worlds.

In one of them, a former Secretary of State offers a hopeful, if somewhat flawed and uninspiring, continuation of the country’s recovery from recession and war. She is all that stands in the way of authoritarianism, mainstreamed racism, and an oddly isolationist form of warmongering.

Meanwhile, in the other world, a reality television star and real estate businessman provides the only hope for stopping America’s descent into chaos and poverty in an increasingly hostile world. He would overthrow the corrupt elites who dominate politics, bring back the jobs that they traded away, and ensure that we win again. Oh, how we would win.

The people living in these two realities are incomprehensible to one another. Witness last week’s Presidential debate, where one candidate casually ignored the other’s attacks with the statement: “Well…I know you live in your own reality.” The audience laughed. Unfortunately, plenty of other people live in that same reality with him.

The people in both of these realities are equally baffled by those living in a third, where undecided voters have barely started paying attention to the election and haven’t been able to make up their minds—despite the planet-threatening consequences seen by those in the first two realities.

Actually, there’s a fourth reality and a fifth, populated by voters who are upset with their chosen candidates for any number of reasons, but who hate the other candidate enough to pull out all the stops in defeating him/her. Then there are the sixth through tenth realities, where people are either too young or too old to recognize how the world has changed (a portion of millennials and baby boomers, respectively) and unable to factor that into their decisions. Somewhere there’s a reality where voting for a third party makes sense. The differing political worlds number in the dozens, at least; maybe hundreds.

But let’s not get carried away. People are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts—one hopes? We can all interpret the world differently so long as we’re working from a core set of common data—right?

Don’t be so sure. Many people, including the elite media organizations, have woken up to notice how Americans are living in wildly divergent political realities. They’ve dubbed it “post-truth politics”, and it’s not a uniquely American phenomenon: authoritarian regimes with more complete control over domestic media are even better equipped to construct alternate realities, scaring citizens with foreign boogeyman and drumming up support for the government, as needed.

The obvious antidote is to be “pro-truth”. However, while “post-truth” might be an accurate description of what’s happening in some of these realities, there’s a more general problem that permeates the worlds of even those of us who believe we are pro-truth: truth doesn’t exist, and it never has.

2. Constructed truth

We like to imagine that the border between truth and opinion is defined by objectivity: things are true if they’re true; truth is what’s really real; truth is what exists even when you’re not looking at it. Everything else is perception, opinion, interpretation, or conjecture.

That’s a metaphysical explanation. It works fine in the abstract, but in daily life, metaphysics isn’t much use.

In daily life, the border between truth and opinion is guarded by a simple principle: verification. That’s the sine qua non—the only necessary-and-sufficient condition—for identifying something as a truth. That principle is baked into the scientific method, which builds on previous findings to deduce new possibilities, then seeks data (observations) to verify or refute those. Journalistic and legal truth work in largely the same way: multiple witnesses, DNA testing, and video footage can corroborate a story. Until then, it’s just a story—an unverified opinion. Truth must match with other facts, other observations, other truths.

The verification principle of truth likes to imagine itself as a technical, objective process. But potential truths are not assessed on their own merits; they’re verified in relation to those that have already been accepted. The current stock gets priority in regulating the incoming flow. That means mistakes can build on mistakes, as we select new truths for entry and interpret based on what we’ve already accepted—a form of confirmation bias.

There’s a further feedback loop in how your stock of truth shapes your assessment of the messengers of potential truths. When your truths diverge from someone else’s, your natural reaction is to become skeptical of anything new they have to say. Trying to parse why they understand the world differently is cognitively hard. Instead of taking on that challenge, we drift toward trusting the people, sources, and interpretations that align with what we already know—like a second-order confirmation bias that trusts certain messengers more than others.

This drift toward sources we trust makes truth a social construct: we build a truth community that sees the same world as we do. The feedback loops drive initial differences in truths or interpretations into increasingly divergent world views. Over time, what any of us consider to be truth is correlated to our circumstances and relationships.

3. Fragmentation of worlds

This would be all fine if we lived in truly different worlds, interacting only with those who held the same truths or only with others in inconsequential ways. Small fragmentations of truths hardly go noticed; at worst, they provide fodder for lively conversations with our extended family members.

But when our worlds overlap and combine, as they do in the formation of a common polity or economy large enough to achieve anything of substance, then our truths may come into greater conflict. These conflicts over truth can quickly become conflicts over power. Truths are used to build power and power is used to shape truths, demonstrated most bluntly by the history of Christianity.

Medium-sized fragmentations can be drivers of progress, as a truth community works to build power and convince the wider society of its truth. Phrases like “speak truth to power” hold this idea: all concentrations of power create (and are maintained by) their own systems of truths, which other truths can disturb. Whether it’s the “real” truth that’s spoken to the powerful, or simply a differing truth, doesn’t matter as much as whether the truth spoken is collectively verified and validated by a larger group. Oppression is the act of silencing voices and truths to maintain private power; building countervailing power ensures that pro-social truths invade on those concentrations of power.

What America faces today may be a larger-scale fragmentation. When aligned with social, racial, economic, religious, or other fissures, large fragmentation of truths can become fault lines for civil strife, violence, and war. There’s probably a way to tell the history of every civil war as a conflict between two (or more) distinct truth communities, who lived in such different worlds that they were unable to speak to one another in a language other than violence. To extend on Clausewitz: politics is the reconciliation of conflicting truths through power, and war is the continuation of that conflict by other means.

America’s fragmentations of truth are an order of magnitude short of causing civil war, but other forms of violence at the border between truth communities are very real: hate crimes at an African-American church in South Carolina and against Muslim Americans, and clashes during at least 20 of Trump’s rallies.

4. Current drivers

Fragmentation of truths in various degrees have always been part of any society. What American media commentators are noticing this year is a confluence of mutually reinforcing factors.

The first factor is, of course, the internet and social media. The cost of connecting with like-minded individuals has dropped so dramatically that anyone can find their truth community. This works for pro-social causes (e.g. #BlackLivesMatter, in my view) as well as for the crackpots (anti-vaxxers, “men’s rights” movement, etc.). Add in the filter bubble effect—which is confirmation bias in algorithm form, showing us information uniquely shaped by our preferred truths and communities—and you’ve also created the possibility of efficient micro-targeted broadcasting: i.e. new media sources that don’t need to appeal to a broad audience, but instead can feed on and feed into specific truth communities (like the “alt-right”-enabling Breitbart News). These sources build audiences and capture revenue from exactly that audience, while driving it to become increasingly disconnected from other realities.

The second factor is a loss of trust in the previously dominant mediating institutions—those organizations that were both the media for distributing truths and the mediator among differing truth communities. The problems that news broadcasters and major daily newspapers face today are not limited to their lack of tech savvy or the inherent inefficiencies of journalistic integrity; their bigger challenge is dealing with a shift away from a world where they were the gatekeepers of truth, toward to a world with a very porous border between truth and opinion. They can still produce and distribute the news, but they’re just one voice among many.

In some ways, the media’s interpretation of its own role contributed to this: for years, mainstream media has often confused being unbiased with being balanced. Journalists should be unbiased in reporting, as close to neutral as possible on disputes, and without any vested interests in the outcomes. That may often mean teasing out the nuanced positions, interrogating the evidence, and highlighting any conflicts of interest behind those in the dispute. Unfortunately, being unbiased often gets replaced with being “balanced”: finding two sides to any issue, giving them equal time, and acting like a lazy boxing referee who simply monitors the fight. That approach promotes a false equivalency for viewpoints that lack verifiability—i.e. are barely even considered true by those promoting them. Hence we end up with corporate-backed climate deniers presented on equal footing with the scientific establishment.

This connects to the third factor: the undermining of other sources of shared truths. Specifically, the disparagement of science, academia, and even basic statistics (including public opinion polls as well as government data) has reduced the number of common verification points. When scientifically documented truths about climate change, pollution, or evolution are called into question because they challenge politically powerful truths, the social benefits of scientific knowledge are undercut across the board.

The fourth factor, stemming from the previous three, is the elevation of opinions and stories to the same level as truths and facts. Opinions and stories are fine for what they are, but in the public discourse they play a more dangerous role than merely fragmented truths—i.e. truths verified with reference to other sources—because they are unconcerned with verification. Think about the advice that political, charity, and consumer marketers be “storytellers”, and how the resulting stories are usually short on facts but high on emotion and “truthiness” (the quality of feeling true in your gut).

The final factor is generally more hopeful: the (painfully slow) crumbling of white supremacy and patriarchy in America. Oh, it’s still alive and well, as evidenced by the Tea Party, the “alt-right”, and the Trump campaign. But this week in the Vice Presidential debate we saw a pair of white men from traditionally conservative states talking about race relations, criminal justice reform, community policing, and implicit bias on primetime television. Though no one uttered the words “Black Lives Matter” and talk is just talk anyway, this is nonetheless a small step in dismantling the dominant truths that have supported oppressive power structures for centuries. In parallel with other social progress and the demographic trend toward a majority-minority country, the truths experienced by socially marginalized groups (which have long been dramatically different from the truths experienced by those with power) are better able to claim their space in the struggles over power. Counterintuitively, that’s both a sign of progress and a cause of fragmentation.

These factors didn’t quite come in this order. In fact, the confusion between bias and balance, loss of trust in media, and undermining of shared sources of truths were all pre-cursors to the splintering of truth communities, long before low-cost publishing platforms and Facebook’s algorithms drove the wedges deeper. The space created for pro-social counter-narratives has been a constant factor, but often below the surface.

However, regardless of their order, there’s no doubt that these factors have driven the truths farther apart, even while the current election creates a contest over political power that brings those differences to the surface. This is potentially a toxic brew.

5. New normal

The “post-truth” nature of the world shapes all of our realities, not just those who follow proto-authoritarians or lurk on conspiracy-fueled message boards. In fact, if we look at politics in countries that never had the same dominant media authorities, there are reasons to think that fragmented truth is the historical and global norm. The authority of mainstream media in 20th-century America may have been an outlier or even a mirage. If truth has always been a social construct, then the current fragmentation is more likely a regression to the mean rather than something entirely new.

What to make of that? Staring at a world with many truths but no truth would make one question whether truth has any value at all.

Truth matters, but not in the ways we typically assume. The social nature of verification is both a weakness and a strength. It means that building truth is intertwined with building social cohesion. Truth matters because it’s a necessary step in the iterative process of building inclusivity and social capital, upon which everything else we do together is built. It gives us common agendas and common understandings for making progress on the things that matter.

What we need is not stronger statements of pro-truth to beat back falsities or truthiness, but stronger capacities to build shared truths across communities. That means finding ways to speak the same language, to verify truths in terms of other people’s realities rather than our own, to pierce filter bubbles (or at least soften the boundaries between them), and to place previously marginalized truths on equal footing with others.

Big media outlets won’t regain their monopoly on truth, and no other institution will take on that mantle, but we may not need or want them to anyway. Corporate media’s stranglehold on truth may have kept the crackpots at bay, but it also reinforced existing oppressive structures. Social media feeds can carry stories on the national prison strike and Dakota Pipeline protests to people who wouldn’t see the same stories on CNN. Smart organizers leverage that to promote social justice.

If we can also use these forces to build common verification points, then we might not be able to stop the fragmentation of truth, but we can at least learn to live with it. We can turn it into something that facilitates progress rather than drives violence. That may not be inspiring or idealistic, but in a world with no truth, it’s the best we can do.

Back in May, I was wandering around DC trying to get to the OpenGov Hub—a co-working community space located near McPherson Square in DC. I grabbed my phone, opened Google Maps, and discovered that it wanted to give me transit directions to another place called the OpenGov Hub—but in Kathmandu.

As I had never been to Nepal and had no reason to think that I would ever visit, my first reaction was to feel better about the prospect that computers would soon become smarter than us and take over the world. My smartphone was reassuringly dumb. I also thought this warranted a snarky facebook post. To wit:

OpenGov Hub directions in DC

Lo and behold, three months later, I happened to travel to Kathmandu for a project with the Open Contracting Partnership. You win, Google Maps. As long as I was in town, I figured I should stop by the OpenGov Hub. Ever the magnanimous future robot overlord, Google Maps was very helpful for finding my way:

Kathmandu Open Gov Hub

I somehow managed to communicate those directions to a taxi driver. Like many taxi drivers, he had no use for such artificial intelligence. He merely needed me to find the landmark nearest to the destination. (Note to self: Old school taxi drivers will be great allies for navigating urban areas during the resistance against the machines.)

Traffic was great. Kathamandu is very good at traffic. As in, good at having lots of it.

Kathmandu traffic

Once at the OpenGov Hub, I found a great community of open government reformers and like-minded organizations—and in a beautiful office space, too. I’ve written elsewhere about how shared infrastructure helps lower the barriers to working extra-organizationally. They don’t all have to be as tech-oriented as places like Nairobi’s famous iHub; Kathmandu’s OpenGov Hub (and the larger hub in DC) show the value of bringing together thematically similar organizations.

OpenGov Hub Kathmandu

They even have some expansion plans, with a second floor under renovation as they continue to add new members. Hopefully the AI in my phone that dictates my future will let me visit again someday and see how they’ve grown.

Many thanks to Narayan and Samita for showing me around.

OpenGov Hub Kathmandu expansion

The following is a cross-post from friend-of-the-blog Andrew Blum; it originally appeared on the PeaceLab2016 blog. Beyond being a generally insightful post, I’m sharing it because a lot of the “adaptive learning” talk can tend toward the abstract, too much about principles and not enough about practices. I’m as guilty as anyone, especially when blurring lines across the aid/development sectors. Adaptation gets usefully concrete when you focus on a particular function and sector—in this case, M&E in peacebuilding—and from there you can abstract again. –Dave


Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) processes for conflict prevention programs need to be adapted to their unstable and fluid contexts. Donors should build closer partnerships with implementers, provide adequate resources for (shared) data collection, and develop indicators to make credible long-term claims.

In this post, I will address the following question: how do we develop strategically and politically relevant monitoring and evaluation (M&E) processes for conflict prevention and peacebuilding programs?

Keeping in mind the specific needs of larger donors, I will assume here donors want two things: demonstrably more effective programs, and the ability to demonstrate accountability in the way program funds are used.

Conventional M&E is unfit for conflict scenarios

Since both peacebuilding and M&E are big, sometimes sprawling, topics, I want to focus on one particular issue: the context in which peacebuilding programs take place. These contexts are, by definition, unstable and fluid. This fact is obvious, even a truism, but its implications for how we design M&E systems are large and often go unacknowledged. For programs to stand a chance of being successful in these contexts, organizations have to implement their programs in a flexible, adaptive way.

A traditional M&E approach – that starts with a finalized and static project design, monitors inputs, activities and outputs during program implementation, and concludes by conducting a large-scale evaluation after the program is completed – is ill-suited to this type of fluid, rapidly changing context. What is needed instead are M&E processes that accompany the project throughout its implementation. M&E that creates continuous, evidence-based learning and feedback loops to guide implementation, inform shift strategy, and track progress toward the project’s goals, even as these goals may evolve.

What does this mean for donors? What changes should be made to create new, fit-for-purpose M&E systems in conflict contexts? In answer to these questions, I would argue that donors should focus on three kinds of investments.

Build a true partnership between donors and implementers: adaptation with accountability

In a 2014 online piece for Foreign Policy, I argued that, for peacebuilding programming, donors need to demand a different kind of accountability from implementers than for more traditional development programs. Specifically, they should ask each implementer the following three questions:

  • What results did your program achieve?
  • How did you program adapt to the context in which was implemented?
  • What evidence do you have that defends your decisions regarding how the program adapted?

Using these questions acknowledges the unstable nature of conflict environments and allows for flexible implementation of projects. It does so, however, in a way that still allows donors to hold implementers accountable. In effect, donors are saying to implementers “please, adapt as needed, but show us with evidence how and why you are adapting.”

Working in this way requires a different and closer relationship between donors and implementers. If I had to guess, I would say donors spend roughly 80% of their time on a project prior to it launching (designing the solicitation, reviewing proposals, conducting due diligence, and so on) and only 20% actually monitoring and overseeing a project. This type of model will not work if we want to create effective programming in conflict contexts.

Instead, donors need to build a true partnership that involves closer interaction throughout the course of the project. This in turn requires investment both in the time and effort it takes to establish trust and build a deeper relationship (for instance, trips to donor headquarters for country directors), and for the effort it takes to gather and use evidence to justify shifts in programming strategies. Effective, accountable programming in conflict areas requires creating more rapid feedback loops, where evidence is continually used to adjust program strategies.

Invest in data collection and analysis for evidence-based adaptation

Effective, accountable programming requires feedback loops, and feedback loops require rigorous and cost-effective data collection. If we expect implementers to respond flexibly to fluid, unstable conflict contexts, there must be rigorous data collection throughout the project, not just at the evaluation stage, as is often the case.

Investing in data collection should take two forms. First, project budgets should include more resources to implement effective data collection. If we are asking implementers to move beyond simple input/output tracking, resources need to be provided to support this shift.

Second, donors should invest additional resources in “public goods” that create general capacity for effective data collection. Given the nature of data collection that is required, and the difficulty of collecting data in conflict contexts, it is unrealistic to ask each implementer to create their own fully-fledged data collection and analysis capacity. These public goods could include, among other things, shared data collection tools and technology, shared data collection capacity (for instance, a pool of trained enumerators), common monitoring and indicator frameworks, and common data sharing, analysis, and visualization platforms.

For instance, at my previous organization, the United States Institute of Peace, the United States Agency for International Developmentprovided resources for an effort, called the Initiative to Measure Peace and Conflict Outcomes (IMPACT), to develop a common monitoring framework and data collection strategy for all US government funded peacebuilding work in the Central African Republic. This effort is an experiment, but if it proves successful, it will provide one model for how we can move beyond individualized project monitoring to more shared data collection and analysis approaches.

Make credible long-term claims: what is the cholesterol of peacebuilding?

To justify their funding, donors need to show that their projects are creating meaningful results. The difficulty is that short-term monitoring data cannot demonstrate larger-scale impact. On the other hand, larger-scale evaluations that can provide evidence of broader impact are often ill-suited to rapidly changing conflict contexts. To demonstrate a way out of this dilemma, it is useful to use a health-related analogy. Put simply, peacebuilding needs to find its cholesterol. Imagine a program that is designed to reduce heart disease. One way to do this would be to implement the heart disease prevention activities and then wait 30 years to see if rates of heart disease are less than would otherwise be expected. Studies like this are not unheard of, but not common. Instead, the medical field has developed risk indicators for heart disease, like cholesterol. As a result, they are able to measure a decrease in cholesterol in the shorter term and make credible claims about a decrease in the risk of heart disease.

It is often said that donors should take a long-term approach to peacebuilding. However, it is not politically feasible for donors to adopt the “act-and-wait-30 years-for-results” approach. Instead, donors should keep the long term in mind, but invest in either conducting and/or leveraging the type of research that allows them to make credible claims in the shorter term – the same kind of claims that cholesterol allows doctors to make.

The good news is that a strong, evidence-backed consensus is emerging on what the cholesterol, or cholesterols, of peacebuilding might look like. This consensus is crystallized in Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals and the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals. It provides at least the promise of making credible long-term claims – like “our program has increased people’s security and access to justice, therefore, we have decreased the risk of a return to violent conflict” – based on shorter-term monitoring of results.

To realize this promise, donors need to invest in two types of research. Again, the cholesterol analogy is apt. The first type of research would improve our ability to assess and measure interim results, like access to justice. This type of research would improve our ability to credibly make the shorter-term claim – our program improved access to justice. The second type of research would improve our understanding of the mechanisms by which improved access to justice leads to less chance of violent conflict. This type of research would enhance our ability to credibly make the longer-term claims – by increasing access to justice we have decreased the chance of violence in the future and improved the chance of building a more peaceful society.

The time is ripe for new approaches

In my experience, there is enough frustration about the current state of monitoring and evaluation for peacebuilding that donors and implementers are willing to experiment with new approaches. The Global Learning for Adaptive Management collaboration between the United States Agency for International Developmentand the British Department for International Developmentis one current example. As these experiments are launched, donors will need to move beyond the thinking and reflection stage and find concrete things in which to invest. The best place to start? Invest in partnerships, in data collection, and in research.

Andrew Blum, PhD is the Executive Director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justiceat the University of San Diego. Formerly, he served as Vice-President for Planning, Learning, and Evaluation and a Senior Program Officer for Grantmaking at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington DC.

Folks: Learning is hot right now. At least, in the aid and development sectors. Monitoring and evaluation (M&E) teams are now monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL). Strategy departments have become “Strategy and Learning”; research departments, “Research and Learning”.

Learning feeds into real-time adaptation, longer-term strategic shifts, and broader sectoral changes. It makes M&E meaningful as something more than donor reporting and gives practical purpose to research.

It’s a promising employment area as well: Devex has 684 job postings with the word “learning” in the title. That’s fewer than have “monitoring” (1,309) or “evaluation” (1,237)—but I’m fairly sure learning has been on an upward trend from a few years ago.

All that said, I’m having trouble squaring the learning boom with the fact that several organizations I know are really struggling to hire learning staff. I’ve had several conversations in recent weeks about the challenges of finding the right fit.

My sample is too small and most of my data too anecdotal to explain why, but my early hypotheses are:

  • Not enough people interested: Learning roles aren’t as attractive to job candidates, perhaps because the function is not yet defined enough to have a clear career path.
  • Not enough people qualified, likely because the job is defined too broadly: Most learning roles sit at the intersection of M&E, research, communications, management, and strategy. Few candidates have experience in more than one or two of those, so there are not enough qualified candidates in the pools.
  • Not sure what they’re looking for: Organizations aren’t sure how the learning role connects to the rest of their work (it’s often a newly created position) and so it’s hard for hiring mangers to picture how any given candidate will fit in.

Is anyone else experiencing trouble hiring for learning roles? If so, I’d be curious to hear more about it—in the comments below or by email.

Pictured: TA LEARN workshop in Rio.

Change actors of all stripes face a tension between the certainty needed to act at scale, and the uncertainty inherent to change at any level.

On the one hand: The world is full of injustices and problems, many of them systemic and impacting people’s lives across contexts. A moral imperative drives us to address these problems. Doing so at scale—in fact, doing anything at scale—depends on our ability to plan, prioritize, allocate resources, coordinate, and control. Whether within an organization or across a sector, these functions require us to make assumptions. They require some degree of certainty.

On the other hand: The world is complex, opaque, and never fully knowable. Most of our social goals—like justice, equality, development, freedom—are not levers we move directly, but rather are emergent properties of the interplay of policies, interests, structural constraints, and a whole lot of history. An action that we think will advance one of those goals may fail or backfire, for reasons that were impossible to know in advance, and perhaps only slightly clearer in retrospect. Some amount of uncertainty is inherent to social change.

The drive toward certainty shows up in systems and practices like strategic planning, budgeting, gantt charts, logframes, and outcome indicators. The inherent uncertainty appears as these tools often fail, and we find ourselves changing course.

The tension between these two often leads to well-meaning calls for more flexibility. Grantees want donors to be more flexible in budget lines, communities want NGOs to be more flexible in project goals, and everyone wants government to be more flexible in everything.

But working flexibly isn’t enough. What we need is to work adaptively. Both flexibility and adaptability acknowledge the uncertainty of progress and allow for changing course. The difference lies in how and why those course corrections take place.

Working adaptively means building in systems for probing and sense-making from the start (e.g. feedback loops, frequent monitoring, capacity for analysis/synthesis). Such systems proactively seek to learn and understand, rather than merely reacting after reality intrudes on the plans. Working adaptively also means having mechanisms in place to make those changes deliberately, through shifts in tactics, programs, resourcing, staffing, and more.

This cycle might operate at different rates depending on the work: daily, weekly, or monthly iterations and pivots for micro-changes; monthly or quarterly for tactical shifts; quarterly or annually for strategic shifts. More frequent if the context is shifting too.

This idea—that adaptation is more than flexibility—isn’t new. But without a clearer articulation of those systems (for probing/sense-making) and mechanisms (to make deliberate changes) it’s all a bit academic.

Fortunately, there have been a few efforts to make this more concrete. In fact, there have been many efforts: in a post co-authored with Alan Hudson of Global Integrity on Duncan Green’s From Poverty to Power blog, we tried to informally map a few of those efforts to promote more adaptive work in the aid, development, and governance sectors. The post (a few weeks old now) is here:

(The Monty Python joke was Duncan’s suggestion, because of course it was.)

Separately, I’ve been supporting a joint effort between Mercy Corps and the International Rescue Committee to share lessons and practices from six case studies of working adaptively in some challenging contexts: emergency relief in Syria and Niger, Ebola response efforts in Sierra Leone and Liberia, market systems development in Uganda, and health systems development in Myanmar. This report may be one of the best articulations to date of those systems and mechanisms that distinguish adaptation from mere flexibility. You can find it here:

More on these efforts, and others, as they evolve.

Right now, as I type, I’m watching the Senate Democrats filibustering live. They’ve been going for about 10 hours so far. If you see this blog post tonight, you can watch live as well. Go there for at least 5 minutes, especially if you’re an American and have been following the political discourse in the aftermath of the Pulse club shooting in Orlando last weekend.

The filibuster is led by Christopher Murphy of Connecticut, whose first speech on the Senate floor in April 2013 discussed the Sandy Hook school shootings in his home state. 37 other Senators having spoken as well. They’re arguing for prohibiting gun purchases by those on the terrorist watch list, and for implementing universal background checks for gun purchases.

Somehow, despite majority support by Americans and even among gun owners, these measures can’t even get to a vote in the Senate. The Senate Democrats have been holding the floor for nearly half a day just to get a vote. Will it succeed? I doubt it will, at least in the near term. Will it be a turning point for gun control in the country? Maybe. Is it political theatre? Absolutely.

I’m deeply cynical about American politics. This year, more than ever. We have institutional lock-in (and the Senate is the prime example) that prevents real action, while tensions, inequality, and injustice simmer underneath. Not surprisingly, they bubble over—especially when they are stoked.

Yet watching this is strangely inspiring. I’ve been watching for almost two hours (despite owing deliverables to several clients tonight—sorry). These people are smart, passionate, and articulate. They show commitment. Dare I say it, they show leadership. This is action, in an institution and profession where talking counts as action.

What’s next? At some point, when the exhaustion starts to creep up, they’ll decide they’ve done enough to control the news cycle and frame the story. They’ll have underlined one more strong example of how our institutions and politics have failed us. They’ll go home to sleep, and then hopefully wake up refreshed and re-committed to finding other arenas for the fight, until they can make a policy change. If they can keep a bit of the leadership they’ve found, then the fall election will be one of those arenas.

No one imagines that this minor reform is enough to end gun violence in the United States. There are a half-dozen other issues wrapped up in our country’s mass shootings (which occur almost daily): not just gun controls, but gun culture; our collective inability to take mental health seriously; homophobia; xenophobia; domestic violence; racism; political power of the NRA; mass media reporting; and more.

This problem—like all the difficult ones—is systemic. But solutions are specific and progress is incremental. This is one small drop of a solution. Eventually it adds up to a bucket.

Want to do more? Check out Everytown for Gun Safety and Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Posting here has been sparse recently. I’ve been to three recent events and have slowly clawed out of my reading backlog (thanks in no small part to Pocket—unsolicited endorsement), both of which have sparked a dozen post ideas. But those will likely remain half-drafts for a while longer.

Until then, I have a minor milestone to mark: Last month marked six years of blogging.

Six years wouldn’t be much of a milestone except for two facts: 1) This is also my 299th post; and 2) I have written nearly 188,000 words on this blog. Maybe 15% of those words have been block quotes from other sources, so it’s probably only 160,000 words of original content. That’s an average of 535 words per post and just under one post per week over the past six years.

Some idle google searching suggests that a typical nonfiction book clocks in between 50,000 and 70,000 words. So by length, I’m somewhere into book three. (It’s a trilogy! A New Feed / The Day Job Strikes Back / Return of the Blogger?) Fortunately, blogging doesn’t require the same level of coherence or consistency as writing a book, let alone citations.

Interest in individual blogging seemed to peak a few years ago. Many of the blogs I follow have gone dormant; if new voices have popped up to take their place, I haven’t come across many of them. Meanwhile, institutional blogging seems to have gone up: more organizations and companies are figuring out how to say something interesting and relevant on a regular basis, and learning how to relax the control over institutional voice that often throttles such efforts. Maybe those two are linked, as a successful individual blog gets you hired to run an institutional blog, so you stop having time for your own?

I’ve never been interested in blogging as a job, but it’s been indispensable for my career. It’s a channel for clarifying my own thinking on issues that are related (however tangentially) to my work. That becomes a reflective practice, helping me see how my own thinking evolves. It’s also an accountability mechanism for making solid arguments, because what you write is out there for everyone to see. And it’s a powerful way to connect with like-minded people: an important segment of my professional network is composed of people who I first met through blogs, twitter, or other social media.

I’m still an evangelist for the practice. At least once a month, I find myself advising someone that a blog would really help their career. Apparently I’m a terrible recruiter, as none of those people have started blogs.

Perhaps my evangelism isn’t actionable enough. With some reflection on six years and three books of blogging, here are the implicit rules that have guided my writing. I make no claim to their general applicability. There are many ways to blog and other frequent/long-term bloggers in related fields follow completely differently rules. But maybe these will be helpful to some.

Guidelines to blogging the Dave Algoso way (in no particular order):

  1. Write for yourself first. If you can’t find some reason to enjoy the writing—because it helps you process ideas, because you’re improving your writing, because it’s cathartic, because you have a big ego, because of some combination of those—then it will be very hard to keep up with it.
  2. Fit your blogging around your day job. Capture ideas for sharing later, especially when you have the reflective space to generate them (long flights, early mornings, and vacations account for 80% of my blogging time). Write about work when you can, but cautiously. Save sensitive stories until they can be safely anonymized (often years down the road). Don’t push the envelope; your “in real life” relationships and work outputs are more important than your blog.
  3. Scope your content to your interests—and then push to related issues and make connections as you can. You won’t learn anything (and neither will your readers) if you stay focused on what you already know. Don’t be afraid to wade into an area where you’re not the expert, but…
  4. Have the self-awareness to know when you’re branching outside your core areas. No one reading your blog expects you to be an expert on every topic, but they do expect you to respect the expertise of others.
  5. Nothing you write needs to be your final word on a topic. Pick an argument with someone smarter than you, even if you’re wrong. Do your homework and be as close to right as you can. In the end, say something interesting—again, even if it’s wrong.
  6. Don’t make the same argument twice (unless it’s on a different site with a different audience).
  7. If your writing starts to feel stale, write for other blogs or sites. It will force you to think about audience, tone, and style in new ways.
  8. Be a self-editor. Write, then come back to it later when you have some distance and can give it a critical eye. Take every opportunity to have someone else edit your work, whether for the blog or other writing. Learn from that.
  9. Read. Read other blogs, read magazine, read books. Take advantage of free books for book reviews, if only as a commitment mechanism to read more books. (Then remember that the author will almost certainly read your review and tell you what you got wrong.)
  10. Nothing matters as much as the content and the ideas. Pay some attention to design, layout, even SEO. Avoid typos and try to follow some principles of good writing. But if you screw all of that up while managing to make people think or giving voice to something that’s on their mind, then they will still respond, share, and come back for more.

Last month, Duncan Green was kind enough to post my overly ambitious multi-book review on complexity thinking in development on his From Poverty to Power blog. It covered three books: Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos; Jean Boulton, Peter Allen, and Cliff Bowman’s Embracing Complexity; and Danny Burns and Stuart Worsley’s Navigating Complexity in International Development.

It was a bit much to cover three substantive works in a single review, so naturally I left a fair bit out. This follow-up post is my attempt to do slightly more justice to the topic.

But first, a mea culpa: I ended the review post with the observation that only a few of the examples in these books stem from complexity thinking; rather, the approaches developed separately and then their effectiveness was explained in complexity terms. I’ve floated the same point before, distinguishing between complexity-relevant practice (i.e. where we can explain methods in terms of complexity) vs. complexity-informed practice (i.e. where we proactively design work based on complexity thinking). I see a lot of the former, but not enough (yet) of the latter.

In responding to my post, Ramalingam made the case that this was a bit of an unfair characterization of the practice to date—and in retrospect, I think he’s right. More of the examples from his book were designed with complexity in mind than I gave credit. In fact, several of the other authors (Burns, Worsley, and Boulton) also chimed in to note that they appreciated the review overall, but that I had somewhat missed the mark on that point. See the comments sections on the post for more.

This is a happy mea culpa though, as the practical upshot is to say that complexity thinking is shifting development practice somewhat more than I had previously thought. Perhaps the authors and I can still agree that we’d still like to see it shift more?

In any case, let’s turn to a few of the interesting stray points from the books that didn’t make it into the larger review.

Navigating Complexity (Burns/Worsley)

I referred to this book as the most practical guide to complexity in development, and a good pick for program designers, evaluators, and managers (as opposed to the other two books, which are a bit more strategically oriented). Burns/Worsley move quickly through a history of other approaches to development (big pushes, technical focus, institutions, rights-based, etc.) and complexity thinking itself, in order to focus on the practical implications.

They describe successful approaches to change as relying on participation, learning, and relationship and network building, which together allow us to understand the system dynamics better and generate appropriate interventions with ownership by stakeholders; ownership then leads to sustainability and scale. (Everything in italics is a concept that they discuss in much greater depth, so if any piqued your interest, you should read the book.) I like this framework because—although it might make Burns and Worsley cringe—you can turn this into a quick rubric for assessing a project or approach, based on how well it incorporates each of those elements.

The core of the book focuses on three approaches that build on these concepts: participatory systemic inquiry, as a planning tool; systemic action research, as a structured process that integrates learning and action; and nurtured emergent development, as an organic approach to building a social movement for change (explained with examples like community-led total sanitation).

They also have a great discussion of the nature of power in development and participatory processes, and a conclusion section that nods toward the political nature of development and the need for adaptive management.

Embracing Complexity (Boulton, Allen, Bowman)

This book was much more wide-ranging, in a way that makes it hard to give full due in any review. As mentioned in my other post, this book was written by a team that deeply understands the science of complexity, as well as the debates within that field. The result is an great journey through the ideas, easily followed by non-specialists, but which still may be more detailed than some readers want.

For those who embrace the journey, the chapters on complexity in the social world, management, strategy, international development, and economics are chock-full of insights and advice. For example, I took the following away on complexity-informed research processes: trace situations over time; include multiple-perspectives and opportunities for meaning-making; follow emergent, unexpected phenomena; explore causes; explore around issues; stay free from the need to define initial hypothesis; balance uniqueness and general applicability.

Similarly, on complexity-informed change management: understand the context and history; ensure broad stakeholder engagement; agree on a broad approach to change and create a general plan, but keep a contingency budget for experimentation; design pilots within the broad approach (small bets, anyone?); refine and iterate; allow a degree of local customization.

The chapter on development draws on work that Boulton did with Oxfam around programs in Kenya. It advocates for considering how interventions take account of the systemic/interconnected aspects of the context, how they pay attention to path-dependency, how they customize and experiment within context, and how they look for and respond to tipping points in the wider environment. One of my favorite takeaways was the idea of a new definition of “baseline” assessments: paying better attention to the starting point in a richer way, identifying contextual and historical factors and how each might relate to the intervention.

Aid on the Edge (Ramalingam)

I won’t share as much on this book, as it came out a few years before the others and has been subject of more reviews. This one is somewhat heftier than the others, though those who are familiar with the sector may be able to skim over the critique of how aid currently works (the first third of the book), instead focusing on Ramalingam’s description of complexity (second third) and its implications for the sector (final third).

What I think Ramalingam’s book does very well is make the case for changing the sector’s broader thinking, as well its accompanying approaches and toolkits. He notes the need to: “move from ‘experiments’ as a tool to ‘experimentation’ as a mindset.” The idea is echoed in points made in Boulton et al. about complexity being as much a worldview as a science.

So now what?

The question facing an interested practitioner is: okay, I’ve got the mindset, I’m in the zone; now what tools do I use? As J. asked in response to my previous post:

Tomorrow morning, when I sit down at my desk to manage a team of unruly aid workers, tasked with implementing a diverse portfolio of grant-funded activities in an ambiguous legal context, HQ riding my ass for an updated strategy document that no one will ever read… and knowing everything in those books: Which email do I send first?

The answer, unfortunately, is a big fat: “it depends.” Increasingly, that toolkit is being built out under a variety of headings: PDIA, Doing Development Differently, adaptive management, adapting development, adaptive learning, “collaborating, learning, adapting” (CLA—USAID’s preferred acronym), “science of delivery” (the World Bank’s framing, though it’s approached more as craft than science), and on and on. The differences are often shaped by the differing institutional contexts from which they emerge. Not all of the practice is complexity-informed, but all of it is complexity-relevant.

From where I sit—as a consultant who gets to be connected to a variety of these efforts, but often in small ways—these different approaches to fundamentally the same questions are starting to converge. People from different institutions and sub-sectors are starting to talk to one another. The changes are bubbling up into bureaucratic rules and operational procedures and hiring practices and more. I remain, as always, cautiously optimistic…

I had a guest post on Global Integrity’s blog last week, based on a recent event in DC. The teaser:

It takes two: What happens when the open governance and peacebuilding communities work together?

Governance reform is a nearly universal need—even the world’s oldest democracies still struggle—yet the need is greatest in fragile states. However, external support for governance reform often takes a back seat in such places. Where the social contract has broken down and the institutional capacity of the state to deliver goods and services is nearly non-existent, ending or preventing violent conflict is often seen as a more pressing concern. What if that didn’t need to be a trade-off, and instead we found ways for governance and peacebuilding to support one another fragile contexts?

That question was at the heart of a conversation in DC last month. The hosting organizations were wide-ranging: Global Integrity, Saferworld, the OpenGov Hub, and Development Gateway. There were also representatives in the room from a handful of other NGOs, plus a few donors, and a smattering of consultants. The topic: “Openness in Fragile Environments.”

As Saferworld’s Chris Underwood pointed out, this was explicitly a gathering of two tribes. Though there were some participants who blurred the lines between governance and peacebuilding, we were largely drawing from two different analytical frameworks, types of expertise, and even sets of experiences.

Continue reading: “It takes two: What happens when the open governance and peacebuilding communities work together?”

(With thanks to Alan Hudson for comments on an early draft.)