Going Pro

4 Dec

I’d written a rambling, strident, rant post in response to the recent run on AidWatch which – I’ll be vulnerable – I found more annoying than normal. @Bill_Easterly, way to push my buttons, bro. (e.g.,  herehere, and here.)

“How the world”, I demanded, “can someone who’s never actually managed an aid or development project claim to be any kind of ‘expert’??? I’ve actually been working in aid – not just pontificating on about it from an ivory tower (or World Bank cubicle) – for years, now…” It went on like this for a page or two.

And then, just before clicking “publish”, I managed to get myself into a twitter conversation with a few people whose correspondence I’ve come to particularly appreciate about the differences between an “expert” and a “professional.” (HT @ithorpe @NaheedMustafa @Michael_Keizer @saundra_s)

As my pupils un-dilated and I again became capable of considering viewpoints alternate to my own, it sank in: Bill Easterly may be an aid/development expert.

But I am a professional.

* * *

I partially paid for my existence during graduate school by playing in a rock band that enjoyed what I think I can honestly describe as “moderate local success.” No talent scouts from BMI or Sony Records ever approached us, but we managed to have paying gigs most every weekend. It was mostly just good male-bonding fun, with gas money thrown in as a bonus.

But there was always someone – maybe an old acquaintance, or maybe a close friend, or a random total stranger – wandering backstage between sets to offer little wisdom pearls of advice: “Duuuude, you need to, like, turn the bass all the way up…” Or, “That bridge you guys played two songs ago, just totally didn’t work… it would be cooler if you made it more, you know, like Nirvana…” Or, “Wow.. you guys really sound a lot like Supertramp, except without any keyboards…” (Supertramp? Really? You’re cuttin’ me deep, man… might as well say we sound like Chicago…)

And whether we ever said it to anyone’s face or not, in the van on the way home we’d invariably gripe about how “everyone’s an expert.” Everyone who doesn’t play guitar knows exactly how guitar should be played.

* * *

Apart from the occasional post about Egypt v. Algeria football matches, I do not follow sports at all.

But I wonder if maybe there’s some analogy in the sports world, too. Seems to me that there are plenty of 10-year-old boys who can recite the stats of every player on every team in the NBA. Or overweight old guys who seem bent on sharing their strident opinions about who is or is not going to with the SuperBowl this year, and all of the reasons why (I always seem to get stuck sitting next to these guys on long flights). And I know there are equivalents in other countries for a range of other sports. The extent to which whole swaths of Asia and Africa simply shut down during the World Cup is part of the evidence.

And as in my (one time) world of music, I imagine that in the world of professional sports there is the same “everyone’s an expert” dynamic. You can know a lot – maybe even everything – about football: all the teams, all the players, strategies, plays, the rules of the game, the ethics and morality of it all… You can be an “expert”, but that doesn’t mean you’re able to throw a ball through a hoop or kick one into a goal.

* * *

No reasonable person would deny that any community of practice needs critics, experts. Those non-practicioners who can look in from the outside, whose job it is to see big pictures and/or elements of the whole in the abstract. Those who see things that we’ll invariably miss because we’re too close physically, emotionally to it all.

Admittedly, the stakes are far, far higher in aid than they are in professional sports or the local music scene. What we do makes the difference between life and death for tens of thousands, daily (on some days). And so perhaps those of us inside the aid industry need those not-directly-involved experts more than we think we do. It’s painful at times, not to mention annoying, but we need to engage with those ideas honestly and with open minds.

However, I do think that those critical, analytical, external voices need to be tempered and balanced with the voices those of whose job it is to actually, you know, do stuff. Those of us in the thick of it, whether on the front line of service delivery, on the cutting edge of some crosscutting debate, or struggling to balance “innovation” with “process” deep in the organizational bowels of an INGO or UN agency.

A lot of what the aid critics have to say in the blogosphere and in books you can buy on Amazon.com sounds lovely. But much of it is just plain not applicable. At least not in it’s current form. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that @Bill_Easterly is absolutely right about RE v. “data mining.” Anyone working for an INGO give a flying rip? Does it change one iota what the vast majority of aid professionals will do tomorrow? The fact that I’m even asking gives you a hint as to my personal opinion…

Whether you agree or disagree with me about “data mining”, we, the professionals, need to be more active, credible participants in the conversation with the expert critics.

* * *

There’s already fantasy football… fantasy Aid, anyone?

Oh, and if the experts are somehow analogous to 10-year-old sports fans with notebooks full of stats and data on every team and player… I wonder what aid worker posters @Bill_Easterly has on his office wall…? ( All written in good humor and with nothin’ but love for you, Professor🙂 )

4 Responses to “Going Pro”

  1. Roving Bandit 8 December, 2009 at 9:05 am #

    Remember Keynes:

    “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

    • J. 8 December, 2009 at 10:10 am #

      So, basically, it’s a lose-lose for practitioners…


  1. Twitted by aidwatch - 11 December, 2009

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  2. If You’re an Expert, Can You Flip a Coin? « Tales From the Hood - 4 September, 2010

    […] in the field, hours at a time doing nothing but listening. I’m reminded of the difference between expert and professional. Not saying we get it right 100% of the time. And while I can’t speak for Global Giving, I can […]

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