Posted by: Tayo Akinyemi | December 16, 2011

If I Were A…How Shallow Hypothesizing Hurts Development Problem-Solving

First off, I’ll admit that I saw the buzz about Gene Marks’ piece in Forbes, If I Were a Poor Black Kid in the Twitterverse before today.  I ignored it because I could tell from the title that it would be controversial and difficult.  And I wasn’t in the mood for controversial and difficult.  But the article found its way back into my feed, as these things often do.  My initial reaction was mostly disbelief…and surprise.  However, the real fun began when I started to read the comments.  Hundreds of impassioned, articulate people, many of them former poor kids (black, white and otherwise) tore into this man’s premise, assumptions, and conclusions with a vengeance I haven’t experienced in awhile.  Although I encourage you to read the comments yourself—they are well worth the effort—many of them centered on two simple ideas.  First, Mr. Marks is a middle-aged, middle-class white man.  In other words, he is not and never will be, a poor black kid.  This seems obvious.  Secondly, as a middle-aged, middle-class white man (and this is an implication of the first statement), Mr. Marks will never be able to completely understand what it is like to be a poor black kid.  This also seems fairly obvious.

The problem is that we, as human beings, hypothesize about what we would do in other people’s shoes all the time.  When it’s done well it’s called empathy.  When it’s not, it’s called hubris…at best.  Ta-Nahesi Coates at the Atlantic does a masterful job of describing the latter phenomenon in his response, A Muscular Empathy. Terrific read.  As Coates points out, there is a tendency to assume that we’d be and do better than the people to whom we’re trying to relate.  Why?  Well, in Mr. Marks’ case it seems as if he wrote from the perspective of a poor black kid while retaining his identity as a privileged white man.  I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but empathy doesn’t work that way.  You actually have to take off your loafers and put on the moccasins, which brings me to my point about development.

Many solutions to tough problems probably start with a hypothesis similar to the one Marks created.  Here’s one.  “If I were a rural farmer in Mali, I would invest in hybrid seeds to improve my annual yield.”   These statements are easy to make because we can imagine what we’d want if we were rural farmers.  Except we’re not.  Of course, there are lots of tools in development to avoid this type of thinking, and they’re improving all the time.  For example, Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s work on randomized control trials, which I’ve blogged about before, goes a long way toward testing these sorts of hypotheses.  Design thinking, and other approaches that emphasize “human-centeredness”, co-creation, and community ownership also contribute mightily to this effort.  However, it’s all too simple to think “If I Were…” without actually doing the hard work—trading your set of experiences, expectations, assumptions, hopes, desires and needs for someone else’s.  So instead of pontificating about the hypothetical, get out there and experience the reality, as many of Marks’ readers suggest that he do.  If nothing else, you’re much less likely to piss people off.

*This piece was inspired by a friend and fellow Cornell alum with whom I recently reconnected.  Inspiration finds you at unexpected times in unexpected places.

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