Bill Easterly and the Culture of Nice

I was really excited to see that William Easterly has a blog now. And it’s not because I am a big fan of the man. I think many of his conclusions are just plain wrong, and he’s prone to ugly sweeping generalizations. He seems to assume from the get-go that other people are stupid and/or thoughtless. But he’s brilliant, and he’s not at all nice.

Development and aid work is mired in a culture of nice, and that culture keeps bad work from being eliminated and good work from getting better. We’re too nice to call a bad project a bad project. When we criticize, we criticize in abstractions. No one has any problem identifying bad products as bad – Vista, for example – but no one will ever call a bad program bad. If you look at my post on NGOs that do harm, you’ll only see anonymous comments about unnamed projects. We’re addicted to nice.

The charitable reason for this behavior is human decency. When good people are making a good faith effort to do work that matters, you feel like the worst kind of jerk calling them out for waste or incompetence. And every project benefits one or two people. Nobody wants to be the one to say that those one or two people were not worth the effort.

But there are a couple of people who like Vista, too. That doesn’t keep the rest of us from explaining exactly what’s wrong with it. After human decency, however, comes self-interest.

We change jobs a lot in this field. Project funding runs out, and you have to find your next gig, or your next donor. Most of us have worked for three or four different NGOs or companies, and perhaps a government agency. You don’t want to talk smack about a potential employer, and a potential employer could be just about anyone. And, of course, a potential employer doesn’t want an employee who criticized his last boss in public. So we all shut up, and organizations that everyone knows are sinkholes of mismanagement and despair just keep on getting grants and contracts.

I don’t really know how to fix this. I am not ready to tell you here on the world-wide-webs exactly which of my former employers sucked because I too would like to continue getting jobs. I started my “things I don’t believe in” series as one way to address the bad work no one wants to talk about, but I think it is still the kind of generality that doesn’t do enough good.

photo credit: devillibrarian
Chosen because both smiley faces and cookies effectively represent the culture of nice.