22 May

The Trap of Doing Good In A Complex World

In February, I was invited to attend On Being’s inaugural Gathering.  On Being is the creation of Krista Tippett – a former diplomat, theologian, journalist and now CEO of On Being Studios.

The Gathering was a four-day affair of nourishing conversation with a cross-section of curious and wonderful people reflecting on the theme, ‘Becoming Wise: A Calling for This Age’. One quality wise people share is insight and I believe this quality is closely linked with a daily habit of asking breakthrough questions and viewing life as a process of inquiry.

One of the reasons I attended the Gathering was to discover how the global development community can nurture this habit in our daily work because we are increasingly focused on answering one question: ‘How can we know/show this works?’ When this becomes our focus, answers become scarce, creativity withers and so does our capacity to respond earnestly to the changing contexts in our world.

The trap of doing good

Our work is often framed as ‘doing good’, the assumption being that we know with certainty that the work we do is ‘good.’ That framing is a trap because it is simultaneously generic and constricting. It sets expectations which we never set out to meet.

Our work is not to have the right answers (to do good) but to ask and pursue quality questions about what ‘love, identity, security, autonomy, and belonging’ look like to a group of people, living in a particular context, in a particular time.

Asking quality questions

My definition of a quality question consists of the following:

  • The question opens up space for inquiry. For example, ‘what can work?’ as opposed to ‘how can we prove that this works?’
  • The question acknowledges the role of context and does not treat it as an external factor. For example, ‘Given what we know of x community, what can work?’
  • The question is asked with the genuine assumption that enquirers do not know the answer and are open to the possibility of having their assumptions challenged.


The Hospice and the Pioneer 

The Berkana Institute, has a theory of change known as the two loops model. The two loops model illustrates the relationship between one system as it declines and the emergence of a new system. The people who are trying to make current systems less unjust/more equal are ‘hospicing’ that system while those who are ushering in new systems are pioneering that system (pioneers). See below.

Above: The Berkana Institute, Two Loops Model. Watch the video here.

For example, if I’m trying to create an entirely new education system, my focus of inquiry is to reimagine a new education system and observe the effects it has in our society (to pioneer). Likewise, if I want to address educational inequality (to hospice), my focus of inquiry would be to identify and target the existing drivers of inequality.

These two groups, the ‘hospice-rs’ and the ‘pioneers’, complement each other by asking different questions of the world, motivated by the same desire to change the existing system.

Frameworks such as the two loops model can help us build coalitions, project teams and research agendas that expand the spectrum of questions we ask and consequently the answers we discover.

I’m curious to know from you, what types of questions should we be asking in global development and how can we create space to ask them?

Tweet me @Marion_AO or drop a comment below!


With gratitude

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