Lessons on Attempting to Solve “Easy” Problems Without Doing Your Research
In a thinkpiece earlier this year, Courtney Martin describes what she calls the “reductive seduction” of other people’s problems. Martin speaks to the social entrepreneurs of the world, however, the lessons she sets forth directly apply to those working in the creative industries, hoping to effect change in sectors that fall into the realm of social innovation.
Reductive seduction is described as the allure of solving problems that “seem urgent and readily solvable”, for instance, viewing the elimination of hunger in Sudan as having a straightforward solution. While intentions are good and expectedly not malicious, this approach can lead to certain recklessness that can exacerbate the same issue one attempts to improve.
According to Martin, those who are “young, privileged, and interested in creating a life of meaning” are prime candidates for this seduction, enchanted by the exoticism and prestige of effortlessly solving large problems in far places.
There is a whole “industry” set up to nurture these desires and delusions… The young American ego doesn’t appear in a vacuum. Its hubris is encouraged through job and internship opportunities, conferences galore, and cultural propaganda — encompassed so fully in the patronizing, dangerously simple phrase “save the world.”
– Courtney Martin
When one doesn’t understand the true complexity of a problem—whether by choice or lack of research—funds can be wasted along with the trust and hope of the people promised a solution. Classic examples of harmful projects by nonprofits, as compiled by Ehsan Noursalehi at Everyone Deserves Great Design, share a common thread of good intentions, a sizable donations, and a lack of profound on-the-ground research—turning a blind eye to the project’s sustainability and the true needs of the demographic it meant to benefit.
Just because a product has a social mission doesn’t mean the product is great.
– from Everyone Deserves Great Design
The PlayPump Water System, backed by the U.S. government, The Clinton Foundation, and the Case Foundation, is a merry-go-round pump that uses the play (energy) of children to produce safe drinking water. A strong example of a high-profile project, the initiative was pledged $16.4 million USD. One year after its release, a quarter of the pumps in Zambia were defunct. Soon after, an estimate was released demonstrating that children would have to “play” 27 hours daily in order to generate the water this system guaranteed.
An acronym has come about to umbrella poorly planned initiatives: SWEDOW (Stuff We Don’t Want). To assist budding social entrepreneurs, AID/WATCH, a watchdog organisation, created a flowchart that helps avoid embarking on a misguided project. It asks questions like, “Is [the product] needed more somewhere else?” and “Is the transport cost better spent elsewhere?” to effectively rationalise whether the project would be truly effective. The same approach—a series of basic but weighty questions—can equally serve a creative practitioner that aims to carry out an ambitious social project.
Many social entrepreneurs (and creative practitioners) don’t realise that, beyond a problem being unforeseeably complex, it may also be one for the long-haul. Many social issues cannot be solved traveling back and forth, or being only partially invested time-wise. Many problems require a full-on, possibly inconvenient commitment: one that may require setting down roots in a new country, quitting a nine to five job, or giving up certain luxuries in order to fully address the issue as a whole.
Molly Melching, widely credited with ending female genital cutting in Senegal (and, progressively, in seven other countries), is stellar example of sober idealism: understanding that the solution won’t happen overnight, and will take great levels of patience. Melching did not address female genital cutting for decades, as she understood it was a taboo topic and an engrained rite. After motivating local women to learn more about maternal health and sexuality, her team was finally approached with questions regarding the harmful practice.
It was only if they believed they were entitled to better treatment that they could demand it and bring an end to those harmful customs.
– Molly Melching
Only from that point—and after years of cultural integration, trust-building, and learning native languages—was she able to effect change. In what Martin describes as “finely calibrated moments of risk and restraint”, Melching waited until the right time to approach a religious leader for his support in teaching women’s health. He responded in respectful support and admiration.
A final point Martin makes in “Reductive Seduction” is the danger of ignoring social problems on one’s own country, opting instead to tackle exotic issues abroad.
In the United States, while thousands of ambitious social entrepreneurs flee to unfamiliar areas, dire issues persist in the country: incarceration, homelessness, police brutality, poverty. Author C.Z. Nnaemeka refers to this affected demographic as the “exotic underclass”: the undeserved group of people whose unglamorous problems are not readily addressed. This includes the 80% of single mothers who are at or below the working poverty line, their children who are trapped in a deficient public education system, and the veterans who return home with physical and mental disabilities.
For the group of people that have been directly affected by these problems, there may be a more direct route to becoming an advocate: connecting hard-earned personal experience with direct action. New energy and unexpected approaches are needed to tackle these tired domestic problems. A fresh, inquisitive perspective can open doors that seasoned experts may have already closed.
Innovators hoping to solve seductive social problems must use these lessons to avoid falling into the trap of futility. As Martin concisely puts it, one must solve problems with people, rather than for people. Having a plan in place, doing intensive and exhaustive research, and actually doing the work is crucial to any practitioner hoping to make an impact.
A social challenge that is seemingly glamorous and easy might just show the tip of the iceberg.