How To Flatten The World

Photo by Martin Reisch on Unsplash

“This will be the science room. Good equipment, benches, everything,” said Michael, stepping deliberately over a shovel and drawing my attention to it — a kind of cautionary pay-it-forward. He needn’t have, as the stars in northern Tanzania are very bright.

As I stepped over the shovel I looked back at my friend, Ivan Atuyambe. I gestured to the school-in-progress and ventured an impressed shrug, a facial “not bad.” Ivan seemed unimpressed. Ivan was sometimes serious and sometimes funny, rarely was he anything in-between.

Michael was showing us his dream: A school for underprivileged children. The school was still a concrete husk, a U-shaped ring of rooms surrounding an open-air atrium. We climbed a temporary staircase to the ceiling to marvel at the Tanzanian sky and reflect on Michael’s dream.

Building non-profit schools was a job usually left to the wazungu, white people, and yet here was a wealthy Tanzanian spending his twilight years and hard-earned money supporting his nation’s most vulnerable.

Several hours later, after a filling meal of beef stew and pilau at Michael’s house, Ivan drove me home. It was late. I could tell he was thinking. I ventured a modest observation: “Michael seems like a cool guy.” Ivan sighed, and with his educated Ugandan accent asked the question: “How do you think he got the money to build that school?” Ivan’s questions are often like Zen Koans. I didn’t respond. Then he hit me with another non-sequitur: “What do you think of the Sustainable Development Goals?”

I had become familiar with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I often had to cite them when applying for grants for my own project — a women’s menstrual hygiene business. Sanitation, education, gender equality, decent work, and responsible consumption & production. I told Ivan that I thought the SDGs were useful, though sensing that he expected some form of intelligent criticism, I may also have mumbled something about “capitalism” and “systems.” Those who know me well know this is my default setting.

Ivan laughed quietly. “I will send you some things,” he said. This might seem ominous or evasive, but I had long learned it was how Ivan worked. It was a kind of modesty. He delegated the authority to argue to people smarter than him. There was a higher truth I would learn in good time.

The Sustainable Development Goals are an attempt at legibility: The attempt to take a messy and incoherent reality and reduce it to something rationalisable, like mapping a neighbourhood or codifying medical practice.

However, these attempts at legibility never fully succeed in capturing the reality that they aim to describe. A map of a neighbourhood may fail to include a newly built road or a series of narrow alleyways. A mental health diagnostic manual may fail to include an obscure ailment specific to a certain culture. International development is much more complex than our idea of international development. A lot happens in these gaps between reality and representation. Legibility always comes at a cost.

Legibility can be thought of as a program enacted by groups that wish to simplify a reality in order to measure and act upon it. The program of legibility occurs across virtually all organisations, industries and sectors.

On a small scale, making things legible is often beneficial. Examinations provide teachers with useful information on their students’ progress. Phone-based mental health surveys can’t provide a diagnosis but can be a cost-effective way to decide whether a higher resolution assessment is needed.

On larger scales, efforts to make complex realities legible are almost always disastrous. This is arguably history’s biggest lesson from the 20th Century. We saw colonially-administered systems of control in satellite states, state-based racial profiling in policies like redlining, or for a return to Tanzania — the forced villagisation in the immediate post-colonial era under Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa policy. Modern examples include Facebook’s content moderation approaches, Amazon’s abusive employee supervision practices, and China’s social credit score.

Whether large or small in scale, public or private, these programs of legibility primarily serve the interests of powerful, centralised coordinating authorities. Employee punch cards (which make legible arrival and departure times) serve the needs of management, not employees. Google’s tracking of user usage patterns serves Google and its advertisers. NAPLAN primarily serves the educational bureaucracy (ask any teacher!).

These programs of legibility serve those in power by taking a messy, borderless reality and reducing it to a set of mute, aggregate and standardised facts. These facts and programs are then imposed back on reality, changing it. The employee learns to game the punch card system by catching a cigarette break in the supply closest. The teacher spends far more time on numeracy than they deem reasonable because a good test score matters more than a good education.

Some general rules about the process of legibility can be inferred: (a) The desire for legibility is a core part of any hierarchical system of control, (b) Legibility systems are always imperfect representations of the reality they measure, (c) Legibility systems transform the reality they measure, (d) The gap between legibility systems and the reality they measure grows larger as their scope does, (e) Legibility systems serve to concentrate power in the hands of the bureaucrat.

Today, much of the legibility process is conducted by social impact assessors. An “outcomes assessment framework,” is simply another way of describing a legibility system for a social program.

It is the job of social impact assessors to map the terrain of social programs. As the cartographer inevitably misses the alleyways and informal settlements, so too the social impact assessor is tasked with an impossible job.

Ivan ended up sending me a rather lengthy report on illicit financial flows in Africa. Over coffee, I asked Ivan to explain the report to me. Ivan paused before speaking, a manner of his which gives everything he says a little more weight. “More wealth leaves Africa every year through illicit financial flows than all overseas development assistance combined.” Illicit financial flows are mostly the result of multinational tax avoidance and government corruption. He gave an unimpressed shrug. “Do you see tax avoidance and corruption in the Sustainable Development Goals?”

You do — but you must dig. Ivan’s point was that for all the spending around the 17 SDGs, you could have a similar impact by reducing illicit financial flows to zero. This would give African people around an extra $50 billion per year to spend, and it would be under the control of African people rather than foreigners. $50 billion is a lot of money anywhere, but it’s an especially large sum for the hundreds of millions living on less than $2 per day.

The understating of illicit financial flows is also tragic for the countless, earnest people working on the SDGs. Their work is forced to occupy an imaginative landscape created by transnational networks of power. In the imaginary landscape they occupy, brown paper envelopes and quiet handshakes in hallways do not enter the program of legibility and yet continue to dictate what is possible on the African continent.

As the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in 2000 became the SDGs in 2015, they also came to guide development in the rich world as well as the poor. This reflects the general tendency of legibility systems to incorporate more and more of reality in to their metrics. Legibility systems which claim to cover the most ground deserve the highest level of scepticism.

Some groups endeavour to reduce all social progress to one or two metrics — evidenced in our culture’s obsession with GDP. Some — social impact assessors — aim to replace these metrics with more humanitarian measures, such as “Gross National Happiness (GNH)” or “Well-being.” These indices have the right intentions but miss the point. Any single measure of a complex reality creates unintended consequences. Legibility always comes at a cost.

Aldous Huxley’s genetically engineered citizens in Brave New World were wildly happy thanks to Soma, a widely administered hallucinogen. Bhutan boosted its Gross National Happiness score by removing unhappy citizens through large-scale ethnic cleansing. Swapping GDP for GNH fixes some problems but causes others. Single measures quickly become single goals.

If all this seems abstract in a modern Western context, consider Huber Social. From scant publicly available details, this is a Sydney-based social impact accreditation and assessment consultancy which claims to be able to assess “Collective Well-being.” The initiative claims to “[Provide] a universal scale of social value… [enabling] comparison between initiatives.”

At our doorsteps is a rationalist nightmare in which a not-for-profit dance company in Lithuania can be compared with an AI-driven medical patent filing system in San Francisco. Such a comparison might be useful to a dance & AI enthusiast with ten dollars to spare, but it is a comparison on false premises. The work of deciding between a dance company and a medical charity is the slow work of dialogue. Efforts to create these kinds of comparisons are therefore efforts to put civic activities in to the hands of social impact technocrats.

Becoming an accredited Huber Social technocrat is gated behind a four-day accreditation process which costs $6,500 AUD to undertake. That we are flattening the world and shirking our civic responsibilities is tragic, that we are willing to pay for it is comedy.

As I finished up my coffee, I ventured Ivan one more question. “Okay, so I get the SDGs and the illicit financial flows. But what does that have to do with Michael’s school?” Ivan laughed and paused, then leaned forward on the table. “Aden, how do you think he became wealthy?” I flattened my mouth in to a line.

“You are too trusting.” he said. “Those who are claiming to help are often doing the most damage.”