Catalyst, Leadership, Philanthropy, Resources

The Danger of Idealism

In 2005 prominent economist Jeffrey Sachs released his book The End of Poverty. It articulated his conviction that a massive short term increase in foreign aid and philanthropic giving could eliminate the deepest poverty in the African continent forever. A network of Millennium Villages were launched to pioneer his model with fanfare and great confidence. I just finished reading The Idealist by journalist Nina Munk in which she tracks the progress of the project and its founder as the effort surged, struggled, and seems to be on the verge of wrapping up with no definitive measurable success. It’s a very well written book that should be widely read by those working in development, and particularly by those supporting the work. My copy was a gift from Stuart Taylor who works with IDE and has been my friend, my example, and my guide into many of the most important areas of my life. To oversimplify the message of the book, don’t oversimplify the work of changing lives. I have to confess to my own vulnerability on this, and that of Catalyst. While I hope we are characterized by sincere humility in our work, we are people of ideas and theories who have the luxury of sitting at a distance and offering opinions (often tied to funding) on the strategies and performance of those who are really doing the work. I can easily become the backseat driver, Monday morning quarterback, and talk radio commentator in my field. That’s not to deny the significant value of what I commonly call “the interested outsider”, but even in my limited experience it is abundantly clear that real, lasting impact depends on a myriad of factors beyond the control of even the most diligent strategist. Culture, nature, politics, and human selfishness and irrationality defy grand optimism. Progress over time is fickle and scaling success is unpredictable. Good, smart, well-funded projects like the Millennium Villages are just as vulnerable, and possibly even more vulnerable, to unanticipated factors undermining their outcomes as local grass-roots efforts. So what should we do? At Catalyst we try to be as raw and real about what we do as we can. I try to temper my enthusiasm with a deliberate dose of doubt. And I acknowledge that none of us are doing any of this stuff right. We are all struggling in a complex environment to make the best of what we have in the determined hope that there will be ground gained as we commit ourselves to constant learning and continued effort. As a long established idealist myself I find this rather unsatisfactory in so many ways, but I am discovering that there is profound beauty and meaning in even imperfect progress. How do you manage the tension between theoretical idealism and practical challenge in your life and work?