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The things we do: The dark side of empathy

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Portrait of children, GuatemalaMost people agree that the ability to empathize with others is part of what makes a person good.  If we can put ourselves in another’s shoes and walk a mile in them, we can better understand their joy and misery, right?  Well, the answer may be a bit more complex.
 
While empathy can push us to help others, it can also exhaust our emotional bank or push us to retaliation.  And, importantly, it can cloud our judgment.
 
The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but the most common meaning corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more practical process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, and what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy.  The two are distinct and involve very different brain processes, but most discussions of the moral implications of empathy focus on its emotional side.
 
In a speech before he became president of the United States, Barack Obama stressed how important it is

to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. . . . When you think like this — when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers — it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

Obama is right about this last part; there is considerable support for what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis” which states that "feeling empathy for others, makes you more likely to help them. In general, empathy helps dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it works against selfishness and indifference.

Obamacare and the ‘good governance standards shuffle’

Brian Levy's picture

This is the third post in a three-part series from Brian Levy on the manner in which the media, activists and politicians talk about the role of government. This post is about Obamacare. It’s hardly news anymore, I know. But my focus is less on the details of America’s ongoing efforts to reform its health sector, than on the way the discourse has played out – making the post  another in my series on the dysfunctional ways in which we speak about government.

Barack Obama signing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act at the White HouseIn an earlier post, I explored Great Gatsby-style carelessness. This time, I want to introduce a dance move —  the ‘good governance high standards shuffle’, a display of exuberant glee (disguised as disappointment) whenever the real world intrudes, and the outcome of one or another public initiative  is less than perfect.

In the same way that it can be difficult to distinguish between real tears of disappointment, and malicious glee hiding behind crocodile tears, sometimes the ‘high standards shuffle’  can be difficult to detect. Sincerity can all too easily get ‘played’ by cynicism in disguise. While some dancers of the standards shuffle are clumsily obvious,  others have the moves down pat — making it hard to tell whether or not one is being played. (And some exponents might even be unaware that they’re doing the standards shuffle.)

Each year, as part of my teaching at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I select a ‘live’ example of the challenges of public management. A few weeks ago, as I described in another post in this series, I used the case of Washington’s Metro to explore with my students at SAIS the costs of careless in our discourse about government. In 2014, my focus was on the  ongoing American debate on health care reform (also known as “Obamacare”). That debate offers a marvelous  opportunity for seeing the high standards shuffle in action – an opportunity that has not diminished with the passage of time.  So: come dance with me……

An exchange in the United States Congress early this past summer illustrates what the clumsy version of the standards shuffle looks like. Here (as reported by the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank) is  President Obama’s Secretary of Health and Human services, Sylvia Burwell, being grilled by Sam Johnson, Republican Congressman of Texas:

#6 from 2015: Five myths about governance and development

David Booth's picture

Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2015.  This post was originally posted on February 26, 2015. It was also the blog post of the month for March 2015.

In some areas of development policy, deep-rooted assumptions are extremely hard to dislodge. Like science-fiction androids or the many-headed Hydra, these are monsters that can sustain any number of mortal blows and still regenerate. Capable researchers armed with overwhelming evidence are no threat to them.
 
The importance of good governance for development is one such assumption. Take last month’s enquiry report on Parliamentary Strengthening by the International Development Committee of the UK parliament. It references the UN High Level Panel’s opinion that ‘good governance and effective institutions’ should be among the goals for ending global poverty by 2030. It would have done better to reference the evidence in 2012’s rigorously researched UN publication Is Good Governance Good for Development?
 
Here are five governance myths about which the strong scientific consensus might – eventually – slay some monsters.

The potential of reforming state broadcasters in divided societies: Advancing an unfashionable argument

James Deane's picture

BBC Media Action's Director of Policy and Learning argues for an urgent rethinking of what is often considered a relic of the past - the state broadcaster - to encourage discussion, dialogue and understanding across communities in fragile states.

Young child listens on a mobile telephoneMost commentaries on 21st-century media focus on the impact of new technologies, social media and, above all, the increasing global ubiquity of mobile telephony. Such commentaries highlight how in many, if not most, societies, the majority of people are under the age of 30 and are reinventing how humanity communicates with itself. The focus is on innovation, on digital replacing analogue, on an old order of mass, vertical forms of communication being supplanted by horizontal, digitally enabled networks.

Speaking personally, I have advanced at one time or another all these tenets and continue (mostly) to do so. This blog, however, marks the publication of a set of BBC Media Action policy and research outputs I’ve commissioned which collectively advance some unfashionable arguments.

We focus particularly on the role of media in fragile and divided societies and especially on what can be done to support media that transcends, rather than exacerbates, divisions in society. We argue that, for all the innovation, dynamism and potential that exists, there are growing signs that publics are less and less trusting of the media that is available to them. Media environments appear more dynamic, interactive and complex, but much of media – both traditional and social – exists to advance particular agendas or interests in society rather than to serve a public. 21st-century fragmentation of media environments has often been accompanied by an associated fracturing of media often owned, controlled or heavily influenced by particular political, factional, ethnic or religious interests. Such fracturing often applies to both social and traditional media.

Lessons from the drafting of national educational technology policies

Michael Trucano's picture
let me make sure to press the right levers in the right order so that I’m in harmony with everyone else
let me make sure to press the
right levers in the right order so that I’m
in harmony with everyone else

Begun in 2004 by the ICT/education team at UNESCO-Bangkok, who were later joined by AED, Knowledge Enterprise and the infoDev program of the World Bank (where I worked), the ICT in Education Toolkit for Policy Makers, Planners and Practitioners was utilized as part of policy planning and review processes in over thirty middle and low counties in the course of the following decade.

In support of face-to-face and online interactions that typically lasted for many months (and in a few cases, years), mainly in countries in East Asia and the Pacific, the Toolkit provided interactive instruments and step-by-step guidelines to assist education policy makers, planners and practitioners in the process of 'harnessing the potential of ICTs to meet educational goals and targets efficiently and effectively'.

The toolkit was designed with the needs of two specific groups in mind: (1) Key decisionmakers in countries and educational institutions as they struggled with the challenge of introducing and integrating ICTs into education; and (2) program officers and specialists in international development agencies as they identified, prepared and appraised ICT-in-education projects or ICT components of education projects.

The ICT in Education Toolkit itself is no longer in use -- with the great changes in technology over the past ten years, maintaining an online toolkit of this sort proved to be too difficult. That said, a number of key lessons emerged from this effort which might be quite relevant to policymakers going forward who are seeking to provide policy guidance, direction and oversight on issues related to the use of new technologies in education systems.

Here are some of them:

With the grain or against the grain: A media perspective on the governance question of our time

James Deane's picture

James Deane, Director of Policy and Learning at BBC Media Action, reflects on Brian Levy's recent book, Working With the Grain, and the interaction of governance and media development goals.

Radio technician, GhanaI was prompted to write this post by Brian Levy, the rightly respected governance guru of the World Bank, now Senior Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University. Brian is the author of Working With the Grain: integrating governance and growth in development strategies, one of the most influential books on governance right now. We met at the OECD DAC Governance Network last week, which is where donors get together to share their insights into how to better support improved governance in their development strategies. I was asked to respond to a presentation Brian made on his book.

Against the Grain

My initial reaction when I first heard of Against the Grain was, I confess, a kind of resigned frustration. I thought, “Here we go again. Another academic apologia telling us how it didn’t really matter how horrible, authoritarian or power-hungry a government was. As long as they ‘got the job done’ (in terms of reducing poverty), it was fine by the donors who supported them.”

That reaction was partly prompted by the title of Brian’s book. By coincidence, I have on my shelves at home the memoir of a hero to many in the media world, Geoffrey Nyarota, the renowned editor of Zimbabwe’s Daily News, among other newspapers. The blurb for that memoir says this: “The newspapers [Nyarota] edited were often the lone voice of dissent against a government that had betrayed its people. They chronicled the decline of the country under the Mugabe regime, and how the freedom achieved in the war of liberation was replaced by wholesale government corruption and oppression”.

Nyarota entitled his book, Against the Grain: Memoirs of a Zimbabwean newsman.

Key themes in national educational technology policies

Michael Trucano's picture
interesting ... this policy says this, and that policy says that ...
interesting: this policy says this,
​and that policy says
that ...
The World Bank is concluding an analysis of over 800 policy documents related to the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education from high, middle and low income countries around the world in order to gain insight into key themes of common interest to policymakers. This is work is part of the institution's multi-year efforts under its Systems Approach for Better Education Results (SABER) initiative to provide policy-relevant guidance for education decisionmakers in a number of policy 'domains' (including areas such as workforce development; school finance; teachers; management information systems; equity and inclusion; and student assessment).
 
This analysis of ICT/education policies under the SABER-ICT research initiative suggests that there is a set of eight common themes which are, in various ways, typically addressed in such documents. The specific related policy guidance related to each theme often differs from place to place, and over time, as do the emphasis and importance ascribed to this guidance. Nevertheless, some clear messages emerge from an analysis of this collected database of policy documents, suggesting some general conventional wisdom about 'what matters most' from the perspective of policymakers when it comes to technology use in their education systems, and how this changes as ICT use broadens and deepens.
 
It should be noted that what appears to matter most to policymakers, at least according to the official policy documents that they draft and circulate related to ICT use in education, may not in fact be what *actually* matters most from the perspectives of students, teachers, school leaders, parents and local communities, politicians, local industry, academics, researchers and other various key stakeholders and beneficiaries.

Whether one agrees with apparent policy intent or not, being able to identify such intent can be a catalyst for important discussions and analysis:
 
Is this really what's most important?
Does this policy rhetoric match our on-the-ground reality?
If not:
What can or should be done?
 
---

Five steps for reorienting governance work in development

David Booth's picture

Men carrying railroad track in MadagascarIn response to feedback he received on a recent post on the myths of governance in development, David Booth of ODI offers some ways to reorient governance work for more effective change.

My Five myths blog questioned several assumptions about governance and development that continue to influence the international agenda despite having little basis in research or historical experience. The animated debate that followed has confirmed that it is a good time to be raising these issues. It also challenged me to spell out some of the practical recommendations flowing from this necessary ground-clearing.

I believe five steps would take us a long way towards a governance-for-development practice with solid grounding in evidence and experience.

Blog post of the month: Five myths about governance and development

David Booth's picture

Cyclists in VietnamEach month People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion. In March 2015, the clear winner was "Five myths about governance and development" by David Booth of the Overseas Development Institute.

In some areas of development policy, deep-rooted assumptions are extremely hard to dislodge. Like science-fiction androids or the many-headed Hydra, these are monsters that can sustain any number of mortal blows and still regenerate. Capable researchers armed with overwhelming evidence are no threat to them.
 
The importance of good governance for development is one such assumption. Take last month’s enquiry report on Parliamentary Strengthening by the International Development Committee of the UK parliament. It references the UN High Level Panel’s opinion that ‘good governance and effective institutions’ should be among the goals for ending global poverty by 2030. It would have done better to reference the evidence in 2012’s rigorously researched UN publication Is Good Governance Good for Development?
 
Here are five governance myths about which the strong scientific consensus might – eventually – slay some monsters.

Five myths about governance and development

David Booth's picture

In some areas of development policy, deep-rooted assumptions are extremely hard to dislodge. Like science-fiction androids or the many-headed Hydra, these are monsters that can sustain any number of mortal blows and still regenerate. Capable researchers armed with overwhelming evidence are no threat to them.
 
The importance of good governance for development is one such assumption. Take last month’s enquiry report on Parliamentary Strengthening by the International Development Committee of the UK parliament. It references the UN High Level Panel’s opinion that ‘good governance and effective institutions’ should be among the goals for ending global poverty by 2030. It would have done better to reference the evidence in 2012’s rigorously researched UN publication Is Good Governance Good for Development?
 
Here are five governance myths about which the strong scientific consensus might – eventually – slay some monsters.


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