Years ago, when I was a medical resident, I sat down for a beer with a wise and battle-weary mentor, and we got to talking about the culture of medicine. He was musing about the way doctors relate to each other, and he said, “You know when somebody says, ‘Remember that patient you saw last week?’ It’s never, ‘Hey, great job, that was a tough case.’ It’s always about something that went haywire.” He looked off in the distance and said sadly, “The thing is, there are no high fives in medicine.”
I don’t practice medicine anymore.
The situation is less dire in the international development world, but we don’t celebrate nearly as much as we should. Other than a big fuss about a relatively tiny group of social entrepreneurs, there isn’t much praise or gratitude for the vast majority of those doing the hard work of social change. One of our Mulago fellows, the leader of a remarkable community health organization, recently said to me, without a hint of self-pity, “In seven years of doing this work, not a single person has ever thanked me—it’s pretty much an endless stream of criticism.”
That’s weird because, well, you know the good guys are winning, right? Whether it’s literacy, income, or child mortality, the lines on the graph are going the right way. At a time when there’s lots of bad news here in the United States, the progress in continually less-poor countries should leave us giddy. As economist Max Roser has pointed out, “130,000 Escaped Extreme Poverty Today” could be the headline every single day.
We give in far too easily to the human tendency to focus on bad news, to even turn success into a downer. It sucks the joy out of the work, and leaves us discouraged and grumpy. Here’s a recent example I know all too well:
For the past couple of years, I’ve supported Partnership Schools for Liberia (PSL), a program that explores a role for private operators in the management of government primary schools. Fourteen years of civil war and the Ebola crisis destroyed Liberia’s educational system. Only one in five girls at fifth grade can read a single sentence, not a single student passed the last college entrance exam, and more than half the kids are not in school at all. Looking for solutions, the president and minister of education of Liberia visited a chain of low-cost, high-quality private schools. They decided to launch a limited initiative to get private operators—mostly NGOs—in to run about 3 percent of the country’s primary schools.
Because the education crisis in Liberia was (and remains) urgent and a government transition was looming, eight operators set off in 2016 on an accelerated, build-the-boat-while-you’re-sailing voyage. Several of the operators had no history in Liberia; some had never run more than one school before; and together, they had less than two months to prepare for launch. I worried that the first year would be a train wreck.
It wasn’t. A group of researchers set PSL up as a randomized control trial (RCT) that could compare learning outcomes between PSL schools and conventional public schools (those that were open, anyway). The first midline report came out a few weeks ago. It showed that, in a build-it-while-you-sail year, in a really difficult place to work, PSL schools increased student learning by 60 percent (despite a couple of non-performers who dragged down the mean). The biggest operator achieved learning gains equal to an entire extra year of school.
Those are spectacular results, but in a triumph of pessimism, here’s how the researchers chose to summarize them in their abstract:
“After one year, public schools managed by private operators raised student learning by 60 percent compared to standard public schools. But costs were high, performance varied across operators, and contracts authorized the largest operator to push excess pupils and under-performing teachers into other government schools.”
Man, these guys had to work hard to pull a downer out such good news. “But costs were high.” Sure costs were high. It’s a start-up, with lots of expected and unexpected costs, and zero economies of scale. But “performance varied across operators.” Well of course it did! That’s why you measured—we need to eliminate the non-performers. But “contracts authorized … ” I’m honestly not sure what that means, but if it means programs were authorized to remove illiterate or no-show teachers, is that a bad thing?
There’s no reason to get excited about those “buts” ... but a lot of critics did. The media as whole has an insatiable appetite for conflict and controversy, the program’s critics had been sharpening their knives for a long time, and the researchers served up some red meat. Multiple articles cited the research to proclaim PSL a “failure,” which intensified the feeding frenzy. One enterprising journalist built on those claims to announce that she’d “uncovered doubts” about whether enough funding could be raised for year two. “Doubts?” With five minutes on Google, I could uncover “doubts” as to whether the moon landing was real or the earth is round. (And you’ll be pleased to know the fundraising is in fact going well.)
Look, here’s another way the results could be summarized using the same data:
“OMG! Despite some inexperienced operators, PSL managed to raise learning by 60 percent! Costs were high, but are projected to drop dramatically with scale. The largest provider, by capping class size at 55 for a single teacher, and eliminating teachers who couldn’t read or didn’t show up, demonstrated that it was possible to achieve learning gains of 0.34 standard deviations (equivalent to an extra year of school). And all this while including the poorest of the poor. Yay!”
OK, so it’s unlikely that development economists are going to start using exclamation marks anytime soon, but it might not be such a bad thing. These researchers did excellent work, and there should be high-fives all around. Besides, we all need to take ourselves less seriously, especially when it’s so easy to fall into narratives of “controversy.”
Hey researchers: You’re not just neutral arbiters of objective truth. You have choices, and those choices have consequences. Take responsibility for them. Understand the difference between the nuances of an effective short summary and the nuance you can achieve in your papers. Sadly, we dummies don’t read your papers—they’re too long, and you’ve made them largely impenetrable. We read the abstracts, short summaries, and press releases. You actually have a lot of discretion in deciding what goes into those and how others interpret them. What you choose to emphasize is what media will emphasize. Don’t feed controversy. Settle it.
Hey you guys in the media: Stop focusing on controversy. Give us the facts, and don’t buy into false equivalence just because conflict sells. Question claims, call bullshit, and refuse to fall into the lazy narrative of the two-sided squabble. Help settle things. Maybe, just maybe, PSL is controversial because it’s disruptive in a sector that has largely failed the poorest kids. Replace the word “controversial” with “disruptive,” and you’ve got a story instead of a downer. Your choice.
Hey critics of everything: Stop … well, never mind, you’re not going to stop. I worry about you, though. This can’t be good for you.
Hey everybody: Just say no. Don’t default to bad news. Here’s the kind of thing that will remain hidden if you indulge the addiction: In PSL’s first year, more 20,000 kids got a really good education. In the second year, PSL is focused on the remote and neglected southeast of the country, and more than 50,000 kids will get the best education they've ever had or perhaps could ever get without PSL. This is a huge achievement and a lovely story—one we should savor. We need fact-based critiques and healthy skepticism, but it shouldn’t blind us to the good stuff.
We’ve all got so much to be stoked about—we’re winning the fight against poverty, for god’s sake! If we fail to seize the inspiration that can come from progress like this, if we give in to the gravitational pull of bad news, we’ll blow a lot of the energy we need to get the rest of the way. Fierce determination may be necessary to get through the hardest parts, but joy will get us across the finish line. High fives, everybody. It really is a choice.