Tower of Babble

Hillary Clinton’s speech about development was not all bad, but it still contained plenty of nonsense and overly political thinking.

Once upon a time, I believed in the theory that logic and evidence influenced public policy. After experience rudely contradicted this thesis, I switched to Theory No. 2: Political incentives cause public officials to say things inconsistent with logic and evidence -- babble.

These thoughts were prompted by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's speech today on the U.S. government's new approach to economic development. It was not ALL babble. Among other things, she had some good ideas about soap. However, there was evidence in speech for Theory No. 2. Let's show some compassion for gifted individuals like Secretary Clinton, whom politics forces to babble.

Here are classic signs of babble, and the political incentives that cause them:

1. Announce in the speech that you are going to do one thing, and then spend the rest of the speech doing the opposite.

Babble: "The challenges we face are numerous.  So we must be selective and strategic about where and how we get involved."

In the next sentence, this selective approach includes conflict, Afghanistan, Tanzania, poverty, human rights, community development, democracy, governance, global stability, U.S. security, U.S. values, and U.S. leadership.

A few more selective areas come up later: Yemen, Haiti, Pakistan, Peru, sound economic policies, natural resources, rule of law, inflation, girls' education, marginalized populations, AIDS, women, refugees, female genital mutilation, energy, improved seeds, food riots, health systems, mobile banking, solar-powered laptops, advance market commitments, Mexico, narco-violence, microcredit, conditional cash transfers, infant mortality, hunger, everywhere from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Bangladesh to Costa Rica to South Africa to Vietnam and dozens of countries in between, hurricanes, earthquakes, famines, floods, tsunamis, Darfur. Did I mention the soap?

Political incentives: "Selective" specialization by country and issue is the best thing that any aid agency could do. But every country and issue has its interest group (often very good-hearted humanitarian ones). Politicians need to satisfy as many interest groups as possible, so they are NOT "selective." This problem has gotten WORSE in aid, not better.

2. Announce you are going to solve problems that have been insoluble for decades.


Hillary R. Clinton, 2010: "[W]e are working to improve the coordination of all the development work taking place across Washington ... "engaging in partnerships with countries and organizations ... the U.N. Development Program ... private businesses."

Harry S. Truman, 1949: "This should be a cooperative enterprise in which all nations work together through the United Nations and its specialized agencies ... With the cooperation of business."

"Coordination" and "partnership" are the equivalent in foreign aid of U.N. resolutions for world peace. Every different national donor, U.S. government bureaucracy, or private business has its own agenda, will not voluntarily sacrifice its own interests for some other organization, and there are no binding contracts to enforce any such sacrifices.

Political incentives: Admitting that coordination problems are insoluble could point in a more fruitful direction (such as specializing more - see Sign No. 1 -- and then you won't have to coordinate!) . Unfortunately, admitting that coordination is impossible is more likely to make voters think the politician heading an organization is just self-serving and lazy.

3. Mention obvious tradeoffs, then deny their existence.

Babble: Secretary Clinton's big idea is the merger of the 3 Ds: development, diplomacy, and defense. These areas have nothing in common except for that nice poetic alliteration. Advancing a goal in one arena will at least SOMETIMES come at the expense of a different goal. The frequent contradiction between defense and development is obvious, despite much desperate rhetoric unlinked to evidence. For a less obvious example, what was good for diplomacy was for President Obama on Christmas Eve to punish the nondemocratic government of Madagascar by taking away trade access to U.S. markets. This same action was terrible for development -- killing hundreds of thousand of Malagasy jobs made possible by textile exports to the United States under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (mentioned as a success story by Clinton).

Political incentives: Some voters care more about defense, others about development, a few nerds about diplomacy. Get all the voters by telling the different groups that their different goals are consistent! Hope they don't read blogs about Madagascar.

4. When you say "THAT is not what we will do," you mean it except for the "not."

Babble: "There is a concern THAT integrating development means diluting it or politicizing it -- giving up our long-term development goals to achieve short-term objectives or handing over more of the work of development to our diplomats or defense experts. THAT is not what we will do."

Political incentives: THAT already happened. The war on terror is a much higher priority with U.S. voters than development; so development has become subordinate to that war (see Sign No. 3's discussion of tradeoffs).

What to do about the strong political incentives to babble? Maybe a good politician like Secretary Clinton can babble and do occasional good things at the same time. Like maybe occasionally specialize a bit more in something that's working -- say, a few more resources for programs like that hand-washing program in India that prevented the spread of disease? You know, the one involving soap?



Twitter vs. Terror

How the U.S. State Department should enable and encourage social-networking sites in the global fight for freedom.

During the turmoil that followed Iran's disputed 2009 presidential election, thousands of opposition supporters and other protesters communicated and organized through Twitter. So important was this social networking site to supporting the pro-democracy "green movement" that the U.S. State Department contacted corporate representatives of Twitter to ask them to delay a routine maintenance shutdown of the microblogging site.

In the strife-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, U.S. officials are working with radio and cell-phone operators to reach isolated militia fighters with messages from former combatants now urging them to put down their arms and return to civilian life.

In Pakistan, the State Department paid for 24 million text messages as a way to help support a new mobile-phone-based social network, Humari Awaz, or "Our Voice." The gesture helps increase U.S. government engagement with the Pakistani people, strengthens communities, and can assist small businesses in gaining better market information.

These are just some of the latest examples of what is being called "21st-century statecraft," using the capabilities of modern communications and social networking technologies to win hearts and minds and improve the American image abroad. It represents an important leap forward from traditional U.S. outreach efforts, such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

The adroit use of social networking sites, such as Twitter, Facebook, and others, coupled with text messages and increasingly widespread mobile-phone technology, can help lend support to existing grassroots movements for freedom and civil rights, connect people to information, and help those in closed societies communicate with the outside world. It also promises to give a strong economic boost to small entrepreneurs and the rural poor. The World Bank estimates that for every 10 percent increase in the number of mobile-phone users in a developing country, there is nearly a 1 percent increase in its economic output.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has championed the use of communications technology in diplomacy and development. In November in Morocco, she announced the "Civil Society 2.0" initiative, which will offer training and advice to local nongovernmental organizations around the world on how to use the Internet and other digital media to organize, communicate, and be more effective.


She has also appointed a special advisor for innovation, Alec Ross, to examine ways to employ communications technology to enhance traditional diplomatic and development activities. In a recent speech, he said that the State Department is using "these new connection technologies to engage and empower our interlocutors in new and different ways that are consistent with our foreign policy goals."

The applications vary widely. In Mexico, for instance, where drug-related crime and violence is at crisis level, the United States is helping set up a mobile-phone-based system so citizens can report crimes and tips anonymously. In Afghanistan, the State Department and the Pentagon are working with the private sector to expand mobile-phone banking, an innovation that has been successful in Africa. The hope is to improve the finances of people in rural conflict areas. When violence displaced up to 2 million people from Pakistan's Swat Valley, the State Department quickly set up a mobile texting system so concerned Americans could make $5 donations for refugee relief with just a few keystrokes.

Technology offers new ways to perform the traditional task of spreading the American message. During President Barack Obama's major Africa speech in Ghana last year, for instance, the government offered SMS texts of his remarks in English and French to cell-phone users across Africa and enabled them to post questions and comments.

But social networking technologies are more often used to enable individuals across a country, or across the globe, to interact, engage, and become empowered. Although this means that our government will not be able to control the message as well as it might with conventional public diplomacy tools, I believe it is a risk worth taking. Terrorists and other anti-American propagandists have for some time been using the Internet and other techniques to communicate and recruit. America needs to beat them at their own game, especially since we invented most of the technology.

I would encourage the administration and our diplomats to be nimble, flexible, and innovative as they pursue a wide range of foreign-policy initiatives that use these new communication and connection techniques. Diplomacy and development are our best means of winning the global war of ideas, and we must come to the battle armed with the most modern tools at our disposal.