October 01, 2011

Negative knowledge value

Matt Yglesias actually understates the knowledge problems of nation-building efforts in his post today:

But the point is that a country like Afghanistan is chock full of Afghan people who know lots and lots and lots about Afghanistan. Then you have U.S. government personnel who, from the top decision-makers in DC down to the enlisted troops on the front lines, donít so much as speak the relevant languages. America has the preponderance of money, firepower, etc. but none of that changes the fact that local actors have all the knowledge. So rather than us (or before us the Russians) successfully using our assets to manipulate the situation, local actors wind up manipulating the assets we have to serve their own ends.

I WISH that was the whole problem, but it's not. If the Western intervenor's knowledge had been zero, or if he'd been only unable to discern where the value in what he'd heard was, well, the worst case there is that those Afghans with connections and influence with the West would have done better relatively than those who didn't. And that happens, true.

But that's not the worst part. We didn't just arrive in Afghanistan and try to operate with no information: by definition, nation-building implies believing that the information your friends in the occupied nation have is counter-productive to your and their best interest. "This is the way we've always done things," in any other context a statement worthy of its due, is derided by the nation-builder with a, "well, that must have been the cause of your problems."

It's when combined with any kind of arrogance like this, however well-meaning, that the information problem becomes truly pernicious for the Western intervenors, as they start ripping up traditions and norms they barely understand and for which their proposed substitutes are entirely unsuited.

There's a time and place to offer a struggling government or people help. The trick seems to be in getting them to define it, so that the Westerner doesn't have to both define the problem AND offer a solution from a low-information environment. Otherwise, that removal of agency on the part of the host is fatal to any sort of lasting success in this realm, it seems

Posted by BruceR at 12:23 AM