Paper Tigers

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

A response to Water Alternatives Special Issue on Shedding Light on Hidden Dynamics in the Water Sector.

Don’t speak your mind until you’ve retired. That’s one message readers might take from Water Alternatives special issue on Shedding Light on Hidden Dynamics in the Water Sector, an issue, “intended to bring to the fore many of the problems, ethical dilemmas, and frustrations that those of us involved with international development recurrently encounter, but rarely discuss and hardly ever write about.”

Photo: Alex on Flickr "In part, the reason for this lost capacity is that most organizations allow knowledgeable colleagues such as the authors of the special issue to walk off into the sunset with no attempt to harness that great wealth of experience...They are 'Hidden Dragons' not paper tigers."    Photo: Alex on Flickr

Personally, I have little affinity with the ‘retire and tell all’ trope. Every year some doyen of business, preeminent academic or four-star general does it. I don’t doubt what they say is mostly true, but the thought that comes unbidden to my mind is always, “You didn’t or couldn’t do anything when you were in a position of power and influence so why should I listen to you now?” A terrible bias I know but it’s mine so I cherish it.

There is nothing ‘hidden’ about powerful elites arranging things to suit their interests, about cronyism, corruption or vested interests. It’s all there in plain sight and we’ve all seen it and run up against it constantly. It’s not as if we don’t know how the ‘real world’ works, we just often don’t know the salacious details.

An aspirational vocation

“Where would we be without dreams?” asks Walt Kelly’s 1950s political cartoon character Pogo. “Reality, that’s where.” We work in development because we see the harsh realities in which too many live and we want to change it for the better. Development is an aspirational avocation. We aspire to a world where women have the same rights and opportunities as men; where children are well fed and educated, where smallholder farmers get a fair shake. We know it’s not easy and we are cognizant of the obstacles. What we don’t need is an antidote for our idealism.

I might have reacted differently had I found anything in these pages to encourage me or help me deal with common “problems, ethical dilemmas, and frustrations”. What I found was ‘war stories’ from old hands who are safely out of the fray. At best, this is lore that should be shared between mentor and mentee. I do agree there is much value in “academic scrutiny” of “the social and political processes at work in water law or policy making”.

Such scrutiny is abundantly available in the literature on political ecology, sociology, history and related disciplines. Want a primer on power? Machiavelli’s The Prince. A whimsical but so right on analysis of how bureaucracies work? Parkinson: The Law Complete. The politics of knowledge? Richard Ohmann and Janice Radway’s book on the commercialization of the university and the professions. I’m sure you have your own favorites. My point: little is hidden if you look for it.

But few people read outside their own sliver of discipline so everyone learns the same lessons over and over again in the School of Hard Knocks. By the time I get to the twilight of my career, I’ve learned enough to be worth listening to, but no one does because now I’m “that old guy with a lot of boring stories about stuff that happened before I graduated from high school”.

I don’t mean to disparage the authors of this issue and the intent is noble. The authors obviously learned a great deal during their careers. It does inform current practice to know about the history of water organizations in France (Pierre-Frédéric Ténière-Buchot); 50 years of hydropower development in Chile (Michael Nelson); and why the South African National Water Act has been so difficult to implement (Barbara Schreiner). It’s just unfortunate that by and large, organizations pay lip service to learning and the only platform for their wealth of knowledge is a special issue.

Having thoroughly trashed the special issue and no doubt offended some sensibilities, allow me now to redeem myself with a more constructive line of thought. Consider this special issue not a one-off but a beginning.

Is there a learning organization in the house?

In my fifteen years of practice I have worked with a score of development agencies, government departments and companies. Not one of them comes close to the fabled “learning organization” so many claim to be. In most organizations “remembering” is the missing capacity (if you have a counter example please share it). In part, the reason for this lost capacity is that most organizations allow knowledgeable colleagues such as the authors of the special issue to walk off into the sunset with no attempt to harness that great wealth of experience.

Suppose we were to invite our esteemed colleagues to form something like a College of Mentors (with the addition of a few women please). Now let’s look at some of the excellent research we have, for example, an economic analysis of a subsidy regime on drip irrigation equipment in Madhya Pradesh that illustrates how said scheme distorts the market and prevents substantial gains in farm productivity, or a case study that describes in some detail the bureaucratic bottlenecks that prevent smallholder farmers in Zambia from purchasing affordable diesel pumps. Let’s then present that excellent research to our College of Mentors and ask if they have any suggestions for how to move those findings towards outcomes.

I would be surprised if they couldn’t offer some very practical ideas. I would be further surprised if they didn’t know people in their rich network of contacts who could drop a word or facilitate an informal meeting or two that might lead to things happening. No guarantees, but it seems a more likely pathway to outcomes than publication in scholarly journals.

All we need now is an organization with the imagination to give it a try, because I’m quite sure our senior colleagues would welcome the opportunity. They are ‘Hidden Dragons’ not paper tigers.


Read the Water Alternatives Special Issue:

Shedding Light on Hidden Dynamics in the Water Sector.


Jit Pradhan likes your discussion in Linked In Effective Development Group "Would a "college of mentors" boost institutional learning?"

Another comment from Linked In Effective Development Group.

Jorgen W. Hansen • We have had several years of experience from the Ministry of Agriculture in Afghanistan practicing an institutionalized training, coaching and mentoring programme with continuous problem solving and fire brigade support including the elimination of bottlenecks preventing the trainees from using their new knowledge and skills. Success of such programmes are clearly associated with having an overall capacity development framework and institutionalized systems and processes

from Linked In Effective Development Group
"College of mentors" About time. There are many things learned not in the four corners of a classroom but in the daily and sometimes obscure environment. The college of mentors surely possesses valuable knowledge and experience not often found in books. That a face to face interaction with these mentors can cut learning curve into half. If we learn to listen to them. To the wisdom and unique perspective they can provide. I like this initiative.

from Linked In Effective Development Group
Jorgen W. Hansen • During the nineties I was involved in curriculum development in several Veterinary Faculties in developing countries and we were looking at creating supportive groups of mentors to get the new curricula introduced and teaching material developed. Unfortunately it was not possible to pursue at that time in that context but there is no doubt that it would add access to a significant knowledge and skills base. Maybe some of the existing networks could be reorganised to promote this idea

from Linked In UN Water Group
Jaime Saldarriaga, Ph.D. 1 day ago • Jaime likes this.

From Linked In Effective Development Group
Yes.. I absolutely agree with you Terry....even in our small e-Training Center here... we encourage the graduating students... the 2nd year scholars to act as mentors to the first year students... and the result was GREAT... both for the mentors as well as to the 1st year students...
By Marianne de Leon

Terry, very well said. The water sector in particular must move from the doctrine of top notch scholarly journals as a pathway to outcomes. On the ground interventions and true learning institutions have the potential for better capacity building and on the ground achievements.

Getting comments now on Linked In posts. This one from Wolf Hartman:

Just read your blog 'Paper Tigers', which I loved - but there is obviously more to it than mentoring. Let me think about it a bit, based on my MRC experience. From the 'Paper Tigers' I found my way to 'Information is beautiful' and would be most grateful, if you would send me a copy.

From Facebook: Noi works for SEI in Bangkok
Noi Juntopas mentioned you in a comment. Noi wrote: "Great Terry Clayton. My full support"

My former boss and colleague at MRC Torben Lund retweeted Torben LUND @Phuket1943 42m
@REDPLOUGH Terry, very well said and written. Hope it will get around in the systems.

Wouldn't it be nice if, as Terry Clayton suggests in his blog, a few well-intentioned people for whom “development is an aspirational vocation” could make the world a better place through their “network of contacts” and “dropping a word or facilitating an informal meeting or two that might lead to things happening".

On what basis can we believe that social transformation is about individuals' action and good intentions only? Learning and remembering, indeed, remains somewhat of a weak spot of organizations as well as individuals......; disqualification of others is much easier accomplished.

The statement that “little is hidden if you look for it” may hold a degree of truth, although dangerously bordering on “after all everything has already been said and written”. It seems to us, however, that a few important subsequent sub questions are overlooked:
*Do these not-so-hidden things matter in the way “development” is enacted, and its costs and benefits distributed?
*If they are, why do so few people look for them and why are we so apt at building justifications that keep us in the comfort zone?
*What are the consequences of looking for them, and not ignoring them? What are the implicit social mechanisms that raise the cost of doing so? Why do you have to be retired to only consider thinking about it seriously, not to say writing about it?

If the (slightly naïve) description of the vocation is true then we should assume that many more people should not be able to live with these issues without engaging with them.

Terry’s argument exactly suggest to us that it is important to venture complementing Machiavelli with real-world accounts that might help those who look for a more elaborate understanding of how the real world - with human fallibility included (as well as those who don’t).

The authors of this special issue have, indeed, been mentors to many people, in their own organizations and beyond. This special issue of Water Alternatives offers a chance for those who have not had the privilege of working with them to learn from their experience and critical reflections.

--The editors of Water Alternatives

Great information and reference! Terry, What motivated you to call this blog "Paper Tigers", not that the title does not go with the content, I am just wondering. Another good post Terry.