"In every initiative, we are, in effect, testing hypotheses about how to drive social change... This is a shared enterprise, in partnership with organizations whose work we fund and whose expertise and insights are our most valued source of information." —ROBERT L. GALLUCCI, PRESIDENT
Learning for Change
An Object Lesson
On December 10, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi doused himself in gasoline and set himself alight in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. A simple street vendor, Bouazizi had been driven to despair by corrupt and bullying officials. He acted alone, but his protest caught the imagination of millions of people across the Middle East. Within a year, the governments of Tunisia and Egypt had fallen, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was deposed and dead, and we saw demonstrations or uprisings from Syria to Yemen.
The “Arab Spring” took most observers by surprise. As old alliances and assumptions were swept away by events, Western governments had to resort to guesswork and improvisation in their foreign policy. We remain unsure of what the phenomenon means or promises—is it a “fifth wave of democracy,” an Islamic renewal movement, a reaction of the poor to underdevelopment, or a by-product of broad demographic trends?
This perplexity represents a failure of both analysis and imagination. Just as the fall of Communism surprised us, changes in the Middle East find us without a clear sense of causes and consequences—our responses are therefore unlikely to be creative or effective. In short, there was an intelligence failure in an area vital to international peace and security.
What relevance does the Arab Spring have for the work of a foundation?
I see failures in statecraft in three traditional categories—information, knowledge, and wisdom. It is possible that the intelligence information being gathered was of the wrong kind, from the wrong sources, or not indicative of an important trend. Bitter experience teaches that what we don’t know can indeed hurt us. Knowledge is information organized by intellectual models. It is likely that the assumptions and theories to which analysts subscribed were too rigid—if one is committed to the idea that a powerful and oppressive state is likely to endure, it is hard to see its shortcomings or the potential strength of a poorly organized opposition. Wisdom also fell short. Strategists and policy makers did not take into account an unexpected scenario with radical implications, hewing instead to a tried, but evidently outworn, conventional view of the region’s dynamics. At no level was effective learning taking place.
There are lessons here for philanthropy.
Obviously, the stakes are different. Security policy deals in military hardware, the life and death of populations, the fates of nations—philanthropy does not pretend to wield this kind of power or aspire to this kind of influence. But our mission is a serious and important one: to address pressing social problems and the systems that perpetuate them. We have binding obligations both to contribute to the common good and to make the most effective use of our scarce resources. To accomplish that, we have to focus intensively on what and how we learn, and translate that into new ways of approaching philanthropy.
Over the past year, staff members at all levels have been thinking deeply about how we investigate, develop, implement, and refine our strategies. This has helped us appreciate the learning implicit in our grantmaking.
In every initiative, we are, in effect, testing hypotheses about how to drive social change. Of course, this is a shared enterprise, in partnership with organizations whose work we fund and whose expertise and insights are our most valued source of information. The success of our grantees’ work is gratifying. But also important are the lessons learned from success and failure, the ways those lessons are applied in practice, and the how we change course as a result.
In what follows, I consider some of the lessons we have learned and what they have meant for how we plan and execute strategies in the areas of keen interest to us.