Tragedy theory

Recently I went to the birthday party and not-really-going-away-party-even-though-he-was-leaving-Africa-for-home-that-week of a friend of mine who has worked in Africa on and off for several years since he graduated. He was working in something that I think was called community based environmental management: development speak for getting people to take care of the trees and stuff. Like a volunteer I crashed on his floor and we talked some more after the party. I asked about his plans and his choice to return even though his girlfriend will be staying in Nairobi (you guys know who you are so if you wanna be named, add your comments to this page). He said he’d had enough working on aid projects and wanted to do something where the people involved get to make real profit.

This all got me thinking about the kind of work that so called development agencies, like VSO and the others, are doing out here and the philosophical and economic principles upon which they are based. As you know I have been thinking lately about The Tragedy Of The Commons and how it might be used to explain or justify modern approaches to economic governance. This blog hasn’t been very political for a while so

(These are my thoughts, the blog entry was triggered by the conversation I had after the party but the ideas here are my own and Im not trying to put words into anyone else’s mouth).

The problem or, I should say, another problem with the tragedy of the commons is that is has a sort of inverse effect that woks a bit like this: Imagine that I discover somehow, for example by being told by a professional development worker, that there is a way in which I can better myself and, at the same time, help my fellow community members by putting in a certain amount of effort and work each day. I’d probably start to put in that extra effort and day by day take pleasure in how I am halping myself and my fellows.

The presumption here is that I’m helping everyone out in some general way that could be done equally well by me or any other of the members of my commity who are not in some way disabled or in some other way disadvantaged. Each day I’d put in a litle effort and see a little reward, and I’d get to thinking one day, while enjoying my well-earned rest, that if someone else were to put in as much effort as me each day, we’d all be benefiting twice as much. I might even form a vision of all the able-bodied andable minded members of my community doing likewise and the rewards being shared equally among every one of us, even those who,through disability or other disadvantage, are unable do their share of the work. Inspired by this happy reverie I might start to evangelise to my fellow community members that they should join me and put in a bit of effort for us all to benefit from.

Now imagine, if you will, a situation in which a reasonably large bunch of us are all mucking-in and helping out. One day I sit in the pub enjoying a well-earned pint and telling a fellow drinker what a wonderful idea it’d be if he joined me and the others putting in a bit extra for the community. My fellow drinker might start to reason like this:

“I am already benefiting from this scheme and that benefit is costing me nothing. Now you are asking me to increase my extra workload from zero to one (don’t even bother trying to work it out as a percentage) so that I can increase my personal benefit by a relatively small proportion of the benefit that I am already receiving.” and then, he might conclude: “I think I’ll have another drink instead”.

Back when I was the first to start doing it, my increase in personal benefit was as large as my total personal benefit. And because I was the first, I have the additional benefit of feeling virtuous because I started something wonderful and I’m probably going to Heaven. But to this new guy the balance of benefits doesn’t look so sweet, so he’ll not join.

Now things start to look different; someone’s already set a precident for opting out. Anyone else I approach and ask to join will rightly want to consider both of our arguments. And if that first dessenter feels even slightly guilty for not joining in, he’ll probably start arguing strongly against anyone else joining so as to ease his consience and make him feel less isolated in his decision. After a few more people have declined the invitation to join, those who joined most recently will start having second thoughts and want to reconsider their own choices. In particular, they might want to think carefully about whether they want to continue their work which helps those who are not willing to work themselves. And how much would it cost everyone if they were to quit?

I think you can see where this is going. Even the fellow who joined in second, and whose efforts doubled the amount of benefit for everyone, could now stop and by doing so, only decrease it by a small proportion. Besides which, he’s been doing it longer than everyone else (almost) so, surely, he can take a break and let some of those lazy freeloaders do their share. And so on.

If he’s very bitter, he might even convince himself that by quitting he is, in fact, exacting a kind of justice upon those who would not join in since they will have to suffer the loss of benefit from him stopping. There! That’ll teach them that we all have to pull together! Erm.

By this time, of course, its too late. The non-joiners have started a drinking club of their own, where the more elloquent among them have started preaching that what didn’t cost them anything to gain in the first place won’t cost them anything when they loose it. The early-quitters will join the non-starters to cover their own consience deficits, and there’s nobody as veherement as a convert. Those still working are starting to feel foolish about helping out their new-formed enemies. Where folly goes, anger follows and they start to bame me for getting them involved in such an ill conceived and divisive scheme in the first place.

Now I appreciate that my maths is a little unreliable as I have assumed that the amount of community benefit is directly proportional to the amount of work and that everyone who joins in will do an equal amount of it. But its the effect of human nature on what is, essentially, a political project that I wanted to think about. I’m not proposing that this is an accurate model for the prosperity of development projects in Kenya, but I do think it kinda explains some of the strange goings on in many of the organisations that exist to do this sort of work. I suspect that the infrastructure of those organisations, and much of their donated funds, are often used to fuel a kind of denial that this isn’t happening. Community members are paid handsome “expenes” to attend meetings, statistics are gathered and massaged to show that development work works. Sometimes these activities amaze me; and the fact that they are tollerated even more so. So far my tragedy theory is the best I have come up with to help me make sense of what I see and hear out here somtimes.

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