Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Facts, Rhetorical Statements and Quantification

I want to use this posting to consider statements of intentionality, whether they should be considered to be factual, and how to interpret their meaning. I will try to relate the thoughts on intentionality to the theme of social and economic development, and especially to the “goals and objectives” specified for development programs and projects.

President Bush’s speech Sunday night provides an opportunity for doing so. I will try to refrain from commentary on the Iraq war itself. There is an abundance of such comment already, and by people much more worthy of attention on the subject than I. The speech, however, provides vehicle for discussing some questions important to the topic of Knowledge for Development, and thus to the theme of this blog.

President Bush stated:
Now there are only two options before our country -- victory or defeat.

Of course, a moment’s consideration reveals that there are many options before the United States with respect to Iraq – an infinite variety. Indeed, “victory” and “defeat” are not options but outcomes, and there are many possible outcomes, ranging from the more to the less desirable. Bush’s is a rhetorical statement, not a statement of fact.

And, of course, political leaders must use rhetorical statements to gather political and popular support for the policies they advocate. To try to limit politicians to statements of fact would annoy them, frustrate us, and fail ignominiously.

Social and economic development is a political issue, and politicians use rhetoric all the time in its discussion. Indeed, stakeholders in development of all kinds argue for their positions. They (appropriately) use rhetorical techniques in making their arguments. The goals and objectives specified for development projects may often be seen as statements designed to gain support for the projects, or to motivate stakeholders in implementing those projects. Yet they are often treated as statements of belief, or indeed as statements of fact.

Bush also stated:
From this office, nearly three years ago, I announced the start of military operations in Iraq. Our Coalition confronted a regime that defied United Nations Security Council Resolutions -- violated a cease-fire agreement -- sponsored terrorism -- and possessed, we believed, weapons of mass destruction. After the swift fall of Baghdad, we found mass graves filled by a dictator -- we found some capacity to restart programs to produce weapons of mass destruction -- but we did not find those weapons.

It is true that Saddam Hussein had a history of pursuing and using weapons of mass destruction. It is true that he systematically concealed those programs, and blocked the work of UN weapons inspectors. It is true that many nations believed that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. But much of the intelligence turned out to be wrong. And as your President, I am responsible for the decision to go into Iraq.

Yet it was right to remove Saddam Hussein from power. He was given an ultimatum -- and he made his choice for war. And the result of that war was to rid the world of a murderous dictator who menaced his people, invaded his neighbors, and declared America to be his enemy. Saddam Hussein, captured and jailed, is still the same raging tyrant -- only now without a throne. His power to harm a single man, woman, or child is gone forever. And the world is better for it.

What does “victory mean? If it means prosecuting the war until its original goals are met, it is not clear how victory could be achieved. How could the United States eliminate the weapons of mass destruction from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and stop it from sponsoring terrorism, if there were not WMDs nor sponsorship of international terrorism in the first place?

The decision to go to war in Iraq was complex. Probably more complex than could have been described in public statements. I think that an exhaustive attempt to describe the rationale for the war would have been a “poor argument”. Such a listing would not have succeeded in gaining the public support in the United States nor the acquiescence of other government which the war required. However, even if they did not describe the deliberations, the decision makers in the U.S. government must have considered the move in terms of the complex interplay of international economic and security policy – e.g. energy, Israel, stability in the Middle East, preparedness and alternative uses of U.S. military resources. Domestic policy must have been considered; it must have been concluded that economic conditions did not preclude a war, and that the administration could obtain domestic support to initiate the war.

The Bush Administration will be judged, by history and possibly in future elections, on the basis of its past decisions. But the selection of a course of action today depends on the situation today and how it is understood. How is the situation in Iraq to be improved? That decision will of course be influenced for each stakeholder by that stakeholder’s responsibility for the current situation.

So too, development programs and projects must be advanced at each moment according to the situation at that moment, and the responsibilities of the stakeholders for that situation, not on the basis of the original assumptions and plans, and certainly not to slavishly follow the original rhetoric.

Bush also stated:
America, our Coalition, and Iraqi leaders are working toward the same goal -- a democratic Iraq that can defend itself -- that will never again be a safe haven for terrorists -- and that will serve as a model of freedom for the Middle East……..I have never been more certain that America's actions in Iraq are essential to the security of our citizens, and will lay the foundation of peace for our children and grandchildren.

At one level, this statement reflects “goal structuring”. The original concerns for WMDs and terrorism were part of overriding goals for security and peace. So too, the planned removal of the Saddam Hussein government was surely always recognized to require subsequent efforts to put something in its place; subordinate goals would always have been recognized for the adequacy of that substitute governance.

At another level, the statement reflects “goal creep” – “a democratic Iraq that can defend itself” and “a model of freedom for the Middle East” may now be goals of the Bush administration, but seem unlikely to have been original goals of a President who explicitly insisted in the election of 2000 that, if elected, he would not allow U.S. military forces to engage in "nation building."

At still another level, the statement is rhetorical, intended to build support for an increasingly unpopular Bush administration and for the war effort.

Of course goals should be structured, rhetoric should be employed by politicians to gain support for their efforts, and goals should change as situations evolve, and especially as new information accrues that changes the probabilities of the nature of the situation and the outcomes to be expected from alternative actions.

It would be idiocy to conduct the war in Iraq after three years as if the situation had not changed, and as if the initial assumptions which justified the war had not been proven erroneous.

The Lesson I Draw

Development projects and programs, too, are conducted with goals and objectives based on (sometimes erroneous) assumptions, which in turn are based on incomplete (and sometimes false) information. Moreover, explicit goals and objectives may be rhetorical statements, rather than the most accurate possible statements of expected results. Often it is foolish to continue implementing these programs when the situation changes, or those assumptions are proven false. Yet, I fear, that is exactly what happens in many cases, because program monitoring and evaluation judges success or failure in terms of the original, explicit goals and objectives. In evaluating programs, do we not wish to consider first the evolution of the situation itself, and not the degree to which that evolution was predicted? Indeed, should statements of goals and objectives not be chosen to contribute most to the desired direction of that evolution?

The Role for Quantification

I was surprised to hear President Bush state, in a televised interview last week, that he had not considered explicit estimates of casualties and deaths of U.S. military in making the decision to go to war, nor explicit estimates of Iraqi casualties or deaths from the action nor from the dislocations that would inevitably follow the invasion. Perhaps the considerations were implicit; there must surely be levels of casualties that would have been considered so great as to foreclose the possibility of war. Surely the possibilities of these levels actually occurring must have been considered too distant to change the decision to go to war.

In postings on this blog, I have suggested that the timing and body counts from the next flu pandemic are not amenable to statistical estimates, but are really uncertain. History provides only some ideas of what might happen, and how likely worst case scenarios might be. Equally, we can not provide good estimates on the effects of alternative actions in averting the disease, disruption and death from a future flu pandemic. Yet knowing something about the numbers is important. Knowing that 50 million deaths could occur from a pandemic flu requires some action, and knowing that the probability that such a pandemic will evolve from the current A/H5N1 flu is increasing lends urgency to such action. Knowing that such a pandemic is quite unlikely, and knowing that tens of millions die per year from other preventable causes suggests limits to the resources we devote to flu.

Quantification is important. I understand that quantitative models of battlefield casualties are now quite robust and reasonably accurate; they should have been (and probably were) used in the run up to the Iraq invasion. In many cases such as that of a flu pandemic, however, the parameter values for the available models are guesstimates rather than scientific based estimates. Even so, such models can be useful. Their real utility requires that decision makers have deep understanding to inform the confidence to place in the projections and the reliance to place upon them.

In the case of Iraq, the decision to invade changed everything – not only in Iraq, but in the Middle East and the United States. To go back to a metaphor used in the days of the Raj, it was a critical move in the great game. I can not imagine any but the most qualitative estimates being made of the effects of the move on the evolution of political systems in the Middle East, nor on the Israeli-Arab peace process. But of course, such qualitative estimates should have been and must have been made.

Quantification has become increasingly important in development circles in recent decades. This is perhaps a legacy of the computer age, or of Robert McNamara, or of the evolution of management processes in our time. But too often, quantification has become a ritual, followed by people who really don’t understand the implications of the methods and numbers that they use. Both qualitative and quantitative methods are important in planning moves in “the great game” of development. Neither is a magical device for attaining truth.

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