Wicked problems have these features: It is hard to say what the problem is, to define it clearly or to tell where it stops and starts. There is no “right” way to view the problem, no definitive formulation. There are many stakeholders, all with their own frames, which they tend to see as exclusively correct. Ask what the problem is and you will get a different answer from each. Someone can always say that the problem is just a symptom of another problem and that someone will not be wrong. The problem is inter-connected to a lot of other problems; pulling them apart is almost impossible. In a word: it’s a mess.
This is an extract from a rather brilliant speech by Jay Rosen of NYU which is well worth reading in full. The speech isn’t about development. It’s about the difficulties that journalism has with coverage of wicked problems (of course this can be applied to development as well). But the above quote is as succinct description of the difficulties surrounding the development industry as I’ve seen.
The following extract is from a little later in the speech.
…it is characteristic of wicked problems that key stakeholders define the problem differently. That plurality of frames is inevitable. But what’s not inevitable is the stakeholders’ mutual ignorance of each other’s incompatible starting points. There is no kumbaya moment. You never get everyone on the same page. Consensus? You must be kidding. In dealing with wicked problems these are vain hopes, signs of the stupid. What’s possible is a world where different stakeholders “get” that the world looks different to people who hold different stakes.
It seems to me that many of the big names in development are pretty combative iconoclasts. You have the heavy hitting sceptics and the evangelizing aid-fanatics and the increasingly self-righteous corporatists who dismiss the entire debate as missing the point. There are many, many divisions, constantly highlighted: economists vs political scientists, local vs international stakeholders, Global North vs Global South, academia vs practitioners… The list goes on and on.
Personally, I find it a lot more difficult to think of a comparable list of alliances. In terms of rhetoric and dialogue it seems that development types are a lot better at fighting than they are at incubating more sympathetic opinions of the vast ‘plurality of frames’ that they find themselves amongst. I find that a little disturbing. So here’s my question to all my many elders and betters:
Is the long list of divisions a reflection of my personal reading of the development scene or of a sectoral deficiency in dealing with all the wicked problems ‘development’ encompasses?