Donald Rumsfeld, Naked Joe, and Aid Data
Former US Sec. of Defence Donald Rumsfeld was widely ridiculed for this exchange:
In the bustling world of epistemology, however, Donald’s ramblings were not dementia, but a good summary of a key element of decision theory which can be applied directly to how we make aid decisions.
The phrase “unknown unknowns” refers to circumstances or outcomes we cannot conceive at present. This is opposed to things we know to be possible, but we don’t know if they will happen – “known unknowns”.
For example, you are sitting at your laptop, reading a blog instead of working, and you know that your boss could catch you goofing off. So you strategically place your potted fern between the screen and the door, just in case. Whether your boss pops his head in the door or not is a known unknown and you can take steps to prepare for that eventuality. Unbeknownst to you, however, Joe from the mail-room is standing outside your door, stark naked, and is about to burst in, kiss you on the mouth, and declare his undying love. You didn’t see that one coming, did you? As a result there was nothing you could have done to prevent it.
Unknown unknowns are dangerous, or in the case above, at least a little awkward.
Which is why things like AidData’s new portal or the UN’s new money tracking mechanism for Haiti are so interesting and important. The aid community operates with surprisingly little data. Unemployment rates are almost always wild guesstimates. Inflation rates are widely disputed. Pledges versus disbursements are hotly debated. Actual spending levels are entirely unknown. And impact? In most cases there aren’t even agreed definitions on impact (which is why process metrics usually end up being measured instead). Huge multi-million dollar decisions for “capacity building” initiatives are taken without donors knowing who is doing what and whether it worked or not. Five-year employment creation projects are launched without knowing where the jobless live. And worst, donor conferences march along with annual regularity without knowing how much was spent last year and to what effect.
And this is just a short list of the known unknowns. Can you imagine what our unknown unknowns are? We’ve got so many unknown unknowns, it’s like an army of naked Joes lined up outside our office. Without more data aggregators like AidData there’s nothing we can do about it. And that’s scary.
Hold on, someone’s knocking at my door.