The problem with experts is that they do not know what they do not know. This sentence has stuck by me ever since I read the book Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. If you haven’t read the book, I highly recommend it.
The field of development aid is one of traditional experts. It is run by masters of their own field, e.g. sanitation, agriculture or capacity building.
These experts are chosen to work together in a project with other experts in order to attain a common goal: making the lives of the poor a little better.
The criteria for expertise is usually the amount of years you have put into something. In most cases the assumption justifiably goes: the more experience you have, the more expertise you have.
But expertise does not guarantee listening. Are we, experts, open to listening to the people we are working with or for?
The authors of the book Poor Economics claim that the field of development aid is dominated by the three I’s: inertia, ignorance and idealism. Because of these three I’s development aid is not always effective. I couldn’t agree more.
But why do we need to listen? Why should experts be able to question their our own expertise? Why should we question our idealism?
For example: We might rush into starting a commercialized agriculture project in which we promote certain crops just to find out that they were not suitable for the local lands or food cultures.
Or we might initiate a women’s entrepreneurship project just to find out that the extra income the women earned went to their husbands’ pockets because we didn’t take the time to interview the women and their husbands about their household dynamics.
We might give micro credit to poor farmers to buy fertilizers without giving them the proper guidance on how to use the fertilizer wisely.
The list could go on and on.
One could say that this inability to listen properly is a very natural reaction. Our hearts are sensitive to human suffering. We want to help. We quickly assume that we have understood what the problem is. We are pretty sure we know what that ‘voiceless’ person is going through. Then we start helping that voiceless person. But are we really helping?
The term voiceless is often used when talking about the poor, especially women. They need to be given a voice, we say.
But how quickly it happens that we are trying to be that voice for them instead of really first stopping to listen to their experiences.
Everyone has a voice already. We just have to find ways to learn how to listen.
So let’s add one more criteria for expertise: a true expert knows how to be a student.