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.


  1. Lydia Says:

    Hello Gorgeous!
    I didn’t abandon you honestly. I’ve just been reading through what you have been writing recently. One of the wonderful things about you is that you are not superficial – you want to understand, to get in there, to act on being visionary – I remember when you visited me at my flat and my CD player wasnt getting good radio reception because the aerial was bust and you didnt just note the fact but got a coat hanger and made a new aerial and took that manufacture seriously. A lot of what I’ve read is the political equivalent of you noticing the aerial is bust and not being able to get a coat hanger and sort it out.
    One of the reasons I’ve been away from here is that I got promoted to Head of PSHE – it doesnt properly activate until Sept but I get a chance to see if I can deliver the model of PSHE, particularly the sex ed stuff, in the way I belive it ought to be – the best way to change something is to be in a position where you are in charge of it after all.
    Keep the frustration contained and don’t go standing near the pit of darkness.
    Love, vodka and many hugs

  2. natty Says:

    And then there’s the job where you give your all to the shop you adore for six months, do hundreds of hours of design work for free and increase the customer base by 50%, but the owner suddenly becomes paranoid and delusional and you get forced out. And all that design work that you haven’t been paid for and is your copyright is suddenly moved and locked up, and delusional boss promises to destroy them for you. Right. I really don’t want to get into lawsuits in this city, too often it gets into a bribing bidding war.

    You’re not the only one losing your idealism over work. *sigh*

  3. Mark Says:

    Head of PSHE… Progressive Sexual Health Education… Perverse Straignt & Homosexual Events …. :confused:

    "Not superficial" sounds like agood thing to be. I think my training — in software design — makes me want to have a model for how things work (See the next item for more piffle on that subject). Here’s an example"

    One of the other local volunteers works with an aid agency (one of those that looks different when seen from different perspectives: from the wealthy countries it offers opportunities for donors to sponsor disadvantaged children and receive personal exchange of letters with them, from the poor countries it seems to dissapate money vaguely within the communities in which those children live). She runs workshops and talks on HIV/AIDS, healthy living, etc. She was very pleased to hear the "youth" who attend these workshops (youth who seem not to belong to any useful category as some are old and have children of their own) asking for more. Only later did she discover that each one of them gets an allowance of 150 shillings (about a Pound, but remember we are in a location where many people live on less than a Dollar per day; mamas bring a bag of banannas from their gardens on market day and hawk them at 10 bob per bunch to passengers on busses) these guys generally don’t have transport costs and if they do it would come to about 40 bob max.

    At first it looked like a kind of corruption: healthy handouts for simply attending a meeting. Clearly people like to come to those workshops and get money for nothing. And I mean nothing: there are many people in those meetings who don’t understand anything the leader says after "Good morning", they just don’t have enough English. But they sit there patiently, sign the attendance sheet and collect their "expenses". But this doesnt make sense. Its completely open. The management explain that it is completely necessary and proper to give that much: "The youth", they say, "Wouldn’t come otherwise".

    Clearly the connotation is that its more important that they **come** than that they get anything from it. Seen from the point of view of the charity, they like to see statistics which say so many youth attended workshops in certain months. So, to make that happen, the sponsorship money is dissipated within the community in the form of expenses to grease the wheels.

    My **theory** is that even though what that charity is trying to do in the area **is** genuinely worthwhile, that is not enough to convince the community to take part. Oh I’m sure they’d join in at first but, I believe, forces such as those I have described above come into play and people get bored and go back to doing nothing at all, even to help themselves.

  4. Chris Says:

    Why do we work, and why do we expect to be "paid" for that work?

    This is a very big question.

    What else is there?

    Capitalism is a form of slavery, and economic growth relies on exploiting workers. Discuss…

  5. Mark Says:

    I heard someone on the World Service Network Africa programme this morning say that is favourite definition of money is:

    "… a reward you get for solving a problem"

    This kinda overlooks the issue that money only has any value at the point of transaction, but Its an interesting perspective on the issue of remuneration.

    Even if we did not **expect** to get paid for working (for someone else’s benefit) we might still do so as part of an agreement. Theoretically every contract of employment should be such an agreement. Mutually agreed upon and reviewed from time to time to make sure it is still aggreeable to both parties. When we take a job with a remuneration package that we dont really like because we have no other choice — thinking of the two major classes of exploited workers that No Logo talks about here: sweatshop factory workers in EPZs and part-time shop staff in multinational retail outlets — we are being exploited. On the other hand, if we consider there is no other choice, then that contract is, in a way, acceptible.

    But why should I have no other choice? Because the society in which I live is one in which there is an expectation of cashflow nad I need to be plugged into a cash-source in order to participate in that culture.

    Coming here to Kenya has shown me that this need not be the case. Many Kenyans might hear of how much I earned monthly in my part-time job in Richmond before I volunteered, and be shocked by a) how wealthy I was and b) how stupid I was to come here and work on the salary of a Kenyan teacher. But its different. I required that job in order to sustain my desired lifestyle: living in Shepherd’s Bush and Swing Dancing 4+ times a week. The rent on that flat cleared most of my monthly salary in one go. Moving about london took a big chunk of the rest (riding a bike helped a bit but that already meant I was in some way opting-out of the society’s norms — **and yes, unlike George Bush, I can ride a bike!**). I can travel 70km to Nairobi for 80 shillings which is approximately 60p. How far can I get for that much on The Tube?