The Oxford dictionary describes post-truth as, ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ In the past year the term has gained currency, frequently linked to the highly controversial European Union referendum in the UK, and to President Trump’s US political campaign.
At the "If evidence really matters what can we do about it?" Research Impact Symposium we asked Kate Newman (Christian Aid) and Atonu Rabbani (University of Dhaka) ‘what are the challenges for an evidence-based approach to international development in a ‘post-truth’ world?’ This blog reflects on their responses and broader insights from media, research and civil society.
The new version of ‘spin’?
‘Spin’ in politics is not a new concept, but what seems to define the post-truth era of lying in politics lies both in its ‘brazenness and in its effectiveness’, suggests Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times. As Atonu states:
‘Unfortunately we are living in a time when our collective leadership, our global political system, especially the leaders who represent that system, are increasingly moving our public narrative, public discourse or arguments, away from evidence and what we know about how the world works’.
Technology has created the conditions where stories can grow and take on a life of their own, manufacturing a new sense of reality based on speculation. The rise of social media algorithms have played an important role in swaying public opinion by selecting information that fits with people’s specific tastes – serving up personalised information that is more agreeable and easier to digest than more rigorous evidence-based information which is often complex and challenging.
Why do we need evidence?
With the post-truth context as the backdrop, there are clearly benefits of using an evidence-based approach in international development. It can provide a rational, fact-based approach from which to make well-informed decisions. At best it draws together a wealth of diverse knowledge (including scientific and cultural), building a strong foundation from which to inform policy, create accountability and educate others. Kate reflects on this:
‘I think part of understanding how [Christian Aid] work with supporters is wanting to go beyond seeing development as a technical input – that you give someone a mosquito net and that stops malaria – and recognising that there’s lots of social dynamics around that […]so we have quite a big education role in our communication with supporters. And that leads us to use evidence in a certain way – to show some of the complexity of development.’
Although Kate and Atonu do not explicitly define what ‘truth’ and ‘evidence’ are in their interviews, both allude to similar understandings: that they are complex and multifaceted concepts, that require us to look at the ‘bigger picture’ of interconnections and influences, and also require iterations of testing and learning over time. Antonu reflects on the importance of evidence-based policy (pdf) to meet the challenges of increases in inequality, sustained poverty and climate change:
‘We have excess demand for scarce resources and we need to be very careful how we use those resources. Hence the evidence and what we know about what works, and what doesn’t work, have become increasingly more important in this time.’
What are challenges for evidence in a post-truth world?
While it might be easy to agree on the failings of the ‘post-truth’ world, evidence-based approaches also have agendas and interests behind them which shape what ‘the facts’ are and what good quality evidence should look like. It’s also important to acknowledge that these approaches frequently come with imposed, often limiting, standards, as Sarah Cook, UNICEF, suggests, ‘The risk […] is that a relatively narrow or instrumental view of evidence of ‘what works’ for programming and for delivering results within a defined time frame is prioritised over other forms of knowledge.’ An informal international network of practitioners working on these issues, The Big Push Forward, add to this suggesting that, ‘…increasingly people are recognising the need for multiple and mixed methods and approaches to better understand complex change.’
Another challenge for this approach when set in contrast to post-truth politics is that evidence-based research, because of its unfolding nature, doesn’t produce clear policy messages ‘on cue’ for strategic moments. This lack of clarity and direction can be difficult for decision-makers to work with – especially in periods of austerity where more pressure is on government initiatives and non-profit organisations to be seen to be ‘making a difference’ whilst also being ‘value for money’.
Unclear or ambiguous messaging can also encourage purposeful misinterpretations of data and information by unscrupulous journalists and politicians. As a result, it appears we are seeing a trend amongst some organisations working in international development to keep external messaging simple - to emphasis clarity and avoid manipulation. Kate reflects on this point:
‘[In the UK] there’s lots of media bashing of international NGOs, lots of aid scepticism […] which means there’s quite a low tolerance, or a low appetite for risk, a fear that we could say something that could later come back and bite us. And so wanting to go for quite simple messages about development […] and that sort of flies in the face of our more complicated theory of change about development.’
Because we seem to be in a time where the concept of ‘narrative’ often overrides evidence, it is now more than ever that we need to be working with and promoting rigorous, evidence-based approaches in international development. Atonu makes the point:
‘We are living in a time when people are putting less and less weight on truth as we know it and it seems the political system is creating incentive we should focus more on noise and less on signal. But that makes it even more important that we advocate, lobby and work together to sway the world back towards a more scientific narrative on policymaking to the extent that it is possible.’
We are in a time when evidence-based approaches in international development are facing unprecedented challenges. We must ensure that we source and disseminate our information through diverse channels (including traditional media, alternative media and media cooperatives) to ensure that it is sought-out, read and shared. The sector needs to strive to acknowledge its own intentions and expectations if we are going to move towards a greater sense of trust and accountability.
Resources from the Research Impact Symposium are available at "If evidence really matters what can we do about it?"