May 21 2009

Central Connectors to Expand Small Worlds

by at 2:56 pm under Uncategorized

It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I understood just how essential networks–particularly that of my University network–are in fostering my intellectual curiosity. When I was at Berkeley, I could not only meet and talk to a wide variety of students from all sorts of backgrounds, but I also had access to a great range of events, summits and conferences where professionals and academics alike convened to discuss issues. At the Berkeley J-School, I could talk to visiting journalists and journalism students; an the campus performance center, I attended talks given by everyone from philanthropist George Soros, to former president Jimmy Carter, to New York Times crossword puzzle editor Will Shortz; through my major department, I discussed issues in media studies with professors, graduate students, and guest lecturers. Berkeley, of course, has a liberal slant, but the campus still tried to bring in speakers from all spectrums. The student body was just as diverse in its viewpoints.

Once I moved to DC, I found that I was powerless. I had a few friends in the city, but its small size limited me to a closed network where it was difficult to be directly exposed to difference. However, I made an attempt to branch out by meeting friends of friends, finding out about events going on in the city and exchanging ideas with the people there. Yet, it was difficult, because I still lacked the formal ties to existing networks that directed my attention to exclusive events and exchanges. Instead, I had to rely on the few bridges that I already had–through friends who would forward me an email, or by browsing the Internet myself. It wasn’t until after I made more friends with more established connections and joined the Georgetown network that I finally established hubs where I can get new ideas. For instance, once I entered the Georgetown network, I could finally reach out to new professors, I could check out books from the library, and I was automatically added to e-mail subscriptions about campus lectures and events.

I’ve always been conscious about bringing myself out of my comfort zone, and to seek out other clusters. Usually, with my closest friends and family, I talk to them about things that are familiar to us both; it can be hard to exchange new ideas within these comfort-zone clusters because we share the same background, but I think I am lucky in that a lot of my friends from home share a diverse set of interests and professional aspirations. As long as we make an effort, we can always find new ideas to talk about. As for family, since I am the daughter of immigrant parents, we have generational and culture gaps to bridge, so new things come up there as well. I am fortunate that the members of these comfort-zone clusters, in a way, are still long-distance bridges to me. At the same time, since we share similar backgrounds, it’s easy to fall to the redundant ideas you get from closed networks. This is why I am glad to have branched out to the East Coast, where I’ve run into an entirely different culture that popped my West Coast bubble.

In DC, as an outsider from California, I’ve found that it has been much easier for me to make acquaintances than friends. The disadvantage of this is that it can get lonely, which will make me homesick for the comforts of the Bay Area. At the same time, it has left me with invaluable gains, as I have learned new perspectives from backgrounds that I have never encountered as much in California. For instance, I come from community with an Asian majority; DC is much more representative of the rest of America in only being 4% Asian. Even so, Northwest DC can be its own intellectual bubble as well. Every so often, I try to make time to seeking out the communities within the other quadrants of the city. I suppose, in this way, I am trying to be the kind of connector that Malcom Gladwell writes about in The Tipping Point, as I try to make a point of sharing the new things I learn to my own clusters. Still, being proactive about this can be exhausting, and it often comes at a cost of establishing stronger personal ties with the new people I meet. It is much easier to stay within your established networks and to keep circulating old ideas–so the closed roads, or, in borrowing Buchanan’s words, “old boy’s network,” that led to the Washington Consensus makes sense, although once you become aware of it, it can certainly be avoided.

With respect to development strategies, there are clearly many views on how it should be approached, as especially evidenced by the plethora of criticisms thrown against the policies and actions of the current international financial institutions meant to facilitate development. There is the optimistic Jeffrey Sachs view, the pessimistic outlook of William Easterly, the in-between, complexity-based propositions of Paul Collier, and much more. Yet, what all these critics share is some connection to the very institutions that they criticize; they have either worked at the World Bank or IMF, or they have served as an adviser to these institutions. Joseph Stiglitz himself worked at the Bank, as did Dambisa Moyo, the author of the now-hot book Dead Aid, which suggests that Africa should be entirely weaned off aid. There is a striking amount of literature on reform targeted at the institutions themselves. For instance, it has even been said that Sachs arrogantly proclaimed that the Bank would be operating much more productively if he were running it himself.

By speaking out and publishing their suggestions, many of these critics have been blacklisted by these international financial institutions and the people who work within them, as in the case of William Easterly, who was fired from the Bank for the book he wrote. Yet, despite this backlash, and according to the small-world network theory, there will still be people within those institutions who will maintain some connection with them. For instance, I have a friend who works at the Bank who acknowledges that while employees of the Bank and IMF hate Stiglitz, he acknowledges that Stiglitz is right, and that he is being hated for the wrong reasons. This same friend is also an admirer of Easterly. In light of this, I suggest bringing together these weak links.

To attain the structural change needed to advance development, what is necessary is not a revamp, but the construction of an entirely new model. It cannot have a centralized system of power; instead, it has to be a cooperative, where all participants hold an equal share. This will lead the way to a less messy system of coordination and collective action. It must come in the form of a new institution, or a new summit–one that incorporates the key players with the weakest ties.

It would be difficult for this institution or summit to be entirely free of ideology, so the best way to counter that is to bring in many different perspectives. Outsiders must be invited. Yet, all participants have to be good leaders who are willing to listen to each other—people who had once operated under structural autonomy. Having only one key diplomat from a wide variety of nodes is essential; as long as the interconnections between each player is a weak tie, the frequency of groupthink and the potential for a closed network would be considerably reduced. Only then can alternative ideas emerge in an environment that encourages constructive debate.

The institutions and summits of today do not necessarily bring about the change and new ideas that they strive towards because of the history of baggage that comes along with it. To open the way to progress, a new structure must rise up over these old habits and baggage. The Articles of Confederation were, after all, put to death before our current system of government prevailed. In the same vein, the most successful businesses of today were first tiny start-ups willing to embrace risk. Obama, initially a Washington outsider, was able to get into power because he innovated. The greater the risk, the greater the reward, as long as the right risks are taken in the most calculated way possible. Innovation, open-mindedness and vigilance, then, are indispensable to this process, especially for putting on a new lens through which to approach development. It requires a re-evaluation of the current situation and the capitalist model. Perhaps Obama could lead this charge because he, himself, is very akin to the notion of innovation.

One response so far | Categories: Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

One Response to “Central Connectors to Expand Small Worlds”

  1. D. Linda Garcia on 25 May 2009 at 7:06 pm

    A very thoughtful and interesting blog; I like the way that you relate your own experiences to that of development organizations. Congratulations. LInda

Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.