The Meta Muddle


There is a lot of discussion in effective altruism/activism circles about "meta" approaches -- offering better strategies, and indirect aid, rather than working directly to help others. 

The problem with meta is that, if the key constraining variable is culture building (as Nobel Laureates North and Fogel taught us), and if culture building is transmitted first and foremost by local and personal interaction (as Christakis, Fowler, et. al have taught us), meta at best only leads to more meta. It's intellectual masturbation of a philanthropic flavor. 


I worked for years in the Chicago housing projects tutoring young children. And like many who have worked directly in giving aid, I learned about how unhelpful academics and NGOs are (even the best ones, such as Nobel Laureate James Heckman, of early childhood intervention fame) in effecting positive change. 

This is partly because they miss out on on-the-ground complexities. You learn by doing, not by studying how to do. But mostly because they don't realize how, as Peter Drucker famously put it, "culture eats strategy for breakfast." It doesn't matter how brilliant your plan is if you don't have the culture and people to implement it.

Let me use an illustrative example. Back when I was directing a program called "Read-to-Me" in the Chicago projects, I routinely got advice from folks that we should be focusing more on non-cognitive skills, as the literature on this strategy was just starting to explode

"Don't build their reading skills," we were told. "Build their character!" 

Great advice... except we had bigger and more basic problems, such as ensuring that our volunteers (who made beginning-of-the-term commitments to come to every session) actually followed through on their commitments. Anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of our volunteers would back out before every session -- due to an exam, a family engagement, or some other "unforeseen" circumstance. And it was hard to implement any strategy when you had a roomful of crying children because their mentors had abandoned them. 

Culture is not just more important than strategy. It causes good strategy. The problems and questions that people face in giving aid are very different from the problems and questions that meta analysts find most interesting. And when you have a team of genuinely committed and talented people, with the right organizing culture, they *will* move toward right answers -- not in the laboratory of some academic, but where it matters: in the real world.