Saturday, July 4, 2015

An apology for the GESTALT in most private and public issues

In their essay, "Improving Humanitarian Aid,"* David Miliband and Ravi Gurumurthy, both of the International Rescue Committee, detail current trends as well as an innovative perspective to enhance humanitarian aid efforts.
Humanitarian relief, they say, flows for saving lives and alleviating suffering in war zones and after natural disasters.
Development assistance funds support economic growth and long-term improvement in quality of life in poor countries.
Another distinction made by donors segregates aid for low-income countries from that for middle-income countries.
Their analysis points out how dysfunctional are these categories. Although both Jordan and Lebanon are dealing with millions of refugees, because they are considered middle-income countries, they are ineligible for World Bank support. Also, short-term relief  projects are incompatible with long-term conflicts such as those in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia and should not be separated from long-term development aid.
They write: Yet donors continue to funnel money through different institutions to many of the same places: the $5.5 billion in humanitarian relief they spent on the top 20 crises in 2013 sits alongside, and is overshadowed by, the $28.6 billion they spent in the same countries on development assistance. Add in the false separation of service -between health, education, and women's protection, for example- and the result is frustration at the failure to meet people's needs. (p. 120)
Their proposal is to focus spending on the concept of fragility "defined not just by how much a state lacks the capacity, will or legitimacy to provide basic services or enforce the rule of law but also by the extent to which that country is exposed to violence, poverty, economic instability, and environmental shocks." (p.120)
The lens of "fragility" resembles the therapeutic approach known as "gestalt" in combining a cluster of conditions into a broad perspective that would render humanitarian assistance both more complicated and also, inevitably, more effective. There are both significant benefits from a narrow definition of an issue like humanitarian aid, in providing donors more targets, while avoiding the political consequences of a wider lens that may include targets with which they disagree, and also significant  blocks, in reductions that eliminate worthy recipients as noted.
The Canadian Prime Minister, for example, hides behind the narrow definition of criminality when discussing missing and murdered aboriginal women, and dismisses the gestalt of "sociology" in all discussions of the issue, as he persists in rejecting a judicial inquiry into the causes and solutions to the growing tragedy. Narrowing his focus on finding, arresting and convicting those responsible ''for their heinous acts" is his rifle-like approach, given how it circumscribes the responsibility of the national government, at least in his mind.
This same prime minister, in his perception of the issue of social justice, also employs a narrow definition of the problem of street crime, through increased mandatory sentences, tighter parole restrictions and more prison cells, eliminating what many consider a much more effective and longer term approach, that of rehabilitation of the high percentage of criminals who warrant such an approach.
In medicine, also, we have specialists who, when asked about the potential of allergies as part of the cause of ear infections, for example, shout defiantly to the pleading mother, "We treat ears here!"
We have become prisoners of our narrow definitions, narrow professional specialties, and increasingly, the shortest of time horizons in the way we conduct our affairs in organizations and corporations dependent on the narcissistic motives of people in positions of power. Reducing all our collective and conventional thinking, for example, to cost savings, we introduce short-term solutions in order to feather our political positions, enhancing our opportunities for recognition, advancement and bigger salaries and pensions, and compromise the long-term results in both productivity and human and human culture as "left for another generation to clean up."
Returning to the issue of humanitarian aid, if the world were to implement the "fragility" quotient, including BOTH a state's capacity to provide basic services AND the combined impact of its situation, we would have to come up with an equation that blends these factors in a much more effective and relevant lens through which to calculate need and to focus the donors' attention on eligibility of recipients.
In our medical treatments, for example, to widen the perspective of the medical practitioners, we would welcome the combined influence of life-style factors like diet, exercise, spiritual health, social life, as well as hereditary biological evidence from our ancestors in our treatment plans. We would also require a full biographic interview that seeks and finds the patterns in our lives in order both to better understand who our patients are as individuals, but also how to design treatment options and their implementation for those unique persons. We would resist the temptation to fire a pill at a pain, as the silver bullet that too often simply will not work, and embrace the complexity of both who we are as human beings, (and not merely an orthopedic, or oncology or GI "case") and the range of treatment options that include much more patient acceptance and embrace of personal responsibility and many more and varied options from the professionals.
In our perceptions and understandings of public issues, like the end result of prisons filled with aboriginal and minority persons, we would embrace an understanding of the lives of those mostly men, their family and community conditions, their education history and potential, and their potential for remediation, reform and release. Throwing money into prisons and judicial sentences, just like the compounding categories that reduce current humanitarian efforts to what can only be called laughable result, if they were not so tragic, misses the gestalt.
What are the main reasons we are so embedded in the narrow definitions of all situations?
Let's start with their more manageable dimensions. We can and do have the perception of more control if we are attempting to manage a single variable that is objective, measureable and transparent. If the costs of doing  business drop, for example, too many of us think we have made a good decision, having lost sight of the full range of implications of the savings. If we can point to the "target" of our philanthropy, as having reduced the incidence of a specific illness, for example, then we can claim victory for our efforts, and thereby convert others to join our campaign. Targetting the complicated and competing factors in a community's "health and wellness" is much more demanding and much more illusive and thereby much less attractive as a magnet for our attention, our commitment and our dollars.
Let's also spread the culpability around and into the academic community, for our narrow definitions.
It was Aristotle who named the species, and defined many of the issues through such motifs as cause-effect, nature-nurture, extrinsic-intrinsic....the many dichotomies, comparisons and binary perceptions, analyses and theories, even doctorates that fill our academic archives, while demonstrating diligence, persistence and loyalty to the academic models of our respective "departments" (otherwise known as academic disciplines) at the same time demonstrate a severe denigration of any inclusion of the methods, analyses or definitions of other disciplines). The scientific method of disproving the null hypothesis, for example, requires the elimination of all variables but the two under investigation. And that model, proselytized over centuries, cultures, geographies and disciplines, is working its way into the public consciousness.
Let's also acknowledge the desire for simplifying everything "to keep our lives from becoming too complicated." We talk about complication as if it were a mind-numbing drug that removed our consciousness, our capacity to think, our capacity to comprehend and our capacity to survive. Paradoxically, however, it is those narratives of complications that draw us into the theatres, the movie houses and the television dramas. We actually do love complications, especially those that involve other people. We, on the other hand, are obsessed with "keeping it simple stupid" (KISS).
In some fields, writing is one, the ability of the reader to grasp and to comprehend the written word is essential for the effort to be worthwhile. In a classroom, the teacher must explain the most complicated of issues in a language and tone that is compatible with the age and development stage of the learners. In a medical office, the practitioner must use language that sheds light on the medical issue and its potential treatment(s) for the patient to grasp and to implement those approaches. So in our communication, clarity and comprehension are essential.
None of these reasons, however, give justification for our lazy and even complacent narrow definitions of too many situations in both our private and our public lives. We must hold our leaders to complete, if complicated, understandings and explanations of our public issues. And we must demand of our scribes and teachers and thought leaders that they never shy away from the gestalt that is operating in all situations. It is not merely a listing of the issues in any negotiations, because the whole is, after all, much greater than the sum of the parts. (Example: while the individual and dividing issues in the current Iran nuclear negotiations are threatening to foreclose on the negotiations, the impact of a "treaty" that is responsible, open to monitoring and verifiability, and agreed implications for infractions is much greater and more important than the sum of all issues.)
Sound bytes, twitter feeds of 140 characters, headlines of fewer than 6 words, definitions of categories that compound our legitimate efforts to make the world a better place for all, while providing cover for the powerful through their narrow accomplishments, even cell phone texts of 2-3 sentences that fail to arrive at their proscribed destinations and multiple choice examinations without the subtleties of the essay format in all disciplines....these are some of the traps into which our narrow definitions fall as if they were "legal" and "legitimate" and "truthful" and "full" and more importantly, "permanent" and "traditional."
Organizations, for purposes of management, will categorize their employees in a variety of ways, all of them intended to generate the most productivity. He is a guy who hates to lose, she is a woman who networks, he is a guy who gives speeches, she is an activist,.....all of them simplifications. Worse, he is a businessman, and she is an accountant....demonstrating that simplistic reductions are also applied to our perceptions of others in our narrow "looking down the telescope backwards" our own and others' peril.
Of course, this argument risks the charge of becoming Hamlet, making things too complicated to be able to be solved. Rationalizations, however, are not the subject of this piece. They have no place in any analysis of any situation, and belong in their own scrap heap, thrown there by those willing and courageous enough to remain open to the most comprehensive and the more challenging and also the most potentially rewarding approaches to humanitarian aid, as well as to most other personal and public issues. There is no single cause, just as there is no single motive for any act. And the sooner we open our embrace to that proposition, the sooner we free ourselves from many of our "control dramas."

*In the July/August 2015 edition of Foreign Affairs, p.118


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