On Intervention for Change

            One of the thornier issues we encounter in a range of domains in our work here at the Institute revolves around the question of how best to consider and manage the interface of a policy or program and its intended targets or beneficiaries. This challenge is perhaps most obvious when our faculty or staff members address initiatives whose results are mediated in whole or in part by the capacities, values, norms and proclivities of those they aim to influence. So, for example, if the program with which we are involved requires an effort to reduce the recidivism rates of those who have committed crimes or those suffering from alcohol or drug addiction, our faculty and staff must pay careful attention to the circumstance, abilities and dispositions of the individuals involved and seek to understand and work within those realities if the effort is to have any hope of success. In fact, stating the matter this way only begins to address the character of the challenges our professionals face as they must not only undertake the assessment to which I have pointed, but wrestle at the same time with the ethics of how to deliver the program to beneficiaries while ensuring their capacity to make their own choices, a prerequisite of democratic and human dignity as our liberal regime has defined those constructs.

            That is, public programs that seek to affect human behavior directly or indirectly in democracies must discern ways to honor or dignify the affected individuals as they do, so as to ensure that each is treated as the agential actor he or she is supposed to be. But this turns out to be easier said than done. Our Partners for Self-Sufficiency (PSS) and Community Mentoring Partnership for Enrichment, Training and Employment (COMPETE) staff, for example, daily not only must work with poor individuals with often spotty records in the labor market, but also with the vagaries of their personal circumstances and capacities. These may include limited formal education, uncertain living space and conditions, little or no access to personal transportation, criminal records, addictions of various sorts, untreated medical conditions due to a lack of insurance and ongoing care, child care needs and mental illness. Any or all of these conditions might make attaining employment difficult, but the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program with which our PSS and COMPETE staff works demands that all individuals receiving public assistance take tangible steps to obtain employment.

            Given this stricture, staff members need to discern ways to help those with whom they work address their needs whenever possible in order to make them as competitive as feasible for employment. In practice, this does not simply mean enjoining them to take a specific action, but as often, helping them understand how that step might be relevant to their lives and needs, and assisting them to develop the capacities necessary to address the needed effort. This could be something so apparently simple as obtaining necessary medical or dental care, with staff helping to identify ways to access the care and pay for it, if necessary. Or it might involve something as obviously difficult as enrolling in, and completing a course of treatment for an addiction. In the latter case, one must first work with an individual and relevant professionals to recognize and acknowledge the condition, itself often a very tough challenge, and thereafter find ways to help the person pay for treatment and thereafter help avoid a relapse and so on.

            All of this is undertaken to help a poor person obtain a job, a process that many of our elected leaders portray in their rhetoric as a simple matter of the individual sending in an application. In short, the capacities and circumstances of individuals in poverty, both personally and socially mediated, must be addressed if PSS and COMPETE staff members are to succeed in assisting them. As they do so, and as an ethical proposition, as I have noted, staff members must honor the dignity of those with whom they work. In practice, this means allowing these individuals to make their own choices while seeking to provide each the wherewithal to make reasoned and informed decisions. In so doing, ticklish problems always arise in assisting without ordaining or, to put the matter differently, in helping these individuals build knowledge and capacities from where they are, rather than demanding (or imagining) that their needs are merely technical matters to be addressed with a “fix” and thereby acting as if they should have no rights to choice-making and robbing them of their dignity and freedom.

            Institute international development projects encounter this same question: How should the would-be intervener consider the individual or community they would assist? If the desire is to help a village provide its citizens with improved public health, for example, and to do so by means of widespread adoption of hand washing or food preparation sanitation, are these simply to be regarded as technical concerns requiring that villagers “take a course” and be expected to change their norms and habits accordingly because enjoined to do so by obviously “smart and well-intentioned” aid workers? That is, is it sufficient to imagine that interventions are merely matters of specialized expertness that require only that those targeted “do the right thing” and adopt the needed change because “obviously appropriate and necessary”? As with PSS and COMPETE, the answer to this question is that matters are hardly so simple. Instead, those working with another nation’s citizens must first take time to understand how and why those individuals live as they do through their eyes. Undertaking this effort makes it more likely that those intervening will appreciate more fully how proposed changes could affect citizens’ ways of life and health. Even then, real changes in behavior will likely require modifications in norms, which may both be difficult to realize and still more demanding to sustain. But, if change is to occur and those with whom one is working are to be dignified, they must be given capacity and wherewithal to act, and thereafter to make their own choices. This must be so even when, perhaps especially when, the decisions ultimately taken are not those one might wish most to see.

            These examples suffice to suggest how difficult in practice it can be to “assist” another human being and nonetheless seek simultaneously to help that individual make his or her own decisions. Together they imply that such policy interventions, when mediated by people, are not so much technical assistance lessons for the targeted persons as they are opportunities to begin a process of personal and social learning that the intervener ultimately can neither mandate nor control. These examples, too, illustrate that at least some of our society’s dominant competing imaginaries concerning how to regard the “poor and benighted” sharply contradict our liberal aspirations to assure each individual freedom and dignity. In addition, our policy work here at the Institute has taught us that there is no single narrative that can be attached to change, and change ultimately is the aspiration of initiatives aimed at assisting people to develop new capacities, norms and values. Instead, would-be change agents need to construct such possibilities patiently and from the ground-up in tandem with those they would aid. If they do not, they risk not accounting for critical mediating conditions, and thereby undoing any real possibility for success. In short, interventions are neither neutral nor simply technical in character. Finally, if this is so, we need also to account for another condition we have encountered in our work with policy interventions: Would-be interveners must be prepared for scenarios in which those with whom they interact are not able to articulate what they take to be their interests concerning an issue or concern, or proposed project. Such scenarios, and they are more frequent than many imagine in the abstract, require a special measure of humility and patience on the part of the would-be change agent whose job, at least initially, becomes to assist those with whom they would work to consider what their interests might be relative to a matter, and thereafter to craft a program design to address those, and the sponsor’s aims, with those populations. Our elected leaders and many other funders too rarely acknowledge these challenges and subtleties in galvanizing social change and the result of that disposition in our experience here at the Institute is to make an already demanding responsibility still more difficult.