Can The World Handle Complexity?

Despite the fact that global issues are incredibly complicated, people tend to break them down into easy-to-understand, black and white terms. But is a new generation prepared to embrace nuance?

Can The World Handle Complexity?

Like romance, complexity is tough to explain. Aid is complex, so aid organizations often resort to courting donations and support by using their equivalent of romance’s cheaper, cruder, cash-cow cousin: poverty porn.


But in an era when information has never been easier and quicker to share and discover globally, are people’s tastes for the romance of aid and development becoming more sophisticated?

Earlier this year, Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign to draw attention to warlord Joseph Kony’s army of child soldiers drew a fierce backlash, the likes of which have never been so widely visible.
The video oversimplified so much as to be counter-productive, said many experts familiar with the situation on the ground in Uganda, and it played directly into guilt over historical threads of racism while reinforcing the dangerous idea that a privileged few are responsible for saving the powerless many. One prominent aid blogger even said the widespread fascination with the campaign’s flaws partly restored his faith in humanity.

And beyond that backlash, recent studies also hint at a growing appetite for more complexity and nuance when it comes to news and stories about aid and development.

So how big might an appetite for such complexity be? I posed this question to a few of Foreign Policy‘s Twitterati, the top 100 tweeters about foreign affairs (and also a few from the crowdsourced Womeratti list, which was compiled in response to there being only 15 women in FP‘s original 100).

“My sense is that there’s not necessarily a growing appetite for complexity on the part of the public at large,” says Mark Goldberg, managing editor at UN Dispatch, editor at PSI Healthy Lives, and co-founder of DAWNS Digest. “However, what blogs and social media do is create nice communities around specific issues–and in those communities there is a hunger for more nuance and complexity.”

Aid blogger Tom Murphy agrees. “The fact that the [Kony 2012] video was so popular seems to indicate that the audience at large still responds well to this kind of messaging. What came out of this is the fact that a response can now emerge nearly as quickly as the original output,” he says.


The reports mentioned earlier also focus primarily on the British audience, whose tastes differ from the larger U.S. audience. “As I understand it, the U.K. audience is well ahead of the American audience in terms of aid complexities,” Murphy adds.

“It’s hard to know whether there’s a desire for more complexity in news stories in the U.S. or not,” says Linda Raftree from the Wait … What? blog on international development and new technologies. “I’m not sure if there are any recent, in-depth studies on public perception in the U.S., except perhaps for one Intermedia study.”

“People still want to see dual realities rather than complex ones,” Raftree notes. “They want an us-them solution, a black-white solution, a donor-recipient solution that can be acted on and resolves quickly, but this is not the reality of how social and political change work anywhere. I hope that this will change as media continues to change.”

Social media in particular has made it easier for journalists and experts to connect. “I think the big change over the past couple of years has been the lowering of barriers between expert and journalist in which the journalist/opinion-maker is more easily swayed by the experts he or she follows on Twitter,” says Goldberg.

Aid itself is also transforming, experiencing growing pressure to demonstrate real change. “The culture of aid and development has become much more results-oriented in the past several years, in large part because of the economic climate and the increasing involvement of the private sector,” says Daniel Altman, president of North Yard Economics, a nonprofit consulting firm serving developing countries, and adjunct associate professor of economics at the Stern School of Business. “Donors and companies–and by that I mean taxpayers and shareholders–want more bang for their buck, and they want to understand exactly what makes programs effective.”

And with the 77-million millennials now joining the ranks of taxpayers and shareholders, audiences are changing too. “What people mistake for millennials’ supposed short attention spans may actually be finely tuned bullshit meters,” says Jennifer Lentfer, founder and editor at the How Matters blog on making aid more effective and more responsive to local realities. “For older generations used to doing what they’re told because it’s good for them (and thus expecting everyone else to do the same), this is unnerving. But for those of us concerned about international aid’s lack of responsiveness to local realities, this is actually very hopeful.”


About the author

Oscar Abello is a communications/social media specialist in the global development industry. He writes about emerging ideas and trends in global development.