Trust in God AND tether your camel!

In one version of the story behind this Middle Eastern proverb, which is sometimes attributed to the Prophet himself, two Bedouin herders get into an argument, one claiming that reality is harsh and that people have to take care of themselves, taking all practical measures to protect themselves—including tethering their camels—and the other saying “no”, that a person of faith has no need of such things and should put his trust in God.  They take their argument to the Prophet for a resolution, who tells them, “Trust in God, AND tether your camel!”  The counsel, in other words, is, “Don’t give in to dichotomous thinking.”

Western civilization is particularly prone to seeing the world in terms of binary oppositions, and the fields of conservation, development, natural resource management, and landscape approaches are not immune.  Dichotomous thinking affects how we understand the nature of human beings and of social reality, and this can be seen for instance in the competing strands of environmental social science, each with its favorite causal variables:  either it’s all about identity, norms and culture; or it’s all about power and social structures; or it’s about what emerges from the interaction of different rational agents each attempting to maximize their own utility.  Seeing social reality as being caused by the complex interaction of all of these factors is less common.

Dichotomous thinking affects how we interact with each other and receive differing ideas.  When I’m in dichotomous thinking mode, I’m likely to see ideas that don’t reinforce mine as being opposed to mine.  In this mode, one’s response to different ideas tends to begin with, “No, but…”, which is then followed by a repeated defense of one’s own ideas.  Dichotomous thinking generates differences where there don’t need to be differences and creates obstacles to creative solutions and collective action toward common goals.

In this post, I rant about a few different false dichotomies (with two or three redundant, suspicious or otherwise irksome phrases thrown in as well).


Process vs. Product

Those of us who work in areas such as process consultation, facilitation, multi-stakeholder dialogue, and public participation often lament the lack of attention, resources, and time given to process.  Getting to know each other, building trust, deliberation, and thinking together are processes that take time and don’t always follow a predictable pathway or produce a predictable result, and for this reason they tend not to find a comfortable home in the land of logframes and reporting requirements.

Dichotomous ThinkingThese processes can be thought of as part of the broader, more general process that we call participation.  When, a few decades ago, in international development, participation became all the rage and donor agencies, NGOs and government departments alike began using the label “participatory”, one of the criticisms of the trend was that much of what was being called “participatory” was rushed and formulaic.  One of the reasons for the superficiality could be summed up with another buzzword and its associated ways of thinking, which also emerged around the same time: results-based management.  Whereas participation is about process, results-based management is about the product, and measuring and monitoring whether development dollars are delivering whatever product they promised to deliver.  And while participation got more press than results-based management, for most of the international development world participation remained, at best, a paintjob applied to its exterior or an additive mixed with its fuel; results-based management, on the other hand, became part of international development’s chassis.  And so, participation, as a process, was fine as long as it conformed to the timelines and the objectives built in to the planning and M&E frameworks and didn’t slow down delivery of the product.

But—and this is a big but—I fear that some of us whose careers are all about process sometimes go too far.  At least I know that I’ve been guilty of this.  Recognizing that the machinery of international development and international conservation devote too little attention and resources to process does not mean that the “product” doesn’t matter.  Progress toward achieving tangible outcomes provides motivational fuel for participants to keep moving forward.  In complex arenas such as multi-stakeholder landscape approaches, the kind of long-term dialogue and commitment that I discussed in my last post does not contradict the importance of tangible outcomes.  This is why “quick wins” can be so helpful to long-term continuity.  Process and product need to go together.


Mediating Competing Interests vs. Building Community

The idea of leaving behind dichotomous thinking does not mean that every dichotomy is a false one. There are some ways of thinking and working that do not sit well with other ways of thinking and working.  A multi-stakeholder landscape process that is centered on the idea that different people have differing, conflicting interests, that conflict is the norm, and that the objective should be to negotiate an equitable balance between competing interests is hard to square with one based on finding and creating shared values, building community, and finding and creating harmony in the diversity of people, land uses, ecosystems, and resources that are connected to any landscape.  One is based on negotiating opposing positions and the other on working together to find common ground.  And antagonistic negotiation does not easily transform into collective deliberation.  So, yeah, there are real dichotomies and mutual exclusivities in the world.  Getting away from dichotomous thinking does not mean that you start believing that apples are oranges.

For this dichotomy—between interest-based stakeholder approaches and values-based community-building approaches—I believe that the escape from dichotomous thinking lies in rejecting two extremes.  One extreme is naïve blindness to power, divergent interests, and conflict; the other extreme is the cynical belief that achieving common ground across divergent interests is impossible or misguided.  To get beyond the clash of competing interests, don’t pretend that conflicting interests don’t exist; but at the same time, avoid reducing human beings to their material interests and don’t put interests at the heart of the deliberative process.  Instead, help the stakeholders to recognize each other’s interests while also taking a wider view together and finding bigger interests and bigger values that unite them.


“Protected Areas”

This one isn’t a false dichotomy but just a concept that I’m suspicious of.  Protected areas is a term used in conservation to encapsulate national parks, game reserves, conservancies, traditional sacred spaces and other categories of land or seascape that human beings treat differently, protecting them and preserving them in some way such that there are intentional or collateral benefits for conservation.  But what are we protecting protected areas from?

The answer, of course, is “ourselves”.  It’s laudable that we have places where we try to buffer nature from the pressures of human activity, but to the extent that this term has become an objective, one at the heart of the global conservation industry and embedded in the commitments made by signatories to the Convention on Biological Diversity, I fear that it’s an objective that admits defeat from the outset and contents itself with mitigating symptoms.  If human beings are acting unsustainably and undermining the ecosystems on which we depend, then it seems to me that the solution is to change our behavior, act sustainably, and maintain the ecosystems that are our home—and to do this everywhere, not just in protected patches, even if we have a lot of those patches and some of them are quite large.


A Dessert Buffet of False Dichotomies and Unappreciated Redundancies

Here briefly are a few other phrases and concepts that I think need to be rejigged.

Meaningful participation – redundant.  If it’s not meaningful, it shouldn’t be called “participation”.  I guess this one bugs me because in my own work I’m sparing with my use of the word participation.  When, for example, I write a description of research methods and that research was highly interactive, involving open discussions with respondents freely sharing their opinions I still won’t refer to that research as “participatory” if the respondents had no control over deciding on the research questions and designing the research process.  In the wider world, however, the words participation and participatory are normally used much more freely than this, so I totally get why some people feel a need to add the adjective meaningful to distinguish meaningful participation from superficial, mechanistic or fake participation.  But it still bugs me.

The individual vs. society – false dichotomy.  I think a synthesis of this dichotomy can be found in the concept of citizenship.  Citizenship is recognition by the society, through its institutions and its culture, of the dignity of the individual, and commitment on the part of the individual to participate in the society and contribute to it.

Sustainable development – redundant.  If it’s not sustainable then it shouldn’t qualify as development.

Top-down vs. bottom-up is a false dichotomy.… We need a social system in which … ideas, resources and action are not just flowing but circulating, from the bottom up, from the top down, and from side to side. Click To TweetTop-down vs. bottom-up – false dichotomy.  The extolling of bottom-up which accompanied the surging interest in participation was a necessary and useful correction to colonial, paternalistic and top-down ways of doing things that pervaded development, conservation and policymaking.  However, what comes from “the top” isn’t inherently bad, and the world today is facing crises that are global in nature.  We need united action at the bottom, the top and every middle in-between.  We need a social system in which the top and the bottom are not in contradiction and in which ideas, resources and action are not just flowing but circulating, from the bottom up, from the top down, and from side to side.



The way we talk about things matters.  The way we talk about things affects the way we think about things, and the way we think about things affects the kinds of actions that we take.  Getting away from dichotomous thinking does not mean believing that apples are oranges; it means being on guard against thinking that apples are against oranges or are mutually exclusive with oranges.  It means breaking the habit of responding to divergent ideas with “No, but…” or even “Yes, but…”, and instead responding “Yes, and…”