Since the landing of the Philae lander on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko yesterday I have been asked a few times times by readers and friends why this is possible, yet we struggle with development, inequality, racial transformation in RSA, exclusion, inclusion and poverty.
I have two answers. Firstly, landing a spacecraft is by now no longer complex, it has become merely very complicated. I mean that once you can figure out the questions, many answers are self-evident. For the parts that are not self-evident you can conduct research and development, and choose between alternatives based on the results. You still have a huge problem with sequencing, but this is why these space missions are so expensive. That is why India can put a spacecraft in space (it is complicated) but still struggle with gender and poverty issues (it is complex). That is why South Africa can host the SKA (very complicated) but not deliver water to communities (complex, as it involves politics, competencies and competing priorities). We just don’t know in which order to solve all the problems in our developing countries, and everything seems to affect everything. Development is complex. In fact, we are not even allowed to fully unpack or discuss the problems because we have become overly sensitive, making things even more complex.
The second answer is about science. For space, we have science. Once politicians allocate funding to an agency, technocrats and scientists take over. We have scientists and engineers arguing about principles, about facts and about theorems. Experiments are conducted. Tests are run. Data recorded, processed and compared. There is a lot of debate allowed and even if criticism is never nice to receive, it helps to refine results, arguments and propositions. There is also the scientific method which means that even if I think I am right I must still convince editors and reviewers and funders with evidence in the form of data and experiments that can be repeated.
Our problem in development is that we do not appreciate criticism, never-mind not relying on proper research. If I question black economic empowerment policies in South Africa I am labelled a racist, even if I believe some kind of redress is needed but I am merely questioning the current modalities. If I question the way donors select value chains based on preferential impact on women I am described as being against inclusion and social justice. If I question the focus on low skilled jobs I am thrown out as a market liberal or capitalist. We just don’t allow sufficient debate backed by proper research. In many countries where I work criticism is not welcomed or appreciated.
I am afraid that the same can be said of the climate change debate, where any person that questions the prevailing consensus is quickly dismissed as a a person in denial.