Does LIRNEasia have core values? Should it?

Posted on January 9, 2017  /  0 Comments

Bill Easterly’s latest piece in Foreign Policy argues that the Trump victory is essentially a defeat of technocrats who do not have, or cannot defend, fundamental social values. Made me ask whether we too have, over time, become value-neutral technocrats. I had written on values in telecom policy many years ago (Samarajiva & Shields, 1990).

Evidence v values
I’ve heard people describe us as great proponents of evidence-based policy. Easterly (2016) claims that technocrats who dominated both parties in the US had “approach[ed] every problem with a five-point plan designed to produce evidence-based deliverables — [and thereby] had left democracy vulnerable” to demagogues like Trump. In our preoccupation with evidence, had we become value-neutral?

Sometimes it’s necessary to understand “the other” in order to understand ourselves. In this particular context, our “other” appears to be the proponents of “digital rights,” who take positions that are different from us on net neutrality, zero-rating, big data, etc. They just pick some principle (or value) and spin a few scenarios, while we are still assembling evidence (e.g., Hattotuwa, 2008). Politicians and policymakers can easily understand their rhetoric, though thankfully they don’t always follow their advice.

Do we not present values along with evidence? Is it that we expect people to understand our implicit values? Or is it that we rarely have time to make explicit our values given all the evidence we need to communicate?

So let’s see what values were implicit in our position on zero-rating (Galpaya, 2015a). Well before we had evidence (Galpaya, 2015b), we had a semblance of a position on zero rating (Samarajiva, 2014). It could be described as “anti-paternalism” or a very moderate form of libertarianism. I described it thus in a recent review:

One form of intervention, privileged in this book, is initiated by an external actor who knows what effective use is, for the benefit of the subjects who do not. The other form seeks to remove barriers to innovation by users of ICT and by those who seek to supply ICT goods and services to such users. This generally takes the form of legal or policy reform to enable certain actions (e.g., market entry) or constrain others (e.g., anti-competitive practices). The decentralized innovation that emerges once the barriers have been removed may appear chaotic at a point of time to a well-meaning ICT4D researcher or practitioner. But over time, robust outcomes emerge that have more impact than hundreds of ICT4D projects (e.g., Jensen, 2009).

The former kind of intervention is, on the face, paternalistic. (Samarajiva, 2016: 33)

So it’s not that we are lacking in values; we don’t flaunt them like others; our arguments are not composed solely of an expansion of a value position. We don’t have to anchor ourselves on values only, because we take the trouble to actually look for and, where necessary, generate evidence.

Respect for human beings and their ability to make decisions in their own interest appears to be a value most people can get behind. Is this a value that is shared by all at LIRNEasia? Should we discuss it? Should it be woven into everything we do at LIRNEasia? Can this co-exist with the research that shows humans are not 100 percent rational (Kahneman, 2011; Thaler & Sunstein, 2008), that we also agree with?

Another core value I would propose for consideration is compromise. In the words of a community organizer who went on to become President of the United States:

Democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair (Politico, 2016).

Policy advocacy is about always getting less than 100 percent. So little wonder I feel that compromise is a value that suits us to a T.

I am suggesting two basic values that should underpin our evidence seeking and communication. There may be more that we want to consider. Those proposed may be problematic. They are externally oriented, fundamental values. They may have to be translated into organizational values of the more conventional form. But they are values of the type Easterly is talking about:

The Clinton campaign’s rhetoric was a long way from “all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing … ‘Free at Last!’”

Martin Luther King’s version of equality, and anti-paternalism and compromise described above are the kinds of core values which underpin conversations about issues ranging from immigration and free trade to zero rating. These are the kinds of values (though not the only ones) we need to consider weaving into our practice in the coming year.

Easterly, W. (2016 December 23). Democracy is dying as technocrats watch, Foreign Policy.
Galpaya, H. (2015a April 24). Comments by LIRNEasia on the consultation paper on regulatory framework for over-the-top (OTT) services.
Galpaya, H. (2015b October 22). Finally, some research on zero rated offers and users. And it’s surprising.
Hattotuwa, S. (2008). Net neutrality and Internet QoS in Sri Lanka redux.
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. London: Farrar Straus & Giroux
Politico (2016 May 7). Obama’s full remarks at Howard University commencement ceremony, Politico.
Samarajiva, R. (2014 August 16). Nothing is better than something, or the paternalistic approach to the Internet.
Samarajiva, R. & Shields, P. (1990). Value issues in telecommunication resource allocation in the third world, in Telecommunications, values and the public interest, ed. S. B. Lundstedt (pp. 227-53). Norwood NJ: Ablex.
Samarajiva, R. (2016). Focusing mobile-communication research (book review), Information Technology and International Development, 12(3): 31-33.
Thaler, R. & Sunstein, C. (2008). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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