By Jon Bellish - OEF Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer
How does an organization like OEF with a mission to end armed conflict in the world know what we should do and how, then, to do it? The first question, as simple as it may seem, is actually quite profound, and in the case of the kinds of social innovation we are pursuing at OEF, profoundly difficult to answer.
In doing so, we see three basic approaches an organization could take: moralism, rationalism, and empiricism.
- Moralism seeks to answer the question, “what should we do” by looking at principles of right and wrong as defined by a particular society, culture, or underlying set of beliefs.
- Rationality in its purest sense relies on reason and logic to make decisions. You start with a premise you know to be true and use that to figure out what else might be true.
- Empiricism is based on the idea that observed reality should be the primary driver of decisions, with plans or beliefs updated as the available evidence changes.
OEF is set up to be relentlessly empirical. It starts with our belief in and support of iterative problem-solving and careful, analytical design, both of which are baked into our DNA. We see this as the core of our value proposition to the world.
Our empirical approach extends through to our strategic frameworks, which require us to call our shot in advance. This is both in terms of what we intend to accomplish and how we expect to measure it. Then we empirically determine if and how, precisely, our work is moving the needle. It also manifests itself in our investments in evidence-based practice, whether through our research or the innovative monitoring and evaluation work of our Impact, Learning, and Accountability department.
We also work to understand the evidence in the broader peacebuilding field, and to promote the idea of evidence-based approaches to peace as a tool for better peacebuilding. We have a recently released report, jointly authored with the Alliance for Peacebuilding, that reports on what the perceptions are in the peacebuilding field around the existing evidence. Most people in our survey agreed that evidence-based approaches are important, but also that the field lacks a good evidence base for all too many of our practices. (Download the report, Some Credible Evidence)
OEF does not decide what to do purely with reference to morality, because different cultures have different moralities, and clashing versions of morality tend to drive conflict more than collaboration. Moreover, our staff tend to be outsiders vis-a-vis the communities we aim to serve. This is true whether we are talking about an American working to serve Somalis, a middle class urban Colombian working to serve rural Colombian campesinos, or a civilian working to serve a military officer. This is not to say that morality has no place at OEF. Quite the contrary: the cause of peace is deeply moral. Many of our respective moralities might drive us to pursue reconciliation between enemies for the sake of non-violence, or seek to sympathize with individuals and groups with whom it may not be not easy to sympathize. What we will never do, however, is make decisions based purely on our own personal morality. We need more than our own moral self-assurance to guide us as we work to intervene in the lives of other people.
Less obviously problematic, though equally so, is over-reliance on rationality. As different as these two things may seem—reliance on morals versus reliance on logic—they suffer the exact same problem in the OEF context. Namely, just as different cultures have their own sense of right and wrong, they also have their own intellectual traditions that form the foundations of very different logical structures. Just because something makes sense in one place does not mean it will make sense in another.
At the same time, our work requires a certain amount of the rational approach. If we’re doing something truly new, we must move beyond existing data about what has already been tried in a particular context. Thus we start with an evidence base that suggests - but does not prove - a certain approach might be valuable, and then we work hard to test our assumptions with individuals who either experience the problem we hope to solve or are working to solve it themselves.
All of this brings us to our value of Relentless Empiricism, which requires us to detach ourselves as best we can from our own morality and logic, focusing on what actually works and what doesn’t in a given context. This is easier said than done. Human beings are wired to identify strongly with their in-group and confirm their own pre-existing beliefs. This combination makes genuine empiricism very difficult, and calls for relentlessness in pursuit of it.
The world is a complex place, and OEF’s mandate is to cut through complexities in order to solve concrete problems at the root of armed conflict, and bring new, collaborative forms of governance into being in its place. As comfortable as it may be to follow the familiar patterns baked into our morality and logic, we need to actively combat that and seek only to solve problems on their own terms. That is the heart of One Earth Future’s Relentless Empiricism.