Mind bending stuff...

By Laura Collins

Cobb: What do you want from us?
Saito: Inception. Is it possible?
Arthur: Of course not.
Saito: If you can steal an idea from someone’s mind, why can’t you plant one?
Arthur: Okay, here’s me planting an idea in your head. I say to you, “Don’t think about elephants.” What are you thinking about?
Saito: Elephants.
Arthur: Right. But it’s not your idea because you know I gave it to you. The subject’s mind can always trace the genesis of the idea. True inspiration is impossible to fake.
Cobb: That’s not true.
Saito[to Cobb] Can you do it?
Cobb: Are you offering me a choice? Because I can find my own way to square things with Cobol.
Saito: Then you do have a choice.
Cobb: Then I choose to leave, sir.

I caught myself wryly smiling during the above exchange on a recent trip to the cinema.  It’s a sad life, I know.  For it struck me that Saito’s line of questioning might well be asked of ownership. Ownership, that first principle of aid effectiveness. Ownership that will, in Busan later this year, undoubtably be lauded as an idea but lamented as a target unachieved. Many questions haven’t been – but need to be – asked of ownership. So …

Saito: Ownership. Is it possible?
Me: (Scratches head) ….     …..   Wait, slow down, what do you mean by ownership?
Saito: By partner countries of development strategies. To reverse the practice of conditionality-based agenda setting. It’s essential for development outcomes, you know.
Me: (Scratches head). But what is it? Leadership? Control? Power? Coordination? Responsibility?
Saito: We’ll plant the idea; how it becomes reality will differ upon how that idea is interpreted, understood, implemented…
Me: But then how do we know it’ll achieve what we want it to achieve?
Saito: Here’s me planing an idea in your head: Development Outcomes. What are you thinking about?
Me: Outcomes. But how can I know that the outcomes I’m thinking about look and are the same as your outcomes? If ownership’s inherently internal, how can this idea be an extra-national principle to be implemented by donors and partners?
Saito: Why can’t you plant an idea? Build ownership by training, by capacity building, by suggestion and support during policy development.
Me: Right, but then their not ‘owned’ ideas because we know we gave them to ‘them’. An idea from the outside can always be traced to being from the outside. True ownership of it is impossible to fake.  Hang on, in whom are we planting this idea again? Paris says in ‘government’s’, but Accra reckons ‘country’s’ and I have a feeling Busan’s going to say ‘inclusive’s’…
Saito: Can you do it?
Me: Are you offering me a choice? Because what if I think that the idea of mutual accountability fits better with the idea of partnership, that ownership doesn’t necessarily seem realistic given the financial relationship we’re in?
Saito: Then you do have a choice. On the condition that you have ownership of that choice.
Me: But I thought the choice was whether I would take ownership or not….? Oh, but if ownership is choice and I can choose whether I go along with what you plant or not? Then I choose to say no, sir, every time. Because that shows ownership.

I could go further: we could talk about how I could plant an idea to say no to the idea planted by Saito to say yes. Confused? Isn’t that the point?

One thought on “Ownception

  1. Enrique Mendizabal

    February 11, 2011 at 12:38pm

    I found myself having the same idea, kind of, on a plane on my way back from Africa where I had a great conversation about ownership. It went something like this:

    Project leader: I do not want any trace of northern organisations in the project. It has to be an African project -African led for Africa. As soon as it is running, I’ll step down. That is why I want you to work with us to develop our own version of what you guys do. So we have the capacity to do it ourselves.

    Yours truly: But I can only help develop something that will look very much like what we do now. If I thought there was anything better I would be doing that instead, right? It it has to be truly African and you want no non-African fingerprints (whatever that means) then the best you can do is hire an African expert and ask him or her to do it.

    Project leader: Yes, we are hiring a person. But I think she will need your support.

    Me: Ok, let me talk to her. In any case, I would need to get more information about the project.

    Project leader: Yes, that is coming along. We have a top team writing all the background studies and designing the project’s components. John Smith from Canada is designing component 1, Michael Harrison from the UK is designing component 2, and Francois Signer from France is designing component 3. (The names are made up)

    Me (in my back to office report): An African project designed by non-Africans. Can he not see the irony?

    Of course not. It almost never occurs to people to trace ideas back to their origin. And so the aid industry is full of policies, programmes and projects that have been thought of, designed, commissioned and implemented outside of the places where they are supposed to be of any value -but are still branded as demand led. Worse still, keen to believe that ‘my project is demand led’, many delude themselves into believing their ‘local partners’ when they say that, ‘yes, yes, this is exactly what we needed’ -’OMG I am so smart, so in touch with Africa, that I knew exactly what the needed; and it only took a quick needs assessment’, they must tell themselves.

    The best kind of inception though is the one that is clearly linked to the film and that is the inception of ideas: the language of rights, voice, accountability, etc is common enough across the developing world but what does it mean? where does it come from? who planted it? The designers of the aid industry have created an image of what goes on and how things should be. Northerners who think they live in real Africa when in fact it is the designed Africa that has been created by the aid industry and that locals want them to stay in -but how many have a totem to keep it al real?

    But Southerners who talk as if they lived in Islington are equally out of place.

    This is why my answer to the project leader, I think is the most honest I could offer: I can only give you what is mine. If we all did this maybe we would limit the number of dream-within-dream levels.

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