A few weeks ago I wrote that the UK and its devolved governments tried to fix a problem with student grades that wasn’t there.

© RichVintage / iStock
© RichVintage / iStock

What I meant by that was that rather than tackle the issue of a final assessment of performance, which had been interrupted because of the pandemic, the government decided that the issue that needed fixing was the awarding of grades. It simply tried to fix the wrong problem. There was already a decent process in place that could award validated and assessed grades. True, it couldn’t do the final bit, which was to ensure parity across schools and years and what we found out during that fiasco was that the inbuilt inequality that we all suspected was there, really is there. But the government still hasn’t addressed the actual problem, which is the assessment of performance.

Fixing the wrong problems, or problems that are not even there happens more often than you think, and in more subtle ways than the example I’ve just used.

Think about it: civil society organisations regularly reframe social or environmental issues in a way that benefits their own needs, sometimes creating problems that are either easier to fix, more relatable to policy makers, donors, supporters, the media or more in keeping with their own world view. Most of the time this happens for very genuine reasons and organisations think that they are doing the right thing.

What happens as a result though is that we end up siloing issues, misunderstanding context, individuals, communities and all manner of things. In the longer term we do more harm than good.

This is so important. It goes back to the point I was making two weeks ago about how to frame your social impact. Our first rule should always be ‘do no harm’. If, having been right through the process of designing and developing our interventions, we cannot pass that sensitivity test, then we should not proceed.

Can you look at the interventions that you have delivered over time and say with complete confidence that these have addressed the right problems at the right time, in the right way for the right people?


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