Experting in times of crisis: Ethics of care.

This piece brings together concerns that I have from observing responses to the Cape Town water crisis. It was developed as a talk (slides here) which I never got to give, so I would appreciate input to guide me to develop this further.

This talk is in 5 parts:

  1. if innovation is by poor people, does it count?
  2. experting 101: ethics of care
  3. expert #fail: how not to expert
  4. advanced experting: how to jouissance
  5. in closing

if innovation is by poor people, does it count?

Innovation in the context of informality is a valid way of surviving, or even progress. Yet this is often seen as a coping mechanism at best, and a threat, at worst. I am quoting Caroline Skinner here from her presentation at the ACC conference:

“The informal sector is a commendable manifestation of untrammelled entrepreneurship, and ‘people’s response’ to over-regulation.”

“Informal sector [people in general?] is comprised of informal entrepreneurs who choose – or volunteer – to work informally at their ‘optimal level of engagement  with the state’.”

But the response from ‘above’ does not seem to be favourable: “Informal sector is an obstacle to ‘economic development’ (OECD, 2017).”

“Large informal economies are argued to constitute both valuable untapped consumer markets, and useful sources of … organisational infrastructure. E.g. informal economy as the ‘last mile distribution’ for products.”

“Informality [volunteering, hacking] is not separable from formality, and must rather be seen as an organising logic or system of norms that governs urban transformation (Roy 2005); or as Porter (2011) puts it:

informality is not “outside” of formal systems but instead is “produced by formal structures and always intimately related to them.”

Given the myriad of realities the notions of ‘informality’, ‘informal sector’, ‘informal economy’ seek to capture, are they concepts that are still useful?  Do these definitions of ‘the other’ disguise more than they reveal?”

I quote these because I see people being blamed, made out to be stupid, lazy or otherwise limited for their coping mechanisms in a city that does not care for them. Social media have occasionally highlighted that a portion of Cape Town (and wider, of course) have been living in ‘day Zero’ all their lives.  Yet, when the more affluent had to devise similar coping mechanisms in preparation for day Zero, this was hailed as innovation. So my question is,

Is informality not the same as our alternative frames – social enterprise; solidarity economies, sharing economies …?

If this is the case, and I believe it is, then we need to consider it as such. When we have ideas to ‘solve poverty’ or ‘bring toilets to the masses’ or whatever, don’t experiment on poor people. Experiment on ourselves. Develop these solutions in a way that we ourselves will be willing to use, if we would be placed in that situation. In my field of sanitation, for example, I think we develop user interfaces for ‘the poor’ that we will never be willing to use ourselves. So, going forward, I urge you to keep Dave’s maxim in mind:

If it doesn’t work in your kitchen, it’s not going to work out in the field
– Dave Crombie

experting 101: ethics of care

Times of crisis presents an opportunity to learn, joyfully, from people who have had more time to experience this context. Everyday experts, if you will.

Times of crisis is when we should open up and take more risks. Informed risks, calculated risks, but a leap of faith none the less. We have more to lose by not jumping. Yet, the observed response seems more often to be one of knuckling down, becoming more conservative and less open – to ideas, to change, to people.

What is also currently evident is simple solutions being flouted as highly innovative, disruptive, radically socially enterprising, entirely new and novel, even though people from all walks of life, but particularly from more impoverished backgrounds, have been applying these solutions for ages. To claim these innovations is not just insulting, it’s plain dumb. Don’t do it; have some vibe.

The next few quotes are from Lesley Green (from a few sources)

“Expertise discovers its limits when the predictables are no longer predictable. Expertise that is based on “command and control”, is based on the idea that expertise has no limits. Both our modes of “I know everything” expertise, and modes of collective organising (command and control) — reach their limits in a time of crisis.”

“Researchers should stop seeing [our]selves as the ‘thinking, rational brain of humanity’ and refuse to allow [our] expertise to be used to shut down the concerns of the public, or to spread the belief that scientific progress [technology] is inevitable and will resolve all of society’s problems.”

“Rather, science must engage openly and honestly with an intelligent public and be clear about the kind of knowledge it is capable of producing.”

“Discover the limits of individualism, and rediscover the power of collective action. In an era that has come to be defined by anti-politics, reclaiming this kind of collective, public-minded, ecological politics is what will make the biggest difference. ”

How can we do this, as everyday people? To me it means to volunteer outside of your comfort zone. Seek out places where your individual actions, that is quick to yield returns and offers you immediate benefit, also interfaces with the longer-term, larger scale complexities that the City, or any governance structure for that matter, has to engage with. While interfacing with both of these, keep a tight understanding with reality – this is not always your desired outcome, it can have broader application, be more fuzzy, more frustrating, have more unintended consequences, take longer to achieve your intended goals. This is hard, which is why it is better to start small – with your local council, your street, your interest group of choice.

Examples of such initiatives are any number of the interest groups, environmentalist groups, church groups, ratepayers associations (minus the seemingly obligatory entitlement), and inspiring groups like OpenStreets.

expert #fail: how not to expert

Of course, times of crisis is also the time for charisma to hog the spotlight. This piece would be amiss to not call out the dangers of this approach along with calling out experts (real or imagined) who do not take the complexity of the situation into account.

Any approach that starts off with something along the lines of ‘the experts are idiots’, then moves on to proclaim that ‘the solution is really simple’ should raise some warning flags. While this is entertaining dinner table or pub talk, if it becomes the basis for lobbying groups we have a problem, as it prevents approaches that takes into account the varying factors at play from getting the consideration it deserves. It confuses the public, when we should really work together to educate all of us – expert and layperson alike. Lastly, personally speaking, it takes a massive emotional toll to commit time to responding with care to challenges that should not have seen the light of day, while fighting to stay motivated when vocal personalities attack your life’s work. While no one is an expert on how best to go forward, people who have spent many years in this field – academics, public officials or lived experience (there’s a proper word for this) do have much to contribute. More troublingly, if these approaches then also get coupled with victimhood ‘if only they listen to me’ the dynamic becomes toxic. The occasional ironic final touch of both distrusting the other (the city, governance structures, scientists, experts…), but still demanding services or attention from these, just add insult to injury.

messiah politics

A puzzling development is what I call ‘messiah politics’. Beware of personality driven initiatives. We have a few older professionals who hammer on a few choice issues, without contributing to the bigger picture. To the people receiving their messages: think it through. If someone is introduced as a “water expert”, be careful – no one is an expert on everything to do with water. To these personalities: Use your reputation to build conversation. Be honest where you don’t have the answers, guide the conversation to the people who can have the conversation to contribute to those answers. Be part of that conversation. Please don’t be sensationalist. Remember, that who we know (or who we are) means NOTHING if we can’t make it work in the bigger picture.

The messiah personalities are not wrong, they have good points to offer. Sometimes those points are mixed in with half-truths which is the most dangerous of all. But mostly, they are good yet limited. The quote from Chimamanda Adichie reminds us:

“The single story creates stereotypes [be that the incompetent government, aloof researchers, an ignorant public, omniscient old white experts, lots of water, no water…] , and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.  They make one story become the only story.”


We become the stories we tell ourselves.

So you, as journalists, have a role too, in facilitating the kind of narrative that can enable collective action.


Reclaim the sciences (and the engineerings) that are not reductionist; not claiming to be “apolitical”; not claiming to focus only on nature and not society.

“Regime changing scholarship must challenge the claims, methods and authority of science under the flag of economic growth.”

advanced experting: how to jouissance

In a nutshell, an ‘ethic of care’ to me means jouissance. The word has many meanings, and I don’t understand most of them, so to me it’s simply “a brief flash of enjoyment achieved after excessive pursuit.  The pleasure lies in the obstacles to fulfillment – but only if that fulfillment eventually arrives, and only if there are obstacles.”

To me, jouissance is resistance to otherness, a way to encourage relationships of care. The six steps showing how to do this comes from Carol Gilligan’s paper “Moral Injury and the Ethic of Care: Reframing the Conversation about Differences” (2014, Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol 45(1), 89-106):

  • Association—the stream of consciousness and the touch of relationship—can unlock dissociation, bringing what is out of awareness back into consciousness. When it does, we have the sensation of discovering something at once familiar and surprising. Something we know, and yet didn’t know that we knew.
  • The ethic of care in its concern with voice and relationships is the ethic of love and of democratic citizenship. It is also the ethic of resistance to moral injury.
  • Listening in a way that creates trust.
  • Lifting, if even only temporarily, taboos: Replacing judgement with curiosity.
  • Gently embracing the intimate.
  • Rebuilding the trust that facilitates our ability to love.

These are all terribly difficult and very hard work, overcoming obstacles. What is the fulfillment? The moments that reward trust.

Those moments when you look at someone and you really see them, and they see you. That, is jouissance.

in closing

There is a tendency to head for simple solutions, but we need to acknowledge that things are hard, and complicated, and pulling threads across systems.

“Entrepreneurial opportunities, “blue economy style” will remain there for the designer and entrepreneur to add value – but let’s not pretend they’re sufficient to solve the immense problems of climate change and unemployment. We’ll also need systemic thinkers in planning and management.” – Harro von Blottnitz

“Successful projects to solve water problems require approaches other than technology—community organization, education, behaviour change, ownership transfer, and long-term monitoring. These approaches, although necessary, create a complexity that has hampered our ability to take any solution to scale. ” –





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