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Deliberation as Action

Good deliberation is not just a sedentary process of thought. It can and should involve thoughtful action too. Deliberation is not simply talking, thinking and scratching one’s head. John Kay, an Oxford economist, emphasizes the importance of iterative decision-making that approaches problem-solving by deliberate interaction with the problem instead of stepping back to imagine the problem and solve it from a distance through planning and target setting. Constant experimentation in deliberation is creative because "the problem, and our understanding of it, changes as we tackle it”.3 In humanitarian work, deliberating will regularly involve trying things out on the ground in this way. In the language of modern management science, this is "reflective practice” in which we reflect on what works well as we do things, and adapt and innovate accordingly.4 One does not have to stop to deliberate. Deliberation can be very active experimentation. Often, the best way to start deliberating is to try something and see if it works.

This principle of active deliberation recognizes that our technical knowledge is never enough at the boundaries of our professions and that we can often learn more by doing new things than by simply thinking and planning with our current knowledge. In situations of uncertainty, in particular, when it is not clear what is possible and what will work, we have to try things out and innovate as part of our deliberation. This might mean piloting a network of mobile phones among IDP communities to see if this improves protection early warning. It may mean courageously driving a relief convoy up a road to see what happens at a checkpoint belonging to an armed group with which we have no contact. In very fast-moving practical work, we cannot always live by the maxim "Ready, aim, fire”; we may have to invert it a little and operate by a more interactive deliberative rule, "Ready, fire, aim”, and then reflect and fire again. We have to start somewhere and deliberate as we work outwards from that point. This is what urban activist Nabeel Hamdi calls "working backwards”. Sometimes we just have "to start where we can” in order to understand what is happening and to get our imagination going around what is possible and best.5 In many situations, our process of deliberation has to be more emergent than prescriptive. Only by experiencing or disrupting a situation can we begin to think reasonably about the problems it sets us. Deliberation often involves starting, not pausing.

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