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Reflections after a decade with IDinsight

Paul Wang 23 December 2021

A tree in Mukobela Chiefdom, Southern Province, Zambia taken as part of IS Nano pilot. ©IDinsight/Natasha Siyumbwa

Just over ten years ago, Paul Wang, Neil Buddy Shah, Andrew Fraker, Ron Abraham, and Esther Wang began what is now IDinsight. This month, Paul is transitioning from the organization, closing out his remarkable decade-long tenure. Paul shares four thoughts from his time at IDinsight.

Reflecting on almost 11 years at IDinsight, I realize much of my experience has been an interplay of things big and small. The world is big, and its challenges are daunting. I am but one person in one small organization. Our mission is global, and vision, universal. But we work, one client, one colleague, one email at a time. This big-small tension can be a burden but has also been richly productive and fulfilling. Here are four ways this has been the case.

1) Truth exists that cannot be proven.

We know this because of Gödel, and we know this from everyday life. No decision is made with complete knowledge and certainty, and anyone who claims perfect clarity is either superhuman, deluded, or lying.  

Yet, as someone who is often immersed in data, I have implicitly set certainty as the goal. All models must be perfect, calculations flawless, and estimates precise. This can breed hubris if narrow insight starts masquerading as global wisdom. It can also paralyze when aspirations for perfect clarity collide with the real world.  

Through IDinsight, I rubbed shoulders with parents, students, community leaders, civil servants, business people, and politicians who embrace the noise, risks, and imperfections of real life. I worked with hundreds of colleagues making decisions and taking action without a playbook and without guaranteed success. You all have my deepest respect. In reality, we all have the same imperative to act on faith, even if at times I mistakenly aspired not to.

2) All impact is local.

Global development’s challenge has always been local. By definition, localities are small, but, in reality, they are infinitely complex. Each contains unique histories, personalities, cultures, geographies, values, struggles, and politics. How to intervene? I’ve learned that my best response often is, “I’m not entirely sure.”       

In our world, issues are commonly deliberated by foreigners in foreign lands speaking foreign languages using foreign concepts made possible by foreign resources. Intuitively, we know this is wrong. Concretely, this wastes money, severs trust, and hurts people. When success occurs, it is a clumsy success, and typically small and narrow in the grand scheme of things.       

I’m not unique in this observation, and I have no magic bullets. I’m simply adding my voice to the chorus. I know IDinsight, along with many kindred organizations, are earnestly working to localize development. Hopefully, in aggregate, big changes are around the corner.

3) There is nothing to lose.

Our CEO, Ruth Levine, once told me, “Our objective is not self-preservation.” No truer words have ever been spoken. Yet, as an organization ages and matures, the self-preservation impulse grows strong. Boards guide strategy, lawyers manage risk, HR ensures safety, accountants balance budgets. We must feed ourselves to feed others.  

Yet, in reality, we remain a zero. We are only 200 people or 0.0000025% of the world’s population. We are less than a blip.  

Knowing this can be our superpower. Live outside the box, speak truth to power, and shoot for the moon. Manage the risk, but – in reality – there is little to lose. In expectation, by taking risks, our impact is far greater.

4) Be humble.

This is obvious, given our smallness. Yet, it is tricky. Humility is as much disposition as action. How easy it is to be arrogant, loud, rude, impatient, narrow-minded, proud, self-conscious. The world seems designed to reward these traits. I raise my hand as guilty.   

On occasion, IDinsight gifted me moments of true, self-forgetful happiness. Nothing is better than serving a cause bigger than self. If only I could get myself out of the way more often. If only I could stop pretending to be big and start knowing I am small.

Once, while hustling to an important meeting, an Associate reminded us, “Team, let’s remember to be humble.” There are hundreds of IDinsighters now. How amazing if each carries a trace of humility with them. Maybe that’s one small ingredient to truly changing the world. 

So, on this note, a most sincere thank you to my dear IDinsight colleagues, partners, supporters, and friends. I’m leaving simply because you don’t need me anymore. In 10 more years, you all will achieve 10x more than what we have so far. The marginal value-add of Paul has shrunk, and thus ends an overflowing professional chapter. Thank you again. And, though you are small, keep dreaming as big as you possibly can.