Social Engineering

Christoph Eder, corporAID

Issue 88 - Fall 2020

Christoph Eder, editor-in-chief of corporAID magazine
Christoph Eder, Editor-in-Chief

Like almost the whole world, Austria has been under the spell of the new corona virus for half a year. Here as there, governments are taking and continuing to implement restrictive measures - for individuals as well as for companies. These have to come to terms with the so-called new normal for the common good. As a result, many people in Austria are consciously confronted for the first time with a phenomenon that the Austro-British philosopher Karl Popper called "social engineering" and thus criticized the technocratic attempt by governments to achieve something like ideal societies. In the face of a situation in which no one could assess whether and how catastrophic everything would turn out, many states almost entered into a competition for the ideal way to control the disease. 

It was and is a challenge to take people with you - uncertainty and authority lead to uncertainty and doubt. And thus trigger resistance that is not really conducive to the medium-term success of the measures. One cannot make a fundamental reproach here. Because not only are we in an exceptional situation, there is also a lack of practice in social engineering. Usually, European governments do not strive for the ideal order, but create a framework with strong institutions so that people can solve practical problems - at least when it comes to measures in their own country. 

People in developing countries are also faced with uncertainty. Unlike with us, not only in the face of a pandemic, but more or less as part of day-to-day business. At the same time, they are actors and passengers in a huge process that we know as global development. In many of these countries, however, an approach in the Popperian sense is rather difficult: For the pragmatic improvement of everyday life, institutions are needed that do not only work for a minority. And these are mostly few and far between. 

Development cooperation in particular, in its effort to combine prosperity and security for everyone with a global perspective for the future, seduces into wanting to initiate and shape ideal societies. Based on the conviction that they know better than the people themselves what is good for them and where the path should go. This is not an advantage for global development. Rather, development cooperation must resist the temptation to let the possibly better knowledge of the course of events turn into a know-it-all. Good development cooperation always lives from self-restraint - and the certainty that people will ultimately never realize the ideal order. 

Photo: Mihai M. Mitrea