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The Rockefeller Foundation has new plan to “solve global issues.” But is leveraging “expertise” really the best way to address human suffering?

The Rockefeller Foundation last year launched what it calls “a multimedia platform aimed at driving awareness of global issues that are solvable in the next generation.” The name of the campaign is #solvable. It consists of videos and podcast interviews with scientists, activists, and philanthropists about how to solve big problems like poverty, hunger, disease, and homelessness.

It’s an ambitious project. In the face of seemingly intractable problems like poverty, disease, and hunger, we could all use some good news and fresh ideas. The campaign is premised on the theory that we need two things to overcome the challenges we face:

"Without question, the key ingredient is expertise: the know-how to harness technology, science and innovation in ways that meaningfully improve lives. But expertise is not enough: we need to marshal the optimism that solutions are within reach, and the policies, partnerships, and financing to bring those solutions to scale."

Although I’m sympathetic to #solvable’s goals, this particular diagnosis seems wrong. According to this view, we’re supposed to gather really smart people, set them to work, and will ourselves to feel optimistic about whatever solutions they come up with. This process might work for running a successful baseball team (it also might not), but as a roadmap for feeding every human on the planet, it leaves something to be desired.

For starters, invoking the salvific power of “expertise” nowadays is a fraught endeavor in any realm. Philanthropy is no exception. In recent decades the gap has widened between what we expect from so-called experts and what we end up getting. It’s no wonder that optimism is lacking.

To be fair, the #solvable podcasts and videos really are inspiring. During a conversation about global poverty, journalist Malcolm Gladwell and a nonprofit CEO spend 10 minutes talking about low-tech toilets. It’s genuinely fascinating stuff, and their conversation serves as an example of how complicated problems can be addressed with the simplest of resources.

But count me among those whose optimism ultimately fails. To state it plainly, I don’t think that every social problem is solvable. I’m not even sure that problem is the right word to describe something like global poverty or homelessness. A better word might be mystery.

It was Malcolm Gladwell himself who, more than a decade ago, helped popularize a distinction between puzzles and mysteries.

"If things go wrong with a puzzle, identifying the culprit is easy: it’s the person who withheld information. Mysteries, though, are a lot murkier: sometimes the information we’ve been given is inadequate, and sometimes we aren’t very smart about making sense of what we’ve been given, and sometimes the question itself cannot be answered. Puzzles come to satisfying conclusions. Mysteries often don’t."

And while a “puzzle grows simpler with the addition of each new piece of information,” the opposite is true of mysteries. “Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much,” Gladwell wrote.

This is a particularly helpful framework for making sense of modern philanthropy. The Rockefeller Foundation is in good company when it speaks the language of puzzles and problem-solving. Many big foundations and philanthropists use such language. So do their critics. Anand Giriharadas, for one, probably wouldn’t criticize a foundation for thinking that homelessness is solvable; he would just say the foundation is going about solving that problem in an inequitable, unjust, or ineffective way.

In other words, no one doubts that we’re dealing with puzzles. No one doubts that a policy solution is out there somewhere, ready to be discovered by the right team of experts. (Well, almost no one.)

The greater, unacknowledged problem is that while expertise can help solve puzzles, it can’t resolve mysteries. If the troubles we face are mysteries, confronting them will require not expertise and optimism but humility and patience.

I’m not advocating for resignation in the face of human suffering. These mysteries are problematic, of course—but to label them as “problems” implies a solution to be discovered and applied. Whereas, in point of fact, these “problems” function in real life more as mysteries than puzzles.

I’m not suggesting that diseases can’t be cured or that we can’t find homes for homeless people in my city. Poverty is an injustice. War is a perversion. The very stones cry out.

I’m also aware that good things may be accomplished as byproducts of the attempt to do great things. But we must know our limits and properly size our ambitions. Human history is littered with the ill effects of people who set out to “solve problems” and left destruction and suffering in their wake. The great ambitions to solve great problems will too easily create great suffering instead.

Just because we’re surrounded by mysteries doesn’t mean we’re hopeless. It means we’re human. Our existence in this life is not a problem-to-be-solved but a mystery-to-be-lived-in. Perfect solutions for human suffering will always lie just out of reach, foiled by our fallible nature.

From whence cometh our help? Probably not the experts.

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