Beyond the limits of efficiency and accountability

By Paul Heidebrecht, MCC Ottawa Office Director

In an interview on CBC Radio’s The House on July 7, 2012, Canada’s new Minister of International Cooperation, Julian Fantino, described his priorities for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA):

“I’ll be looking for efficiencies… insuring that every nickel of taxpayer money is spent for the right reasons, that we have accountability, and that we… achieve the optimum results with taxpayer money.”

In this respect he made it clear that he would be following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Bev Oda, whose speeches and press releases made frequent use of words such as “efficiencies” and “accountability.”

These words were still ringing in my ears a few days later when I presented a paper at a conference held at Wheaton College, a prominent evangelical school outside of Chicago, Illinois. Entitled Prophet in the Technological Wilderness, the conference was organized by the International Jacques Ellul Society to mark the centenary of the birth of Ellul, a French sociologist and theologian who died in 1994.

Wheaton is in the process of adding Ellul’s vast collection of published and unpublished writings to its archives, joining the papers of other prominent Christian leaders and writers such as Billy Graham and Frederick Buechner.

Ellul is known for his trenchant commentaries on both biblical texts and his social context. The latter focused primarily on the dominance of what he termed technique—that is, the pursuit of efficiency that is embodied in not only in technological devices and systems, but in all human activities. Contemporary society, he argued, has become preoccupied with finding the “one best means” in everything that we do.

What, you may be wondering, is the problem with that? Who could be against trying to be more efficient, especially when resources are growing scarcer and needs are growing larger?

According to Ellul, the problem with the dominance of technique—with our obsession with things such as efficiency and accountability—is that it inhibits the proper consideration of the ends we are pursuing. He goes so far as to describe this inhibition as a state of tyranny, because individuals and communities no longer have the freedom to choose means other than those dictated by the outcome of (apparently) rational analysis.

Ellul’s analysis poses a challenge not only to how Christians conceive of governmental bureaucracies such as CIDA, but how we conceive of our own work. It speaks to MCC as well as Minister Fantino!

After all, if Mennonites are ever tempted by the vice of pride, it might be for our frugality, for our ability to do “more with less,” as the title of a well-known cookbook published by MCC puts it. And if Mennonites are ever tempted by the vice of wrath, it might be when we encounter incompetence or corruption.

To be clear, I don’t think that Ellul’s point was that we should be satisfied with wastefulness, incompetence, or corruption. We should never celebrate careless thinking or willful deceit.

His primary concern was that we should never think that effectiveness depends entirely on our own actions. We should resist the illusion that we can fully grasp how to best improve our methodologies.

For Ellul, the solution to the problem of the tyranny of technique, indeed, the solution to all problems, is Christ. Our freedom, our very salvation, depends on the work that Christ accomplishes, not the work of our own hands and minds. Christ is the one best means that relativizes all other means, putting them in their proper place.

The lesson for institutions such as MCC and, dare I say, even CIDA, is that we should avoid letting our efforts to improve the way we work become ends in themselves. True effectiveness means that we must subordinate the pursuit of efficiency and accountability to the greater ends that we seek.

One thought on “Beyond the limits of efficiency and accountability

  1. As an Aboriginal Christian working for the past 4 years as MCC’s Aboriginal Neighbour’s Coordinator in Manitoba, I like this article and agree with it. Christ is the answer to many of the problems we are faced with in today’s society. However, if only a small percentage know Christ and follow His teachings (and the gap appears to be widening), then we need more people who are willing to go out and teach/reach more peopie in the name of Christ. Mennonites, I find, have done this quite effectively in the past, but could be more effective if they were to go back to some of the old ways of spreading the Good News of Christ. What concerns me, as an Aboriginal Elder, is that Mennonites (at least younger Mennonites) are not as willing to take the risks/challenges, as were the older ones to go out (like Christ did) in bringing the Word to less privileged populations. Please note, I make this statement not on the global scene, but more specifically, to what I witness in the Aboriginal community.

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