As a former naval officer, I distinctly recall my fellow Marine Corps lawyers reverently referring to the "70 percent solution": the idea of making decisions with imperfect information when time is of the essence. The Marines "do not advocate shoot-from-the-hip decision-making. Neither do they condone fast, foolish plans. But they do caution against waiting until all the angles are figured out."
Here in the context of a refugee crisis, I wonder, does the 70 percent solution make sense?
Move decisively when time is short.
In the past several weeks, I visited a number of child-friendly spaces (CFS) operated throughout the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, which, since July 2012, has housed Syrians fleeing the ongoing civil war. Save the Children operates 21 CFSs, as they are affectionately known. They are clean, organized, colorful, secure centers, where children go to play and participate in organized activity. They are the calm eye in the center of the storm.
In addition to the CFSs, three kindergartens (KG) are scattered throughout the vast camp, which is a bustling city -- replete with mobile cell repair shops, butcheries, and wedding dress stores. The KGs, with names like Sunshine and Rainbow, are enchanted places. Smiles abound and song and dance embrace the two caravans that make up each KG, while Jordanian staff team with Syrian volunteers to give every minute meaning. These are places where joy slays despair daily and resiliency thrives.
But, then one spies another sight.
On the outskirts of the camp sits a tractor-trailer. A man on the street passes a baby to another man reaching out from a small window inside the trailer. From the back of the trailer, one notices Syrians sitting on makeshift benches in the trailer as other Syrians scamper to make their way into the trailer. I am dumbfounded by the sight, so I inquire, which is when a new word seeps into my lexicon: repatriation. These Syrians are going home. That's right, for whatever reason -- to reunite with family, fight in the civil war, or escape "life" in the camp -- they want out. This reality juxtaposed with the nirvanas that are the CFSs and the KGs reminds one that we are, indeed, in the midst of a crisis.
The humanitarian response to this crisis is the subject of many meetings at base camp, home to the nongovernmental organizations toiling at Za'atari, and in Amman, an urban center that many Syrian refugees now call home. Invariably in these coordination meetings, there comes a point when the status updates are done, the statistics shared, and the procedures discussed. It is then that deliberation comes face-to-face with the moment of truth -- what now? Often, that moment is met with a request for more data, a new assessment, or a baseline review.
I get it. We are dealing with a vulnerable population, in a fluid circumstance, with many unknowns. Does child labor at the camp primarily stem from poverty or the need of boys to fast-forward into "manhood" through work? Why do so many fathers preclude daughters from attending school? Do the indicators of vulnerability accurately capture the nuances of being a foreigner in a foreign land? All of these questions beg for answers. Good ones.
But, here's the rub: Time is of the essence. Many boys are forgoing schools, too many girls are homebound, and myriad families are vulnerable to exploitation. This is, after all, a crisis.
As a lawyer, I am enthralled by proof and madly in love with evidence. But, sometimes -- actually all too often -- I am forced to make peace with the fact that the smoking gun is not within my desperate grasp. Enter the 70 percent solution.
What if those of us searching for solutions made peace with the fact that we just do not -- and, perhaps, may not -- fully understand all of the contours of some of the seemingly intractable problems facing the Syrian refugee population? How about if we look to the good of Za'atri and say "let's continue to do what we can," even when we remain in the dark? And how about we implement plans that our years of collective experience tell us have a good chance of working but lack contemporaneous data to back it up?
Not long ago, the International Rescue Committee tweeted: "Don't wait for more data: act now on gender violence in emergencies." This made me wonder, what is the worst-case scenario if those of us in the midst of humanitarian crises embraced the 70 percent solution?
Perhaps I am asking the wrong question; perhaps the real question is what is the worst-case scenario if those of us in the midst of humanitarian crises wait for 30 percent more data?
I suspect I know what the Marine Corps would say.