When I write an article or hold a lecture, give a speech or try to explain issues in a debate, and when I take part in collection of data and learn things, and later, analyse and share that information, what I do is rarely neutral, even if I try to be as fair and objective as possible. It is not the whole truth.

On the other hand, it is not propaganda either. I would always try to argue in such a way that others can check my data and analysis, question what I say and draw attention to weaknesses, prejudices and misunderstandings. Even if I try to be open, perhaps say what I am uncertain about, still, I also want my message to be conveyed convincingly and my points understood. I also expect my readers and listeners, opponents or supporters, to be fair with me. In other words, I shouldn’t try to win a debate based on pretence and underhandedness, unfair representation of facts, and the like.

Recently, I have reflected on these issues, especially as regards big issues and big personalities, realizing how difficult it is to be entirely fair and present ‘all relevant data’. This became quite clear after I had listened to President Barrack Obama’s two great speeches in Africa last weekend; the one in Kenya where he spoke about his own background and advising young people what they should do; and the more political speech in the ‘Africa Hall’ in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at the headquarters of the African Union (AU). Excellent speeches both of them, of course, educational, motivational and inspiring – one wouldn’t expect anything less of Obama, especially not on his father’s continent. But he was also lecturing the listeners, being a ‘Besserwisser’, ignoring scientific objectivity.

True, an American president, well any head of state or government, may be allowed to do that; beautifying reality to own advantage and criticizing others. Obama went further than most other leaders would.

But if one discusses democracy, freedom and human rights issues, and tell young men and women how to become more successful, it is important to consider what they have done, how far they have gone as for gender equality, education for girls and boys, moving away for outdated traditions such as corporal punishment and female genital mutilation, and much more. Indeed, how clever and hard working young men are in Nairobi’s poor men’s juakali industrial city, Kikumba, where craftsmen’s muscles and sweat re-create empty petrol drums into an elegant serving dishes, spare parts for Toyota Corollas or ‘anything else you can name’, using imagination and intelligence, and indeed manual skills.

Against all odds, young people do what nobody expected they could. That includes girls, too, who complete education, get into salaried posts or take up entrepreneurial challenges, often against abuse, early marriages and more.

In Kenya, Ethiopia, Pakistan and elsewhere, we who come from more comfortable backgrounds, can only bow our heads to people who do well thanks to none but themselves; Americans wave their hats to them. Often, achievements are made through fights and struggles, against local and international companies and organizations.

Yet, maybe Obama is right when he focuses on what young people should do themselves; it is true that they will have to build the new house and the new world themselves; nobody will do it for them. The vision and dreams are basic, especially for the more academic and intellectual, but for the rest, it is mostly hard work. And for American politicians, of any ethnic heritage, it is also important to get once own house in order. America has a lot to do at home and indeed in its international relations. As a superpower, America must realize that it has a special responsibility to see the world from the other side, too, which might even be against America’s own interests. Obama would know something about that from within America, where there are huge inequalities between people, partly caused by ethnicity, but also based on economic and other factors. Much of his reasons for being in politics and reaching the top office would be to work for change. He has again spoken forcefully about poor race relations and about improving the broken justice system. However, a president cannot talk about all that he sees is wrong, and he can only correct some during his time in office. Besides, he would often not see nor speak the whole truth.

We say that we should have our own house in order before we tell others what they should do. It is a good advice, but we can also not wait till all is perfect at home either. An American president can lecture anyone. But very few would come to America and point out in official speeches what is wrong there (but we would criticize the superpower’s faults in other connections).

In Europe, neighbours would not tell each other about their faults. It would be unheard of if an official from Sweden or Denmark came to my home country Norway and gave us ‘advice’. And a Norwegian leader would not do it elsewhere. Recently, though, leaders in individual European Union countries have felt they can say ‘all kinds of things’ about Greece. That is unfortunate and it will take time to normalize relations and for Germany and other countries not to be seen as ‘nasty bullies’. Many things that have been said about Greece are not true either; those who speak and give ‘advice’ don’t know Greece well enough, and the causes for the deep financial difficulties. They don’t want to admit that Germany and other bigger countries have made a lot of money on selling and lending to Greece. One myth that has been created is that the Greek work less than most other Europeans; that is often not true. Take the tourist industry (making up for a quarter of the Greek economy) where people work very long and odd hours – the same way as shopkeepers and salesmen do in Pakistan. Productivity is often also higher than what we see when we use the measuring-tape for productivity that is meant for factories only. Yes, we make rules and use instruments made so that those who made them look good themselves.

Let me end today’s article as I began it, noting that we must always be self-critical about how we describe and analyze issues, people, groups, countries, and so on – indeed how we advice others about how they should live and do things. On the other hand, we should also speak up, and others should do it to us, too. But we must weigh our words so that the listeners don’t run away – remembering that none sees the whole truth, and most of us are often biased and self-serving, wittingly or unwittingly.

n The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with

experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.