Fri 8 Oct 2010
I’ve worked in the field of development studies for more than a decade now, mostly from the academic side. In academia, we are very good at looking at the nuances of language and practice to try and detect why people do the things that they do. As a result, in development studies we spend a lot of time thinking about discourses of development – the ways that we think about, speak about and act in the world – and how those shape the ways in which we “do development”. Mostly, academics do this to explain why it is that development agencies and practitioners keep doing the same things over and over, hoping for a different result (which, you might remember, is how Einstein defined insanity). There are some wonderful studies based in this approach that everyone should be reading, including Ferguson’s The Anti-Politics Machine, Scott’s Seeing Like A State, and Mitchell’s Rule of Experts (links in the sidebar to the right). All help us to better understand why development doesn’t seem to work as well as we hope. I suppose my forthcoming book (link also to the right) falls into this category as well, though I do not wade explicitly into social theory there (if you know the theory, you will see it in there – if you don’t, no worries, the argument is still perfectly intelligible).
What we academic types are not so good at is understanding the reality of life and work in a development organization. Many of us have never worked in one, or did so a long time ago as a relatively low-ranking person. However, when you rise in rank in an agency, you start to see the various organizational and political impediments to good work . . . and these impediments are at least as important for explaining development’s many failures as the (often-flawed) discursive framings of the world these agencies employ to understand the world.
With that in mind, I now strongly recommend you read The Clash of the Counter-bureaucracy and Development by former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios. Now, I don’t agree with a lot of the things that Natsios says about development in general – indeed, I think some of his logic with regard to economic growth as the core of development is very flawed – but I cannot argue at all with his gloves-off reading of how accountability measures, like monitoring and evaluation, are slowly choking USAID to death. And it is gloves off – the man names names. I was not AID under his leadership, but my colleagues all agree that he was a great administrator to work for, even if they did not agree with him all the time. The man knows development . . . which is more than I can say about some previous administrators here.
By the way, even if you don’t work in development, you should read this – it is a wider lesson about how the best intentions related to accountability can go all wrong. Those of you working for larger organizations will likely recognize parts of this storyline from where you sit. And it is a pretty entertaining read, if for no other reason then to watch Natsios just lay it out there on a few people. Must be nice to be retired . . .