A few comments on the blog related to some earlier posts on a Grand Challenge for Development have gotten me thinking a bit about development (the concept and the project) and if it is achievable.  There are those who would argue it is not, that development is an ill-conceived idea that invokes pathways of change that are now closed due to the changing global political economy, and treats life in the advanced economies as the apotheosis of human existence toward which everyone else is (and should be) marching.  To the extent development is taken to mean this sort of change, I agree completely – development is unattainable and meaningless.  There are not enough resources on Earth to allow everyone to live the way we do in the advanced economies, so the idea of a march toward that standard of living as a goal is gone regardless of how one might feel about it morally/ethically/etc.

But that does not mean that change cannot happen, that things cannot improve in a manner that is appreciated by people living in particular places.  Certainly, a shift from a post-subsistence income of $1 a day to $5 a day is a huge change that, in many parts of the world, would enable very different standards of health, education and well-being.  Surely this is worth striving for – and certainly, the people with whom I have worked in Ghana and Malawi would take that kind of a change over no change at all – and they would much rather than kind of change, than endless, pride-killing aid dependence. There is no doubt that this sort of change can be attained in many, if not most places.  Indeed, it has been accomplished.  Further, there are places where life expectancy has risen dramatically, infant mortality has fallen, nutrition and education levels have improved, and by any qualitative measure the quality of life has improved as a direct result of aid interventions (often termed development, but this should only count as development if the changes are sustained after the aid ends).  The real question at hand is not if it can be done, but why the results of our aid/development efforts are so erratic.

You see, for every case of improved life expectancy, there is the falling expectancies in Southern Africa.  For every case of improved nutrition and food availability, there are cases of increasing malnutrition and food insecurity (such that in sub-Saharan Africa, the balance has tipped toward less food availability per capita than two decades ago), and so on.  What works in one place often fails in another.  And the fact is that we don’t understand why this is in a systematic way.  I am a geographer and an anthropologist, so I am quite sympathetic to the argument that the local specificity of culture and society have a lot to do with the efficacy of particular interventions, and therefore explain a lot of the variability we see in project outcomes.  However, “local specificity” isn’t an answer, it is a blanket explanation that isn’t actionable in a specific way.  We persist in this answer because it pushes development (and aid) failure into the realm of the qualitative, the idiosyncratic.  And this attitude absolves us, the development community, from blame when things don’t work out.  Your project failed? Ah, well, who could have known that local land tenure rules would prevent the successful adoption of tree crops by women?  Subtly, we blame the victims with this mentality.

What it comes down to, I think, is a need to admit that we have at best a shaky idea of what works because in many areas (both geographic and technical) we really don’t understand what it is we are trying to transform when we engage in aid and development work.  We are better in some areas (health) because, frankly, they do a better job of gathering data and analyzing it than we do in, say, rural development (hey, don’t take my word for it – read some Robert Chambers, for heaven’s sake!).  But, in the end, we are driven by our myths about how markets and globalization work, how development/aid is linked to change, and how the problems we claim to address through development and aid came about in the first place.  This argument is the heart of my book (Amazon link here) – and I spend the first half using the story of two villages in Ghana to lay out how our assumptions about the world and how it works are mostly wrong, the next quarter explaining why this is a major problem for everything from economics to the environment, and the last quarter thinking about how to change things.

My take is but one take – and a partial one at that.  We need more people to think about our assumptions when we identify development challenges, design programs, and implement projects.  We need to replace assumptions with evidence.  And we need to be a lot more humble about our assumptions AND our evidence – so we stay open to new ideas and evidence as they inevitably flow in.