Archive for April, 2011

Sasha Dichter has an interesting post about marketing and the poor – my initial reaction was annoyance, as I grow weary of the gratuitous academia-bashing that takes place in some corners of the aid world. The post is sullied by a few needless kicks to the academic straw-man that I found off-putting.  But, digging past that, I found myself largely in agreement with two big points.

First, Dichter raises and then dismisses an all-to-common frustrating assumption (that ties into one of my posts yesterday about the appropriation of qualitative research and findings by economists):

Ivory tower development practitioners don’t respect the poor, think of them as inanimate beneficiaries, and so practitioners don’t take real needs and aspirations into account.

As he implies, this attitude is neither useful nor really accurate – it doesn’t get us down the road toward explaining why things go wrong.  I made the same point about development agencies and workers in Delivering Development:

The vast majority of people working for development organizations are intelligent and good-hearted. They care deeply about the plight of the global poor and labor each day on projects and policies that might, finally, reverse the trends of inequality and unsustainability that mark life in much of the world . . . If these agencies and individuals are, by and large, trying their hardest to do good and have billions of dollars to work with, why are they failing?

So, moving forward with that sense of kinship, I found his next point spot on:

Ivory tower development practitioners are crappy marketers.

Enought with the “ivory tower” bashing, Sasha – you are obscuring a really good point here.  Way back last summer, when I got myself embroiled in a bruhaha over how members of the IPCC were supposed to communicate with the press that eventually made its way into the New York Times via Dot Earth, I found myself having email conversations with Rajendra Pachauri (who was actually very gracious and engaged).  In the course of our exchanges, I argued exactly the same point Sasha is making, but in the context of how we message information about climate change.

I am merely suggesting that there are people out there who spend their lives thinking about how to get messages out there, and control that message once it is out there. Just as we employ experts in our research and in these assessment reports precisely because they bring skills and training to the table that we lack, so too we must consider bringing in those with expertise in marketing and outreach.

I’m not sure how well I was heard on this, though they do have a head of outreach in the secretariat now . . .

In short, good point Sasha.  Now, could you go easy on the ivory tower bashing while making it?  Believe it or not, many of us know about this problem and would love to work with people with the expertise to fix it.

Just a quick thought, given the interest in my last two posts. I have (obviously) been driven a bit crazy by the RCT/behavioral economics folks who suddenly seem to be coming around to either qualitative methods to explain their results . . . which are generally results that qualitative researchers have known about for a long time.  In other words, it seems to me that there is a real danger here that a sort of waving at qualitative methods (i.e. the “bad journalism” approach, where you just do a bunch of interviews without considering who to interview, how to interview them, why interviews vs. focus groups vs. whatever, etc.) might become yet another way to prolong the hegemony of economics over development thinking.

I’m worried about this because while I think economic approaches and theory have purchase on explanation to varying degrees depending on the subject at hand and the scale of analysis, in the end any effort to explain the emergence of and means of addressing a development issue or challenge at a scale that might have meaningful impact that relies on the economic alone will not result in a particularly complete explanation for observed events, nor will it help us understand likely outcome pathways in future similar situations.  Put another way, only sometimes can economics get us to a “good enough” solution that enables really productive development work.

What if I told you that I had really good, concrete empirical data from a really tiny dataset (two villages in Ghana, but the entire population of those two villages, so no sampling issues) that clearly demonstrated that any effort to explain livelihoods decision-making in these villages cannot be productively explained by economic approaches – whether crude (i.e. assumptions about maximizing behavior) or complex (game theoretic approaches)?  Instead, the data makes it remarkably clear that the economic, while a component of decision-making, is just one component of a project of household governance – it is a clearly external (etic, for you anthro types out there) heuristic that improperly parses the social processes that lead to livelihoods decisions. In short, I can show where the explanatory power of “the economic” stops, and where meaningful explanation requires a re-embedding of the economic in larger social processes that cannot be reduced to the economic (and, at the same time, which demonstrates that the economic cannot be reduced to any of these other processes).

Basically, I’m starting to walk you through my retheorization of livelihoods as what Foucault called governmentality . . . but I could also work this up as a means of discrediting the RCT and behavioral economics turn toward the qualitative by arguing that these efforts are tails wagging the dog . . .


Would folks who know precious little about development please stop telling everyone what the discipline of development looks like?  Seriously. Francis Fukuyama has a piece in the American Interest in which he decries the lack of what he calls “large perspective” work in the social sciences. Admittedly, I have some sympathy for his position here – like all academic disciplines, the social sciences generally reward narrow specialization, or at least that is what most of us are trained to believe.  I think there is another way to succeed in academia, a path I am taking – to write not only high quality, refereed research in one’s field(s), but also general-audiences works that gain a wider profile (that was the point of writing Delivering Development).  When you reach audiences beyond academia, you develop other lines of influence, other sources of funding . . . and generally give yourself some space in your home institution, as nobody wants to fire/lose the visible public intellectual.  Sadly, few of us choose the buck the system in this manner, and therefore become slaves to our journals and their relatively narrow audiences.

I also like Fukuyama’s clear argument about the goals of social science:

“The aspiration of social science to replicate the predictability and formality of certain natural sciences is, in the end, a hopeless endeavor. Human societies, as Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper and others understood, are far too complex to model at an aggregate level.”

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.  When we refuse to admit this, we empower the people who are willing to take problematic data and jam it through dicey quantitative tools to produce semi-coherent, super-shallow analyses that appear to present simple framings of the world and solutions to our problems while in fact they obscure any real understanding of what is going on, and what might be done.

But in between these two points, made at the beginning and end of the article, respectively, Fukuyama populates his piece with a number of statements about development that range from the problematic to the factually incorrect.  In the end, I am forced to conclude that he has little, if any, understanding of contemporary development in theory or practice.  Sadly, this did not keep him from making a number of sweeping, highly erroneous statements.  For example, at one point he makes the claim

Few scholars have sought to understand development as an inter-connected process with political, economic and social parts.

This claim exists to further his argument that development is plagued by siloed thinking that has led to intellectual incoherence and failed policy. While I might agree about development having problems with its intellectual coherence, he is totally wrong in this claim. It only holds up if one chooses to NOT use something as ubiquitous as Google Scholar (let alone Web of Science) to examine the literature of the past 20 years.  Anthropologists, geographers and sociologists have been doing just this sort of work, mostly at the community level, all along.  Often the lessons of this work are not aimed beyond the communities in which the work was undertaken, but there is a giant volume of work out there that has long taken this interconnection seriously.

Further, Fukuyama’s ignorance of the current state of the discipline and practice of development shows in his claim:

While paying lip service to the importance of institutions, most economists and field practitioners still see politics as at best an obstacle to the real work of development, which is improvement in incomes, health, education and the like, and not as an independent objective of development strategy. (Amartya Sen is an important exception to this generalization.) The democracy promotion agencies, for their part, spend relatively little time worrying about economic growth, social policy or public health, which in their view are goods often used by authoritarian regimes to buy off populations and prevent democratization.

While some economists still treat “the social” as maximizing behavior warped by a bunch of externalities, those that are any good concern themselves with politics (at scales from the state to the household).  Practitioners, perhaps more than anyone else, know that politics are hugely important to the work of development.  Sen has a wide purchase and following throughout development, including at my current employer.  And how does one then address the Democracy and Governance Office in my Bureau – they are, without question, a democracy promotion office . . . but their whole lives revolve around linking this to various other development efforts like economic growth or public health. When he claims that those who work for USAID “do not seek an understanding of the political context within which aid is used and abused” he’s simply factually incorrect. Basically, Fukuyama is just throwing out huge claims that have little or no anchor in the reality of contemporary development agencies or practice.

Fukuyama’s article was not really about development – it was about understanding social change.  However, in using development as his foil in this piece, Fukuyama has done a great disservice to the contemporary discipline – both in its good and bad aspects.  Like those who would give us useless universalizing generalizations and predictions from their social inquiries, Fukuyama’s (mis)reading of development makes it harder to see where the real problems are, and how we might address them.

You know, qualitative social scientists of various stripes have long complained of their marginalization in development.  Examples abound of anthropologists, geographers, and sociologists complaining about the influence of the quantitatively-driven economists (and to a lesser extent, some political scientists) over development theory and policy.  While I am not much for whining, these complaints are often on the mark – quantitative data (of the sort employed by economists, and currently all the rage in political science) tends to carry the day over qualitative data, and the nuanced lessons of ethnographic research are dismissed as unimplementable, ideosyncratic/place-specific, without general value, etc.  This is not to say that I have an issue with quantitative data – I believe we should employ the right tool for the job at hand.  Sadly, most people only have either qualitative or quantitative skills, making the selection of appropriate tools pretty difficult . . .

But what is interesting, of late, is what appears to be a turn toward the lessons of the qualitative social sciences in development . . . only without actually referencing or reading those qualitative literatures.  Indeed, the former quantitative masters of the development universe are now starting to figure out and explore . . . the very things that the qualitative community has known for decades. What is really frustrating and galling is that these “new” studies are being lauded as groundbreaking and getting great play in the development world, despite the fact they are reinventing the qualitative wheel, and without much of the nuance of the current qualitative literature and its several decades of nuance.

What brings me to today’s post is the new piece on hunger in Foreign Policy by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo.  On one hand, this is great news – good to see development rising to the fore in an outlet like Foreign Policy.  I also largely agree with their conclusions – that the poverty trap/governance debate in development is oversimplified, that food security outcomes are not explicable through a single theory, etc.  On the other hand, from the perspective of a qualitative researcher looking at development, there is nothing new in this article.  Indeed, the implicit premise of the article is galling: When they argue that to address poverty, “In practical terms, that meant we’d have to start understanding how the poor really live their lives,” the implication is that nobody has been doing this.  But what of the tens of thousands of anthropologists, geographers and sociologists (as well as representatives of other cool, hybridized fields like new cultural historians and ethnoarchaeologists).  Hell, what of the Peace Corps?

Whether intentional or not, this article wipes the qualitative research slate clean, allowing the authors to present their work in a methodological and intellectual vacuum.  This is the first of my problems with this article – not so much with its findings, but with its appearance of method.  While I am sure that there is more to their research than presented in the article, the way their piece is structured, the case studies look like evidence/data for a new framing of food security.  They are not – they are illustrations of the larger conceptual points that Banerjee and Duflo are making.  I am sure that Banerjee and Duflo know this, but the reader does not – instead, most readers will think this represents some sort of qualitative research, or a mixed method approach that takes “hard numbers” and mixes it in with the loose suppositions that Banerjee and Duflo offer by way of explanation for the “surprising” outcomes they present.  But loose supposition is not qualitative research – at best, it is journalism. Bad journalism. My work, and the work of many, many colleagues, is based on rigorous methods of observation and analysis that produce validatable data on social phenomena.  The work that led to Delivering Development and many of my refereed publications took nearly two years of on-the-ground observation and interviewing, including follow-ups, focus groups and even the use of archaeology and remotely-sensed data on land use to cross-check and validate both my data and my analyses.

The result of all that work was a deep humility in the face of the challenges that those living in places like Coastal Ghana or Southern Malawi manage on a day-to-day basis . . . and deep humility when addressing the idea of explanation.  This is an experience I share with countless colleagues who have spent a lot of time on the ground in communities, ministries and aid organizations, a coming to grips with the fact that massively generalizable solutions simply don’t exist in the way we want them to, and that singular interventions will never address the challenges facing those living in the Global South.

So, I find it frustrating when Banerjee and Duflo present this observation as in any way unique:

What we’ve found is that the story of hunger, and of poverty more broadly, is far more complex than any one statistic or grand theory; it is a world where those without enough to eat may save up to buy a TV instead, where more money doesn’t necessarily translate into more food, and where making rice cheaper can sometimes even lead people to buy less rice.

For anyone working in food security – that is, anyone who has been reading the literature coming out of anthropology, geography, sociology, and even some areas of ag econ, this is not a revelation – this is standard knowledge.  A few years ago I spent a lot of time and ink on an article in Food Policy that tried to loosely frame a schematic of local decision-making that leads to food security outcomes – an effort to systematize an approach to the highly complex sets of processes and decisions that produce hunger in particular places because there is really no way to get a single, generalized statistic or finding that will explain hunger outcomes everywhere.

In other words: We know.  So what do you have to tell us?

The answer, unfortunately, is not very much . . . because in the end they don’t really dive into the social processes that lead to the sorts of decisions that they see as interesting or counterintuitive.  This is where the heat is in development research – there are a few of us working down at this level, trying to come up with new framings of social process that move us past a reliance solely on the blunt tool of economistic rationality (which can help explain some behaviors and decisions) toward a more nuanced framing of how those rationalities are constructed by, and mobilize, much larger social processes like gender identification.  The theories in which we are dealing are very complex, but they do work (at least I think my work with governmentality is working – but the reviewers at Development and Change might not agree).

And maybe, just maybe, there is an opening to get this sort of work out into the mainstream, to get it applied – we’re going to try to do this at work, pulling together resources and interests across two Bureaus and three offices to see if a reframing of livelihoods around Foucault’s idea of governmentality can, in fact, get us better resolution on livelihoods and food security outcomes than current livelihoods models (which mostly assume that decisionmaking is driven by an effort to maximize material returns on investment and effort). Perhaps I rest too much faith on the idea of evidence, but if we can implement this idea and demonstrate that it works better, perhaps we will have a lever with which to push oversimplified economistic assumptions out of the way, while still doing justice to the complexity of social process and explanation in development.

Tom over at A View from the Cave has a really interesting observation at the end of his post on the Mortensen scandal the other day:

I have been conducting interviews with the Knowledge Management team with UNICEF and the one today go to discussing the access of information. I was struck when the gentleman I was interviewing said, “There are hundreds of offices and thousands of people in UNICEF. Any idea that I come with has likely been already done by 50 people and better than what I had imagined.” We need to access this information and share it with each other so that a story like this will not go the same route.

I know that this is not a new observation – hell, it is practically the mantra of the ICT for development crowd – but I want to point out something that gets lost in its common repetition: optimism.  The interviewee above was not disparaging the idea of access to information, but instead showing tremendous humility in the face of a vast, talented organization.  Tom’s point was to move from this humble observation to (quite rightly) point out that while great ideas may exist within the organization, until they are accessed or shared they are just potential energy.

This is the same thing I tried to leave readers with as one of the takeaways from Delivering Development.  As I argue:

We probably overlook significant problems every day, as our measurements fail to capture them, and we are likely mismeasuring many of those we can see. However, this is not failure; this is hope. If we acknowledge that these are, indeed, significant problems that must be addressed if we wish to build a sustainable future, then we can abandon the baggage of decades of failure. We can open ourselves up to innovation that might be unimaginable from within the echo chamber of contemporary globalization and development . . .

This uncertainty, for me, is hope. There are more than 6.5 billion people on this planet. Surely at least several of them have innovative and exciting ideas about how to address the challenges facing their lives, ideas that might be applicable in other places or be philosophically innovative. We will not know unless we ask, unless we actively go looking for these ideas and empower those who have them to express them to the world.

In short, Tom’s interviewee sees 50,000 people as a hopeful resource.  I see the nearly 7 billion people on this planet in the same way.  I am optimistic about the “potential energy” for addressing global challenges that exists out there in the world.  That said, it will be nothing but potential until we empower people to convert it into kinetic actions.  Delivering Development provides only the loosest schematic of one way of thinking about doing this (there is a much, much more detailed project/workplan behind that loose schematic) that was presented to raise a political challenge the the status quo focus on experts and “developed country” institutions in development – if we know that people living in the Global South have good ideas, and we can empower these people to share their ideas and solutions, why don’t we?

Sometimes optimism requires a lead blocker.  I’m happy to play that role . . . hopefully someone is following me through the line.

Having lived in Spain for a couple of years, I’ve been deeply moved by the history of the Spanish Civil War, especially the experience of Catalunya during that war.  For a moment, the anarchists actually ran Barcelona (such as anarchists can run anything at the scale of a city) and tried to create a vision of something different.  Something not capitalist, not communist, but uniquely libratory.  That vision was squashed between the Fascists of Franco and the Communists in their own ranks, both groups afraid of the challenge to their own political structures that the anarchists’ alternative vision posed.  The world ignored the eradication of the anarchists, the West excusing their inaction in the name of halting the advance of communism.

While the parallels are weak, at best, I feel some sort of odd parallel between anarchist Barcelona and contemporary Misrata.  In the fears that the Libyan rebels might be worse than Gaddafi are the echoes of those who feared the anarchists more than Fascism.  The journalists like Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros share something of a kinship with Orwell and his fellow fighters on the side of the anarchists, the ones who carried the story of Catalunya out of Barcelona as it fell, and never let the story die.

I wonder how history is going to judge our half-assed engagement in Libya.

Either drawing directly on Delivering Development, or working in parallel to it, people seem to be circling around the idea of development as an echo chamber from which we have great difficulty escaping to see the world as it is, not as we want it to be.

A View from The Cave approaches this issue through a discussion of skepticism in aid:

For some people, aid and development endeavors seem as simple as serving up a spoonful of sugar that is brimming with kindness, energy, compassion and good intentions. Simply add sugar to the prescribed medicine and we can save the world!

Unfortunately, we know that it is not so simple. Communicating this is even harder. Telling a women that her favorite clothing distribution organization could be preventing growth and contributing to the poverty cycle is not received well. Speaking with a gentleman about orphanages being filled with children who have been orphaned not due to the death of parents, but voluntarily after an orphanage has been established, will make you seem cold-hearted and uncaring.

This, of course, extends past outreach to the general public – the research and policy worlds are full of this sort of problem.  Marc Bellemare has a post up that addresses this through the idea of confirmation bias, which he eloquently defines as the phenomena in which “people tend to give much more importance than is warranted to whatever evidence confirms their beliefs, and they tend to discard whatever evidence contradicts their beliefs”.   He then extends this to the policy world:

Over the last decade, development economists have developed a number of methods aimed at establishing the validity of causal statements. But what good are those methods when policymakers have their own ideas about what works and what does not?

As an economist in a policy school, this is one of those things I don’t really like to think about. I nevertheless think social scientists in general — and economists in particular — should carefully think about how to engage with people who suffer from confirmation bias, as it is no longer sufficient to just put our findings out there for policy makers to use.

Too right! This is exactly my point from one of the panels I sat on at this year’s Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in Seattle – our responsibility as researchers does not end with publication.  It starts with publication, as that evidence is treated as nothing more than another viewpoint in the policy world, and can/will be used and abused to all sorts of ends if left undefended.

Finally, H-5inc. has drawn directly on Delivering Development in a recent post, arguing that a passage in the book “rather nicely sums up what I think is really at the root of our struggles to make productive and appropriate use of data” (that is a very nice thing to say, honestly):

We expect the world to work in a certain manner. Therefore, we gather data to measure the expected workings of the world and analyze those data through frameworks founded on the very understandings of the world they are meant either to affirm or to challenge. In addition, by our choice of data, and our means of analysis, we end up affirming that the world does indeed work the way we thought it did.

Lots of voices circling around the same subject, lots of different ways to intervene and start to tear down the echo chamber that limits us so severely in our efforts to productively engage the world.  I choose to interpret this as evidence in support of my hopelessly realistic optimism about development and the world in general.

what she said!

REVISED 6 April 2011, 11:35am

Esther Duflo responded in a comment below – you should read it.  She is completely reasonable, and lays out a clearer understanding of the discipline and her place in it than did the article I am critiquing here. I have edited the post below to reflect what I think is a more fair reading of what went wrong in the article


Esther Duflo is a fairly impressive person.  So why does she, and the Guardian, feel the need to inflate her resume?

Doing her PhD at MIT, she was one of the first doctoral students to apply economics to development, linking the two, at a time when there were few university faculties devoted to the subject.

“It was not considered a fancy area of study,” she says. “There was a generation of people who had started looking at development from other fields. They had their own theories and only a few were economists. What I contributed to doing was to start going into detail. But I did have some advisers and mentors.”

Er, no.  Development economics as a formal field had been around since the early 1980s (Note: Marc Bellemare and Duflo have both pointed out that the real roots of this discipline go back to the 1940s), and economists had been working on development issues since . . . colonialism, actually.  I imagine there are a lot of senior Ph.D. economists at the IMF, World Bank and various other organizations who will be amused to hear that they were beaten to their degrees by Duflo. She was not at all one of the first doctoral students to work on this, and there are/were plenty of faculties that look at development economics.

I suspect that this might have something to do with what Mark Blaug was talking about in his article “No History of Ideas, Please, We’re Economists.” In short, one of Blaug’s arguments is that disciplinary history has largely disappeared from doctoral programs in economics, with the predictable effect of dooming the discipline to repeat its errors.  I would extend Blaug’s point to many who work in the larger field of development – we have a lot of technical specialists out there with excellent training and experience, but relatively few of them understand development as a discipline with a history and a philosophy.  As a result, we see “new” projects proposed and programmed despite their odd resemblance to previous efforts that failed.

There is a hint of this in the article – after all, Duflo is correct in noting that she emerged as an academic at a time when other social science fields were on the ascendancy, but she the Guardian fails to ask why this was the trend at the time – especially after economics’ dominance of the field for so long. A little disciplinary history  here would have helped – these other fields rose to prominence in the aftermath of the collapse of development economics as a formal field in the late 1980s…

So, Guardian, anyone over there actually schooled in development? Or interested in fact-checking?

The BBC has posted an interesting map of Nigeria that captures the spatiality of politics, ethnicity, wealth, health, literacy and oil.  There are significant problems with this map.  The underlying data has fairly large error bars that are not acknowledged, and the presentation of the data is somewhat problematic; for example, the ethnic “areas” in the country are represented only by the majority group, hiding the heterogeneity of these areas, and other data is aggregated at the state level, blurring heterogenous voting patterns, incomes, literacy rates and health situations. I really wish that those who create this sort of thing would do a better job addressing some of these issues, and pointing out the issues they cannot address to help the reader better evaluate the data.

But even with all of these caveats, this map is a striking illustration of the problems with using national-level statistics to guide development policy and programs.  Look at the distributions of wealth, health and literacy in the country – error bars or no, this data clearly demonstrates that national measures of wealth cannot guide useful economic policy, national measures of literacy might obscure regional or ethnic patterns of educational neglect, and national vaccination statistics tell us nothing about the regional variations in disease ecology and healthcare delivery that shape health outcomes in this country.

This is not to say that states don’t matter – they matter a lot.  However, when we use national-scale data for just about anything, we are making very bad assumptions about the heterogeneity of the situation in that country . . . and we are probably missing key opportunities and challenges we should be addressing in our work.