Sun 30 Oct 2011
So, it seems I have been challenged/called out/what-have-you by the folks at Imagine There Is No . . . over what I would do (as opposed to critique) about development. At least I think that is what is going on, given that I received this tweet from them:
In general, I think this is a fair question. Critique is nice, but at the end of the day I strive to build something from my critiques. As I tell my grad students, I can train a monkey to take something apart – there isn’t much talent to that. On the other hand, rebuilding something from whatever you just dismantled actually requires talent. I admit to being a bit concerned about calling what I build “better”, mostly because such judgments gloss over the fact that any development intervention produces winners and losers, and therefore even a “better” intervention will probably not be better for someone. I prefer to think about doing things differently, with an eye toward resolving some of the issues that I critique.
So, I will endeavor to answer – but first I must point out that asking someone what s/he would do for development with $1 billion is a very naive question. I appreciate its spirit, but there isn’t much point to laying down a challenge that has little alignment with how the world works. I think this is worth pointing out in light of the post on Imagine There Is No . . ., as they seem to be tweaking Bill Easterly for not having a good answer to their question. However, for anyone who has ever worked for a development agency, the question “on what would you spend a billion dollars” comes off as a gotcha question because it is sort of nonsensical. While the question might be phrased to make us think about an ideal world, those of us engaged in the doing of development who take its critique and rethinking seriously immediately start thinking about the sorts of things that would have to happen to make spending $1 billion possible and practical. Those problems are legion . . . and pretty much any answer you give to the question is open to a lot of critique, either from a practical standpoint (great idea that is totally impractical) or from the critique side (and idea that is just replicating existing problems). When caught in a no-win situation, the best option is not to answer at all. Sure, we should imagine a perfect world (after all, according to A World Of Difference, I am “something of a radical thinker”), but we do not work in that world – and people live in the Global South right now, so anything we do necessarily must engage with the imperfections of the now even as we try to transcend them.
Given all of this, I offer the following important caveats to my answer:
1) I am presuming that I will receive this money as individual and not as part of any existing organization, as organizations have structures, mandates and histories that greatly shape what they can do.
2) I am presuming that I have my own organization, and that it already has sufficient staff to program $1 billion dollars – so a lot of contracting officers and lawyers are in place. Spending money is a lot harder than you’d think.
3) I am presuming that I answer only to myself and the folks in the Global South. Monitoring and evaluation are some of the biggest constraints on how we do development today. As I said in my talk at SAIS a little while ago, it is all well and good to argue that development merely catalyzes change in complex systems, which makes its outcomes inherently unpredictable. It is entirely another to program against that understanding – if the possible outcomes of a given intervention are hard to predict, how do you know which indicators to choose? How can you build an evaluation system that allows you to capture unintended positive and negative outcomes as the project matures without looking like you are fudging the numbers? This sounds like constrained thinking, but it is reality for anyone working in a big donor agency, and for all of the folks who implement the work of those agencies.
4) I am presuming there are enough qualified staff out there willing to quit what they are doing and come work for this project . . . and I am going to need a hell of a lot of staff.
5) I am presuming that I am expected to accomplish something in the relatively short term – i.e. 3-5 years, as well as trigger transformative changes in the Global South over the long haul. If you don’t produce some results relatively soon, people will bail out on you.
All of these, except for 5), are giant caveats that basically divorce the question and its answer from reality. I just need to point that out. Because of these caveats, my answer here cannot be interpreted as a critique of my current employer, or indeed any other development organization – an answer that would also serve as a critique of those institutions would have to engage with their realities, blowing out a lot of my caveats above . . . sorry, but that’s reality, and it is really important to acknowledge the limits of any answer to such a loaded question.
So, here goes. If I had $1 billion, I would spend it 1) figuring out what people really do to manage the challenges they face day-to-day, 2) identifying which of these activities are most effective at addressing those challenges and why, 3) evaluating whether any of these activities can be brought to scale or introduced to new places, and 4) bringing these ideas to scale.
Basically, I would spend $1 billion dollars on the argument “the new big idea is no more big ideas.”
Why would I do this, and do it this way? Well, I believe that in a general way those of us working in development have very poor information about what is actually happening in the Global South, in the places where the challenges to human well-being are most acute. We have a lot of assumptions about what is happening and why, but these are very often wrong. I wrote a whole book making this point – rather convincingly, if some of the reviews are to be believed. Because we don’t know what is happening, and our assumptions are wide of the mark, a lot of the interventions we design and implement are irrelevant (at best) or inappropriate (at worst) to the intended beneficiaries. Basically, the claim (a la Sachs and the Millennium Villages Project) that there are proven development interventions is crap. If we had known, proven interventions WE WOULD BE USING THEM. To assume otherwise is to basically slander the bulk of people working on development as either insufficiently motivated (if we weren’t so damn lazy, and we really cared about poor people, we could fix all of the problems in the world with these proven interventions) or to argue that there simply needs to be more money spent on these interventions to fix everything (except in many cases there is little evidence that funding is the principal cause of project failure). Of course, this is exactly what Sachs argues when asking for more support for the MVP, or when he is attacking anyone who dares critique the project.
The only way to really know what is happening is to get out there and talk to people. When you do, what you find is that the folks we classify as the “global poor” are hardly helpless. They are remarkably capable people who make livings under very difficult circumstances with very little resource and limited fallback options. They know their environments, their economy, and their society far better than anyone from the outside ever will. They are, in short, remarkable resources that should be treated as treasured repositories of human knowledge, not as a bunch of children who can’t work things out for themselves. $1 billion would get us a lot of people in a lot of places doing a lot of learning . . . and this sort of thing can be programmed to run over 6 months to a year to run fieldwork, do some data analysis, and start producing tailored understandings of what works and why in different places . . . which then makes it relatively easy to start identifying opportunities for scale-up. Actually, the scale-up could be done really easily, and could be very responsive to local needs, if we would just set up a means of letting communities speak to one another in a free and open manner – a network that let people in the Global South ask each other questions, and offer their answers and solutions, to one another. Members of this project from the Global North, from the Universities and from development organizations, could work with communities to convey the lessons the project has gleaned from various activities in various places to help transfer ideas and technology in a manner that facilitates their productive introduction in new contexts. So I suppose I would have to carve part of the $1 billion off for that network, but it would come in under the scale-up component of my project. Eventually, I suspect this sort of network would also become a means of learning about what is happening in the Global South as well . . .
With any luck at all, by year 3 we would see the cross-fertilization of all kinds of locally-appropriate ideas and technology happening around the world and the establishment of a nascent network that could build on this momentum to yield even more information about what people are already doing, and what challenges they really face. We would have started a process that has immediate impacts, but can work in tandem with the generational timescales of social change that are necessary to bring about major changes in any place. We would have started a process that likely could not be stopped. How it would play out is anyone’s guess . . . but it would sure look different than whatever we are doing now.