Last week, I published a short editorial in Scientific American’s SA Forum online that decried the near-total lack of organization or prioritization in the Sustainable Development Goals/Global Goals/whatever they are called this week. My argument was simple: by not ordering or prioritizing goals, the SDGs

risk becoming an empty exercise that empowers business as usual in the field of global development.

At the conclusion of that piece, I suggested that the only way to avoid this outcome was to find actors who were able to demand organization and prioritization among these goals – principally the big bilateral donors like USAID and DfID, or perhaps the Gates foundation (which, on expenditures, comes in around the world’s sixth-largest donor organization).

I’ve been taken to task a few times by colleagues for this suggestion. These rather polite and professional interventions (I know, not at all like the internet I’ve come to expect) pointed out that I’d empowered the big donors, with their problematic, often Eurocentric framings of development and how to achieve it, to act as the saviors of development via the SDGs. Given my rather clear critical stance with regard to these framings of development (most clearly articulated in Delivering Development, but generally present in most of the stuff I write), I think some folks were mystified by my logic. So allow me to clarify:

When we refuse to define terms, organize concepts or efforts, or engage in the politics necessary to set priorities, we are not apolitical: we are empowering other political agendas. The basic argument of my op-ed was simple: by not making hard decisions, we have empowered a particular political agenda, one that leaves development in a business-as-usual situation. Therefore, I see nearly any effort at locking down priorities and organizing efforts as superior to no prioritization at all, because any effort to set priorities will accomplish two things:

First, it will bring politics to the fore, and we will all be forced to wrestle with what we want to prioritize and why.

Second, it will lock down the meanings of the different terms we use (i.e. sustainable, well-being, secure) in such a way that they can become sites where politics can happen.

What do I mean by this? If, as we have done to this point, we refuse to define what we mean by sustainable (for example), we create a conceptual container that can be filled by nearly any definition, policy, program, project, or activity. It allows completely contradictory efforts to coexist and cancel each other out, without providing a base from which to contest any or all of these efforts. When there are no definitions, everything using a given term can be seen as equally valid. Similarly, if we refuse to prioritize our efforts, organizations can fill their efforts to meet the SDGs with almost any hodgepodge of policies, programs, projects, or activities…and will likely do so in a manner that mirrors their current emphases, funding, and staffing structures. Thus, organizations could set up completely contradictory agendas, with associated material efforts, and be seen as making equally valid efforts to address the SDGs in the eyes of the donors and the public. There is no way to contest the way one organization or another does its business if there are no definitions or priorities from which to work.

This does not mean that I think any particular donor organization will save the SDGs by setting the agenda we need to move forward. All are mired in their own internal and/or national politics, and therefore will push for agendas that most clearly reflect their own strengths and priorities. Further, most donor organizations do, in fact, operate from rather problematic, Eurocentric framings of the world, for example in their continuing inability to recognize the genius of small farmers who already negotiate uncertain environments and economies. As I have written about at length, in the eyes of most donor organizations these farmers are poor and helpless in the face of these large forces, and in need of help/saving/education. As a result, the donors cannot identify the things that these farmers really need (which are often a lot more narrow than a total reworking of their agricultural systems) and, even worse, they cannot learn from the things these farmers already know about how to best manage their agricultural, economic, and social environments.

So no, I don’t think the donors will save us…directly. But if one or more are willing to step up and impose politics on this process, they will create a process by which terms gain definition, and efforts are prioritized. When these meanings become fixed, it becomes possible to engage them and contest them, to actually have a conversation about what development is, and what it should be. Right now, we can just hold hands, say words like sustainability, and watch a nice concert together, all the while operating under the illusion that we have the same goals, and that we are working toward those goals in the same ways. That gets us nowhere. I want a development world where we are forced to recognize that different organizations and individuals prioritize different things, have different visions of the future, and different means of moving us toward those visions. Further, I want a development world where we have to struggle with the fact that what organizations want may have little to do with what the global poor want. That is what the SDGs could have given us.

It is too late to make the SDGs’ 17 goals and 169 targets a site of real development politics. But all is not lost: over one thousand initiatives have been set up to meet these targets and achieve these goals, and many more are coming. This is where the goals will become impacts on the ground. If we can create a real politics of development around these initiatives by organizing and prioritizing them, perhaps we can recover the SDGs as a site from which we can build a truly transformative agenda for development.

If you’ve been following my SDG posts (here and here), you are probably at the point of asking what exactly we should be doing about them. Fair enough. I’ve burned two blog posts and about 2000 words on the problems I see with the new SDGs. As I tell my students, it doesn’t take a lot of talent to dismantle something. You have to tear it down and put something new in its place. So, in this spirit, my suggestions for how to get out of the ditch that the SDGs appear to currently occupy are threefold:

  1. Engage the donors now, not later. Start this process by narrowing the indicators, targets, and goals, and ensuring that the goals are actually achievable
  2. Engage the climate negotiations. The flows of money under the likely climate agreement are huge, and will impact all development goals, therefore impacting the achievement of the SDGs. Further, donors are already engaged on the climate negotiations, so linking the SDGs to those negotiations will likely increase donor interest in the SDG process.
  3. Engage the implementers. If you want to productively reduce the number of indicators, targets, and goals, talk to the people who will have to take the money and achieve those goals. By working with implementers, the SDG process could reduce all of these indicators, targets, and goals (thus driving donors to the table) while ensuring that whatever emerges from the process is actually achievable

1. Engage the donors:

A few caveats from my Wilton Park experience:

1) I know that if we are going to get “beyond aid” and start thinking about innovative partnerships for development, we are going to have to get past the donor-recipient binary. However, refusing to call a spade a spade doesn’t make change happen. The fact is that USAID, DfID, GIZ, JICA, and all the other bilateral organizations are, more or less, donors. So is the World Bank. So we can call them “development partners” all we want, but they will still behave like donors (making plans, issuing edicts, programming on institutional/national interests instead of beneficiary interests, etc.) – behavior change takes a long time. Remember, many bilateral donors already call themselves “Cooperation” organizations (e.g. Spanish Cooperation, Swiss Cooperation)…but they still behave like donors.

2) The flows of development aid are, in many places, already dwarfed by flows of foreign direct investment and other flows of money. In some contexts, remittances may well be as important as formal aid. So we shouldn’t over-privilege donors or their aid funds in this conversation. Indeed, it is the declining power of aid dollars that has spurred the “beyond aid” conversation in the post-2015 agenda.

All that said, much of the politics of development still flow through development donors/partners, and this is not going to change before the SDGs are formalized. I’ve heard a bit of grumbling about traditional donor organizations’ lack of serious engagement with the SDG process. I have little time for this, as nobody should find this lack of engagement surprising. As I said in my first post, a set of goals that allows everyone to evade responsibility, and enables practically everything currently implemented under the heading “development”, is not going to get a response from the donors. If the process won’t have any effect on what they do, why should they care?

Some might see this lack of engagement as a good thing, an opportunity to craft a development agenda outside the agendas of the donors. I disagree with this strongly. The donors will eventually engage, especially if the SDGs move toward formal commitments. Such commitments might create responsibilities and constraints on actions and agendas – at which point, the donors will engage to shape the agenda to their interests. Because the SDG process has churned along without the donors to this point, the current indicators, targets, and goals are likely not well-aligned with donor interests. Without suggesting that donor interests are necessarily good, remember that the politics of development and aid still flow through these organizations, and when they engage they will have one of two effects: they will either heavily reshape the SDGs to their interests, or they will marginalize the entire process to the point of irrelevance. In either case, those running the SDG process will find themselves in a reactive position, and will lose control of the process. If the SDGs are to be more than what donors already want and do, the process must engage the donors now.

How do we engage the donors? One way is to reduce the absurd number of indicators, targets, and goals. Once you start taking away the ability to justify everything, donors are going to have to start looking at these goals and their own portfolios. Where there are mismatches, the donors are likely to engage. Another way is to carefully review the targets and goals and ensure that all could be achieved in the next 15 years with reasonable ambition. This will create a situation where accountability for their achievement becomes important, which likely drives the donors to the table. Getting the donors to the table now means there will be time to negotiate with them to develop a set of workable SDGs. Waiting until the last minute will either subvert what has, to this point, been a very open process as the SDGs are heavily reworked or even shunted into irrelevance at the 11th hour in negotiations.

2. Engage the UNFCCC negotiation process

While the development community has two big processes coming to the fore this year (the Third Conference on Financing for Development and the SDGs), there is a third, and arguably far more important, process coming to a head: the climate negotiations under the UNFCCC. By the Paris Conference of the Parties in December, I fully expect that there will be a deal on the table that discusses transfers of funds from rich to poor countries that will broadly 1) enable adaptation to ongoing climate change impacts and 2) facilitate the development of these countries through low-greenhouse emission pathways. The amounts of money on the table are likely to rival, if not displace, formal development aid, and they will be used to address issues that development aid traditionally covered. Yet the SDGs do not meaningfully engage with the likely outcomes of this process. Yes, proposed SDG 13 demands we “Tackle climate change and its impacts” and that goal recognizes the size of financial flows likely to emerge from the upcoming climate deal ($100 billion per year at a minimum, which would rival all of formal development aid). But simply acknowledging that there will be a climate deal with a lot of money attached doesn’t align the SDGs with that money. These flows of money will likely impact every SDG – indeed, we should expect them to. A climate deal that moves funds to the poorer countries is two things: an acknowledgement that climate change impacts will likely inhibit their efforts to improve the quality of life of their citizens and residents, and a recognition that the climate change impacts of their development could become problems for even the wealthy countries.

Because climate funds will engage development issues and goals, they are going to create attribution problems and therefore further responsibility problems for the SDGs. For example, if exposure to increasingly variable precipitation is a significant challenge for a group of rain-fed agriculturalists who find themselves in a challenging financial situation, and the funds from the climate deal help to provide seasonal forecasts that alleviate some of this stress, will the SDGs get to claim victory for the increased yields and incomes that result? Or will the climate negotiators get to use this case as an example of why a climate deal was a good idea? Worse, if these funds don’t actually result in constructive changes to the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable, who will be to blame?

Engaging the climate negotiations would also help to bring the donors to the table, as the donors and their national governments are already engaged on the climate negotiation process. Linking the SDGs to this process 1) creates a more realistic view of how these goals will be funded and achieved and 2) will likely drive the donors to the SDG table to ensure the SDGs are aligned with the climate agreement.

3. Engage the implementation community:

It is pretty obvious that these goals were written in a policy context that lacked significant input from anyone who would have to achieve these goals. Nearly all of my critiques in the previous two posts were based in the practical challenges these goals would present for implementation: the lack of responsibility for their achievement, the enabling of a huge range of actions under what masquerades as a focused set of goals, and the creation of goals that potentially undermine each other are all apparent when you’ve spent time building programs to actually achieve these goals, or had to execute the work under those programs. If you want goals that are either aspirational or focusing, you need to incorporate a lot of feedback from the implementation community.

Engaging the implementation community could serve as a means of narrowing the indicators, targets, and goals as I suggested is necessary to get donors to the table. It would kill two birds with one stone – it would get us a set of achievable, interesting SDGs while forcing donors to engage with the process before the 11th hour.

Save the SDGs!

There is still time to break the SDGs out of the multilateral bubble in which they were constructed and make this a proactive process that can bring together the many important trends reshaping development today (climate change negotiations, new flows of investment, etc.) into a coherent program that gives us targets to aim for, and a reasonable focus for development going forward. The three steps above would go a long way toward this end. I hope to see something like this start very soon.

In my last post, I laid out the first of my concerns with the evolving Sustainable Development Goals. As I said, I think most of these goals fall into one of three categories: the impossible, the vague, and the “sounds good, but on second thought”. Having covered the impossible, I now turn my attention to the remaining two categories and why they are problematic:

The vague:

Goal 6. Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all

Goal 12. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns

What does it mean to ensure the availability of water and sanitation? That everyone actually gets to use it, or just that the facilities are available where you live? This is an open question, because Goal 6 says availability (water and sanitation is present), not access (you can get water and adequate sanitation, no matter your circumstances). The former requires one set of values with regard to public services (i.e. water as a privatizable commodity that might be subject to efficiency gains if privatized), while the latter evokes a completely different set of concerns (i.e. water as a human right). By using the word availability, Goal 6 enables everything from the free delivery of water to all citizens to the complete privatization of a water system, as long as under both scenarios some form of water delivery is present for all users. Achievement of availability doesn’t speak to pricing or other factors that might enable or constrain the ability to access water. Basically, you can justify both actions as ensuring availability and therefore meeting an SDG even though these actions would likely result in wildly disparate outcomes for the affected population – including reduced access to water, even as it becomes more available.

How, under Goal 12, will we ensure sustainable consumption patterns? For example, are we promoting revolutions in energy production that will lower the cost of recycling, or are we arguing for massive social change in the wealthiest countries that would result in reduced consumption among the world’s rich populations? None of the proposed indicators suggest the latter, but simply cleaning up our energy supply is not going to create a sustainable pattern of consumption in a world that may well already be in ecological overshoot due to a wide range of resource consumption issues.

Vague goals that enable virtually all possible actions, or actions that really don’t do much to address the real problem the goal is meant to address (i.e. ecological overshoot under Goal 12) are not goals. They are slogans that neither motivate action nor focus effort, making the outcomes we want (greater access to necessary water, a planet we can live on indefinitely but in greater prosperity) disappear. This is worse than no goal at all.


The “Sounds good, but on second thought…”

Goal 8. Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all

Goal 10. Reduce inequality within and among countries

Reading that I have objections to Goals like 8 and 10, you can be forgiven if (at least momentarily) you think that I am a huge jerk, but hear me out. Personally, I think that promoting decent and productive livelihoods is a critical part of improving the quality of life for people, whether they live in rich or poor countries. And there can be little doubt that high levels of inequality have deleterious effects on economic growth, and raise major issues of justice. But this does not mean that these goals are necessarily great ideas.

First, promoting sustained, inclusive, and sustainable economic growth…is basically impossible under existing energy and resource regimes. As the global economy has grown over the past few decades, and growth has taken off in a number of formerly low-income countries, we’ve seen a colossal expansion in consumption that strains our climate and our resource base. Continued economic growth, at least in the near future, will drive greater greenhouse emissions and increased drawdowns of non-renewable natural resources. In short, Goal 8 sort of fits into my first grouping of SDGs (“the impossible”) but is in some ways even more dangerous because its framing suggests that we can have our cake (economic growth) and eat it too (sustainability). We cannot, at least not right now. Instead, pushing for sustained economic growth that brings full and productive employment and decent work for all will make the achievement of Goal 6 (Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all), Goal 11 (Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable), Goal 12 (Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns), Goal 13 (Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts), Goal 14 (Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development), and Goal 15 (Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss) very difficult, if not impossible.

And what of Goal 10? Well, there is a real question to be asked here: when is inequality bad, and when might it help us achieve development goals? At the national scale, it does appear that inequality can become a drag on economic growth (see Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century – and before you ask, yes, I actually read the damn thing). But what of situations at different scales, where inequality might present a temporary path to economic improvement for many? For example, at the scale of a very poor community in the Sahel, actions that enrich a relatively small, already rich portion of the population might enhance inequality in the village. However, if those wealthy members of the community accumulate assets that they are obligated to share under local social expectations (for example, cattle that can be used as traction in farming), such accumulation might improve the agricultural productivity and incomes of many in the community (by enhancing access to animal traction) until such time as those poorer members of the community can accumulate their own assets. If such a pattern were to take hold across a relatively poor country such as Mali or Burkina Faso, it could manifest in national statistics as an increase in economic inequality that, under this goal, should be ended. Until we understand the different causes of inequality, and their consequences, perhaps we should wait to see what it is we are trying to address and when it is appropriate to do so.

In short, the achievement of this last group of goals might serve to blow up our efforts to achieve other goals. Development has a penchant for stovepiping activities into sectors and goals. Further, there is no way any single donor/partner is going to cover all 17 goals under their portfolio. What this means is that individuals working on one goal may not have any idea what their efforts are doing to other goals. Further, if those other goals are owned by different organizations, there may not be any means for or incentives that lead to coordination across these goals. Organizations and individuals will respond to the tasks and measures in front of them first, and worry about the collateral damage later.

In summary, proposing goals that are so vague as to encompass every possible outcome of activities under a broad heading, or creating goals that might, if achieved, undermine other goals, is not moving us into a “beyond aid” world. They are not moving us anywhere except to more of the same work that development and aid have been doing for decades, and which has given us little we might call transformational.


But it doesn’t have to be this way.


Next: What is the way forward?


Last week I was fortunate enough to spend a few days at Wisford House for a Wilton Park conference “Beyond aid: innovative governance, financing and partnerships for the post-2015 agenda.” The meeting emphasized thinking beyond aid, to the ways in which aid funds can leverage other, larger flows of money (i.e. private capital) in manners that speed or transform ongoing changes among the world’s poor. In short, it was a meeting that embraced a shift from aid as “fixing things for poor people” to aid as “catalyzing and accelerating what people are already doing to create faster, more impactful outcomes.” The question, of course, is exactly how to shift aid fully into the latter role in the context of the third Conference on Financing for Development coming up in July, and the ongoing development of Sustainable Development Goals that should conclude in 2015.

As the conference kicked off with a discussion of the new SDGs, Charles Kenny serendipitously tweeted out their current structure:

Kenny tweet

Just as I started to freak out (as did Simon Maxwell, who was seated next to me and saw the tweet at about the same time), Charles followed up:

Gross national happiness

So, 303 indicators (several of which are actually unmeasurable in the usual indicator sense) feeding into 169 targets which speak to progress toward 17 goals (Charles was off by one). My first reaction, which I shared with the conference, was that this structure was useless, either as a set of focusing goals or as a set of aspirational targets.

First, these do nothing to focus us. With 303 indicators aimed at 169 targets, any reasonably talented program officer should be able to reverse justify any and all existing programming under this structure. Were I still advising a presidential appointee at USAID, and they asked me about the SDGs, I would tell them not to worry about it as there is nothing in this structure that constrains anything that the Agency does.

Second, these goals don’t feel aspirational – but this is for a variety of reasons that I can lump into three categories: the impossible, the vague, and the “sounds good, but on second thought”. Over the next few posts, I will lay out what I mean with examples of each category. Today, I focus on…

The impossible

Goal 1. End poverty in all its forms everywhere

Goal 2. End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture

Goal 5. Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls

Let’s just get something on the table right away: None of these goals is going to be achieved by 2030. First, “poverty” is a pretty vague term that means much more than income. While the indicators proposed under Goal 1 certainly recognize a complex understanding of poverty, including income, access to productive resources, social protection, and exposure to shocks and stresses, the ways in which these different factors align to produce “poverty” depends greatly on where you are. As a result, there are many “poverties” in many places. Therefore, it is not clear to me how a broad set of indicators will tell us if we have succeeded in eradicating poverty in a particular place.

Goal 2, ending hunger, is easier to measure as an outcome, but very difficult to measure as a process (as most determinants of food security are social, and we have very weak data on these processes in most parts of the world). The indicators don’t tell us where to intervene, or how we will know when “hunger” has been ended. Given 49.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households in 2013, it seems extraordinarily unlikely we will be able to meet this goal globally.

And Goal 5… we’re not even close to gender equity here in the United States, but somehow we are going to fix this globally in 15 years? Folks, gender relations and equality are issues that take a minimum of three generations to address – and that would be extraordinarily rapid change. 15 years is about one generation.

It is not that I hate (or even dislike) aspirational goals. However, goals should be achievable and actionable so we can hold people accountable for their achievement. None of these three goals meets either criteria. Can we make significant progress on addressing some components of poverty in the next 15 years? Yes. Can we reduce food insecurity in both rich and poor countries? Yes. Can we make some movement on the status of women and girls in both rich and poor countries? Yes. And we should work toward all three, but with ambitious but achievable targets. If the goals are achievable, then we can hold someone accountable for any shortfalls in 2030. Accountability fosters action. Right now, nobody will be held accountable when we fall short, because in 2030 whoever is still around will (rightly) point out that these were always unachievable, and therefore it is nobody’s fault that we did not meet these goals.

So, I dislike impossible goals because they strip away responsibility for their achievement. If these were ambitious but achievable, it might force those of us in the aid world to think more carefully about how we are going to leverage other sources of funding, other trends already taking place in many parts of the world (declining fertility, rising incomes, etc.), and build on existing knowledge and capacity among the global poor to ensure we reached these goals. In short, impossible goals do nothing to move us beyond aid – they just maintain the status quo.


Next up: The Vague and the “Sounds good, but on second thought”

Raj Shah has announced his departure from USAID. Honestly, this surprises nobody at the Agency, or anyone in the development world who’s been paying attention. If anything, folks are surprised he is still around – it is well-known (or at least well-gossiped) that he was looking for the door, and at any number of opportunities, at least since the spring of 2012. There are plenty of reviews of Shah’s tenure posted around the web, and I will not rehash them. While I have plenty of opinions of the various initiatives that Shah oversaw/claims credit for (and these are not always the same, by the way), gauging what did and did not work under a particular administrator is usually a question for history, and it will take a bit of space and time before anyone should feel comfortable offering a full review of this administrator’s work.

I will say that I hope much of what Shah pushed for under USAID Forward, especially the rebuilding of the technical capacity of USAID staff, the emphasis on local procurement, and the strengthening of evaluation, becomes entrenched at the agency. Technical capacity is critical – not because USAID is ever going to implement its own work. That would require staffing the Agency at something like three or four times current levels, and nobody is ever going to approve that. Instead, it is critical for better monitoring and evaluating the work of the Agency’s implementing partners. In my time at USAID, I saw implementer work and reports that ran the gamut from “truly outstanding” to “dumpster fire”. The problem is that there are many cases where work that falls on the dumpster fire end of the spectrum is accepted because Agency staff lack the technical expertise to recognize the hot mess they’ve been handed. This is going to be less of a problem going forward, as long as the Agency continues to staff up on the technical side.

Local procurement is huge for both the humanitarian assistance and development missions of USAID. For example, there is plenty of evidence supporting the cost/time effectiveness of procuring emergency food aid in or near regions of food crisis. Further, mandates that push more USAID funding to local organizations and implementers will create incentives to truly build local capacity to manage these funds and design/implement projects, as it will be difficult for prime contractors to meet target indicators and other goals without high-capacity local partners.

A strong evaluation policy will be huge for the Agency…if it ever really comes to pass. While I have seen real signs of Agency staff struggling with how to meaningfully evaluate the impact of their programs, the overall state of evaluation at the Agency remains in flux. The Evaluation Policy was never really implementable, for example because it seems nobody actually considered who would do the evaluations. USAID staff generally lack the time and/or expertise to conduct these evaluations, and the usual implementing partners suffer from a material conflict of interest – very often, they would have to evaluate programs and projects implemented by their competitors…even projects where they had lost the bid to a competitor. Further, the organizations I have seen/interacted with that focus on evaluation remain preoccupied with quantitative approaches to evaluation that, while perhaps drawing on Shah’s interest in the now-fading RCT craze in development, really cannot identify or measure the sorts of causal processes that connect development interventions and outcomes. Finally, despite the nice words to the contrary, the culture at USAID remains intolerant of project failure, and the leadership of the Agency never mounted the strong defense of this culture change to the White House or Congress needed to create the space for a new understanding of evaluation, nor did it ever really convey a message of culture change that the staff of USAID found convincing across the board. There are some groups/offices at USAID (for example, in the ever-growing Global Development Lab) where this culture is fully in bloom, but these are small offices with small budgets. Most everyone else remains mired in very old thinking on evaluation.

At least from an incrementalist perspective, entrenching and building on these aspects of USAID Forward would be a major accomplishment for Shah’s successor. Whoever comes next will not simply run out the clock of the Obama Administration – there are two years left. I therefore expect the administration to appoint an administrator (rather than promote a career USAID staff caretaker with no political mandate) to the position. In a perfect world, this would be a person who understands development as a discipline, but also has the government and implementing experience to understand how development thought intersects with development practice in the real world. Someone with a real understanding of development and humanitarian assistance as a body of thought and practice with a long history that can be learned from and built upon would be able to parse the critical parts of USAID Forward from the fluff, could prevent the design and implementation of projects that merely repeat the efforts (and often failures) of decades ago, and could perhaps reverse the disturbing trend at USAID to view development challenges as technical challenges akin to those informed by X-Prizes – a trend that has shoved the social aspects of development to the back seat at the Agency. At the same time, someone with implementing and government experience would understand what is possible within the current structure, thus understanding where incremental victories might push the Agency in important and productive directions that move toward the achievement of more ideal, long-term goals

There are very, very few people out there who meet these criteria. Steve Radelet does, and he served as the Chief Economist at USAID while I was there, but I have no idea if he is interested or, more importantly, if anyone is interested in him. Much the pity if not. More likely, the administration is going to go with the relatively new Deputy Administrator Alfonso Lenhardt. Looking at his background, he’s already been vetted by the Senate for his current position, has foreign service experience, time in various implementer-oriented positions, and he is well-positioned to avoid a long confirmation process as a former lobbyist and from his time as House Sergeant-at-Arms, which likely give him deep networks on both sides of the aisle. In his background, I see no evidence of a long engagement with development as a discipline, and I wonder how reform-minded a former Senior Vice President for Government Relations at an implementer can be. I do not know Deputy Administrator Lenhardt at all, and so I cannot speak to where he might fall on any or all of the issues above. According to Devex, he says his goal is to “improve management processes and institutionalize the reforms and initiatives that Shah’s administration has put in place.” I have no objection to either of these goals – they are both important. But what this means in practice, should Lenhardt be promoted, is an open question that will have great impact on the future direction of the Agency.

Five and half years ago, at the end of the spring semester of 2009, I sat down and over the course of 30 days drafted my book Delivering Development. The book was, for me, many things: an effort to impose a sort of narrative on the work I’d been doing for 12 years in Ghana and other parts of Africa; an effort to escape the increasingly claustrophobic confines of academic writing and debates; and an effort to exorcise the growing frustration and isolation I felt as an academic working on international development in a changing climate, but without a meaningful network into any development donors. Most importantly, however, it was a 90,000 word scream at the field that could be summarized in three sentences:

  1. Most of the time, we have no idea what the global poor are doing or why they are doing it.
  2. Because of this, most of our projects are designed for what we think is going on, which rarely aligns with reality
  3. This is why so many development projects fail, and if we keep doing this, the consequences will get dire

The book had a generous reception, received very fair (if sometimes a bit harsh) reviews, and actually sold a decent number of copies (at least by the standards of the modern publishing industry, which was in full collapse by the time the book appeared in January 2011). Maybe most gratifying, I heard from a lot of people who read the book and who heard the message, or for whom the book articulated concerns they had felt in their jobs.

This is not to say the book is without flaws. For example, the second half of the book, the part addressing the implications of being wrong about the global poor, was weaker than the first – and this is very clear to me now, as the former employee of a development donor. Were I writing the book now, I would do practically nothing to the first half, but I would revise several parts of the second half (and the very dated scenarios chapter really needs revision at this point, anyway). But, five and a half years after I drafted it, I can still say one thing clearly.


Well, I was right about point #1 above, anyway. The newest World Development Report from the World Bank has empirically demonstrated what was so clear to me and many others, and what I think I did a very nice job of illustrating in Delivering Development: most people engaged in the modern development industry have very little understanding of the lives and thought processes of the global poor, the very people that industry is meant to serve. Chapter 10 is perfectly titled: “The biases of development professionals.” All credit to the authors of the report for finally turning the analytic lens on development itself, as it would have been all too easy to simply talk about the global poor through the lens of perception and bias. And when the report turns to development professionals’ perceptions…for the love of God. Just look at the findings on page 188. No, wait, let me show you some here:

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 10.05.06 PM


For those who are chart-challenged, let me walk you through this. In three settings, the survey asked development professionals what percentage of their beneficiaries thought “what happens in the future depends on me.” For the bottom third, the professionals assumed very few people would say this. Except that a huge number of very poor people said this, in all settings. In short, the development professionals were totally wrong about what these people thought, which means they don’t understand their mindsets, motivations, etc. Holy crap, folks. This isn’t a near miss. This is I-have-no-idea-what-I-am-talking-about stuff here. These are the error bars on the initial ideas that lead to projects and programs at development donors.

WDR’s frames these findings in pretty stark terms (page 180):

Perhaps the most pressing concern is whether development professionals understand the circumstances in which the beneficiaries of their policies actually live and the beliefs and attitudes that shape their lives.

And their proposed solution is equally pointed (page 190):

For project and program design, development professionals should “eat their own dog food”: that is, they should try to experience firsthand the programs and projects they design.

Yes. Or failing that, they should really start either reading the work of people who can provide that experience for them, or start funding the people who can generate the data that allows for this experience (metaphorically).

On one hand, I am thrilled to see this point in mainstream development conversation. On the other…I said this five years ago, and not that many people cared. Now the World Bank says it…or maybe more to the point, the World Bank says it in terms of behavioral economics, and everyone gets excited. Well, my feelings on this are pretty clear:

  1. Just putting this in terms of behavioral economics is actually putting the argument out there in the least threatening manner possible, as it is still an argument from economics that preserves that disciplinary perspective’s position of superiority in development
  2. The things that behavioral economics have been “discovering” about the global poor that anthropology, geography, sociology, and social history have been saying for decades. Further, their analyses generally lack explanatory rigor or anything resembling external validity – see my posts here, here, and here.

Also, the WDR never makes a case for why we should care that we are probably misunderstanding/ misrepresenting the global poor. As a result, this just reads as an extended “oopsie!” piece that needs not be seriously addressed as long as we look a little sheepish – then we can get back to work. But getting this stuff wrong is really, really important – this was the central point of the second half of Delivering Development (a point that Duncan Green unfortunately missed in his review). We can design projects that not only fail to make things better, we can actually make things much worse: we can kill people by accident. We can gum up the global environment, which is not going to only hurt some distant, abstract global poor person – it will hit those in the richest countries, too. We can screw up the global economy, another entity that knows few borders and over which nobody has complete control. This is not “oopsie!” This is a disaster that requires serious attention and redress.

So, good first step World Bank, but not far enough. Delivering Development still goes a lot further than you are willing to now. Delivering Development goes much further than behavioral development economics has gone, or really can go. Time to catch up to the real nature of this problem, and the real challenges it presents. Time to catch up to things I was writing five years ago, before it’s too late.

A very long time ago, J asked me to review his book Letters Left Unsent. I’ve long been a fan of J’s writing on his blog Tales from the Hood, and have had the fortune to meet him, hang out, and develop what passes for a friendship in an era where people living on different coasts, and constantly on the move, can stay in touch through various electronic means. All this by way of saying that this will hardly be an impartial review.

So, here is my one sentence review: If you are interested in going into development/humanitarian work, or know someone who is, you need to get a copy of this book and read it/give it to them.

This is not to say that you will enjoy every message in the book – actually, you or your prospective aidworker will likely hate whole chunks of it. The reason for this is simple: the book is hard – really hard. It’s not the prose, which is actually quite fluid. It is the content. The book contains some of J’s most unvarnished stories and writing, work that strips away the romance of the job, exposing it as just that: a job. In chapter after chapter, J demonstrates that development and relief work is a very important, rewarding job, but sometimes a job where the biggest impacts come not from handing some poor soul food, but in getting a spreadsheet right or from attending the right meeting. Further, these lessons are not delivered in a detached, objective manner that can be easily forgotten, but through personal stories that emerge as J points the keyboard at himself and his own experiences. This is no casting of stones at unnamed, straw-man others (something the world could use much less of). It is, at times, a brutal first-person account of the compromises, decisions, crises, frustrations, and rewards that this career brings.

To be fair, there are personal reasons why this book challenged me. First, I know J personally. This means that I know how seriously he takes this job, how hard he works, and how much he believes in what he does. This means I cannot dismiss this book as the work of a cynic or an anti-aid crank, and therefore when the stories and their lessons hurt, there is no easy escape route. Second, some of these stories hit pretty close to home. J and I live in pretty different parts of the aid world. I’ve spent the bulk of my career as an academic, with a brief stint as the employee of a donor. I don’t live for or between deployments, and I never really have. But I’ve been in donor coordination meetings for a major crisis (the 2011 Horn of Africa famine), and in reading this book, I was transported to days of watching terribly difficult decisions get made, measuring the toll the crisis took on people around me – and I still consider those experiences to be some of the tougher ones in my career. At the same time, I’ve spent an awful lot of time conducting fieldwork. In my early days as an academic, I would disappear into villages for months on end. In the pre-cellphone era, this tended to have a deleterious effect on my personal life. Some of the collateral damage from such travel that J describes marks my own personal history. In this book, I heard the echoes of some my own decisions, and my own consequences…

So, I am not J. But I know J, both in the sense that I know the author, and I know many of those in this field for whom he writes. From my perspective, his stories ring true, and the lessons they present are real. And I have my own reasons for feeling challenged by this book, but I suspect most aidworkers would experience similar feelings as they recognize themselves in this book. In the end, my personal biases and feelings don’t change what I think is the value of this book. It is an important illustration of the development/aid worker’s life that does not resort to pieties or broad brushes. Instead, it wrestles with the ambiguities of live in this career. Development work is hard. Humanitarian assistance is hard. It is thrilling and appallingly mundane. It’s malaria and spreadsheets. Mostly spreadsheets. We succeed. We fail. We keep going, trying to learn from both. But if you are headed into this field, into this career, you are headed where J has been. Only fools ignore history, even if it is not their own. Only a very foolish prospective aidworker will ignore this book.

So, DfID paid London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) more than $1 million to answer a pretty important question: Whether or not Fairtrade certification improves growers’ lives. As has shown up in the media (see here and here) and around the development blogosphere (here), the headline finding of the report was unexpected: wage workers on Fairtrade-certified sites made less than those working on regular farms. Admittedly, this is a pretty shocking finding, as it undermines the basic premise of Fairtrade.

Edit 12 June: As Matt Collin notes in a comment below, this reading of the study is flawed, as it was not set up to capture the wage effects of Fairtrade. There were no baselines, and without baselines it is impossible to tell if there were improvements in Fairtrade sites – in short, the differences seen in the report could just be pre-existing differences, not a failure of Fairtrade. See the CGDev blog post on this here. So the press’ reading of this report is pretty problematic.

At the same time, this whole discussion completely misses the point. Fairtrade doesn’t work as a development tool because, in the end, Fairtrade does absolutely nothing to address the structural inequalities faced by those in the primary sector of the global economy relative to basically everyone else. Paying an African farmer a higher wage/better price means they are now a slightly wealthier farmer. They are still exposed to environmental shocks like drought and flooding, still tied to shocks and trends in global commodities markets over which they have almost no leverage at all, often still producing commodities (like coffee and cocoa) for which demand is very, very elastic, and in the end still living in states without safety nets to help them weather these economic and environmental shocks. Yes, I think African farmers are stunningly resilient, intelligent people (I write about this a lot). But the convergence of the challenges I just listed means that most farmers in the Global South are addressing one or more of them almost all the time, and the cost of managing these challenges is high (both in terms of hedging and coping). Incremental changes in agricultural incomes will be absorbed, by and large, by these costs – this is not a transformative development pathway.

So why is everyone freaking out at the $1 million dollar finding – even if that finding misrepresents the actual findings of the report? Because it brutally rips the Fairtrade band-aid off the global economy, and strips away any feeling of “doing our part” from those who purchase Fairtrade products. But of course, those of us who purchase Fairtrade products were never doing our part. If anything, we were allowing the shiny idea of better incomes and prices to obscure the structural problems that would always limit the impact of Fairtrade in the lives of the poor.

Bill Gates has a Project Syndicate piece up that, in the context of discussing Nina Munk’s book The Idealist, argues in favor of Jeffrey Sachs’ importance and relevance to contemporary development.

I’m going to leave aside the overarching argument of the piece. Instead, I want to focus on a small passage that, while perhaps a secondary point to Gates, strikes me as a very important lesson that he fails to apply to his own foundation (though to be fair, this is true of most people working in development).

Gates begins by noting that Sachs came to the Gates Foundation to ask for MVP funding, and lays out the fundamental MVP pitch for a “big push” of integrated interventions that crossed health, agriculture, and education sectors that Sachs was selling:

[Sachs’] hypothesis was that these interventions would be so synergistic that they would start a virtuous upward cycle and lift the villages out of poverty for good. He felt that if you focus just on fertilizer without also addressing health, or if you just go in and provide vaccinations without doing anything to help improve education, then progress won’t be sustained without an endless supply of aid.

This is nothing more than integrated development, and it makes sense. But, as was predicted, and as some are now demonstrating, it did not work. In reviewing what happened in the Millennium Villages that led them to come up short of expectations, Gates notes

MVP leaders encouraged farmers to switch to a series of new crops that were in demand in richer countries – and experts on the ground did a good job of helping farmers to produce good crop yields by using fertilizer, irrigation, and better seeds. But the MVP didn’t simultaneously invest in developing markets for these crops. According to Munk, “Pineapple couldn’t be exported after all, because the cost of transport was far too high. There was no market for ginger, apparently. And despite some early interest from buyers in Japan, no one wanted banana flour.” The farmers grew the crops, but the buyers didn’t come.

But then Gates seems to glide over a really key question: how could a smart, well-intentioned man miss the mark like this? Worse, how could a leading economist’s project blow market engagement so badly? Gates’ throwaway argument is “Of course, Sachs knows that it’s critical to understand market dynamics; he’s one of the world’s smartest economists. But in the villages Munk profiled, Sachs seems to be wearing blinders.” This is not an explanation for what happened, as telling us Sachs suffered from blinders is simply restating the obvious. The real issue is the source of these blinders.

The answer is, to me, blindingly obvious. The MVP, like most development interventions, really never understood what was going on in the villages targeted for intervention. Sure, they catalogued behaviors, activities, and outcomes…but there was never any serious investigation into the logic of observed behaviors. Instead, the MVP, like most development interventions, was rife with assumptions about the motivations of those living in Millennium Villages that produced these observed activities and outcomes, assumptions that had little to do with the actual logic of behavior. The result was interventions that implicitly infantilized the Millennium villagers by providing interventions that implicitly assumed, for example, that the villagers had not considered the potential markets for new and different crops/products. Such interventions assume ignorance as the driver of observed behaviors, instead of the enormously complex decision-making that underlies everyday lives and livelihoods in even the smallest village.

To give you an idea of what I mean, take a look at the following illustrations of the complexity of livelihoods decision-making (these are from my forthcoming article on applying the Livelihoods as Intimate Government approach in Applied Geography – a preprint is here).

First, we have #1, which illustrates the causes behind observed decisions captured by most livelihoods frameworks. In short, this is what most contemporary development planning gets to, at best.

Figure 1

However, this is a very incomplete version of any individual’s decision-making reality. #2 illustrates the wider range of factors shaping observed decisions that become visible through multiscalar analysis that nests particular places in wider networks of economic, environment, and politics. Relatively few applications of livelihoods frameworks approach this level of complexity, and those that do tend to consider the impacts of markets on particular livelihoods and places.

Figure 2

While this is better than the overly-simplistic framing of decisions in #1, it is still incomplete because motivations are not, themselves, discrete. #3 illustrates the complex web of factors, local and extralocal, and the ways in which these factors play off of one another at multiple scales, different times, and in different situations.

Figure 3

When we seek to understand why people do what they do (and do not do other things), this is the complexity with which we must engage.

This is important, because were Gates to realize that this was the relevant point of both Munk’s book and his own op-ed, he might better understand why his own foundation has

many projects…that have come up short. It’s hard to deliver effective solutions, even when you plan for every potential contingency and unintended consequence. There is a natural tendency in almost any kind of investment – business, philanthropic, or otherwise – to double down in the face of difficulty. I’ve done it, and I think most other people have too.

So, what do you do? Well, we have an answer: The Livelihoods as Intimate Government approach we use at HURDL (publications here and here, with guidance documents coming later in the summer) charts an analytic path through this level of complexity. Before the usual objections start.

1) We can train people to do it (we are doing so in Mali as I write this). You don’t need a Ph.D. in anthropology to use our approach.

2) It does not take too much time. We can implement at least as fast as any survey process, and depending on spatial focus and resources, can move on a timeframe from weeks to two months.

3) It is not too expensive – qualitative researchers are not expensive, and we do not require high-end equipment to do our work.

The proof is in the reactions we are getting from our colleagues. Here in Mali, I now have colleagues from IER and agricultural extension getting fired up about our approach as they watch the data coming in during our pilot phase. They are stunned by how much data we can collect in a short period of time, and how relevant the data is to the questions at hand because we understand what people are already doing, and why they are doing it. By using this approach, and starting from the assumption that we must understand what people are doing and why before we move to interventions, we are going to lay the foundation for more productive interventions that minimize the sorts of “surprise” outcomes that Gates references as an explanation for project failure.

There are no more excuses for program and project design processes that employ the same limited methods and work from the same problematic assumptions – there are ways to do it differently. But until people like Gates and Sachs reframe their understanding of how development should work, development will continue to be plagued by surprises that aren’t all that surprising.

While development – thought broadly as social/economic/political change that somehow brings about a change in peoples’ quality of life – generally entails changes in behavior, conversations about “behavior change” in development obscure important political and ethical issues around this subject, putting development programs and projects, and worse the people those programs and projects are meant to help, at risk.

We need to return to a long standing conversation about who gets to decide what behaviors need changing.  Most contemporary conversations about behavior change invoke simple public health examples that obscure the politics of behavior change (such as this recent New York Times Opinionator Piece). This piece appears to address the community and household politics of change (via peer pressure), but completely ignores the fact that every intervention mentioned was introduced by someone outside these communities. This is easy to ignore because handwashing or the use of chlorine in drinking water clearly reduces morbidity, nobody benefits from such morbidity, and addressing the causes of that morbidity requires interventions that engage knowledge and technology that, while well-established, were created someplace else.

But if we open up this conversation to other sorts of examples, the picture gets much more complicated. Take, for example, agricultural behaviors. An awful lot of food security/agricultural development programming these days discusses behavior change, ranging from what crops are grown to how farmers engage with markets. Here, the benefits of this behavior change are less clear, and less evenly-distributed through the population. Who decides what should be grown, and on what basis? Is improved yield or increased incomes enough justification to “change behaviors”? Such arguments presume shockingly simple rationales for observed behaviors, such as yield maximization, and often implicitly assume that peasant farmers in the Global South lack information and understandings that would produce such yields, thus requiring “education” to make better decisions. As I’ve argued time and again, and demonstrated empirically several times, most livelihoods decisions are a complex mix of politics, local environment, economy, and social issues that these farmers weigh in the context of surprisingly detailed information (see this post or my book for a discussion of farm allocation in Ghanaian households that illustrates this point). In short, when we start to talk about changing peoples’ behaviors, we often have no idea what it is that we are changing.

The fact we have little to no understanding of the basis on which observed decisions are made is a big, totally undiscussed problem for anyone interested in behavior change. In development, we design programs and projects based on presumptions about people’s motivations, but those presumptions are usually anchored in our own experiences and perceptions – which are quite often different from those with whom we work in the Global South (see the discussion of WEIRD data in psychology, for example here). When we don’t know why people are doing the things we do, we cannot understand the opportunities and challenges that come with those activities/behaviors. This allows an unexamined bias against the intelligence and experience of the global poor to enter and lurk behind this conversation.

Such bias isn’t just politically/ethically problematic – it risks real programmatic disasters. For example, when we perceive “inefficiency” on many African farms, we are often misinterpreting hedging behaviors necessary to manage worst-case scenarios in a setting where there are no safety nets. Erasing such behaviors in the name of efficiency (which will increase yields or incomes) can produce better outcomes…until the situation against which the farmers were hedged arises. Then, without the hedge, all hell can break loose. Among the rural agricultural communities in which I have been working for more than 15 years, such hedges typically address climate and/or market variability, which produce extremes at frequent, if irregular, intervals. Stripping the hedges from these systems presumes that the good years will at least compensate for the bad…a dangerous assumption based far more on hope or optimism than evidence in most places where these projects are designed and implemented. James Scott’s book The Art of Not Being Governed provides examples of agrarian populations that fled the state in the face of “modernization” efforts not because they were foolish or backward, but because they saw such programs as introducing unacceptable risks into their lives (see also this post for a similar discussion in the context of food security).

This is why my lab uses an approach (on a number of projects ranging from climate services evaluation and design to disaster risk reduction) that starts from the other direction – we begin by identifying and explaining particular behaviors relevant to the challenge, issue, or intervention at hand, and then start thinking about what kinds of behavioral change are possible and acceptable to the people with whom we work. We believe that this is both more effective (as we actually identify the rationales for observed behaviors before intervening) and safer (as we are less likely to design/condone interventions that increase vulnerability) than development programming based on presumption.

This is not to say that we should simply valorize all existing behaviors in the Global South. There are inefficiencies out there that could be reduced. There are things like handwashing that are simple and important. Sometimes farmers can change their practices in small ways that do not entail big shifts in risk or vulnerability. Our approach to project design and assessment helps to identify just such situations. But on the whole, we need to think much more critically about what we are assuming when we insist on a particular behavior change, and then replace those assumptions with information. Until we do, behavior change discussions will run the risk of uncritically imposing external values and assumptions on otherwise coherent systems, producing greater risk and vulnerability than existed before. Nobody could call that development.

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