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.