Entries tagged with “Delivering Development”.
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Sun 21 Dec 2014
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:
- Most of the time, we have no idea what the global poor are doing or why they are doing it.
- Because of this, most of our projects are designed for what we think is going on, which rarely aligns with reality
- 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.
I WAS RIGHT.
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:
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:
- 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
- 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.
Thu 6 Mar 2014
Andy Sumner was kind enough to invite me to provide a blog entry/chapter for his forthcoming e-book The Donors’ Dilemma: Emergence, Convergence and the Future of Aid. I decided to use the platform as an opportunity to expand on some of my thoughts on the future of food aid and food security in the context of a changing climate.
My central point:
By failing to understand existing agricultural practices as time-tested parts of complex structures of risk management that include concerns for climate variability, we overestimate the current vulnerability of many agricultural systems to the impacts of climate change, and underestimate the risks we create when we wipe these systems away in favor of “more efficient”, more productive systems meant to address this looming global food crisis.
Why does this matter?
In ignoring existing systems and their logic in the name of addressing a crisis that has not yet arrived, development aid runs a significant risk of undermining the nascent turn toward addressing vulnerability, and building resilience, in the policy and implementation world by unnecessarily increasing the vulnerability of the poorest populations.
The whole post is here, along with a number of other really interesting posts on the future of aid here. Head over and offer your thoughts…
Wed 27 Mar 2013
While many paint the combined impact of climate change and global markets as something new, unpredictable, and unmanageable, they fail to grasp that most situations we are projected to see in the next few decades* have been experienced before in the form of previous extremes. Take, for example, the figure below:
This is a graph of the annual rainfall at one rain gauge in Ghana, near where I conducted the research that made up a big part of my book Delivering Development. The downward trend in rainfall is clear (and representative of the trend in this part of coastal West Africa that, according to my colleagues at IRI, continues to this day and is confirmed by satellite measurements). There are complex things happening inside these annual figures, including shifting timing of rainfall, but for the purposes of discussion here, it serves to make a point. While there is indeed a downward trend that continues to this day, there have already been several years where the total precipitation was much lower than the current average precipitation, or the likely annual precipitation for the next few decades.
This means is that the farmers in Dominase and Ponkrum, like so many around the world, have already seen the future – that is, they have already lived through at least one, if not several, seasons like those we expect to become the norm some decades in the future. These farmers survived those seasons, and learned from them, adjusting their expectations and strategies to account for the possibility of recurrence. These adjustments are likely over- or under-compensating for the likelihood of recurrence right now, as livelihoods strategies in these villages are largely reactive, reflecting last season’s events more than the average season. Further, the year-to-year hedging of farms against climate variability can be a costly practice – the likely “insurance premium” of lost production in a good year (due to planting in less-than-ideal, but precipitation-hedged situations like the tops and bottoms of hills – see my discussion in Chapter 4 of Delivering Development) probably eats up somewhere between 10% and 20% of total potential production. So these management strategies are not ideal. But they do reflect local capacities to adjust and account for extreme conditions, the extreme rainfall or drought events out along the tails of historical distributions whose unpredictable recurrences characterize a changing climate regime. Many of these farmers have little or no access to inputs, limited to no access to seasonal forecasts, and live in states without safety nets, yet they have repeatedly survived very difficult seasons. Clearly, their capacity for survival in an uncertain environment and economy is worthy of our respect.
This is not a phenomenon specific to Ghana. For example, the farmers in southern Mali with whom I (and many others) have been working to deliver better and more relevant climate services, such as seasonal and short-term forecasts. Most, if not all, of these farmers are using local indicators, such as the flowering of a particular tree or the emergence of a particular insect, as indicators that help them time various activities in their agricultural cycle. Many trust their local indicators more than the forecasts, perhaps with some reason – their indicators actually seem to work and the forecasts are not yet as accurate as anyone would like. But these indicators work under current climate regimes, and these regimes are changing. At some point, the tree will start to flower at a different, perhaps less appropriate time, or simply cease to flower. The insect will emerge at a different time, or perhaps be driven away by the emergence of new predators that can now move into the area. If the climate continues to change, local indicators will eventually fail.
I humbly suggest that instead of reengineering entire agroecological systems and their associated economies in the here and now (a fairly high risk enterprise), we should be building upon the capacities that already exist. For example, we can plan for the eventual failure of local indicators – we can study the indicators to understand under what conditions their behaviors will change, identify likely timeframes in which such changes are likely to occur, and create of new tools and sources of information that will be there for farmers when their current sources of information no longer work. We should be designing these tools and that information with the farmers, answering the questions they have (as opposed to the questions we want to ask). We should be building on local capacity, not succumbing to crisis narratives that suggest that these farmers have little capacity, either to manage their current environment or to change with the environment.
Farmers in the Global South have already fed the future. Perhaps they did not do it all that well, and all they managed was to stave off catastrophe. But given the absence of safety nets in most places in the Global South (see Theme 3, points 2 and 3), and the limited access so many farmers have to inputs and irrigation, avoiding catastrophe is an accomplishment that warrants study and serious consideration. We should build on that capacity, not blow it up.
The key principals and points:
1) A future under climate change is not a great unknown for farmers in the Global South. Most farmers have already managed several seasons as difficult, or more difficult, than what we project to be normal in the next few decades. Presuming these farmers are facing a catastrophe they cannot see coming fails to grasp the ways in which these past seasons inform contemporary planning.
2) Farmers have already developed strategies for addressing extreme seasons (i.e. drought or excessive precipitation). We should start with an understanding of what they already do, and why, before moving in with our interventions, lest we inadvertently undo otherwise functional safety nets.
3) Existing indigenous strategies for managing climate variability are not perfect. They tend to overestimate or underestimate actual risks of particular weather and climate states, tend to magnify the importance of the previous season (as opposed to historical averages, or current trends) when planning for the next season, and tend to be very costly in terms of lost potential agricultural productivity.
4) Current indigenous tools for making agricultural decisions, such as local indicators, are likely more robust than any climate product we can deliver right now. Just because this information comes in the form of a plant or animal behavior does not make it any less valid.
5) Current indigenous tools for making agricultural decisions will likely start to fail as climate regimes change. This fact presents an opportunity for development organizations to start working with farmers to identify useful information and ways of providing it such that this information is available when local indicators fail.
*Given the propagation of uncertainty in models of the global climate, global water availability, global land cover, the global economy, and global population (all of which, incidentally, impact one another), I don’t pay much attention to model results beyond about 2040, with 2030 being the really outer threshold of information that might usefully inform planning or our understanding of biophysical process. On the 100-year scale, we may as well be throwing darts at a wall as running models. I have no idea why we bother.
Fri 9 Nov 2012
I’ve long hated the term “poverty traps,” development shorthand for conditions in which poverty becomes self-reinforcing and therefore inescapable without some sort of external intervention. They made no analytic sense (nobody ever defined poverty clearly across this literature, for example), and generally the idea of the poverty trap was hitched to a revival of “big push” development efforts that had failed in the 1950s and 1960s. Further, it was always clear to me that the very idea of a poverty trap cast those living in difficult circumstances as helpless without the intervention of benevolent outsiders. This did not align at all with my experiences on the ground in rural sub-Saharan Africa.
This is not to suggest that there is no such thing as structural inequality in the world – the running head start enjoyed by the Global North in terms of economic development has created significant barriers to the economic development of those residing in the Global South. These barriers, perhaps most critically the absurd and damaging regime of subsidies that massively distorts global agricultural markets, must be addressed, and soon. Such barriers generally result in perverse outcomes that impact even those in the Global North (anyone who thinks the American food system makes any sense at all really needs to read more. Start with Fast Food Nation, move to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and work out from there. And don’t get me going on the potential climate impacts of structural inequality).
But this enduring focus on structural problems in the global economy has had the effect of reducing those in the Global South to a bunch of helpless children in need of salvation by the best and most noble of those in the Global North, who were to bring justice, opportunity, and a better future to all. If this isn’t the 21st Century version of the White Man’s Burden, then I don’t know what is. Bill Easterly makes a very similar point very eloquently, and at much greater length, here.
I am a social scientist*, and I believe that the weight of evidence eventually wins arguments. And today it occurred to me that in this case, this long line of arguing that those who insisted on talking about poverty traps were a) generally misrepresenting the world and b) inappropriately infantilizing those living in the Global South now has that weight of evidence behind it. Andy Sumner’s work on the New Bottom Billion basically blows up the idea of the poverty trap – he demonstrates that since the 1990s, a lot of people that were thought to be living in poverty traps have improved their incomes such that many have moved out of poverty (at least if one defines poverty on the basis of income). People who were thought to be trapped by structural inequality have been defying expectations and improving their circumstances without clear correlations to aid or development efforts, let alone the “big push” arguments of Sachs and others. In short, it looks like we don’t really understand what people are doing at the margins of the Global South, and that the global poor are a lot more capable than development seems to think. Poor people attached to the anchor of structural inequality are dragging it to improved incomes and well-being in thousands of small, innovative ways that are adding up to a massive aggregate change in the geography and structure of global poverty.
In short, the Global South never needed the most enlightened of the Global North to clear the path and push them up the ladder of development (if you want to get all Rostow about it). Instead, what is clearly needed is a new, substantial effort to better understand what is happening out on Globalization’s Shoreline, and to work with the global poor to examine these efforts, identify innovative, locally-appropriate, and locally-owned means of transforming their quality of life, and find means of bringing those ideas to (appropriate) scale. Anything else is just hubris at best, and subtle class/race bigotry at worst.
The data is speaking. Anyone ready to listen?
*Well, I am a qualitative social scientist which means my work is more generative and humanities/arts flavored than is typical in the sciences, which generally value the reporting of observations in the framework of already-established biophysical processes.
Tue 25 Sep 2012
As I mentioned a few posts ago, I am working through James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed (my endorsement is in the linked post). In the course of my reading, I have been thinking about what Scott calls the State Accessible Product, which he sets in contrast to the Gross Domestic Product. To Scott’s thinking, the states/kingdoms he is discussing in Southeast Asia were motivated not to maximize the value of all goods and services in their realms, as such maximization might include the production of goods that could not be transported/taxed/otherwise used to enrich the state. Instead, it was in the state’s interest to maximize the production of things it could see, count and move – in other words, to push the growth of a State Accessible Product. Two things resonate for me about this idea:
1) It scales. Just as states pushed for the production of SAP, so too the households I I discuss in Delivering Development tend to divide up livelihoods roles and activities in a manner that maximizes not individual well-being, but activities that only make sense when bundled with the activities of other members of the household – a sort of Household Accessible Product. In an uncertain economy and environment, it makes no sense to focus one’s entire agricultural production on market sale, or to focus entirely on subsistence reproduction of the household. Yet this is just what we see men (playing the former role) and women (playing the latter) doing in some of the households I examined in Ghana. They do this for a lot of complex reasons, but certainly there is something to the idea that these roles force the members of the household into the production of a HAP that certainly does not maximize all possible production and income, but does a lot to reproduce social roles and social stability.
2) It explains why my argument that a lot of farmers on globalization’s shoreline strategically deglobalize was both surprising and, at least to some people, threatening: the opting in and out of global markets is exactly the sort of thing states fear, as it means that the production of these farmers goes in and out of legibility from year to year – making it hard to extract value from that production. In short, there is a GDP that is not coterminus with an SAP along most of globalization’s shoreline – and that non SAP production is critical to the well-being of those engaged in those activities.
It strikes me that a key question here is whether or not our focus on governance in development has led us to inadvertently emphasize activities, projects and programs that render greater and greater percentages of GDP as SAP – certainly, without access to the financial resources produced by the control of a SAP, states are in a weak position. But if many of the activities that actually keep people alive on a day-to-day basis are non-SAP activities, what are we to do? Are we to wipe out/make legible these activities so the state can profit from them? If we do, are we going to enhance the vulnerability of the populations whose livelihoods we alter? Is the enhancement of vulnerability an appropriate trade-off for the creation of a state-legible economy? Can addressing vulnerability and building a strong state be made to rhyme at all?
Tue 18 Sep 2012
Ben Leo at ONE.org (formerly of CGD) put forth an intriguing proposal recently on Huffington Post Impact: It’s Time to Ask the World’s Poor What They Really Want. In short, Ben is trying to argue that the current top-down definition of development goals, no matter how well-intentioned, is unlikely to reflect the views of the people these development goals are meant to benefit.
Hear, hear. I made a similar point in Delivering Development. Actually, that sort of was one of the main points of the book. See also my articles here and here.
But I am concerned that Leo is representing this effort a little too idealistically. Just because we decide to ask people what they want doesn’t mean that we will really find out what they want. Getting to this sort of information has everything to do with asking the right questions in the right way – there is no silver bullet for participation that will ensure that everyone’s voices will be heard. To that end, what worries me here is that Ben does not explain exactly how ONE plans to develop the standardized survey they will put out there, or how exactly they will administer this survey. So, here are a few preliminary questions for Ben and the ONE team:
1) Does a standardized survey make sense? Given the very different challenges that people face around the world, and the highly variable capacity of people to deal with those challenges, it seems to me that going standardized is going to result in one of two outcomes: either you ask focused questions that only partially capture the challenges facing most people, or you ask really general questions that basically capture the suite of challenges we see globally, but do so in a manner that is so vague as to be unactionable. How will ONE thread this needle?
2) Who is designing the survey? To my point above, what questions are asked determine who will answer, and therefore determines what you will learn. While the information gleaned from this sort of survey is likely to be very interesting, it is not the same thing as an open participatory process – full participation includes defining the questions, not just the answers. Indeed, I would suggest that ONE needs to ditch the term participatory here, as in the end I fear it will be misleading.
3) How will you administer the survey? Going out with enumerators takes a lot of time and money, and is subject to “investigator bias” – that is, the simple problem that some enumerators will do their job in a different manner than others, thus getting you different kinds/qualities of answers to the same questions. On the other hand, if you are reliant on mobile technology, how will you incentivize those rural populations with mobile handsets to participate? If you can’t do this, you will end up with a highly unrepresentative sample, making the results far less useful.
This is not to dismiss the effort Ben is spearheading – indeed, it is fantastic to see a visible organization make this argument and take concrete steps to actually get the voices of the global poor into the agenda-setting exercises. However, this is not a participatory process – it is, instead, an information-driven process (which is good) that is largely shaped by the folks at ONE in the name of the global poor. If ONE wants this to be more than information-driven, it needs to think about how it is going to let a representative sample of the global poor define the questions as well as the answers. That is no easy task.
In all sincerity, I am happy to talk this through with anyone who is interested – I do think it is a good idea in principle, but execution is everything if you want it to be more than a publicity stunt…
Tue 5 Jun 2012
I continue my musings on the recent emergence of development studies in the American academy . . .
The rise of development studies presents two interesting opportunities for development in general – a chance to start treating development as a discipline, and the chance to bring interdisciplinary (or, in the parlance of the donor and implementation world, integrated) thinking to the fore in development.
What do I mean by treating development as a discipline? Various social scientists have demonstrated that development is not just a set of activities, it is a body of thought. This is what I meant in Delivering Development when I said that
“contemporary development is not the product of a single organizational mission, a single theory, or a particular set of practices. It is the congealed outcome of more than six decades of often-uncoordinated administrative decisions, monitoring reports, economic theories, academic studies, and local responses. These ideas, such as the value of free trade and global markets for the global poor, are repeated so often and in so many venues that they seem to lack a single author or source. For the contemporary development practitioner, they seem to come from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. The same assumption is repeated over and over in development documents until, for example, it is impossible to talk about development in the absence of markets. The results are practices and ideas that seem both universal and eternal.” (p. 7-8)
If people come into development from narrow, technical backgrounds, they are unlikely to know the history of ideas into which they have waded. They may not know the history of interventions that have been tried in the past. Understanding the ideas to which one is responding or building on with a particular program or project, and knowing the previous history of similar efforts, seems to me to be critical to achieving any development goals. For such a knowledge base to become common in the field, development cannot just be an object of study for other academic disciplines – it has to be recognized as its own discipline to which new students must be introduced.
Academia has, for essentially my entire academic life since I entered undergrad, argued for greater interdisciplinary collaboration. As best I can tell, very little of academia has actually shifted academic incentives such that interdisciplinary work might actually emerge and flourish. The emergence of development studies presents an opportunity to create such incentives within an academic discipline*. Any program of development studies that considers not only theory and thought, but also the history of development interventions, will necessarily engage the fact that development is an inherently interdisciplinary undertaking. While economists have long held sway over the (informal) discipline of development, they are hardly the final answer for most questions that anyone engaged in development might face on a day-to-day basis (market failure around the environment, anyone?). As the same time, the climate scientist is probably not going to have a lot of answers for how we might foster the emergence of local markets better able to address the predicted/modeled challenges of future climate change. Technical expertise is critical to achieving development goals, but narrow disciplinary expertise is likely to reproduce stovepipes of information, funding and programming that make it difficult to address the suite of issues arising around most development challenges. In the rise of development studies, we have the chance to break down these stovepipes under the rubric of a single discipline, thus creating a home for interdisciplinary work within a discipline (yes, that is contradictory), as it were. At the same time, graduates of such programs would already think “integratively,” perhaps one of the biggest challenges I have seen for implementation.
Much of this opportunity could be realized even in the course of a Masters degree – which is critical to most programs, as they are Masters-terminal. However, if development studies is to realize these potentials, it will require Ph.D.-level engagement by students and faculty to build literature, journals, and approaches requisite of an academic discipline. This, however, must take shape in the context of an extended and varied engagement with donors and implementers that can only really be had if we move more people between academia and the donor/implementer world. Creating the incentives for such movement is an entirely different question . . .
*Note: as a geographer, I have to point out that my discipline displays all of the characteristics of an interdisciplinary endeavor – most departments contain everything from qualitative social scientists to soil or atmospheric scientists to experts in the GISciences, and we are rewarded for collaborating with one another. Of course, we are collaborating within geography, and publishing in journals accepted by geography, which makes things much easier. But working across the various academic divides (quant/qual, human/environment, etc.) has already been modeled . . .
Disclaimer: This post is my personal work, and does not necessarily represent the views and opinions of any of my current or past employers.
Mon 16 Apr 2012
Posted by Ed under Academia, Adaptation, Africa, Climate Change, Delivering Development, development, environment, globalization, Livelihoods, policy, research
Comments Off on Another talk – Gainsville, anyone?
I will be speaking about my book and research at the University of Florida on Friday as part of the Glen R. Anderson Visiting Lectureship. Poster here:
Hope to see folks there!
Wed 9 Nov 2011
Posted by Ed under Adaptation, Africa, Climate Change, Delivering Development, development, environment, globalization, Livelihoods, migration, research, sustainable development
Comments Off on Upcoming Talk
I’ll be running my mouth about the book again at Chatham University on December 2nd. Chatham has some very cool stuff going in sustainability and the environment (a new school!), including a new Eden Hall Campus in Richland Township, PA. My talk will actually be out on that campus, and not in the Shadyside campus . . . directions are here.
The flyer (they’ve done a nice job on it):
Hope to see some of you there . . .
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:
@edwardrcarr what would You do with 1 Billion $ for #development? bit.ly/rQrUOd #The.1.Bill.$.Question
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.