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.
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.
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.
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.
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.