I just witnessed a fascinating twitter exchange that beautifully summarizes the divide I am trying to bridge in my work and career.  Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva, the head of research at Oxfam GB, after seeing a post on GDP tweeted by Tim Harford (note: not written by Harford), tweeted the following:

To which Harford tweeted back:

This odd standoff between two intelligent, interesting thinkers is easily explained.  Bluntly, Harford’s point is academic, and from that perspective mostly true.  Contemporary academic thinking on development has more or less moved beyond this question.  However, to say that it “never has been” an important question ignores the history of development, where there is little question that in the 50s and 60s there was significant conflation of GDP and well-being.

But at the same time, Harford’s response is deeply naive, at least in the context of development policy and implementation.  The academic literature has little to do with the policy and practice of development (sadly).  After two years working for a donor, I can assure Tim and anyone else reading this that Ricardo’s point remains deeply relevant. There are plenty of people who are implicitly or explicitly basing policy decisions and program designs on precisely the assumption that GDP growth improves well-being. To dismiss this point is to miss the entire point of why we spend our time thinking about these issues – we can have all the arguments we want amongst ourselves, and turn up our noses at arguments that are clearly passé in our world…but if we ignore the reality of these arguments in the policy and practice world, our thinking and arguing will be of little consequence.

I suppose it is worth noting, in full disclosure, that I found the post Harford tweeted to be a remarkably facile justification for continuing to focus on GDP growth. But it is Saturday morning, and I would rather play with my kids than beat that horse…