In my guest post on Aid Watch yesterday, I argued that a basic familiarity with the history and philosophy of development, and some training in critical approaches to development, might have averted at least one of the problems currently associated with the Millennium Village Project (a conflict of interest for project workers when the stated goals and interventions of the project and the needs of MVP communities do not align) before it happened.

A failure of background knowledge also lies at the heart of the MVP’s enduring popularity, even in the face of mounting empirical evidence that it is not working.  It is one thing to ignore the predictions of a lone academic (or a few academics).  It is another to overlook evidence of problems trickling in from around the world. If the MVP is so flawed, why do so many continue to support it?

I argue that the MVP drew its popularity from two sources: its theoretical eclecticism, and from the ways in which it resonated with conventional understandings of development and development practice in the major agencies.  If one goes through the literature on the MVP, one will find echoes of many different bodies of development theory (I say “echoes” purposefully: the MVP has never overtly referenced any bodies of development theory in its publications, forcing critics to read between the lines).  For example, various authors (e.g. here and here) have found in the MVP the influence of “big push” theories with their foundations in the 1950s, while others hear the reverberations of Reagan-era privatization and deregulation.

While drawing upon many bodies of theory to build something new is not a problem in and of itself, doing so productively requires an understanding of each theory from which one is drawing.  The framing of the MVP shows no sign of such familiarity.  Instead, it appears to pluck “useful” bits and pieces of these theories that support the project’s larger political agenda and justifications for its technical interventions.  It adopts the language of “big push” theories when it argues for a concentrated injection of capital across sectors of a village economy to get them all moving simultaneously.  At the same time, it turns to the governance focus with echoes in modernization theory.  As I argued in my article on the MVP:

This focus, insofar as it does not consider the ways in which existing processes do function and places a priori weight on Western modes of administration and governance, echoes earlier, often ethnocentric, tenets of modernization theory, such as the need to convince societies to embrace new, Western forms of administration on their path to ‘development’. (338)

The problem is that these “useful bits” were parts of larger theories that, on the whole, often contradicted one another.

For example, as Cabral et al. (2006) have observed, ‘big push’ theories of development that see a coordinated injection of capital across all sectors of an economy as a productive means of driving economic ‘take off ’ and development (for example, Rostow 1959) run contrary to the claims of modernization theorists like Lewis (1954), who saw unbalanced growth in different sectors of the economy as a key to stimulating the overall economy. (338)

The result was a project that on one hand had something for every development perspective.  However, this came at the cost of internal coherence, and the ability to reflect upon or address the well-known historical problems encountered by those who employed the larger theories from which these bits were taken. A reasonable familiarity with the history and philosophy of development would have made these issues apparent long before there was a need to gather empirical evidence on the performance of the MVP.

But this sort of eclecticism only goes so far in explaining the popularity of a project – after all, most people do not worry much about the underlying assumptions of a given project or program.  What policymakers certainly do notice are the ways in which the MVP nicely aligns itself with conventional understandings of development policy and practice.  For example, there are broad similarities in approach and assumptions between the MVP and Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) which suggest that the MVP is not only nothing new, it is nothing revolutionary (or, in fact, even that different from what is already being done by the mainstream development community):

Like the MVP, PRSPs tend to deal with development issues sectorally, without addressing either the tradeoffs or the synergies between different sectors – this is particularly true in the context of sustainable development planning. PRSPs also tend to conceive of solutions to sectoral problems without reference to local conditions. For example, lagging agricultural production is often addressed through the introduction of more inputs, which on its surface might seem like the ‘common sense’ application of ‘tested and true methods’. Such a set of solutions and rhetoric is nearly identical to that seen in the MVP. Finally, PRSPs, like the MVP, do not consider the social context and processes through which problems are identified and solutions shaped at the national or local level. Yet, national politics may influence the identification of a particular harvest as ‘insufficient’ or ‘sufficient’, a label that shapeshow people view that harvest and the needs of those who are dependent on it for their livelihoods. In short, the MVP and the PSRPs are mutually reinforcing – there is no challenge to the development status quo in the MVP, except perhaps in the form of a call for more money to fund the ‘big push’ (Cabral et al. 2006) needed to ‘kick-start’ development in these villages. (338-339)

Again, a familiarity with the conceptual literature in development studies would have allowed those who touted this project as something new to recognize its fundamentally conservative approach to development.

All of this goes to deepen an underlying point in the Aid Watch post: more practitioner training in the history and philosophy of development, and a wider exposure to critical approaches to development, are critical first steps toward the creation of (or simply the recognition of) truly revolutionary, coherent and ultimately successful projects.