Would folks who know precious little about development please stop telling everyone what the discipline of development looks like?  Seriously. Francis Fukuyama has a piece in the American Interest in which he decries the lack of what he calls “large perspective” work in the social sciences. Admittedly, I have some sympathy for his position here – like all academic disciplines, the social sciences generally reward narrow specialization, or at least that is what most of us are trained to believe.  I think there is another way to succeed in academia, a path I am taking – to write not only high quality, refereed research in one’s field(s), but also general-audiences works that gain a wider profile (that was the point of writing Delivering Development).  When you reach audiences beyond academia, you develop other lines of influence, other sources of funding . . . and generally give yourself some space in your home institution, as nobody wants to fire/lose the visible public intellectual.  Sadly, few of us choose the buck the system in this manner, and therefore become slaves to our journals and their relatively narrow audiences.

I also like Fukuyama’s clear argument about the goals of social science:

“The aspiration of social science to replicate the predictability and formality of certain natural sciences is, in the end, a hopeless endeavor. Human societies, as Friedrich Hayek, Karl Popper and others understood, are far too complex to model at an aggregate level.”

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.  When we refuse to admit this, we empower the people who are willing to take problematic data and jam it through dicey quantitative tools to produce semi-coherent, super-shallow analyses that appear to present simple framings of the world and solutions to our problems while in fact they obscure any real understanding of what is going on, and what might be done.

But in between these two points, made at the beginning and end of the article, respectively, Fukuyama populates his piece with a number of statements about development that range from the problematic to the factually incorrect.  In the end, I am forced to conclude that he has little, if any, understanding of contemporary development in theory or practice.  Sadly, this did not keep him from making a number of sweeping, highly erroneous statements.  For example, at one point he makes the claim

Few scholars have sought to understand development as an inter-connected process with political, economic and social parts.

This claim exists to further his argument that development is plagued by siloed thinking that has led to intellectual incoherence and failed policy. While I might agree about development having problems with its intellectual coherence, he is totally wrong in this claim. It only holds up if one chooses to NOT use something as ubiquitous as Google Scholar (let alone Web of Science) to examine the literature of the past 20 years.  Anthropologists, geographers and sociologists have been doing just this sort of work, mostly at the community level, all along.  Often the lessons of this work are not aimed beyond the communities in which the work was undertaken, but there is a giant volume of work out there that has long taken this interconnection seriously.

Further, Fukuyama’s ignorance of the current state of the discipline and practice of development shows in his claim:

While paying lip service to the importance of institutions, most economists and field practitioners still see politics as at best an obstacle to the real work of development, which is improvement in incomes, health, education and the like, and not as an independent objective of development strategy. (Amartya Sen is an important exception to this generalization.) The democracy promotion agencies, for their part, spend relatively little time worrying about economic growth, social policy or public health, which in their view are goods often used by authoritarian regimes to buy off populations and prevent democratization.

While some economists still treat “the social” as maximizing behavior warped by a bunch of externalities, those that are any good concern themselves with politics (at scales from the state to the household).  Practitioners, perhaps more than anyone else, know that politics are hugely important to the work of development.  Sen has a wide purchase and following throughout development, including at my current employer.  And how does one then address the Democracy and Governance Office in my Bureau – they are, without question, a democracy promotion office . . . but their whole lives revolve around linking this to various other development efforts like economic growth or public health. When he claims that those who work for USAID “do not seek an understanding of the political context within which aid is used and abused” he’s simply factually incorrect. Basically, Fukuyama is just throwing out huge claims that have little or no anchor in the reality of contemporary development agencies or practice.

Fukuyama’s article was not really about development – it was about understanding social change.  However, in using development as his foil in this piece, Fukuyama has done a great disservice to the contemporary discipline – both in its good and bad aspects.  Like those who would give us useless universalizing generalizations and predictions from their social inquiries, Fukuyama’s (mis)reading of development makes it harder to see where the real problems are, and how we might address them.