Entries tagged with “evidence”.

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.

A few comments on the blog related to some earlier posts on a Grand Challenge for Development have gotten me thinking a bit about development (the concept and the project) and if it is achievable.  There are those who would argue it is not, that development is an ill-conceived idea that invokes pathways of change that are now closed due to the changing global political economy, and treats life in the advanced economies as the apotheosis of human existence toward which everyone else is (and should be) marching.  To the extent development is taken to mean this sort of change, I agree completely – development is unattainable and meaningless.  There are not enough resources on Earth to allow everyone to live the way we do in the advanced economies, so the idea of a march toward that standard of living as a goal is gone regardless of how one might feel about it morally/ethically/etc.

But that does not mean that change cannot happen, that things cannot improve in a manner that is appreciated by people living in particular places.  Certainly, a shift from a post-subsistence income of $1 a day to $5 a day is a huge change that, in many parts of the world, would enable very different standards of health, education and well-being.  Surely this is worth striving for – and certainly, the people with whom I have worked in Ghana and Malawi would take that kind of a change over no change at all – and they would much rather than kind of change, than endless, pride-killing aid dependence. There is no doubt that this sort of change can be attained in many, if not most places.  Indeed, it has been accomplished.  Further, there are places where life expectancy has risen dramatically, infant mortality has fallen, nutrition and education levels have improved, and by any qualitative measure the quality of life has improved as a direct result of aid interventions (often termed development, but this should only count as development if the changes are sustained after the aid ends).  The real question at hand is not if it can be done, but why the results of our aid/development efforts are so erratic.

You see, for every case of improved life expectancy, there is the falling expectancies in Southern Africa.  For every case of improved nutrition and food availability, there are cases of increasing malnutrition and food insecurity (such that in sub-Saharan Africa, the balance has tipped toward less food availability per capita than two decades ago), and so on.  What works in one place often fails in another.  And the fact is that we don’t understand why this is in a systematic way.  I am a geographer and an anthropologist, so I am quite sympathetic to the argument that the local specificity of culture and society have a lot to do with the efficacy of particular interventions, and therefore explain a lot of the variability we see in project outcomes.  However, “local specificity” isn’t an answer, it is a blanket explanation that isn’t actionable in a specific way.  We persist in this answer because it pushes development (and aid) failure into the realm of the qualitative, the idiosyncratic.  And this attitude absolves us, the development community, from blame when things don’t work out.  Your project failed? Ah, well, who could have known that local land tenure rules would prevent the successful adoption of tree crops by women?  Subtly, we blame the victims with this mentality.

What it comes down to, I think, is a need to admit that we have at best a shaky idea of what works because in many areas (both geographic and technical) we really don’t understand what it is we are trying to transform when we engage in aid and development work.  We are better in some areas (health) because, frankly, they do a better job of gathering data and analyzing it than we do in, say, rural development (hey, don’t take my word for it – read some Robert Chambers, for heaven’s sake!).  But, in the end, we are driven by our myths about how markets and globalization work, how development/aid is linked to change, and how the problems we claim to address through development and aid came about in the first place.  This argument is the heart of my book (Amazon link here) – and I spend the first half using the story of two villages in Ghana to lay out how our assumptions about the world and how it works are mostly wrong, the next quarter explaining why this is a major problem for everything from economics to the environment, and the last quarter thinking about how to change things.

My take is but one take – and a partial one at that.  We need more people to think about our assumptions when we identify development challenges, design programs, and implement projects.  We need to replace assumptions with evidence.  And we need to be a lot more humble about our assumptions AND our evidence – so we stay open to new ideas and evidence as they inevitably flow in.