What Now?

"What now? Let me tell you what now. I'mma call a couple of hard, pipe-hitting development economists ..."

In an e-mail exchange, Matt and I agreed that there haven’t been any really interesting and engaging development debates recently: this has been one reason (among many) for our recent relative silence. It’s worth looking at this calming of the intellectual waters around development a little further. There are a couple of interesting points about the way in which the debates have died down.

The first point to notice is that the debates have not died down because any kind of consensus has been reached. Bill Easterly and Jeffrey Sachs are not running down the beach hand in hand, singing about sunshine and Millennium Villages; nor is Dambisa Moyo finding support from, well, anyone. Debates have died down precisely because the prime movers in them have been so intellectually intransigent. Sachs has refused to address in any systematic way the myriad issues with his ‘big push writ small’ model; and Easterly continues to maintain a largely false dichotomy between planners and searchers; likewise, Dambisa Moyo (and her more considered fellow aid critics) did not precipitate a retrenchment of aid policy – though the pre-existing value for money and ‘beyond aid’ agendas became better defined and became more prominent.

This is worrying. For our thinking to progress, we generally need either a process of intellectual creative destruction – whereby new ideas replace old ones they render obsolete – or a process of refinement and ‘bargaining’ between different ideological camps to generate a more nuanced approach to development theory. Right now neither of these seems to be happening. The main intellectual debates about how development should proceed have been deadlocked (with the exception of a few of the more thoughtful writers), and while the critiques of whether aid or non-aid methods of development assistance should be used has progressed, this is really about the means of implementing policy visions rather than the visions themselves.

This has caused three problems that I can see. Firstly, there’s a lack of coherence in current development policy; some policies based on a libertarian ‘searchers’ agenda (unconditional cash transfers to individuals for example) are pursued and assessed on a micro-level basis, coexisting alongside interventionist social-level policies, potentially compromising both broad approaches. This is not to say the correct approach would not incorporate elements of both, but that this should be by design and not because two camps are pushing their own agenda irrespective of the bigger picture.

Secondly, the failure of the different development agendas to find a common ground or even to respond effectively to each other has led to stasis in the generation of new ideas. The big thinkers and big ideas are so far apart from each other, and so fundamentally opposed, it seems that they are not being forced to reassess their own positions. This manifests in a shortage of new ‘big question’ thinking about development. This might not be such a bad thing – big question thinking hasn’t provided any unambiguous solutions and there might not be any grand theory of development, but the constant search for them has been strengthening our understanding, despite the imperfections of each one.

The third problem with the current development discourse that I see is that for the first time in my memory, the issue dominating the field is not a theory or an idea, but a research method: randomized evaluation. There has been some excellent writing about RCTs (the Development Impact blog is easily the best thing to happen to the blogosphere in the last year or two), but it is curious that more debates spring up about how well they can provide generalizable conclusions than about the kinds of intervention they are assessing. It’s symptomatic of an ever-increasing dominance of a micro-approach to development interventions, which has many benefits, but does not contribute enormously to discussion of the optimal array of interventions and sequencing issues. It is also ill-suited to assessment of macroeconomic issues and policies.

Development thinking tends to follow trends very closely, a phenomenon that was the subject of one of my first blogs at Aid Thoughts. In that piece, I suggested that we need to move away from constant jumping from hot issue to hot issue and use a more holistic approach to development thinking: an approach which gives due consideration to Governance, agriculture and infrastructure; planning where it can and should be used and decentralized decision making where this makes sense, all without forgetting that aid is only one aspect of intervention and macro-issues are generally not aid-related. The shift in thinking towards methodological debate and micro-interventions represents a failure to embrace this sort of holistic thinking – instead it focuses our attention narrowly on those interventions that can be monitored in specific ways, and by consequence on ever more specific development packages. The ideas being expressed remain interesting and valid, but we’re no closer to coalescing the good that has been learnt from the various approaches tried and discarded in the past.

So, what now? In the field of history, there have been two relatively recent publications which were extremely ambitious in their attempts to draw together vast amounts of research, theory and analysis and form a coherent statement of our best knowledge and clearest explanation and analysis of the big questions in history, namely The Birth of the Modern World by Chris Bayly and Strange Parallels by Victor Lieberman. Both are staggering works, widely recognized among the best in their fields (I have yet to make a stab at Strange Parallels, but it has received the highest praise possible from people whose opinion I put great stock in). Development is waiting for its equivalent. I don’t see a much better time for its genesis than now. I just don’t know who is well placed to write it.

4 thoughts on “What Now?

  1. Sam Gardner

    August 10, 2011 at 6:04am

    I thought we were past the “big explaining theory” and silver bullet approach. Finally we accept we are living in a complex world where the one size does not fit all. For the future I would like to mention the ” Beyond co-ordination: markets and networks ” of Owen Barder, and the whole “aid on the edge of chaos” thinking.

    OK, not easy. It will not get you elected on a populist platform, but it can help you to do a lot of good things for poor people,, and unshackle the creativity of the system (do you really think there is a system?). Having an actual result for the beneficiaries, with a good value for money ratio, is a limited, but worthy ambition.

  2. Ranil Dissanayake

    August 10, 2011 at 4:42pm

    Hi Sam,

    If you read the piece you’ll see that I’m against both the ‘big explanation’ and silver bullet approaches to development. What I’m looking for is an intellectual progression of how development proceeds. You’re right to highlight the beyond coordination and complexity theory stuff as a valid approach, but neither is really all that satisfying – Owen is looking at how you can use incentives to govern how donors engage with each other and with recipients, and the complexity stuff is interesting but still very early in its development. There are plenty of development experiences that can be explained without any recourse at all to complexity theory.

  3. ScepSec

    August 13, 2011 at 11:43pm

    What Owen is trying to do is applying New Public Management to the aid system. As with the public sectors in the eighties and onwards, there’re many good reasons for doing so but it’ll hardly be the giant leap some are hoping for.
    The problem with putting your eggs in the complexity baskets is that plural ‘s’. Some is just old wine on new bottles, other completely lacks a bottle, new or old, to contain it. The potential for CT is if a school manages to combine in one approach both structure and agency and unstable and (quasi) stable systems.
    I would say that your assertion about the plenty of experiences that can be explained without CT stems from societies being riddled with both quasi stable and unstable systems – both of which are excellently described in existing theories. However, not in combination and at once. That’s where the potential is. ….in my humble opinion.

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