I defended the media’s tendency towards shallow and simplistic coverage of development issues in my last post. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we should abandon complexity in analyzing development – quite the opposite. When someone wants to get involved in development beyond reading the latest NYT op-ed or Guardian report about Katine, they have to see that development work is in fact not a world of simple correlations and easy answers.
I’m not convinced that development writers (as opposed to workers) are doing much of a job in expressing this, however. We seem to have a high proportion of single-issue activists who are constantly fighting with each other and who seem incapable of taking a wider view of the world than the one embodied by their chosen solution. They spend a fair bit of time online and generally get involved in shrill arguments with their critics or competitors.
In fairness to our advocates, there are some who have picked up a range of issues and engage with critics of each, while arguing the ins and outs of them with clarity, of whom Owen Barder seems to be the best example; I do not mean to denigrate him by saying that he isn’t exactly fighting stiff competition. His approach is a rare one. I disagree with a fair few of his positions but it is never the case that I find them simplistic, poorly argued or his advocacy shrill rather than thoughtful.
I have no problem with the concept of advocacy, though there is a coordination problem which exists within the macro-environment for advocacy which leads to major development constraints, normally the less cute ones like poor road networks and transport links, being neglected. My problem is when advocates try and make us think that solving their problem is easy as 1,2,3 – and that it is a magic bullet for development. This happens rather often and is unsurprising. Advocates do not want to weaken their position by point out its flaws. They make strident statements because confidence convinces people.
This is an unhelpful phenomenon. It directs resources and attention to a problem, yes; but simiplistic advocacy often generates simplistic responses. Just calling for greater aid transparency is fine; but only if we recognize that all forms of transparency are not equal and that the ultimate test of data published is how the developing country in question can use it to improve its aid portfolio or development approach.
Shrill advocacy also helps reduce the level of development discourse to name-calling and black and white solutions. It’s difficult to over-emphasise how big a problem this is. Development is not a well understood phenomenon, not by a long sight. We really understand very poorly why countries have developed and how they have been linked; few historians and fewer economists have been able to engage with this question with much success. The exceptions, Chris Bayly among historians (who was rather looking at modernity in all its complexity than ‘development’) and Ha-Joon Chang (whose innovation among economists was to study how rich countries developed) have not yielded a fully or largely formed or workable approach to actual development work. We need more reasoned discourse and true interaction – we all have much to learn from each other.
Development is complex in many ways, but one useful way to think about complexity is to split it between complexity across time and space, complexity within a specific national context and complexity within an issue. (This is in itself a simplification of complexity, but one designed to stimulate further thought rather than provide a final answer).
Across time and space, we know that development policies and actions do not always translate. A successful policy in Bolivia in the 1970s may not have worked there in the 1990s and may not work in other countries at that or any other time; on the flip side, just because it fails when replicated in one place, does not mean it won’t ever work. This is my central problem with the Searchers vs. Planners approach that Easterly (artificially in my eyes) divides development into. We know that plans have failed in many places; equally we know they have worked in others. In South Korea and Taiwan state planning worked for quite some time before beginning to unspool, as their economies outgrew the reach of their planners. We know that searchers have been of crucial importance to some societies: America’s pioneers opened out the huge potential of America as an economy, and the development of property law there was a product of trial-and-error rather than grand top-down vision. Equally, there are plenty of places where the state has no real planning function or capacity, such as the DRC or even Zanzibar – and these places are not booming, nor are they showing signs of it. This kind of complexity cannot be ignored. We need to engage with the question of why things work in some contexts and not in others, but this isn’t a central element to development discourse; we are sated when we work out if it did or didn’t work.
Then take a specific national context. Tanzania has a complicated network of constraints to its development. It is large without a network of roads and communications that make it easily accessible. It has a large public health burden. It has a major port which has tremendous potential, realized and not, as an economic hub. Like much of sub-Saharan Africa, property rights are poorly structured, sclerotic and difficult to obtain. It has a weak industrial base. It is not yet capitalist in its relations of production. I could go on; books have been written on this amazing country. An army of single issue activists descending on Dar es Salaam and telling everyone that cash transfers, or Millennium Villages or increased emigration is what they need to develop will not help. Like most poor countries, Tanzania is characterized by multiple constraints, many binding. Each must be tackled and the synergies between different approaches must be exploited. Their resolution must be concurrent or gains made in one area may be eroded before the next is addressed. Again, complexity must be acknowledged and placed at the centre of understanding of the way forward.
Now finally, even within a single issue, recognizing complexity is important. We’ve had a lot of writers suggesting that migration limits are ‘only about xenophobia’ or arguing that they have no impact on the host population. Neither of these statements are true, and making them only weakens arguments in favour of migration. It is not simply xenophobia to recognize that social cohesion in England (which I researched for the UK Government about 7 years ago) is challenged by immigration; I say this as a migrant. Many migrant communities choose or are forced to turn inwards and provide a social safety net for themselves. Otherness attracts recriminations and in times of distress is the focus of great social strain. Ignoring that this is historically how migration influxes first organize themselves (and that this changes over time) is dangerous. How quickly will we forget lessons learnt from Brixton’s race riots in 1981, or Bradford’s smaller, but significant, riots in 2001? This is not to say that migration should be curtailed – but to say that we need an open and honest dialogue about how it works and what impacts it has. It is dangerous to believe otherwise.
We can take this all too far and paralyse ourselves with terrifying complexity that we daren’t touch for fear of exacerbating problems. Balance is always important. But searching for universal answers doesn’t work because the world is not a place where universalism exists meaningfully. If this blog we run achieves anything, I would hope that it’s to reintroduce alternative viewpoints and to fight against universalism and simplicity in development theory and practice.