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.

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