Why did local approaches to development go out of fashion?

An interesting post from Duncan Green, with even more interesting comments, on a bottom-up approach to ‘doing development differently’. Duncan is reasonably concerned that the recommendations of ‘Local First in Practice’ a new book by Rosie Pinnington might just be a rehash of old arguments in new clothes. (Although I don’t see this necessarily has to be a bad thing.)  Duncan’s concern is backed up by a few commenters, with John Magrath asking:

“This is exactly how international aid agencies used to operate most all the time in the 80s + early 90s. What’s missing ? – is any analysis why all this was ditched, suppressed, fell out of fashion….”

I wasn’t working in development in the 1980s and 1990s so cannot speak as to the accuracy of Magrath’s assertion, but assuming it is true his question is pertinent. And if so, I would venture it is not relevant just to this specific example, but the constant churn of development fads that hinder all long term initiatives. (The sort needed to achieve any kind of social change …) Donor fickleness is an old curse.

Here’s one thought: might it be related to changes in senior management in big conservation and development agencies (donors and BINGOs)? When senior people take up new posts they often want to stamp their own style on an organisation (especially if they have come from outside). Hence the constant re-configuring and search for the latest silver bullet. Most development project portfolios mix great performing projects with desperately poorly performing ones. So incoming managers always have plenty of evidence to support their own prejudices in deciding what to chop and what to proceed with.

Big businesses suffer from this too, but most business cycles last only a few years, so the business can withstand such convulsions, and metrics for success (profitability) are clearer. In contrast many development programmes operate over far longer time horizons, and it can be hard to find good objective measures by which to judge success. So management rotation could lead to a lot of babies get chucked out with the bathwater.

I write this post watching just such a process happening in front of us right now where I work. It is incredibly frustrating!

Bottom up thinking points the way for REDD

More good stuff from CIFOR, this time a survey of 23 different pilot REDD+ projects from around the tropics. The variety of approaches on show just goes to show, again, the benefits of Bill Easterly’s ‘seekers’ over ‘planners’. At both national and international levels I fear there is not enough flexibility in how government officials expect REDD+ to be delivered. And while there is plenty of justified scepticism about the prospects for REDD+ itself, I reckon a lot of that would go away if the price for carbon climbed up to the $20-30 per tonne of carbon dioxide that many experts think is required to push the global economy into making the necessary changes to head off catastrophic climate change. Less faffing around in negotiations and a clearer regulatory landscape would no doubt help too.

Community conservation needs to be meaningful for communities

Some good stuff pumped out by CIFOR as part of a big comms effort around the latest round of international climate change talks, that this year took place in Lima. Much of the best stuff has a relevance far beyond just the UNFCCC negotiations bubble. One thing that particularly caught my attention was this story about what conditions are required for the successful involvement of local people in monitoring, reporting and verification (MRV) of carbon savings achieved through REDD+ activities. Manuel Boissière, a CIFOR researcher, boils it down to four things:

  1. Relevance – “if something about the project is not seen as relevant to their daily lives, local people might not be willing to commit to such a project.”
  2. Skills – not just technical capacity and literacy, but “is it always clear to local people what it is they are measuring?”
  3. Reporting systems – how do you get the data back to HQ? (An important consideration, but the least interesting lesson.)
  4. Quality validation – “the ability to check whether the data that have been collected are correct.”

The 4th is the hardest, Boissière reckons. Just using some remote sensing in the office doesn’t cut it, because it is a one-way street: the scientists can check their data, but it doesn’t provide any useful feedback to communities, and any good quality control system involves rapid feedback. Instead Boissière recommends an approach based around participatory maps that are meaningful to the local communities.

“If you look at academic literature [on community participation in MRV], it’s all about cost-efficiency—how to get local communities participating in tree measurement and what is the cost of it, and are they doing a good job compared to scientists or not? And that has been really the limitation.”

I couldn’t agree more, and it’s not just on the monitoring side. I don’t have a problem with those people who first come to the conclusion that they need to work with communities to deliver conservation goals because the resources just aren’t there to deliver ‘command and control’ conservation. It’s a valid observation, and often critically important in persuading officious bureaucracies to loosen up a little bit.

But if that is your sole basis for doing community conservation you are in trouble. If you want to succeed with community-based conservation you absolutely need to make your work meaningful and relevant to the communities. Providing a steady stream of recognisable benefits is very important, and without which you are likely to struggle, but beyond that communities need to be engaged as full partners. They need to have a basic comprehension of what they are doing and why. If they are truly going to (help) manage their local natural resources they need to be empowered to make informed decisions upon bases that they understand.

In short, community conservation will only work when the communities involved actually care. And how do you persuade anyone to care about something?

I am an economist therefore I assert

About a decade ago, as a relative development aid neophyte I read Bill Easterly’s White Man’s Burden. Despite a few flaws, I loved it, not least since it validated a number of opinions that had been steadily growing in my mind. I was worried that my view was rather narrow but here was a world renowned economics professor saying almost exactly the same things. Aha!

Such, alas, was not quite my primary reaction upon reading Acemoglu and Robinson’s recent tome Why Nations Fail. Not that there isn’t something compelling about their central thesis that ‘institutions’ (defined very broadly) matter hugely for economic development. The book is quite argumentative – which I am fine with, indeed I often write like that – but for a piece of popular science it often seemed somewhat lacking in supporting facts to bolster its arguments. For instance they repeatedly reject Jared Diamond’s hypothesis, as set out in the excellent Guns, Germs & Steel, that the natural geography of the various continents had a big impact on the history of economic development. Indeed I came away thinking, that they had rather failed to demolish Diamond’s proposition, and that in all likelihood both theses were relevant, but neither sufficient on their own.

Reading their book it seemed to me that they had simply written down the words they would use in a lecture without the footnote that appears on the slide indicating the source of their conclusion. For two more world renowned economist professors it seemed a surprising omission, especially since a book format gives you more than adequate space to set out your arguments in detail.

Imagine my pleasure, then, upon recently reading Dietz Vollrath’s rather sceptical review of the academic literature on ‘institutions’. It seems the evidence is actually a bit flimsy. He concludes that in fact what really matters is path dependence, a concept broad enough to also include Jared Diamond’s work, and not so useful as a theory, in that it doesn’t give many pointers as to what approaches to take in addressing under-development in the modern world, except perhaps for the importance of understanding context, something upon which all development veterans will agree.

Hat tip: Terence

Of corruption, aid and respect

Update 02/12/14: news link fixed

Grand corruption is one of the stories of the year across East Africa, with several countries enduring major scandals. I am with many others who assert that corruption is not necessarily the most important development issue to address. (China seems to have got impressively rich incredibly quickly despite being also pretty corrupt.) And even were you to want to address corruption as an economic development rather than justice/rule-of-law issue I think that endemic petty corruption is probably a bigger barrier to development than political grand corruption. Finally, donor threats to punish especially egregious scandals by withholding funds always come with the inevitable downside that the poorest get punished twice whilst having only the slightest impact on the guilty politicians.

But then you have stories like this, and I am reminded of how useless many developing countries are at investigating their own elites when it really isn’t that difficult. Duh! Of course they are, I mean this is political science 101, right? But here’s the jarring juxtaposition; the same political elites want us to simultaneously accept the following:

  1. Their countries are poor and need the help of a few $bn of Western taxpayers’ money.
  2. That corruption in their countries is hardly as bad as others make it out to be*, and anyway their law enforcement agencies lack the capacity to finger and then prosecute such few officials who may be guilty of sticking their hands in the cookie jar.
  3. Western donors are too bossy and guilty of neo-colonialism in their interference in supposedly internal affairs.

I don’t think Western donors do themselves any favours with their regular finger wagging, but honestly, do the corrupt local elites really expect the donors to show them the respect they so clearly feel they deserve when they carry on like that? It’s just cause and effect. Respect is earned.

* Ever heard the one about the smoke without a fire?

No no no

I sincerely hope this comment was taken out of context:

“The problem of providing rural water around the world hasn’t been cracked,” said Philippe Dongier, World Bank country director for Tanzania. “You could say, ‘if that’s not going to be sustainable, why should we build it?’ But that could be said all over the world.”

That’s from Tom Murphy’s investigation into the World Bank’s $1.4bn failed water project in Tanzania. Alas I reckon Tom’s journalistic standards are likely to be better than the World Bank’s sustainability policies.

It’s with this kind of rubbish that international aid agencies shoot themselves in the foot. And yet they express bewilderment at the growing opposition to official aid by various right wing groups in donor countries.

Emerging from what?

One of the most illuminating insights in Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos (see last week’s review) was on how well suited complexity science is to tackling issues of systemic risk in the global financial system (e.g. too much inter-connectedness amongst banks and other financial institutions). The reason being that there was a wealth of data, millions upon millions of individual transactions, just sitting there waiting to be analysed if only someone could bring the right toolset (and a powerful enough computer). Complexity science can take all that apparent randomness and help us tease out significant emergent patterns and behaviour.

I thought this was particularly illuminating because it perfectly illustrates one of the major challenges of bringing complexity science techniques to bear on development problems: for the most part we do not already have the data, and going out and collecting it is very expensive. Different analytical approaches no doubt differ in their data requirements, but I suspect that in many cases that chaos nerds have an even bigger problem in this respect than randomistas. In short without the huge morass of data there is too little random feedstock from which patterns can emerge.

If we combine that problem with one of the main challenges to RCT’s global domination – limited external validity when context is everything* – I am worried that complexity thinking may sometimes me the equivalent of the proverbial sledgehammer used to crack a nut. It may be that the nut is so hard to crack that nothing short of a sledgehammer will suffice to do the job, but the reality is that we cannot go round deploying chaos science sledgehammers everywhere, not least because I doubt there are enough capable chaosistas.

But there is another emergent pattern out there, of bloggers sounding really stupid when they write about things they don’t understand. So now maybe Ben and co can tell me how badly I am wrong …

* In chaotic systems this is represented in the extreme sensitivity to initial conditions, hence the joke about the butterfly flapping its wings in the rainforest triggering a thunderstorm on the other side of the world.

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