In the last few months there has been a small outbreak of blogrants, culminating around the time of the MDG conference in NY, pointing out the limits of smart new ideas (generally interpreted as technical solutions) in development. It’s taken me a while to get my thoughts in order, but I think we’re in danger of missing something, so here’s my take.
One of the various bones of contention was Hillary Clinton’s not-so-groundbreaking announcement of improved cook-stoves for all the world’s rural poor. IF it worked this would be a great win-win project, with climate change and health benefits (reducing all that nasty smoke), but it has all been tried before, and not been a roaring success. According to Alanna Shaikh, the problems are mostly ones of cultural acceptance. (I highly recommend you read her criticism in full here.)
So, we can suppose, once upon a time one or more smart people realised the dangers of traditional cookware and dreamed up the first cookstove project. This had mixed success. Later some other smart people designed better stoves which were cheaper / made locally / more efficient / safer etc. These were all improvements on the original model, but still no cigar.
If Alanna is to be believed (and I’m happy to take her word on this one) they haven’t been addressing the right issues. So here’s what we need smart people for:
- To work out which are the right questions to ask / issues to address.
- To propose solutions to these issues.
The constraints may not have engineering solutions in the traditional sense, but I like to think there are people out there who could figure out how to overcome the challenges of cultural acceptance. Indeed in my own job I often find us having to think creatively to overcome various challenges which generally have far more to do with local social and political problems than sectoral technical issues. (This is one of the reasons that biologists don’t always make for good conservation managers.) But a bit of smart lateral thinking can get us a long way in these situations.
So to those people who claim ground-level development work is not for wonks and nerds I say: phooey! We need them as much as any other discipline; we just need to point them at the right problems which unfortunately won’t happen sitting in a digital media den around the MDG conference. Instead let’s get them into the field, solving real problems in poor peoples’ everyday lives. You might be surprised at what some of them might achieve.