Posts Tagged ‘development research’

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

Aid workers are from Mars, Researchers are from Venus

One of the reasons for my recent radio silence was that I was attending a workshop to discuss a new research project into which we had been roped. It was a faintly surreal experience for me and, I guess, the other field representatives*, who were drawn from various other developing countries across the globe (Africa, South America and South Asia were all represented). The proposed outcome of the research project was to draw lessons from our various experiences and to distil them into some kind of model / analytical framework which could inform future work in our sector. The organisers were very keen that it should be relevant and useful to us in the field. And therein lay the disconnect.

I’m a bit of a sceptic when it comes to these kind of social science frameworks: I think they are often (but not always!) either trivial (i.e. don’t tell us very much and are only useful as a kind of mnemonic so we don’t forget critical elements when doing our strategising), or are instantly refutable when you add another case study. (Most such frameworks are based on a pretty small sample size of case studies, mainly for cost reasons, I imagine.) But I’d signed our organisation up to the research effort (note to self: in future, read the proposal first), so it ill behoved me to completely diss the idea, and, I can see how such things could be useful to organisations, such as BINGOs and donors, who regularly work across multiple countries and regions.

But useful to us and our colleagues here? No. Every country has its own contexts and unique set of circumstances. Multi-country analyses will only ever encapsulate a very small part of these complexities and variations. If you want to understand social science issues in a specific country then read a book about the place or talk to people who work there; don’t rely on some grand intellectual framework because it will almost certainly lead you astray.

This doesn’t mean we don’t want to take part  in the research. There’s a small amount of money that comes with it, which will be useful**, and the exposure our organisation will get as a result is often worth having – at some point down the road it may lead to more substantial funding. But the main output will not, in itself, be useful here. I could see my fellow field representatives struggling similarly to fit what was on offer into what they need.

Been there, done that

One of the most surreal aspects, though, was that I had this strange feeling of déja vu, but from the other side of the table. In times past, in the search for local partners, we’d called meetings where we’d made various offers / suggestions as to how we could work together only for our would-be collaborators to ask for entirely different things. It is immensely frustrating – for both sides!

For the local partner, a necessary realisation is that, once the funds have been raised, there is often not much that can be done to repurpose things: we are all committed to a certain path (agreed or not), and that one should simply focus on making the best of the situation. One way to do this is simply to stop disagreeing: unfortunately lack of disagreement does not necessarily translate into whole-hearted buy-in which can act as a significant drag later. This, however, is an extremely common approach.

For the international partner, the challenge is to discern the underlying reasons for the objections. Sometimes these may be purely selfish, e.g. a desire to capture more value in the form of allowances for local partner staff, in which case it can be good to hold relatively firm. If the reasons for objection are better founded then maximum flexibility for now, and lesson learning for the future is the way forward.

Ultimately, of course, we want to bridge these gaps: get everyone talking the same language and moving towards genuinely shared aims. Development research that is more directly useful in the field would be … well, useful! So even when these disconnects happen it is always worth carrying on talking, and it makes for good bar chat when back with the locals: “Incredible! They just didn’t get it!” (Building rapport / going native.)

ps. The title of this post should in no way be taken to imply different planetary ‘genders’ to development workers and researchers, it just sounded better this way round. The researcher role also can be easily extended to include donors and BINGO head office staff.

* The others were at least all nationals of the countries where they live and work. I am definitely uncomfortable ‘representing’ the interests of the communities we support when my own life experience is so very different.

** Much more dangerous is when NGOs rely on such grants to cover core fieldwork costs. The entire thrust of such projects is oriented to delivering international research outputs, rather than meeting the actual needs of the communities, and who will continue the fieldwork when the research project comes to an end? These kind of projects should be outlawed.

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