22 September 2011

Time to Reimagine Development?

In case you did not see this in The Guardian newspaper yesterday.

If the global crises of the past four years (food, fuel, financial) and the slow burn of climate change have called into question the way we live, then it's likely the impact of these crises on the field of international development will be fundamental. This assumption kick-started an initiative at the Institute of Development Studies in 2009 called Re-imagining Development (ReDev). The idea was not only to look at the impacts of the crises on the ground but also to assess how they affect the way we think about development.

Drawing on 20 case studies, we identified a number of assumptions about how development works that were challenged by the crises.

Economic growth can be a force for good, but it does not have to be

When many of us were taught economics, growth was sometimes seen as sufficient for development and always necessary. ReDev concluded that some kinds of growth are necessary, others irrelevant, and some harmful. Growth should be treated like technology: with the right governance, it can advance human wellbeing. The growth we want is economic development that is potent in reducing poverty, uses natural resources sustainably and emits significantly fewer greenhouse gases. Too much research on growth is focused on how we get it, rather than how we get the type we need. We get the growth we want by focusing on: creating the right initial conditions (such as low inequality); reducing entry barriers for new, small businesses; setting key prices at appropriate levels (as with carbon production); and adopting stronger transparency mechanisms to allow society to pressurise corporations.

Views on growth are surprisingly homogenous. This is probably because only one type of economics (neoclassical) is taught the world over. But monocultures, nature has taught us, are particularly vulnerable to events.

In an interconnected world, the nation state is increasingly relevant

Do global agreements on climate, trade and drugs drive national behaviour, or do national alliances supply oxygen and credibility to global agreements? Several case studies showed how national self interest will continue to undermine collective action that is in the long-term interest of all. From the G8 to the G20 to the G193, issue-specific coalitions of countries (there are 193 states recognised by the UN), and the membership of those coalitions, is probably best explained by national politics. We need to understand these national coalitions more than ever.

The complexity of reality cannot safely be ignored

Complexity is the policymaker's kryptonite. But it is increasingly difficult to simplify complexity in ways that do not do violence to reality. For example, complexity surfaced quickly for organisations tasked with monitoring the crises. They had to get speedy and meaningful data on a wide range of interlinked outcomes to track the impacts of the crises and to get quick ideas about how policy could mitigate them. They were caught between getting data out quickly and getting the data to be statistically representative. They found the complexity of doing both to be overwhelming. We have to get better at measuring the real-time consequences of complex crises.

Wellbeing and resilience are not panaceas, but neither are they fads

The crisis impact work indicated that while material goods were very important to the human condition, so too were the relationships and the psychological dimensions of human existence. Wellbeing brings these dimensions together in an explicit way. The emerging concern with resilience of systems is perhaps a good thing to come out of the bad news of the crises. Given the new global uncertainties (climate, the emerging powers, and resource scarcities deriving from current lifestyles) we think these concepts of wellbeing and resilience are here to stay. But if used lazily to provide politically correct gloss to issues of measurement of progress and interdependence, they will become devalued.

Civil society did not deal well enough with these mega-shocks

The ReDev report concludes that civil society did not sufficiently rise to the challenge or opportunity afforded by the crises. This was partly due to NGOs and civil society working in silos and partly due to the drop in income many of these organisations experienced. We felt civil society could have done a better job of enforcing the various accountabilities of governments and business. The Arab Spring may well temper this argument, but we were struck by the inability of civil society groups to mobilise collectively to push governments to act more quickly and protect the most vulnerable.

Though derived from different specialisations and institions, our observations are partial, driven by fragments of evidence from purposively selected sites and interpreted by people with particular values and perspectives, so we cannot overstate the representativeness of these conclusions. But clearly it was difficult for many of the thousands of people with whom we engaged to reimagine development.

New ideas often emerged in the personal realm, but struggled to find fertile ground professionally. Established concepts are hard to dislodge, having built up strong constituencies and vested interests within or across organisations. And the new interests - the emerging powers, the new donors, and the new philanthropists - are not necessarily going to plough different paths.


Anonymous said...

I like this post, very smart and valid. I mostly, liked the section about the civil society. Based on my experience working with civil society in international development projects, I strongly support your conclusion that we do need further “true” research. And in the domain of what you called “ the personal realm”, like to add a comment here, that the “naivety” and “unforeseen and hidden arrogance” of the international agencies working in this field is a major factor for not effectively mobilize the civil society.

Anonymous said...

All the right stuff.. I have yet to read the main report, but from the section titles, is it missing the middle ground between grass-roots process and sentiment, and national/global politics level perspectives and actions? The role and power dynamics of influencing intermdiaries - individuals, systems, institutions must surely be one of the key factors in change to where people might prefer to be.. what would work and why?

Lawrence Haddad said...

So, even E=MC squared is no longer rock solid...(for the moment) -- what are the development equivalents?

Thanks for the comments:

Anonymous 1-- give us some examples (anonymous) of the kinds of unforeseen and hidden ignorance you have in mind

Anonymous 2--did we miss the intermediate institutions? Depends how defined--we look at knowledge intermediaries (Malawi Exchange, open source spaces), religious intermediaries, and the private sector (esp the financial sector). But I will think some more about this point