"What I want to talk shit on is the paradigm of the Big Idea."
November 20, 2014 5:22 PM   Subscribe

"I have worked at international development NGOs almost my entire career ... I’ve been frustrated by the same inefficiencies and assumptions of my sector that are now getting picked apart in public. Like the authors, donors, and governments attacking international development, I’m sometimes disillusioned with what my job requires me to do, what it requires that I demand of others. Over the last year, I read every book, essay, and roman à clef about my field I could find. I came out convinced that the problems with international development are real, they are fundamental, and I might, in fact, be one of them. But I also found that it’s too easy to blame the PlayPumps of the world. Donors, governments, the public, the media, aid recipients themselves—they all contribute to the dysfunction. Maybe the problem isn’t that international development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t."
posted by ChuraChura (40 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
There's a Kenyan economist who has been getting headlines by begging the western powers to stop sending aid to Africa, because he says it causes more problems than it cures.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:44 PM on November 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Working just fine. Are you assuming the primary beneficiary is the population of the African continent? Ah, ha ha naive economist.
posted by sammyo at 5:52 PM on November 20, 2014 [8 favorites]

There's a Kenyan economist who has been getting headlines by begging the western powers to stop sending aid to Africa, because he says it causes more problems than it cures.

I had to read that about five times before it resolved from "Keynesian economist" to "Kenyan" in my mind. Seemed an unlikely argument for a Keynesian.

But the argument that Western aid causes more problems than it cures is not new; I remember reading a slew of such stuff back when I was studying anthropology in the 1980s. And there was a lot of emphasis on the ways aid distorts (and depresses) local economies back in the 90s.
posted by yoink at 5:52 PM on November 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

The worm-infection treatment seems like an unambiguous good, to me. The metrics may be ambiguous, but I can't believe that a life without infestation isn't a better one.
posted by Joe in Australia at 6:03 PM on November 20, 2014 [12 favorites]

I haven't worked in the international side of NGOs, but I have a lot of experience in the local work of non-profits. And I find a lot of this resonates with me. He outlines a lot of problems in the sector generally - the over-reliance on program overhead as a metric of success/effectiveness, which just trains the organization to hide costs; the complexity of the issues and how even apparent simple changes produce unintended results - and that there is a large amount of context/cultural dependent variables that make an intervention that worked in one place not suitable somewhere else.

One of the difficulties lies in the tendency to make big claims for outcomes for simple interventions. Reading this through, one line jumped out at me, about the soup kitchens - "And, hang on, do free warm meals even help people escape poverty?" - and my answer would be, should we expect it to? We should expect a free warm meal would help someone feel better, give them energy tohelp them get through the day, and maybe be a small contributor to them getting and staying healthy, getting some education, and maybe finding/retaining employment. But at the end of the day, it was a free meal, not a magic wand that made everything else in their life and environment better.

I was in a meeting once with some donors/funders regarding a program I was involved with that provided direct financial relief for families who had eviction notices/utility disconnection notices. One of them observed that it was just a band-aid solution. And I replied that I saw nothing wrong with applying band-aids when you are next to someone who is bleeding; that there was an inherent good in applying the equivalent of first aid in that situation, even though there might be a need for some major surgery down the road. But the band-aid was a first step that stabilized things, and that was ok. It didn't need to be more.
posted by nubs at 6:13 PM on November 20, 2014 [68 favorites]

But at the end of the day, it was a free meal, not a magic wand that made everything else in their life and environment better.

Indeed, but it's frustrating trying to have this conversation not just with external funders but also your (ostensible) colleagues based in HQ or regional bureaus (what more during evaluation). I understand it's the larger paradigm that's railroaded their thinking but there's a reason why field staff can resort to derisive comments about their HQ colleagues.
posted by cendawanita at 6:19 PM on November 20, 2014

Who is this guy arguing against?

In 2013, development aid from all the rich countries combined was $134.8 billion, or about $112 per year for each of the world’s 1.2 billion people living on less than $1.25 per day. Did we really expect an extra hundred bucks a year to pull anyone, much less a billion of them, out of poverty?

No, we didn't. Who did? He seems to be arguing against some sort of Bono-Sachs chimera of his own imagination, a Silicon Valley specter who dismisses all existing ideas in favor of some get-(them)-rich-quick scheme. But such a person doesn't exist -- or exists no more in this world than in any other domain -- and his arguments are all over the map.

First he advocates testing, but claims that there's some inevitable tendency to under-test:

The point is, we don’t know what works, where, or why. The only way to find out is to test these models—not just before their initial success but afterward, and constantly... It’s not that you test something in one place, then scale it up to 50. It’s that you test it in one place, then test it in another, then another.

Yes, we knew that. Perhaps people scale up too quickly, but that's often because people are dying. Drug companies do the same thing; no one demands that they test at every scale between a dozen and a 100 million. Sure, that would be great, but it would take decade and billions of dollars; anyone who demands it is essentially demanding a halt to the program. But of course he's not really calling for billions to be spent on more testing -- that's the Sachs solution. His conclusion instead?

But maybe when the next great idea comes along, we should all dream a little smaller.

Then he goes on about the inevitable backfires, as if this was an utterly unguessable system, with no predictability at all, which dooms it to failure: The fancy academic term for this is “complex adaptive systems.” He amps up the pseudo-science metaphor by likening aid to a chaotic ecological system: According to Ben Ramalingam’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos, international development is just such an invasive species.

But what are his examples of this?

Where Dertu was once a stopover for nomads, the influx of donor money, the improved infrastructure, the free housing and education and health care, had given people a reason to stay. Sachs’s funding couldn’t keep up. And eventually, it ran out....
This is the paradox: When you improve something, you change it in ways you couldn’t have expected.

That's not a paradox -- that's what success looks like. Nor is it unpredictable that a town with sudden wealth of education and health care attracts others. Perhaps Sachs didn't expect this, who knows -- there's no evidence presented -- but the fact that it did so well that it ate all his money is not some sort of chaotic, CAS result. And that example isn't the only one:

By the 2000s, the rides were attracting an average of 3,000 riders. A group that size requires a logarithmic increase in organization and support. ... You can find examples of this in every corner of development practice. A project in Kenya that gave kids free uniforms, textbooks, and classroom materials increased enrollment by 50 percent, swamping the teachers and reducing the quality of education for everyone.

Yes, successful things can fail if you run out of resources, and that's not a trivial matter. But presenting it as an intrinsic -- let alone unpredictable -- flaw in development is hugely disingenuous. Heck, even the one piece of real data on the headline story -- the playground pumps -- is that, anecdotes aside,

Of the more than 1,500 pumps that had been installed with the initial burst of grant money in Zambia, one-quarter already needed repair.

That's over 1000 new and still-functioning pumps. How is that a fundamental, let alone inevitable, failure?

So what does he actually advocate? Part of the time he favors the flavor of the month, direct cash transfers: (direct cash payments, which have shown impressive results in Kenya and Uganda, are a great candidate for the kind of deliberate expansion I’m talking about). But then just a few paragraphs earlier, without any sense of irony, he devotes pages to the usual attacks on food aid:

In Udaipur, India, a survey found that poor people had enough money to increase their food spending by as much as 30 percent, but they chose to spend it on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals instead. Duflo and Banerjee interviewed an out-of-work Indonesian agricultural worker who had been under the food-poverty line for years, but had a TV in his house.

So cash -- which they can spend on anything -- is ok, but food, which can free up resources to spend on non-food items, isn't?

Listen, these aren't just accidental inconsistencies, and this article -- along with the long list of anti-development books it cites -- are not just floating out there in the a-political aether. The upshot of each of these ill-considered, self-contradictory claims is the same. Stuff goes wrong, inevitably, chaotically; testing is good, but we'd need impossible amount to do it properly; big ideas just lead to big failures; Campbell's law or bayesian nash equilibria mean that efforts to help will be subverted by those who they most wish to better; funds are too small to do any good, except when it's Sachs or Bono, in which case the spending is too broad and overambitious to be able to cope with on-the-ground nuances; etc, etc. There are a lot of mixed-up ideas here, but in toto they all work towards the same conclusion, one that the modern New Republic so often comes to:

But maybe when the next great idea comes along, we should all dream a little smaller.
posted by chortly at 6:39 PM on November 20, 2014 [35 favorites]

First, let’s de-room this elephant: Development has happened.

Some of this article is good, but that's the worst sentence I've read this week.
posted by Aizkolari at 6:40 PM on November 20, 2014 [12 favorites]

Mucho big issues and not a little snark (small bow) but back to PlayPump, was there any observation beyond "wow cool idea"? Really "PlayPump"???

Was there even minimal observation of the "duty cycle" of playgrounds? I've spent quality time on those spinning wheels, serious scrapes and dizziness fun! But most of the time kids are not constantly going round and round, they are sitting and chatting. How is futzing around supposed to run something more than a dribble?

Really at first I thought it was a thought experiment of an absurd example of philanthroThink. If you're going to use child labor at least design a comfortable efficient harness.
posted by sammyo at 7:41 PM on November 20, 2014 [4 favorites]

Involving the population you want to help in the decisions about what will help them is what, to me, separates White Knighting from actual help.
posted by jaguar at 7:55 PM on November 20, 2014 [9 favorites]

Donors, governments, the public, the media, aid recipients themselves—they all contribute to the dysfunction. Maybe the problem isn’t that international development doesn’t work. It’s that it can’t."

the problem is it is a human problem addressed by humans, meaning it is imperfect. if it is doing its job halfway decently, then it should continue.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:39 PM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Who is this guy arguing against?

I've only skimmed this article but I think this author's central issue of contention is alluding to the idea of social entrepreneurship and its meteoric rise in dictating policy. The idea that you or anyone else can provide a nichy longtail pet project charity/service while reaping significant, CEO-like financial reward is mighty mighty seductive to those who like to have their cake and eat it too, but I, for one, am skeptical that the mass adoption of this belief by numerous individuals is sustainable and/or of significant net benefit to global development.

As social entrepreneurship is a relatively new term (yes, some would call it a.. dun dun dun... paradigm) and its best practices are in no way standardized yet (and may never be), it's probably natural that any conversation critiquing its benefits is going to sound a wee bit conflicted. Not that I find myself particularly allied with the thoughts of this author.

My own two cents is that this whole social entrepreneurship thing started when people saw the success of Mohammed Yunus/Grameen Bank and the Nobel Prize he won and thought that its success could be iterated in all manner of ways. I find microcredit and attempts at gamification troubling because so much in life is not understood through tools of economics-- not everything fits nicely into the "business model."
posted by Perko at 8:43 PM on November 20, 2014 [9 favorites]

Thank you for posting this, I thought it was a very measured and level headed piece on a topic- is aid useful - that is often dominated by extremists on both sides.

This particularly resonated with me : "What I want to talk shit on is the paradigm of the Big Idea".

There is a never ending quest to a) make generalisations about aid that clearly have no hope of being generally applicable and b) judging aid by some kind of never-deployed platonic ideal, as opposed to recognising that an element of waste and overhead is unavoidable, figuring where that line falls is the tricky part.

These pat bromides have done wonders for some organisations, their patrons, and a parasitic type of celebrity aid SME that makes a fine living parroting or destroying them. But I'm very ginger on the whole piece.

Even the gates foundation has tried to address the issue with an intense focus on metrics etc, but of course you start universilising those metrics and you get into problems again - which is a legit criticism of the foundations influence on the sector.

There remains no substitute for assessing an aid project on its own merits and within the sociocultural confines it operates. Not very sexy, and disappointingly hard work, but I still believe in it. What one aid project can tell you about another is bound in qualifications and context.

I thought this was a good antidote to people like Sachs, Moyo, etc
posted by smoke at 8:44 PM on November 20, 2014 [11 favorites]

I wonder if donors might get some more perspective by participating in the "development" activities of their own cities and neighborhoods. The amount of effort and money that goes into things we take for granted is truly staggering -- every stupid little bridge is the result of hundreds of people working together for years at a time, every hospital is the product of 50 years of history, every school has dozens of teachers who are making day-to-day one-off decisions that they hope are right for the students. Imagine: every day hundreds of thousands of people get up in the morning to visit every single private home and pick up their trash.

If you think about that for a minute, you'll realize that hoping to spend a couple hundred million bucks on one idea and expecting to have far-reaching effects unbelievably naive. You need lots of ideas, and every single one of them is going to cost billions of dollars, and it's never going to end. And the need for outside advice is pretty limited. What poor countries is money.
posted by miyabo at 10:11 PM on November 20, 2014 [5 favorites]

Amy Costello's documentary for Frontline / World on the Play Pump and its aftermath, Trouble Water, is very well done.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:21 PM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

at the end of the day, it was a free meal, not a magic wand that made everything else in their life and environment better

And yet an absolute good all the same.
posted by flabdablet at 10:43 PM on November 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Metafilter: It smells all rigorous and objective, but it doesn’t require any actual work.
posted by flabdablet at 11:16 PM on November 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

Who is this guy arguing against?

Articles are not always polemics.
posted by Segundus at 11:28 PM on November 20, 2014

This isn’t a criticism of the projects themselves. This is how social policy works, in baby steps and trial-and-error and tweaks, not in game changers. Leave the leaps and bounds to computing power. If a 49-cent deworming treatment really does produce a $30 increase in wages for some of the poorest people on Earth, we are assholes for not spending it.
posted by flabdablet at 11:29 PM on November 20, 2014

I agree that this article is somewhat messy, but then so is international development. The argument that expecting a universal panacea is misguided seems reasonable to me. That's why I like organisations like Give Well ( it's past history with mefi aside!) for their goal of trying to assess which charities work.

I do think what this article addresses to some extent is the fundamental problem with charity is that people get excited about a new cause but have no actual experience of the conditions within the countries they are attempting to exist. Essentially, funding efforts get split between lots of different charities, each of which have different levels of effectiveness. Worse, our methods for assessing them don't tend to be associated with how effective they are! Calculating the overhead is an extremely misleading way to judge a charity, as is looking at an advert they produced and feeling sad.
posted by Cannon Fodder at 12:06 AM on November 21, 2014

Great article , great discussion here.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:06 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ah, I'd always wondered about "there won't be snow in Africa", given Africa has some very big mountains!
posted by alasdair at 1:14 AM on November 21, 2014

I think the various projects this guy is talking about seem, to me at least, less International Development and more plain old charitable works, with all the self gratification that implies. International development is connecting with and advising national governments on how develop their country's economy out of the mire and into something useful. White-knighty westerners swanning in and failing with their pet projects isn't too much of a surprise to anyone I think
posted by fatfrank at 2:33 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

"If a 49-cent deworming treatment really does produce a $30 increase in wages" --- this false idea is partly (mostly) the fault of donor-led marketing by charities.

People want to see a huge value for their donation, so charities have to push this idea that there are cheap quick interventions. The 49-cent cost of the medication doesn't include the medical training, the communication network infrastructure, the roads and transportation, the administration in rolling out health campaigns etc. All that has to come from somewhere, but people want to think their $50 is paying for fifty doses of medication. Googling quickly, that's only possible through massive school deworming (so it's not everyone although the cost is averaged across everyone, only schoolkids, and not girls of reproductive age because of side effects, and only because it would be organised by the massive behemoth of WHO - it's much closer to $3.50/year by 2004 numbers, and that's without counting the international and government infrastructure costs)
posted by viggorlijah at 2:39 AM on November 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

Another point is political, which I think is what the Dead Aid writer was really aiming at - a lot of non-profits have their hands tied because they are reliant on either very rich donors continuing to fund them, massive popular appeal which requires mainstream palatability, or need to co-ordinate closely with governments and institutions.

Like - today a staff member asked what we can do for a sex worker who is asking for help getting ID papers so she can apply for a factory job. We can't officially help because we don't get involved with paperwork except for registering children as some of our clients are illegal immigrants. We can help her with food or training or making a police report and legal action against an abusive partner, get her kids into school but because of the risk of political backlash on all our clients, we can't officially help her on this one thing that would make a huge difference.

Oxfam's "preventing poverty isn't charity, only relieving it is" arguments in Canada aren't just about technicalities, they're about removing power from groups that challenge the systems and the people thriving in them.

I look side-eyed at people who argue that aid is wasteful and fails because it doesn't fix everything. I think the answer is that we don't do enough - there's no fucking reason kids should be dying because of filthy water when we have irrigated deserts for swimming pools.
posted by viggorlijah at 2:47 AM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Very interesting.

I can see parallels in England. Compared to the huge range of "countries that receive development aid" it's homogenous, rich, and has consistent polices across the whole country. Yet London looks and behaves differently from the rest of the country. For example, health outcomes in London look different from health outcomes in the North of England. And again, this is a relatively homogenous society with money and good government and a single national health system.

My take-home from this article was that when we do a pilot, even a 30,000-person pilot in one country, there is absolutely no reason to think it will work in another country, at another scale. We are seeking simple, straight-forward solutions, and there aren't any.

To quote the comment above "Perhaps people scale up too quickly, but that's often because people are dying." - but if scaling up doesn't work, it doesn't work, whether people are dying or not. It's a waste of money and time. Development is hard and local and incremental and long-term.

(There's a lot more really good stuff in this article, but I think that's the author's key point, and the good stuff perhaps distracts from it. The points about administration costs being necessary for efficient operation really changed my mind, for example.)
posted by alasdair at 3:51 AM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Chortly, great response to an interesting article - although I agree with some of the upstream comments, it felt more like a wandering exploration and problematization of a really hard field rather than an argument against any one ideology or stance within it. I'm a former aid-worker in the middle of writing up an ethnography of a big bilateral donor for my PhD. I find it really hard to grapple with articles like this because 'development' is so damn big.

But a couple of observations from my experience: every modernisation process that ever happened was violent and nasty for those living through it, at least, for those outside the elite. That's development's best case scenario. Sure, at the end of the rainbow there's capitalism, dentists, artisanal bread, environmental destruction and social inequality, but there's a long road before you get there. The bad results may just be steps on the way.

Second, is linked to the oft-mentioned point above, that it happens through institutions and bureaucracies - development is a very very hard thing to do well, and it is done through bureaucracies that are in their very organisational structure poorly set up to do it. So, like the article, they make a scientific turn: turn to Science or statistics, since they offer a comforting sense of control and certainty. Ramalingan's book makes the same claim - it's Complexity Science. Implication: we can Master this. There's often a lack of humility in it (not always, Ramalingan's book is more subtle), a lack of understanding in the gap between what policy-elites believe the statistics represent and the human lives they lead. I'm not saying you don't need the data, it's necessary, but it's hopelessly insufficient: spend some damn time (two years, for a start) with the folk you're helpfully trying to develop, not in a compound, show some humility.

Ooo, third observation, while I'm ranting: basically, what development does is push a certain Western-centric view of existence, a view of the relationship between the state, the market and the person as citizen and consumer and rights-holder, right into the rest of the world. Development is happening, or it has happened; cultural hegemony is achieved. Maybe that's a good thing, maybe it's not - I just wish people thought about it a little more frequently.
posted by YouRebelScum at 4:02 AM on November 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

In Udaipur, India, a survey found that poor people had enough money to increase their food spending by as much as 30 percent, but they chose to spend it on alcohol, tobacco, and festivals instead. Duflo and Banerjee interviewed an out-of-work Indonesian agricultural worker who had been under the food-poverty line for years, but had a TV in his house.

That's a classic anti-welfare meme, isn't it? The feckless poor spending their money not on socially approved pursuits but on hedonism *gasp* instead. Imagine buying a tv when you're poor!
posted by MartinWisse at 4:41 AM on November 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

My impression was that he was pointing out that you can't make people do "what they are supposed to" from a donor standpoint, not that he was criticizing people for their choices. He said something like "the first cigarette of the day tastes a lot better than the fourth bowl of rice," but I would imagine that concept is a hard sell for donors who expect their money to go directly to an outcome of better nutrition.
posted by ChuraChura at 4:49 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

The World Bank weighs in...

Michael Hobbes in the TNR on how big ideas are destroying international development. Regular readers won't find much in here, reads like written by someone who familiarized himself with the field over the past year. His recommendation: scale up successful ideas slower and no cookie cutter solutions from Western Kenya to India -- probably not worth 5,000 words in TNR...
posted by infini at 5:41 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have never worked for an NGO. I rarely have the money to donate much in the way of funds. I volunteer sporadically. In no way am I as qualified as many to make a difference.

I did - however - take chemistry when I was in high school and learn Le Chatelier's Principle. Simply stated, A change in one of the variables that describe a system at equilibrium produces a shift in the position of the equilibrium that counteracts the effect of this change. For what its worth, I've found a lot of larger economic theory results in exactly that. Inject money into a system, and lo and behold, you'll find you have more people looking for money (and the density of money returns to insufficient coverage). This repeats for education, food, and any manner of big idea.

Money, food, and donations are helpful in the short term - at any level. The problem is one of scale though. Needs of a successful program increase exponentially or as a power series - not as a linear increase or as a constant or even as funding routinely is given - a bump then slump cycle. In short, once a stimulus is put into the system, that system has to keep being supported with increased resources. Ask anyone that's ever played civilization. And, if that doesn't resonate with you, understand that Corporate America continually expands not because it is greedy with a nasty agenda, but because failure to continually grow means the system itself collapses - rather quickly. This is where we get builders continually building housing stock, where Walmart puts itself in China, where all these economic engines effectively must grow or they strangle themselves and die. In many ways, success of something is its inevitable doom once the resource limit is achieved.

We leave the land of economics and head into the land of the physicists and biologists - where one has to consider that things expand and contract cyclically. Too many deer? leads to increased competition for food, leads to starvation and disease, leads to a reduced number of deer, leads to a regrowth of food, leads to an increased number of deer... etc. On the physicists end, well... celestial bodies expand and contract - I'm not going that route right now because there are far more qualified people to go there here.

Anyways... so what does that mean for the NGO, for people who plan for such things? Well... for starters, they have to go into things either expecting failure or planning on an exit strategy from day one (and function as more of an amorphous blob of goodwill, setting up, succeeding, breaking up, and repeating elsewhere). Learn from Japanese TV here: Cancel the show when you are at the top of your game - then re-wrap the show elsewhere for continued success of a topic. (Not like American Idol which, while still hugely successful, has jumped the shark and is now in decline for viewership comparative to The Voice or whatever comes next). Learn from China - and here I shudder - population controls are an absolute must in rendering some level of stability. Learn from the Departement of Wildlife - not that we should be hunting people, but that there has to be some level of population control for a given area - and if an area can't support the current population with appropriate resources, you either commit to reducing the number of people (and in this case I'd recommend mass-relocation not hunting) there or you let nature take its course and stand back until after it recuperates.

Any way you slice it, just throwing money at a problem and not expecting the problem to just grow along with the money is... well... ignoring how systems work in any other discipline.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:54 AM on November 21, 2014

Thanks for sharing that blog, infini - some other interesting articles as well. Like reasons phone surveys are complicated in Liberia (lots of people have cell phones, but lots of people don't charge their cell phones or leave them on all the time).
posted by ChuraChura at 5:58 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

And yet an absolute good all the same.

Well, sometimes. But giving away that food can have second order effects (such as putting local farmers out of business, say), and more importantly can help to hide what is actually driving the situation (in the case of hunger, this is almost always gross inequality, not any lack of food for sale). It's complex and focusing on the easy things that feel good don't always leave things better.

It's very much to the discredit of development how faddish it is, with huge swings from year to year and over a decade in what is the latest fashionable approach. But that's also a reflection of how complex it is, both from the donor countries and within the recipient countries, not just in terms of finding approaches that "work" but also in balancing all the conflicting needs and agendas. The large and repeated changes in approach reflect that difficulty, and I'd expect to see it continue.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:01 AM on November 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I suppose my main point was just to put this article in context. It's not a stand-alone attack on the fads of entrepreneurial development, for instance, however much it may present itself that way. It fits directly into a centuries-long debate about development, and its arguments -- complexity window-dressings notwithstanding -- are almost all exactly the same ones that have been made thousands of times before.

By that I don't mean just that it's old news -- old news is often worth reiterating -- but that, by pretending to be a new argument against a new type of development, it allows the author to ignore (or remain ignorant of) the vast body of literature that has worked through this stuff already. You can't get another article published on "development is wasteful and faddish" any more -- or at least, not in the New Republic -- but if you put it in these new terms you can once again rehash the old claims. All the points made in the last paragraph of my previous post are ones that have been made literally since at least the 19th century (even the idea of unintended consequences is not a new invention of complexity theory), but what's especially aggravating is that their presentation is often not even internally consistent, as in this article.

But more importantly, these arguments always have a consistent -- though often unstated -- aim. They undercut development in toto by suggesting that development is somehow different from other institutions -- more wasteful, more subject to fads, more likely to be subverted -- but present no comparative evidence for this. Is development more inefficient than your average business, or bridge or hospital (as miyabo points out), or silicon valley startup (low standard, I know), or any other human endeavor? Is it really harder to scale up than anything else is, or is it just the inherent difficulty that scaling up costs (a lot) more money, especially for a non-profit endeavor? Etc, etc. The effect of presenting all these "failures" in a non-comparative context is that it suggests -- without presenting evidence -- that development is somehow more flawed than other things we happily spend money on. It implies that we'd be better off without the pumps given the 25% waste without directly arguing that we'd be better off with no pumps than 75% of them. It elevates the specter of waste far above the standards for any other endeavor, and it's especially disingenuous to argue that waste is terrible because the money could be better spent while at the same time implying that it's all wasted. The inevitable conclusion is that it's better not to spend at all, but that can't be argued directly, since morally speaking, who cares how much money is wasted if the alternative is spending nothing? But of course it never comes out and says spend nothing, except for coy provocative asides at the opening ("it can't") and closing ("dream smaller") that aren't so much arguments as I'm-just-sayings.

The point is, not only are these arguments old, the trick of not outright making the arguments against aid, but instead doing it indirectly in this fashion, is itself not new. It's the standard format for arguing against food stamps, laws to protect minority rights, healthcare, welfare, those terrible public schools, and all the domestic rest, just turned around onto foreign aid. What's odd is that people who are skeptical and familiar with those arguments and rhetorical maneuvers on the domestic front seem to accept their exact analogues when decrying the inevitable waste and backfires of similar efforts when deployed internationally.
posted by chortly at 10:08 AM on November 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

Having done a lot of research on the PlayPump, and written about it in a book, I can say that there's a lot of good material out there analyzing the project. For example, here's a PhD thesis on the PlayPump concluding that the real intended audience of the pump was the western media consumer.

You might also like these two YouTube videos that expertly describe the on-the-ground experience of the PlayPump.
posted by mark7570 at 10:11 AM on November 21, 2014 [7 favorites]

International development is dying; people just don't buy it anymore. The West has been engaged in the project for more than six decades now, but the number of poor people in the world is growing, not shrinking, and inequality between rich and poor continues to widen instead of narrow. People know this, and they are abandoning the official story of development in droves. They no longer believe that foreign aid is some kind of silver bullet, that donating to charities will solve anything, or that Bono and Bill Gates can save the world.

This crisis of confidence has become so acute that the development community is scrambling to respond. The Gates Foundation recently spearheaded a process called the Narrative Project with some of the world's biggest NGOs - Oxfam, Save the Children, One, etc. - in a last-ditch attempt to turn the tide of defection. They commissioned research to figure out what people thought about development, and their findings revealed a sea change in public attitudes. People are no longer moved by depictions of the poor as pitiable, voiceless "others" who need to be rescued by heroic white people - a racist narrative that has lost all its former currency; rather, they have come to see poverty as a matter of injustice.
Dr Jason Hickel in Al Jazeera Opinion
posted by infini at 11:05 AM on November 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

the real intended audience of the pump was the western media consumer

Time someone did a thesis on the Hippo Roller... once had my design critique on it edited out by an editor sympathetic to the cause.
posted by infini at 11:15 AM on November 21, 2014

MartinWisse, there are strong explanations for tobacco, festivals and television spending over food. If your income fluctuates, tobacco (addictive as well) is an excellent way to tamp down hunger and a mild anti depressive. Festival spending boosts social community ties so you have a stronger social network to call on when a crisis hits, vital if you don't have reliable state resources. A television provides massive value in news, cultural connection and pleasure as well as social capital - people come to your house to watch tv, you can follow what's happening in the larger world and it requires little effort unlike making your own entertainment. Food matters, but if you're undernourished rather than starving, you have more choices than just being some Neo-Victorean virtuous poor ideal.
posted by viggorlijah at 4:00 PM on November 21, 2014 [5 favorites]

There's a balance to be struck between encouraging the laudable urge to donate to charities that are supposedly helping those in need, and allowing the local communities to have a role in deciding what is best for them. People are much more likely to sponsor a particular child than they are to donate to a charity that has a more abstract purpose, from the point of view of the donor. It's understandable, but it is not helpful to addressing the problems of those who are in need.
We tend to consider development in purely Western and monetary terms, without consideration for local cultural norms and cultural differences. Development has become a doctrine that is aggressively spread by Western states and NGOs, often at the expense of local communities and their standard of living.
Making people into consumers isn't going to help. Sustainability doesn't come from consuming more. Taking the good side effects from capitalism and leaving the rest should be beneficial, but that is not a message that is going to be popular with the capitalists.
posted by asok at 2:53 AM on November 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Always on Twine   |   Punching in a nightmare Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments