For those of us who work at the interface between governance and development, this is an extraordinary, unsettling time. For many, many decades the pendulum of consensus-thinking has swung from one seeming solution to another.
From the 1950s-70s, there was the vision of development as a problem of finding the right ‘engineering blueprint, embodied in the almost exclusive focus during that era on investment projects. In the 1980s-90s, it was thought that all problems could be solved through the economists’ vision of ‘getting prices right’ through structural reforms. More recently, there has been the ‘good governance’ vision that the key to development was to reverse-engineer (engineering, again!!!) the institutional arrangements that prevailed in high-income countries. Each of these has contained an element of truth, but none has proven adequate to address the complexities of our uncertain early 21st century world.
My new book, Working with the Grain, comprises an effort to cut through some of the endlessly repetitive (and increasingly stale) debates that hold us back. It is one of a series of recent contributions which explore practical alternatives. Other contributors include Matt Andrews, David Booth, Diana Cammack, Tim Kelsall, Mushtaq Khan, Lant Pritchett, Sue Unsworth and the Effective States and Inclusive Development research team. While the contributions vary in their details, all share the following features in common:
- An insistence that the appropriate point of departure for engagement is with the way things actually are on the ground — not some normative vision of how they should be.
- A focus on working to solve very specific development problems – moving away from a pre-occupation with longer-term reforms of broader systems and processes, where results are long in coming and hard to discern, and where the temptation is correspondingly large to focus on changes in form for appearances sake, without necessarily any commitment to achieving practical results.
- An emphasis on ongoing learning – in recognition that no blueprint can adequately capture the complex reality of a specific setting, and thus that implementation must inevitably involve a process of iterative adaptation.
The distinguishing feature of Working with the Grain is its extended exploration of ‘good fit’. [For more details on the book’s approach to ‘good fit’ click here.] ‘Good fit’ offers an initial orienting framework, as a guide for helping to identify which of a broad array of alternative interventions potentially are most relevant as points of departure, across a parsimonious set of divergent country settings. The intent is not to prescribe some mechanical formula, but to provide a platform for subsequent learning.
In coming months, I will be exploring the ideas laid out in Working with the Grain with both practitioners and academics. My aim in this blog is to explore the continuing relevance of this emerging approach – with useful updates on interesting links, and some personal reflections on both immediate development and governance challenges, and on questions and issues that arise in the course of scheduled launch events.
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