Doing development differently — the rebirth of ‘the science of muddling through’

doing development differentlyIt is a commonplace that the pendulum of economic development scholarship and practice swings back and forth from one set of (faddish) ideas to another.  But beneath this back-and-forth cycling is another, longer cycle —  the tension between a search for grand, seemingly scientifically-grounded solutions, and an approach to problem-solving which self-consciously is more pragmatic, incremental. In recent decades, this long-cycle pendulum has swung powerfully in the direction of  scientism. There are, though, some striking signs that it may be swinging back. As a next step in crafting a way forward, a rapidly growing group of eminent scholars and practitioners have signed on to a “Doing Development Differently” manifesto.  I explore this swinging pendulum, and make the link to some of the earlier  intellectual roots of the DDD movement, in a blog post on the Oxford University Press website. You can access the full post by clicking here. (…..but before you go, though, do go to my blog home page, and sign up to receive email updates of future blog posts……..)

Puzzling over ‘anti-corruption’

anti-CorruptionI’ve been puzzling (yet again!) over the usefulness of anti-corruption as an entry point for engagement by civil society, donors and other developmental champions. Always and everywhere, behaving ethically is surely crucial to meet the most important test of all — the “look oneself in the mirror every morning” test. The question for activists is not whether we should model ethical behavior — an obvious “yes” —  but what are the pros and cons of an anti-corruption ‘framing’.  I list below three analytically strong arguments against using anti-corruption as an entry point– but also one compelling argument for its use. It would be terrific if this post could get some fresh new conversation underway on the dilemma.

 Here (to establish that I’m not coming at this as an apologist) is the argument ‘for’ focusing on anti-corruption. Impunity is corrosive. It can over time destroy a country’s entire development platform. In the absence of sustained vigilance, some political leaders might find themselves wading, step by incremental step, deeper and deeper into the mire of corruption – setting a tone at the top which progressively pervades layer after layer of a country’s institutions. The absence of a strong anti-corruption voice in society can help ‘enable’ this type of downward slide.

But here are the three arguments against leading with an ‘anti-corruption’ focus:

  • First is the logic of ‘limited access orders’ — as laid out in landmark work by Nobel-prize winning economist Douglass North and his co-authors. They show compellingly that in the large majority of countries today (and historically everywhere), before impersonal institutions have taken root, personalized deal-making among elites is the basis for political stability. They argue also that the development of a country’s institutions and its economy are interdependent, and that the process evolves incrementally. Taken together, as they argue, these insights suggest that “transplanting institutions [can] undermine the political arrangements maintaining stability, [and can] unleash disorder, making the society significantly worse off.”
  • Second is the logic of clientelism – spelled out in useful detail by Francis Fukuyama in his recent book, Political Order and Political Decay. Fukuyama argues that the allocation of public sector jobs to political allies will almost inevitably be present in societies that democratize before they build strong state capability. He suggests that in settings with democratic contestation but without a capable state  “clientelism should be considered an early form of democratic accountability and be distinguished from other forms of corruption – or indeed not considered a form of corruption at all.”
  • Third is the central importance of the ‘capacity to co-operate’ in achieving development outcomes – and, as per the path-breaking work of Elinor Ostrom (another Nobel-prize winner), the role of encouraging trust  and  mutual learning in building this capacity. In a world where (as she puts it) “there are some saints and some sinners, but mostly regular folk capable of both types of behavior….norms can evolve to support co-operation.” As Ostrom’s good practice principles for effective co-operation suggest, co-operation and trust are built by a combination of close monitoring and encouraging people to put their ‘best foot’ forward, even in the face of imperfection, not by punitive admonition. [Chapter 8 of my book, Working with the Grain  includes a comprehensive discussion of how we can bring Ostrom’s insights more into the mainstream of the development policy and implementation discourse; more information about the book is available on this website.]

A few years ago, I began asking colleagues within the development community how one might tell the difference between those political and bureaucratic leaders who were doing what was necessary to achieve developmental goals in settings where formal institutions were weak – and those who had crossed over to the ‘dark side’ of impunity and predation. It took many months before I finally came across a colleague who (based on his many years of experience in an African country which had experienced both types of leadership) provided a compelling answer.  “It’s easy”, he said. “In the former case, the informal rules of the game are clear, and the leaders play by them. In the latter, the rules are not clear – and, whatever, they might be, they do not apply to the leaders themselves”.

Compelling, yes – but how can activists translate the above into a strategy which provides a ‘tripwire’ in the face of impunity but, at the same time, sustains a positive discourse for the development endeavor as a whole? Reflections appreciated – and more on this in subsequent posts….

The end of history has been postponed. Now what?

fukuyama orderIn Political Order and Political Decay, the second volume of his magnum opus on the underpinnings of liberal democracy, Francis Fukuyama makes the case that “just outcomes in the present are often the result of crimes committed in the past.” How, then, are we to act?

I pose this question in a review article, “Fukuyama’s Fatalism”, which I published on November 4 in Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab. In the article, I contrast Frank Fukuyama’s commitment to telling hard truths unflinchingly with the great twentieth century development economist Albert Hirschman’s lifelong effort to find “avenues of escape from exaggerated notions of absolute obstacles, imaginary dilemmas, and one-way sequences.”  CLICK HERE to view my full review article in   [And before you go, if you haven’t already done so, do sign up to receive my future blog posts…….]

The Chad-Cameroon Project — a glass partly full??? (WWG Implementation series #1)

chad cameroon pipelineI increasingly find myself wondering whether those of us who have tried to achieve development gains in difficult governance environments have framed our interventions in ways which almost ensure that they are judged as failures – and leave us (and the development community more broadly) feeling dispirited. But perhaps beneath the blanket judgment of ‘failure’, if one looked closely one might find valuable partial successes – which, if we were willing to embrace as such, could offer a sense of hope and possibility.  (Surely, in a complex, difficult world partial successes are worthwhile!). Take the example of the Chad-Cameroon Pipeline Project.

[An extract of the discussion of  the Chad Cameroon pipeline project in Working with the Grain is available in the “specific themes” section of this website. Click here for easy navigation to the detailed Chad-Cameroon discussion. ]

Many of us will remember the Chad-Cameroon project  as an enormously ambitious, and enormously controversial effort to support a very large investment in oil extraction, in a very weak institutional environment – and to do so in a way which ensured that Chad would realize the fiscal benefits, and leverage them to support poverty reduction.  But, with the  World Bank pulling out prematurely in 2007, we are likely to also think of it as a grandiose, expensive, hubristic failure.

Interestingly, though, when I teach the case to my students at Johns Hopkins SAIS students, this is not their conclusion. (The average student in SAIS’s International Development program is in his or her late 20s, has spent time in the developing world, and is committed to a career in international development; fewer than half are Americans.)  I explain the design and intent of the project, and detail what had been the impact as of 2010 (what I found on this came as something as a surprise to me…..).  I then ask them whether (i) knowing what the World Bank did at the time it was right to support the project? And (ii) knowing what was the project’s consequences, they nonetheless think it was worth supporting? Strikingly, the vast majority come out in favor of the project.

I am eager to hear from others who are familiar with the project whether you agree with my students, or think that they (and I) are being blindly overoptimistic. So do please post a comment – either here or on my blog site, where you will find further detail on the project and some of its consequences. (And while you’re at the blog site, I’d be thrilled if you signed up to receive the blog on a regular basis — on one of the links at the side or the bottom of this page.

Also, for a comprehensive  elaboration of the idea that we are unwilling to embrace as worthwhile outcomes where the glass is half-full, take a look at my new book — by exploring the other pages of this website, or purchasing the book itself (including a Kindle version, available at Amazon).