It is common 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 and 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.
Back in the 1950s, Albert Hirschman, perhaps the most eminent development economist of the post-WWII generation, challenged scholars to look beyond a narrow vision of social science and adopt a more problem-oriented approach. In the introductory essay of A Bias for Hope, his volume of collected essays on Latin America, Hirschman suggested that:
“most social scientists conceive it as their exclusive task to discover and stress regularities, stable relationships, and uniform sequences. This is obviously an essential search… But in the social sciences there is special room for the opposite type of endeavor: to perceive an entirely new way of turning a historical corner…to widen the limits of what is or is perceived to be possible…”
In time this bold, but open-minded quest for insight congealed into something very different: the sequential embrace of one ‘magic bullet’ after another as the solution to development’s challenges – each advocated enthusiastically by its champions, only to be superseded by a new generation of very different and ever-more-ambitious certainties. First came a pre-occupation with increasing capital investment (the focus of development efforts into the latter 1970s). Limited results led to a turn to economics, and an insistence that results depended on ‘getting incentives right’ via structural adjustment policies. The 1990s witnessed the emergence of an even more ambitious agenda, with an insistence that far-reaching institutional reform—get ‘good governance’ right—was necessary for development. The past decade has been characterized by a pre-occupation with quantitative, results-based approaches—most vividly evident in the enthusiastic embrace of randomized control trials as a way of identifying what works, and by Jim Kim’s assertion, within months of becoming World Bank president, that the organization needed not just to support what works, but to embrace “the science of delivery”.
Emerging scholarship and innovation by practitioners suggest that this long-cycle pre-occupation with grand solutions may be turning. While the protagonists of new approaches vary in many specifics, most share the following:
- An insistence that the appropriate point of departure for understanding and influencing development is to explore the way things actually are on the ground, rather than superimposing some normative ‘best practice’ vision of how they should be.
- The use of ‘good fit’ orienting frameworks as guides for helping to identify a variety of distinctive trajectories of change—each with distinctive patterns of incentive and constraint, and thus distinctive entry points for seeking to nudge change forward.
- 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.
- An emphasis on ongoing learning—in recognition that no ‘good fit’ blueprint can adequately capture the complex reality of a specific setting, and thus that implementation must inevitably involve a process of iterative adaptation.
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. As the manifesto puts it:
“genuine development progress is complex: solutions are not simple or obvious, those who would benefit most lack power, those who can make a difference are disengaged and political barriers are too often overlooked. Many development initiatives fail to address this complexity, promoting irrelevant interventions that will have little impact. Some development initiatives, however, have real results. Some are driven domestically while others receive external support. They usually involve many players – governments, civil society, international agencies and the private sector – working together to deliver real progress in complex situations and despite strong resistance.”
The “Doing Development Differently” manifesto is thus a profound departure from recent practice. But many of its protagonists (myself included) also take inspiration from the earlier generation of scholars. Indeed, against the backdrop of the current discourse, the sly irony with which Yale Professor Charles Lindblom entitled his classic 1959 article, “The Science of ‘Muddling Through’,” takes on an especially contemporary flavor.
Lindblom contrasts “the attention given to, and successes enjoyed by operations research, statistical decision theory and systems analysis…[and…] wherever possible quantification of values for mathematical analysis” with the reality that:
“making policy is at best a very rough process. Neither social scientists, nor politicians, nor public administrators yet know enough about the social world to avoid repeated error in predicting the consequences of policy moves. A wise policy-maker consequently expects that his policies will achieve only part of what he hopes…[and]… proceeds through a succession of incremental changes….”
Let us hope that in the coming long-cycle, the spirit implicit in the words of both Hirschman and Lindblom can prevail—determined step-by-step exploration, infused by a bias for hope, but with no facile guarantees of success. As I put it in the concluding sentences of Working with the Grain, “our task is to bring our best effort to the search for ways forward. We can do no more than that, and should strive to do no less.”