So what do other people think of the book?

December 15, 2008

     By Duncan Green     

I’m nearing the end of the initial series of launches + discussions with NGOs in the UK (CAFOD, Christian Aid, World Vision, WaterAid, ActionAid) and at DFID (the UK’s development ministry). What’s emerging (apart from powerpoint poisoning)?

Emerging Issues: a number of issues are rapidly rising up nearly everyone’s agenda – herd behaviour is alive and well in the development sector, it seems. They include social protection (for more see here); migration (for more see here); taxation (although there are different weights given to domestic v international taxation) (for more see here); climate change (for more see everywhere) and inequality (for more see here) .

Things people found more novel/challenging: the discussion on the links between specific events and shocks (both natural and man-made) and social and political change, and the implications for development work. How do we reconcile the humanitarian imperative of helping to save lives during shocks, with the pursuit of long term change? More generally, there seems to be a lack of a clear way of analysing change processes, exploring their coalitions and dynamics, and disentangling the drivers and blockers of particular changes. (for more, see here)

Gaps: I need to do some more thinking about the interaction between active citizens and effective states: where do they coexist? Where do they come into conflict? How can active citizens contribute to the creation of effective states? In the words of one African academic ‘active citizens want effective states; effective states need active citizens’. Many people saw a useful role for NGOs such as Oxfam in brokering relationships between citizens and states. The book had an initial go at all this, but clearly did not go far enough. People also wanted much more specific challenges along the lines of ‘what does this mean for development work’ – I’ll be pulling together some ideas on that in the coming weeks.

Finally some of DFID’s commentators adopted the clever tactic of ‘damning with great praise’, arguing that they liked the book so much, that it could have been written by them. Where was the challenge, they asked? On one level, that makes sense: the book is an overview of development, not a response to particular government policies, and so does not emphasize the differences, unlike many of Oxfam’s policy papers.

But could From Poverty to Power really have been written by DFID? Parts maybe – but on the whole I doubt it. I have yet to see signs of Ministers or senior civil servants putting their heads up above the parapet to convincingly and radically address:
– the limits to economic growth that may be unavoidable if the world cannot achieve a level of drastic industrial transformation to cut carbon emissions that is only comparable in scale to the conversion of entire economies during wartime
– redistribution of power, opportunities and assets as a fundamental task of development
– the need to retain genuine ‘policy space’ for developing country governments in international rules on trade and investment, recognizing that liberalization often is best undertaken later on in a development process, not at the beginning (when it can actually undermine development)
– placing ‘human security’, with its focus on empowerment and protection, at the centre of discussions that have become grossly distorted by the rhetoric of the ‘war on terror’

Then there’s deep scepticism about the role of the World Bank, the need to regulate the private sector, ditching intellectual property rights in favour of an ‘access to knowledge’ convention, seeing labour rights as just that ‘rights’ rather than ‘rigidities’ etc etc. Still plenty to argue about, I think!

Finally spare a thought for my long-suffering mother, who asked plaintively, ‘couldn’t you write something a bit more Mills and Boon?’ Sorry, mum.