Some big development brains ask ‘what’s next?’

March 10, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

The Institute for Development Studies is a Good Thing. Located on the brutal 60s campus of the

it looks better in sunshine....

it looks better in sunshine....

University of Sussex near Brighton, its gurus like Robert Chambers and Hans Singer have educated and inspired generations of Masters and PhD students, who then scattered to every corner of the aid industry and beyond (diplomats, politicians etc).

I was down there last week and sat in on an internal seminar that took stock of its thinking on development, as part of IDS’ ‘reimagining development‘ project.  Five of its senior staff got five minutes each to set out some thoughts on where the impact of the economic crisis had left thinking on development. In order of appearance:

Jethro Pettit detected that people in the development sector are more aware of what they don’t know, ‘running to keep up’ and more open to doubt, uncertainty and new ideas. But he also sees them clinging to a fixation with measurement (e.g. of impact), perhaps in response to uncertainty. He fears the ‘bulging toolboxes’ loaded with proliferating frameworks and concepts, and thinks the issue is to strengthen abilities of practitioners and policy makers to learn continuously, rather than load them down with ever-longer prescriptive guidelines. (‘True that’, as they say in The Wire – my current DVD boxset obsession)

John Humphrey saw the window for innovation created by the crisis already in danger of closing, as countries emerge from recession. He pointed out that most of the ‘new ideas’ are in fact old ones – Tobin Tax, Keynesian revival, UN and Bretton Woods reform, limits to the market. His concern is that ‘pre-existing ideas’ are not necessarily any better than the current lot, so be careful in just dusting down some old Left nostra every time a crisis hits. He proposed looking at surprises for new insights, such as Bangladesh and Indonesia ‘sailing through’ the crisis, contrary to all predictions, and seeing which old ideas become more relevant with the passage of time – the evolution of the Tobin tax into the financial transactions tax. He stresses the long-term decline of Europe and saw the Copenhagen summit as ‘brutal’ in its marginalizing of the EU, [is the development industry a European project? Discuss] He sees growing resource constraints increasing the risk of conflict within and between countries.

Melissa Leach saw the crisis as invigorating interest in another ‘old idea’ – complexity and chaos theory, including the journalistic cliché du jour, the Black Swan. She sees this as a deep challenge to mainstream assumptions that development is all about stability, steady progress and equilibria. She thinks we must advance our thinking by getting back to putting people in the centre of the debate (stuff like wellbeing, I presume), and bringing in ideas from other schools of thought (e.g. evolutionary theory) or from the margins of development’s core disciplines (feminist and environmental wings of economics), Like Jethro, she kicks back against the ‘audit culture’ afflicting the development system.

Tom Mitchell saw Copenhagen as about rich countries opting for a ‘pay, don’t change’ approach to climate change. Easier to find the cash for adaptation and mitigation in developing countries than to change their own economic and business models. He points to the underlying environmental dangers of a growth model built on debt. The climate financing agenda will dramatically  modify the development financing agenda, triggering big institutional shifts.

Mick Moore saw ‘a lot of rejection going on’ in developing countries, with people increasingly saying ‘we don’t want your aid, human rights or organizations’. He sees ‘NGOs’ as becoming a ‘dirty word in much of the South’. He is concerned at the knock-on impact on the discipline of development studies because it has ‘been seduced by Clare Short’ into a narrow focus on aid and aid effectiveness. ‘We have to get away from the agenda set by these declining organizations.’ In these he includes all those organisations ‘whose behaviour is shaped by a primary mission to transfer large amounts of money from the ‘North’ to the (old) ‘South’ in broadly ‘charity’ mode’. He concluded ‘the less we do with these declining organizations the better’ (though I presume this doesn’t extend to refusing their research grants….).

What to make of all this? Agreed with most of it, but was left wanting more – too much of it is already in danger of becoming received wisdom, at least among the progressive wing of development intellectuals. Most of the themes have appeared in this blog in one shape or another over the last 18 months. But then, in the words of my other favourite boxset, West Wing, I guess we should always be left asking ‘What’s Next’?