Big vs. Small Development

The Economist raises an interesting question regarding approaches to “development,” claiming that the recent race for the World Bank presidency represented a contest between two broad approaches:

Michael Woolcock, a World Bank staffer, suggests that two rather different models of development have been pitted against one another in the contest for president. On the one hand is what he calls Big Development, whose aim is the transformation of entire countries through investments in national education, justice and public health. Governments are essential to Big Development because they are responsible for the overall policy. And the World Bank is pre-eminently a Big Development institution.

On the other hand is Small Development. “Inspired less by transformational visions of entire countries,” Mr Woolcock argues, “and more by the immediate plight of particular demographic groups (AIDS orphans, child soldiers, ‘the poor’) living in particular geographic places (disaster zones, refugee camps, urban slums), Small Development advocates focus not on building systems in the medium run but on compensating for the failure of systems in the short run. ‘Development’ thus becomes an exercise in advocacy, in accurate targeting, in identifying particular ‘tools’ that ‘work’”.

In this scheme of things Mrs Okonjo-Iweala, the former finance minister, represented Big Development; Dr Kim, a public-health advocate, Small. Dr Kim was almost certainly picked because of his passport. But if his background is any guide, his tenure as chief is likely to shift the bank more towards Small Development. Whether that is a good thing on balance remains to be seen.

I take the side of Big Development (if such a dichotomy actually exists) because of my beef with “pro-poor development” as it is currently practiced  (more on this here).

Development is a giant coordination game with a million moving parts. This makes it much harder to coordinate on “scalable” “tools that work” at the micro-level. Indeed, no one has any idea what these tools really do. In addition, focus on “tools” casts the problem of underdevelopment as a technical one that can be fixed by “experts.”

This approach misses the point by miles.

This and this (highly recommended, a cogent critique of Big Development) and this are some of the reasons wby.

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4 thoughts on “Big vs. Small Development

  1. This divide seems to be ‘economist’ versus ‘sociologist’, as it is in academic journals. Slightly ridiculous to apply such things to the real world – surely an understanding of both coupled with the ability to know which to stress when designing individual projects is the hallmark of a good ‘development person’.

  2. I guess I’m an advocate for “small development” in that I support more far-reaching and responsive small grant mechanisms in the aid industry that will support local indigenous organizations. But am I certainly not naïve enough to believe that supporting local organizations should replace policy efforts, economic reforms, or the programs still needed to bring about change at national and international levels. I agree with @rowanesmslieintern that both are needed. Aid funders tend to think too much about the supply side of development, and very little about where the demand is coming from. I’m unashamedly hopeful about the ability of humans to change their own situations and the events of the Arab Spring certainly remind us that lasting change must come from within.

  3. Pingback: On Industrial Policy (In which I concur with Blattman 1001%) « Opalo's weblog

  4. Pingback: Does female empowerment promote economic development? « An Africanist Perspective

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