Nominate the best blogs of 2012

A View From the Cave blogger Tom Murphy is holding the annual Aid Best Blogger Awards (ABBA). I don’t consider my blog to be an “aid blog” per se but I think I fit into the general category that Tom intended to include in his awards.

If I may toot my own horn a little, I even once got a shout out from one of the better know aid bloggers out there, Chris Blattman (Blogger of the Year last year).

So if you like what you read on this blog please go ahead and nominate the blog for this year’s awards here.

Some of my better posts in recent months have been on the topics of the upcoming elections in Kenya and the conflict in eastern DRC.

There is no way around the basics: Development will take time

I just read Chris Blattman’s response to the UK Prime Minister’s op-ed in the Journal. It reminded me of a lot of the things that I have been reading lately in preparation for my fieldwork (My dissertation will tackle the subject of legislative (under)development in Africa, with a focus on the Kenyan and Zambian legislatures).

Cameron’s sentiments in the op-ed are emblematic of the problems of development assistance. Like in all kinds of foreign intervention, developed states often try to externalize their institutions (and more generally, ways of doing things). These attempts often ignore the lived realities of the countries being assisted.

Forgetting the history of his own country (think autocratic monarchs, monopolies, limited suffrage), Cameron thinks that democracy, human rights and free markets (all great things) will magically create jobs in the developing states of the world. They don’t. In fact, they often lag the job creation process. For development assistance to be effective it must eschew these feel-good approaches to the problem of underdevelopment.

Blattman is spot on on a number of points:

  1. Unchecked leaders are bad for economic development (this is why I am so much into PARLIAMENTS!!!): Also, democracy is NOT synonymous with limited government. Heads of state like Queen Victoria or Hu Jintao or Bismarck or even Seretse Khama were in no measure democrats. However, they reined under systems with strong (sometimes extra-constitutional) checks to their power. That made a difference.
  2. Institutions rule, yes, but the right kinds of institutions: 1688 moments do not drop out of the sky. They are often preceded by decades if not centuries of civil strife, economic change and plain old learning. Institutional development takes time. Plus each society requires its own unique and appropriate mix of institutional arrangements to meet unique economic and social needs. A procrustean approach to institutional development (embodied in global capacity building) will inevitably fail. Institutional development must never be allowed to be captured by those who think that we can transform Chad simply by having them adopt Swedish institutions.
  3. Growth will require creation of jobs, i.e. industrial development: The poor countries of the world need real jobs for high school-leavers and other less educated people. The present focus on the “sexy” entrepreneural sectors – whether they are small businesses for the poor or tech hubs for the very highly educated – as the engines for growth in the developing world is misguided. I reiterate, starting a business is a very risky venture that should be left to the wealthy and the occasional dare devil. The poor in the global south need stable 9-5 jobs. Lots of them.

And lastly, where do strong institutions come from? There is no easy answer to this question. What we know is:

  1. History matters: Present countries with a long history of stateness have a better track record of building strong institutions for development. Yes, they may not always be democratic, but countries with a long history of centralized rule have strong states (and institutions) that deliver for their people (for more on this see Englebert and Gennaioli and Rainer).
  2. Democracy does not always create strong institutions: Since 1945 many have chosen to forget the fact that universal suffrage is a pretty recent phenomenon in the political history of the world. For the longest time world polities were ruled by power barons who held de facto power (as opposed to the procedural de jure power in democracies). When democracy came along after the Enlightenment the resulting structures of rule often reflected these de facto configurations of power. Over time institutions in these countries were cemented enough to allow for complete outsiders like say the current president of the United States to be elected without upsetting the balance of power (in another era he would have had to have mounted a coup). This is the challenge of the democratization in the new post-WWII states. How do you make democracy serve the interests of the people, rather that purely that of the elite? How do you use democracy to create strong institutions? Is this even possible? And if not, what other options do we have?

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.

William Easterly’s Burden

William Easterly continues his great crusade against the development establishment. I like his pitch for spontaneous development, but I remain skeptical of his quick dismissal of the role of the state in African development for two reasons:

1. The rest of the world has a massive head start which means that if the African entrepreneur is to survive the state must be there to provide the relevant public goods and some minimal protection from foreigners.

2. Let us not forget that stable societies are those in which capital and politics have a symbiotic relationship. The realities of the political economy of development are such that the state – and current holders of political power – must be brought on board if real and lasting development is to be achieved.

Also, check out Blattman’s Blog.