Trust the development experts...all 7 billion of them.

Trust the development experts...all 7 billion of them. This is the title of an article in the Financial Times published on 29 May 2008 by William Easterly.

The article is a criticism of the report of the World Bank Growth Commission. This represents the work of a huge number of people giving their views on what countries need to do in order to develop. I listened to a podcast covering a session at the Council for Foreign Relations at which about 5 members of the Commission described their results and then answered questions. Easterly's criticism of the content seems to me to be well warranted. Their conclusions range from "Infrastructure is very important for development" to the less than helpful "growth happens in a variety of situations".

Easterly's argument is that success is unpredictable. What you need to do is let as many individuals as possible try as many things as possible and then you will find out what is successful in a particular environment. There is no general principle (except for the general principle that there is no general principle). Unfortunately, this way of looking at the world does not give a big role to experts and so the experts aren't likely to give it much weight. They don't.

What I find interesting about Easterly's argument is that it is a very different perspective from ours (the Constellation's) but that his conclusion is exactly the same. We say that local people know their situation best so work to ensure that they take action that is suitable in their own circumstance. Easterly is saying is that there are no effective general principles for development so let people experiment and they will find the most appropriate solution for their circumstances.

A very different approach; same answer.

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Comment by Phil on June 25, 2008 at 12:04pm
Thanks Gaston. I got Easterly's book, but at the moment it's at the bottom of a pretty big pile! I will read it with your point in mind.

I've always disliked the idea of 'best practice'. I've never had much enthusiasm for 'good practice'. But 'good principles for action' is a much richer idea.
Comment by Gaston on June 25, 2008 at 10:22am
Thanks Phil for this posting. I have met Easterly two times last year when he presented his book ' The White Man's burden'. He certainly has an interesting view on development cooperation and some of his conclusions are matching ours. Where he does deviate from our process is measurement of change, accountability and ' the expert view' . I find his view on rigid M&E still very focused on external evaluations. Also he stresses that more ' individual accountability' in the sector would solve a lot of problems. The problem with the MDGs is that we have joint accountability. Nobody really is accountable for reaching these (very different from the private sector with functioning market mechanisms for example). When individuals would be accountable for project results, this would increase the effectiveness. So he says again that we are responsible for the progress made in communities! A common trap which will fuel strict monitoring and evaluation and will break down any facilitative role of development workers. He sticks to looking at how we (UN, WB & NGOs) should organize ourselves without going deeper into the relationship between us and the communities.

At the same time, in his book he gradually takes up the role of expert again and thinks that he knows best. It is a pity he falls back into that role again, because his starting arguments are really valid. A good thing is that he ignited the discussion on our roles and views again.

With regards to the Knowledge Asset, having a set of principles is indeed very different than establish 200+ best practices like Jeffrey Sachs proposed in ' End of Poverty' . So would it be useful to have ' best principles for action' instead of ' best practices' ?
Comment by Phil on June 5, 2008 at 8:37pm
Well, here is an interesting follow on from the posting on the Commission on Growth and Development. On Wednesday's edition of The Financial Times, the Economics Correspondent Martin Wolf gave his view of the Commission Report. . He disagrees with Easterly, but that is neither here nor there.

As I said I read through the article and what struck me almost immediately was that you could take it and put it into the form of what we would call a Knowledge Asset. Here is what the Commission had done. They had analysed the experience of 13 countries that had managed to achieve a rate of growth of 7% over at least a 25-year period. So they had indeed collected a set of 'Principles for Action'.

I'm not going to write them all out, that is not the point I want to make. But here is how the Principles for Action in the Knowledge Asset would look like:

If you want to grow your economy quickly here is what our experience tells us that you must do:
...exploit opportunities offered by the world economy
...maintain macroeconomic stablity
...sustain high rates of saving and investment
...let markets allocate resources
...have committed, credible and capable government

If you want to sustain high economic growth, we suspect that you need many if not all of the following:
...investment of at least 25% of GDP, financed predominantly by domestic savings
...investment of 5-7% of GDP on infrastructure
...spending on 7-8% of GDP on education, training and health

If you want your economy to grow rapidly, you need to avoid the following
...subsidising energy
...using the civil service as an employer of last resort
...providing open ended protection to specific sectors.

And so on.

If you go into the report, you can fill in the details about each of these items and there are specific references to particular examples of success.

There is in fact an admission of a lack of understanding of the factors of success. There is an admission that there is massive variability from country to country. Their efforts have been to characterise the common factors that drive development success.

I suspect that the commission could have done a lot worse than to have built a Knowledge Asset from all of their work and put it at the front of their report.

So where does that get us.

For rapid economic development to take place, certain principles need to be applied by the government. These Principles for Action are contained within the Knowledge Asset. But within this framework, individuals have the local experience and expertise to exploit the opportunities.


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