Development debates: Theory Of Everything

Ranil Dissanayake at Aid Thoughts recently posted some comments on the state of development debates. He started by observing that the big debates over the nature of development have died down recently, but not because any consensus has been reached. Rather, the big debates have died down because the opposing sides have become so fixed in their positions. Regarding the high profile Sachs v. Easterly debate, he wrote:

Sachs has refused to address in any systematic way the myriad issues with his ‘big push writ small’ model; and Easterly continues to maintain a largely false dichotomy between planners and searchers…

Dissanayake described various problems that have resulted from this intellectual intransigence. One of them caught my eye:

The big thinkers and big ideas are so far apart from each other, and so fundamentally opposed, it seems that they are not being forced to reassess their own positions. This manifests in a shortage of new ‘big question’ thinking about development. This might not be such a bad thing – big question thinking hasn’t provided any unambiguous solutions and there might not be any grand theory of development, but the constant search for them has been strengthening our understanding, despite the imperfections of each one. (emphasis added)

I like the way he phrased that, because it gives me an excuse to talk about physics.

Theory Of Everything (TOE): borrowing an idea from physics

In physics, there’s a concept known as the Theory Of Everything (or TOE). This is the belief that physicists will one day have a single theory to explain all physical phenomenon. As Nobel laureate Leon Lederman put it: “We hope to explain the entire universe in a single, simple formula that you can wear on your T-shirt.” (Fun autobiographical fact: Lederman’s book about the Higgs boson was literally the reason I studied physics in college. Which is to say, I’m a huge nerd.)

Physicists have not yet reached this TOE. If you’ve followed the news about the Large Hadron Collider in recent years (and who hasn’t!) then you know that some aspects of the physical world remain unexplained. Like gravity. It doesn’t quite fit with the rest of the model. If you think that’s a big gaping hole, you’re right. The quest to fill in such gaps drives much of physics today.

The analogy to international development should be obvious. Academics interested in development are constantly tempted to find the thing that explains everything. Property rights! Trade policy! Human capital! Technology! Institutions! Fill-in-the-blank! The economists are especially prone to this sort of reductionism, wielding cross-country growth regressions with reckless abandon, but other fields like geography (see Diamond, Jared) play this game as well.

What’s interesting is that there’s little a priori reason to think that a Theory Of Everything is possible in any field. Let’s go back to physics. Why would the universe be arranged in such a way that a single theory could encapsulate it all? Even if a theory came close to explaining all aspects of the physical world, could it do so accurately enough to qualify as a TOE?

However, even if no TOE could ever exist, the possibility of one pushes physicists to new insights. It guides theorists toward filling the remaining gaps and tells experimentalists which hypotheses need to be tested. The same goes for international development research. The possibility of a TOE – that we could someday have a complete understanding of how countries and societies develop, and draw implementable solutions from that understanding – provides an intellectual north star.

But – there’s a big difference between physics and international development

There are two differences in particular that are relevant here. The first difference relates to how the larger community responds to new big ideas. Consider the following:

  • In physics, anyone who claims to have a plausible Theory Of Everything will soon find it challenged and contested. It may be decades before the technology even exists to test it.
  • In development, anyone who claims to have a plausible Theory Of Everything will soon find themselves with a book deal, speaking engagements, high-level meetings, and funding to enact the solutions implied by their TOE.

The problem is not that development thinkers pursue a TOE. The problem is that we’re all so hungry for one. We’re impatient and gullible. We need more critical dissent against the dominant paradigm, regardless of whether it’s the Washington Consensus, the MDGs, or whatever comes next.

The second difference relates to our expectations for the characteristics of a successful Theory Of Everything. The development industry seems to expect that our candidate TOEs will be simple and make intuitive sense. But there’s no reason for the development process to conform to our expectations or intuition, any more than the physical world does. The most promising avenues for a physics TOE are so complex that they’re bewildering to a non-specialist. I barely made it through an undergraduate quantum mechanics course, but if you want to talk about a TOE, you’ve got to understand string theory, supersymmetry, and the possibility that the universe has more than 10 dimensions. Why would we expect the human world of development to be any simpler?

More big-picture thinking, more debate – but don’t forget the little picture

I want to echo Dissanayake’s call for more big-picture thinking on the nature of development, history and change. But not just more thinking. We also need more debates. Like particle physicists, we need to smash ideas against one another and see what comes out.

I would even go so far as to say that we should draw programmatic and policy conclusions from these debates. But we should be very wary about rushing to implement these conclusions. We should be pushing the big-picture thinkers to connect their ideas down to the granular level, where we can test them and see how they combine with other ideas. Like politics, all development is local. An idea that makes sense at 30,000 feet has to be brought down to the ground. Moving our understanding forward requires both perspectives.