Delivering Development: learning about complexity from a few cases

Delivering-developmentI just finished reading Ed Carr‘s excellent book Delivering Development: Globalization’s Shoreline and the Road to a Sustainable Future.

The book is anchored in Carr’s field research in Dominase and Ponkrum, two villages in central Ghana, over the span of a decade. From there he goes up to the global level, and back again to all the other places he refers to as “globalization’s shoreline”. Along the way, he does more than merely generalize from the cases; rather, he uses them to illustrate just how complicated generalization can be. I appreciate the approach. That said, combining detailed case studies with big global analysis always runs the risk of feeling disjointed, and Carr runs afoul of that line once or twice.

On the whole, Carr packs a lot into a slim volume. Here are a few of the interesting ideas that stood out.

1. Archaeology and multidisciplinarity.

In my writing and work, I’m a big advocate of multi/cross/inter/pandisciplinary thinking. (I think I just made up that last one. That’s how out-of-the-box I am.)

But Carr one-ups me with ease, because I had never even considered the applicability of archaeology to development until I read this book, especially the chapter titled: “Nothing has always been like this.” Now I feel a bit dumb for ignoring the field before. In Ghana, he and his team found evidence of global trade in graves from the 1800s; mapped rising and falling populations based on abandoned structures; and made inferences about shifting consumption habits from waste pits dating to the 1960s.

These were not random observations or merely interesting tidbits. Carr connects these findings with historical records on when certain roads were built or when the British arrived, creating an overall narrative of how development and globalization have impacted these villages over centuries. His conclusion: Their condition today is not an absence of development or globalization (as the problem is often framed in development discourse) but rather, it is a direct outcome of development itself.

2. Lateral thinking about complex effects.

Carr builds on his multidisciplinarity with lateral thinking, though I don’t think he ever used that term.

To give one example: Following a road improvement in 2004, Carr found the residents of Dominase and Ponkrum excited about the new economic possibilities. He expected diversified livelihoods through wage income and trading, though most would continue farming as well. This would necessarily mean switching to lower-maintenance crops, with staples (maize and cassava) replaced by trees (orange, palm, and coconut). Tree crops are a longer-term investment because of the time needed to mature. Carr thought this might lead to social disruption in the local land tenure practices, in which the head of each family lineage distributes land to the male household heads each year. Longer-term investments would make that system untenable. That could undermine the power of those family lineage heads.

So from a better road to livelihood opportunities to crop switching to new land tenure practices to degrading authority structures.

That is lateral thinking in a nutshell. Of course, Carr discovered that he was totally wrong in those predictions! To understand what really happened requires an understanding of intra-household gender relations, which he had neglected in his initial thinking. You’ll have to read the book for the full story. The takeaway here is a theme I come back to often on this blog: everything is more complex than it seems.

3. Critique of participation.

In what could be a stand-alone essay, Carr spends a chapter dissecting the challenges of actually following through on the promise of “participation” in development. From the methodological challenges (e.g. pre-defined response options in multiple-choice surveys) to institutional constraints (e.g. those facing Millennium Villages or the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers), many interventions have talked more about participation at the high level than actually achieved it on the ground.

Efforts to further promote participation might actually be counter-productive, as they often involve standardization of verifiable methods. That runs counter to a basic fact about participation: it must reflect the context and uniqueness of the intended participants.

4. “Development is impossible, at least if we conceive development as raising people’s standard of living to that of the advanced economies.”

I turn now to the most sobering idea in the book. The above assessment springs from a simple accounting: the planet doesn’t have the resources (petroleum, water, etc.) for everyone to consume and behave in the way that most in the “developed” countries do. Carr elaborates on this a bit, but his elaboration is unnecessary. All of us working for international aid and development organizations already know it to be true. So do the Sachs, Easterlys and other academics who study and write about development.

Carr argues that we need to figure out what this means for the promotion of development. His note of optimism is the standard one: human beings are endless innovators. We tinker, we try new things, we find solutions. There is incredible promise in that concept.

However, it’s not a satisfying end to a book. Like many thinkers who analyze and shed new light on a major problem, Carr seems compelled to propose a solution. His comes in the form of an information network to connect communities living at globalization’s edge with one another, and with experts around the world, to promote flexible and locally appropriate solutions. He follows it up with a visioning exercise to portray what two different global futures — one business-as-usual, and one “outside echo chamber” — would mean for Dominase and Ponkrum.

The outcome is another great demonstration of lateral thinking. Unfortunately, his proposed network concept is thin on the details of how it would actually work, but still very ambitious in what it’s meant to achieve. It leaves the reader with a juxtaposition: the vague proposal on the one hand, and the highly specific outcomes ascribed to it (and described in the visioning exercise) on the other. The result is unconvincing.

Despite that criticism, the principles behind them are fantastic: enabling true participation, allowing flexibility, promoting locally appropriate solutions, placing decision-making power in the the hands of those who know the problems best. Delivering Development successfully pulls together a number of threads to make the case for those principles. If we’re smart, we’ll find ways to weave those into all of our thinking.

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Many thanks to Ed Carr for arranging to get me a review copy of the book. I hope he accepts this public apology for how long it took me to actually post a review. If you want more of Ed’s original thinking, you should be reading his blog and following him on twitter.