Development wishlist

One of the fun parts of doing the job hunt/grad school application thing is that it gives you a structured opportunity to articulate what you’d like to see the development community doing, and how you’d like to participate in it.  After straining out all the things that will actually be going into personal statements, everything that’s left is being added to my only moderately unrealistic economic development wishlist:

  • I want to see more economic development practitioners talking to economic historians. There’s a strong share of immediacy in much dialogue on international economic development – the demand to stop dithering and end poverty now.  I think this is a moderately useful moral statement, and a nearly useless policy formulation for engendering broad & sustainable increases in the incomes of the poor.  Frankly, it promotes a strain of analysis that approaches successful, present-day Western economic policies as if they developed in a vacuum, and often gives short shrift to the historical quirks, accidents, and forethought that went into their development – the messy, long-term process of actualizing beneficial policy.  I’d love to see more practitioners drawing from research into historical processes of economic development (such as De Soto’s work on the Homestead Act in the US), and much less poorly-considered application of Western present-day policies to non-Western situations.  (Another great example is Roodman’s work on microfinance in Europe & the US as long ago as 1800.  Which brings me to my next point…)
  • I want to discourse on innovation balanced with discourse on not reinventing the wheel. I’m obviously not anti-innovation.  People are doing some great thinking on how the constraints of poverty both necessitate and facilitate innovation.  But I’ve also come to realize that, if you’re a smart & dedicated person and have an innovative idea, there’s a significant chance that at least one other smart & dedicated person has had a similar idea.  At this point in your promotion of said innovative idea, you (generally) could A) seek out other people working on it and collaborate, B) learn about the shortcomings of the other idea and compete with an improved product, or C) independently develop & fund multiple small duplicative non-competing projects based on the same idea.  I don’t mean to pick on stove projects uniquely – I think they’re tackling an important issue, and they were the first example that came to mind rather than the most egregious.  But I do wonder how much of the time & how many of the resources spent on social enterprise product development (or program development more broadly) is genuinely productive, and how much goes to needlessly reinventing the wheel instead of learning from existing examples.  (See also Easterly’s critique of learning in aid programs since 1938.)
  • I want to see less programmatic emphasis on solving every problem simultaneously, and more on sequential implementation in increasing order of difficulty. You could equally rephrase this as, “it’s not always wise to do the hardest thing first.”  There’s a lot of value in starting with a feasible goal, learning by doing, and expanding into implementation of more complex or wide-ranging programs later – and it’s much more likely to be successful.

I’d love to know, dear readers: what’s on your wishlists?

12 thoughts on “Development wishlist

  1. there need to be a holistic approach to development. Development economics possibly meaning material development may not hold a complete solution.It is necessary for donor nations to respect culture and exisiting economic fabric of the recipient and support the system for organic development while using appropriate technology for synergistic growth.Every culture has it’s unique value system and effort to globalise or impose norms and systems of the donor nations may lead to more problems whether it is from the schools of free market or centrally planned economies.Initially deep understanding of each economic activity must be given to the target group of development. Thus the education in the targetted activity and synchronising it socially is and important facet to development. Care must be taken not to completely dismantle the exisisting structure. In sri lanka a mainly agro based society with rice as staple diet had it indigenous practices which should have been respected eg earlier rice farmer did not use weedicides and uprooted the weeds manually, further they used only bio fertiliser. The multinational marketed their weedicides chemical fertiliser etc which had led series of issues compounded by the lack of necessary traing.Some prawn farmers have uprooted mangroves to construct ponds as they lacked the knowledge that mangroves sucks in ammonia and ferrous which are harmful to prawn culture. My contention is grassroot level education needs to be undertaken in tandem.Use the education system and children as a change agent. Bring in traditional value systems at school levels to deal with corruption.Thus sustainable economic development is more than an aid factor. This really deals with the micro aspect.


  2. Herman Daly, the World Bank economist turned heretic, has written several works on steady state development economics and sustainable development that provide good insight into international institutions such as the World Bank with an alternative view of development. Beyond Growth, H. Daly, Beacon Press, 1996. Also, Walter Rodney’s classic, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” which explores how European practices in the 18th an 19th century disrupted natural social, economic and political communities and devastated their patterns of development. Also, works on state formation in Africa; how European boundry drawers made a mess out of Africa and how that has contributed to African complexities in state formation, the state and governance.


  3. I’ve enjoyed your thoughtful, insightful blogs on development. I would like to suggest another sense of connectedness for the development practitioner, which is an economic determinism defined by an environmental paradigm within which we make choices. How much ‘development’ we’ve gotten wrong because we ignored the environmental paradigm. For example, a World Bank project in Western Africa thought sound A sector development would be to add a cotton crop. There was not an analysis by an ecologist as to the environment impacts to the ecological system. Cotton was planted; it attracted a type of loqust that devoured not only the cotton crop, but all the crops in the field. Attempts to eradicate the loqust failed. The subsitence livelihoods of the farmers were devasted. They now earn a living tree logging; rain forest deforestation is now their livelihood. There is an environmental, resource base component to all that we do and still we don’t require the educational coursework in development to understand it and it’s still an internal battle in most NGO’s, including World Bank, to obtain the environmental assessment necessary to proceed on a project to better protect the vulnerable and to do ‘less harm’ or do ‘no harm.’ I hope you find a graduate program in development that incorporates the environmental constraints within which you work. Environmental degradation and population pressures were so tragically a factor in the Rwandan genocide and the seeds of the conflict are germinating today; wiser policy may avoid the chain of events that precipitated the tradegy, but some of the root cause analysis is stil there, sadly.


    1. Hi Karen!

      You’re very right – it is common to ignore the broader environmental context of economic development, to our peril. I’ll definitely check out Herman Daly’s work, which I hadn’t heard about before.

      How have you been? And what are you working on now? Hope you’re well!




      1. Hi Rachel,

        Enjoying your blogs and insights. I’m working on getting into remission with my Crohn’s disease. On a happier note, I’ve completed all the work for my degree and will shortly become an alum of Harvard. I want to expand my study into incorporating the environment into development, including the engineering side, in new ways and work on my ‘treatise’ on population. Have you seen Mike Davis, “Late Victorian Holocaust: El Nino famines and the Making of the The Third World,” It is about the environmental impacts of a series of devastating El Ninos at the turn of the 20th Century and how many places are still in recovery not only from the environemntal degradation but from the mismanagement of the crisis from a policy perspective.

        Kindest regards,



      2. Ah, congrats on finishing at Harvard soon! That must be profoundly gratifying. I hadn’t heard of Davis’ work on El Nino, but I’m looking it up now – from your description it sounds like a fascinating insight. I think that’s what I’m also primarily looking forward to about grad school – getting to draw on the experience of other practitioners more consistently than is possible now. Thanks so much for sharing yours with me!


  4. I’m unsurprisingly very much in agreement with your first wish. But why the restriction to ‘economic historians’? Actually, many of the most useful insights into the current development path of currently less developed countries and the past transitions made by currently developed countries are covered by historians working outside the rubric of economic history. Take The Birth of the Modern World. Chris Bayly has written an incredible book about modernity, and in it he tackles the development of the West, and why it happened when and where it happened, including through its interactions with South Asia and Africa. He’s not an economic historian, but has a more complete argument about development than almost any other I’ve read.

    And De Soto would agree with this: don’t forget that his own analysis of the Homestead Act and the importance of access to property law depended in large part on non-economic history. One of his big complaints was that economists, including economic historians, did not address the issue, because it was a messy historical process, one that took in social change, migration and politics much more than ‘economics’.

    One thing I try and do as much as possible is introduce thought from other disciplines into what I write about development. Economists need to learn from other disciplines (and vice versa) rather than venture as economists into new pastures while always thinking and proceeding using the analytical tools they’ve never questioned or moved past.


    1. Hi Ranil,

      I completely agree! This made me realize that I had written the post more narrowly than I intended – I had in the back of my mind the idea of non-economic factors (such as the political, racial & geographic situations that led in the American West before the Homestead Act), but I didn’t articulate that very clearly. Thanks for pointing this out.

      (Also, I’m ordering a copy of Bayly’s book right now – it sounds like required reading for dev’t practitioners.)


      1. cool – Bayly’s book is magnificent, but just to warn you – it’s a long book, and only one section deals directly with the economic development of the West (and why it happened there and why Africa and S. Asia fell behind). The rest of it is still brilliant and gives an amazingly rich view of how the world interacted as it became modern, and how it developed in the broadest sense.

        will actually do a post soon on books on development that more people should read.


    2. I’ll be looking forward to your book post – was just thinking that that would be valuable. I think many of the books that I’ve found most useful in my thinking about development, or about interactions between the North & South in general, have often been somewhat tangentially related to the subject. A definite reminder of the importance of reading broadly!


  5. Rachel, I second your idea of solving what is most readily solvable first. Runners win 5Ks before they attempt marathons. They have to apply the same skills to both.


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