Center and Peripherary in Doing Development Differently

I have spent almost three weeks back in TX, which was supposed to be, in part, a time of immense productivity in front of our fireplace (yes, it is chilly here. Probably not enough to warrant a fire but still. I am sitting in front of the fireplace and paying for carbon credits to mitigate the guilt.) I brought home big batches of reading but am taking back far more of it with me to Delhi than I had planned.

Nevertheless, I did finally make it through Duncan Green’s post on his immediate thoughts on Doing Development Differently from Matt Andrews and team. So, that’s only three months behind schedule.

Many things are, of course, striking and exciting about this movement, including the idea of rapid iterations to promote (experiential) learning and tweaks, the importance of morale and relationships, and the time horizon.

But the most striking thing had to do with immersion, deep study and deep play*.

deep study of the system, based on continuous observation and listening. In Nicaragua, UNICEF sent public officials out to try and access the public services they were administering, and even made the men carry 30lb backpacks to experience what it’s like being pregnant! This is all about immersion, rather than the traditional ‘fly in, fly out’ consultant culture.

The idea is, it seems, to strike a blow at the ‘consultant culture’ of folks from D.C., London and Geneva parachuting in to solve problems (there’s probably an interesting discussion to be had about the relevance of area studies in this approach). But that is for another time. What is most immediately striking is that Duncan doesn’t report on UNICEF folks making consultants visiting Nicaragua from NYC head out to remote areas and try to access services with pregnant-backpacks.

If I read the anecdote correctly (is there more written about this somewhere?), the target was public officials, which I take to mean Nicaraguan civil servants and politicians based in the capital or another metropolis. Which is an important (re-)lesson. Being from X country doesn’t automatically make you knowledgeable about all areas and details of X country (duh). Probably many of us have sat with civil servants who talk about ‘the hinterlands’ and ‘backwards’ areas and who seem quite surprised at what they find there, if they visit at all. There is a vast difference between the high-level and the street-level, between big decisions about adopting and championing a policy and the many small decisions involved in implementing that idea. Implementation is, as always, profoundly local. (This idea, incidentally, also applies to study design and the relationships between PIs, their research assistants and the field teams.)

This all suggests that, maybe, doing development differently (and probably doing evaluation differently) also has to do with shifting ideas about center and periphery (globally as well as nationally), about who has relevant knowledge, and thinking about immersion for program designers and decision-makers of a variety of types, whether from the country in question or not. This, in part, raises questions about who is doing the iteration and learning and how lessons are passed up as well as down different hierarchies (and spread horizontally). looking forward to hearing and thinking more.

*It’s hard to resist a Geertz reference, since ‘continual observation and listening’ sounds an awful lot like ‘participant-observation,’ a study technique that almost *never* comes up in “mixed-methods’ evaluation proposals.

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4 thoughts on “Center and Peripherary in Doing Development Differently

  1. John Quattrochi says:

    Good stuff Heather. I believe that Robert Chambers has long championed the idea of having development professionals spend a few days living with “the poor” every year or so. Haven’t seen any impact evaluations. But it does remind me of the startling findings in the latest WDR about how dev pros think “the poor” think vs how “the poor” think. Short version: dev pros think the poor are far more fatalistic and hopeless than they are.

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    • Thanks JQ! I agree with you but part of my question in this post is, I suppose, who counts as a development professional? Do policy makers in low and middle income countries also count? In some ways, I think they do and have as much need to get out of the capital as those parachuting in from beyond the boarders. Over at DDD, they noted that the example they gave (UNICEF) was indeed about national public officials getting out and trying to access services (via twitter: “Yes @hlanthorn, public officials are the ones who need to know what people want, need, value. More ow.ly/HXWeU.)

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