Gem From the Anti-Politics Machine: They Only Seek the Kind of Advice They Can Take

I am starting to re-read the Anti-Politics Machine after some time… and, of course, started with the epilogue — the closest Ferguson comes to giving advice from his vivisection. here’s a gem that remains relevant ten-plus years later, in spite of major political changes in southern Africa:

Certainly, national and international ‘development’ agencies do constitute a large and ready market for advice and prescriptions, and it is the promise of real ‘input’ that makes the ‘development’ form of engagement such a tempting one for many intellectuals. These agencies seem hungry for good advice, and ready to act on it. Why not give it?

But as I have tried to show, they only seek the kind of advice they can take. One ‘developer’ asked my advice on what his country could do to ‘help these people.’ When I suggested that his government might contemplate sanctions against apartheid, he replied, with predictable irritation, ‘No, no! I mean development!

The only ‘advice’ that is in question here is advice about how to ‘do development’ better. There is a ready ear for criticisms of ‘bad development projects,’ so long as these are followed up with calls for ‘good development projects.’

losing the “different worlds” talk

this post is an elaboration of my tweet on the nytimes’ op-ed, “the end of the developing world“, by Dayo Olopade. the essay is good and important. imbibe it. here’s a sip:

it’s tough to pick a satisfying replacement. talk of first, second and third worlds is passé, and it’s hard to bear the Dickensian awkwardness of “industrialized nations.” forget, too, the more recent jargon about the “global south” and “global north.” it makes little sense to counterpose poor countries with “the West” when many of the biggest economic success stories in the past few decades have come from the East.

all of these antiquated terms imply that any given country is “developing” toward something, and that there is only one way to get there.

it’s time that we start describing the world as “fat” or “lean.”

countries. “fat” or “lean” countries. or nation-states. or regions. but not worlds.

olopade rightly points out the passé-ness of “talk of first, second and third worlds”. but it isn’t just passé, it’s dangerous. we use these phrases – first and third world, developing world, industrialized world, arab world, muslim world – all the time. how can such common terms be dangerous?

because we’re all distinctly on the same planet. we’re in this thing together. i’ve ridden through it’s a small world, so i know.

one ride,

one endlessly repeating song,

one world.

as a reminder of the origins of the phrase (with an embedded implicit plea to stop using it), i quote at length from matthew connelly‘s fantastic fatal misconception. parentheses are page numbers in the book. emphases are mine.

In 1946, John Boyd Orr (a British authority on nutrition and first director-general of FAO [Food & Agriculture Organization]) had argued that population growth posed the choice of ‘one world or none.’  After the 1952 WHA [World Health Assembly], [Alfred] Sauvy [demographer, anthropologist, historian] proposed a new way of envisaging the globe… He argued that rather than one world, or even two, there were really three: the communist bloc, the capitalist West and what he called ‘the Third World.’ (Like the Third Estate of revolutionary France, the Third World was desperately poor and increasingly overcrowded.)

For Sauvy, ideological rivals East and West actually depended on each other because the conflict defined their identity. But as they continued along their paths two modernity, the distinctions between them would eventually disappear… The differences with the South were far more profound – for Sauvy, they inhabited a different universe. It was not the case, as American demographers optimistically assumed, that this Third World merely had to advance along some imagined continuum from tradition to modernity. According to Sauvy, ‘these countries have our mortality of 1914 and our natality of the 18th century.’ Saving lives was cheap but giving people something to live for was expensive (153).

“Do you not hear, on the Cote d’Azur, the cries of misery coming to us from the other side of the Mediterranean?” Sauvy asked. “The pressure is growing in the human furnace.” (154).

Equally significant was the metaphor Sauvy chose in describing how this Third World was emerging. He likened it to a “slow and irresistible push, humble and ferocious, towards life.” “Because,” Sauvy concluded, “in the end, this Third World, ignored, exploited and misunderstood like the Third Estate – it also wants to be something” (154).

Sauvy’s idea of three worlds – seemingly progressive in its critique of the Cold War and advocacy of development aid – was, in fact, deeply conservative. The whole point was to banish forever the though that there might be only one world, in which all humanity shared mutual obligations (154).

embracing local

a nice sentence, on which i will follow-up (from booth 2012, development as a collective action problem, citing kelsall 2008):

developing efforts have a greater chance of success when they stop treating cultural factors as a problem to be solved and try instead to harness them as a means to channel behavior in more positive ways.

p4p, habits, context, process

Mark Nichter and Prascilla Magrath (hereafter, M&N) have a nice new paper on pay-for-performance (P4P), stating that “understanding the processes by which P4P targets are reached demands a reorientation… towards an understanding of motivation as a component within a complex adaptive social system.” (Complex systems are so hot right now!)

the paper is worth reading in full. the authors also raise important points that i have wanted to address for some time and hopefully will do so in more depth in the future. these relate to process; motivation & context; and experiments.

1. a key question that is not always sufficiently asked or answered in health systems – or other – research is ‘how/why did X intervention not/work in Y setting?” this is an issue of both internal validity / credibility and external validity. internally, answering these questions means looking at the intervention from the perspective of multiple stakeholders to get a nuanced, full view of how or why something worked. externally, of course, the more the context and processes are understood, the easier it may be to predict when and where else the intervention may be successful.

answering these types of questions involve qualitative as well as quantitative work and looking at implementation process as well as impacts. hopefully i will have a write-up on studying implementation in the near future with @jonathan_payne [yes, Jon, I am putting it in writing as a commitment device]. the call for these types of work in the study of interventions – including but not limited to explicitly experimental approaches – include papers by Paluck, Mills, and Ssengooba, as well as the M&N paper discussed here.

i want to quickly make amends for the past times i have denigrated process indicators. it’s true that process indicators can become as meaningless as they are made into check boxes of routines (such as number of posters hung or meetings held). also, process indicators without impact indicators don’t get us as far as we need to go in saying whether something worked or should be done again. but, recording and evaluating process is necessary, if not sufficient, in saying how something worked and whether it could work again (and where).

2. M & N draw on Bordieu to provide a frame for studying the implementation and impacts of P4P – but the point is more widely applicable. M & N draw on the concept of ‘habits’ – attitudes, dispositions, actions – of individuals and social groups to help explain how interventions are received differently in different places. this has interesting parallels with Stein‘s work on ‘habits,’ for which he draws on the work of Velben; these parallels and lessons deserve more exploration than i give them here.

both roughly aim at the idea of shaping interventions to a given contextual reality, including political, economic, and administrative structures but also social processes and group, sub-group, and individual dispositions and ‘habits of thought.’

both also suggest the need to consider how an intervention’s positive & negative effects will ripple out in both time and space, as well as how positive effects can be sustained. Stein highlights that “relations among institutional constructs, habits and the transformation of behavior are at the core of development.” of course, M & N also point out that changing behavior is not everything. behavior relates to what actors ‘will do’ but what they ‘can do’ is may still be constrained by a lack of material, human, and time resources.

M & N also draw on Bourdieu’s multiple forms of capital to consider the ways that interventions may change dispositions and behavior; these include economic but also cultural, social, and symbolic capital. the importance of non-economic forms of capital in changing motivations and incentivizing behavior are increasingly recognized, including the many talks of Rory Sutherland and Ashraf’s recent paper on pro-social benefits. the way an intervention will change the distribution of all these types of capital should be considered in the design and the process captured over the course of implementation.

the ways that previous interventions have altered the distribution of these forms of capital is also an important consideration; tabula rasa non existunt.

3. finally, for quite some time (with a little e-input from Owen Barder – thanks!), i have been working up to saying all social interventions – explicitly experimental or not – are experiments. they change the context in ways that are not adequately considered. this includes the ethical ramifications of implementing an intervention and of stopping that  intervention. at the very least, the presence of an experiment/intervention changes changes expectations. while i’ve been tiptoeing up to this point for months, M & N go right ahead and say, “short-term interventions can have long-term impacts on expectations.” an experiment or intervention might be billed as discrete, pilot, or otherwise, but if it is taking place outside a controlled laboratory setting, it is bringing about some change, from anchors and reference prices to much larger shifts in thinking on ‘how things work.’  experiments have social and political ramifications beyond the intended effects, at levels above the individuals directly involved.

to this end, M&N and others promote a ‘cyclical formative reformative research approach’ as a way of moving forwards with (health) systems research and i strongly back this idea as a way of experimenting and promoting development more generally. this sort of long-term research agenda does not always fit with the present structure of grants & funding but hopefully the latter will begin to change.