Wanted: big ideas

So the other day I was asked what I thought the ‘big debates’ were in development.  A dream question.  But the more I thought about it, the more I found myself stumped – and slightly depressed.

I used to spend a lot of time arguing about big issues: trade liberalisation; industrialisation; national sovereignty.  Not that I’d necessarily want to go back to those days, but the nearest thing I could think of to anything that approaches that level of disagreement today is the spat between Jeff Sach’s gang and Michael Clemens’ gang about whether the Millennium villages project is working.  And it’s not even an argument about development policy or practice, but about research methods: essentially, if the project should have used the hugely fashionable randomised evaluation methodology, and identified a control group at the start to be able to see the impact that interventions are having compared to that control group. 

Important stuff, but surely not the be-all and end-all of the potential questions raised by this project.  Who, for example, is asking about the relative importance of improvements within rural areas and movement out of rural areas for development in the long term?  Who is asking about the limits of this kind of aid-based intervention in the absence of institutional and market changes at the national or global level? 

Randomised evaluations can tell you if your development project is likely to achieve its specified objectives among the target group. This has been a huge step forward for aid – knowing what works is better than throwing money at the latest fad because everyone says it works until it doesn’t.  I am a fan. But this method can’t tell you if a development strategy, of which this particular project is a part, is likely to be transformational for the economy in the long term, or what the effects might be on inequality, or indeed whether inequality is something you should worry about at all. 

Not that no one is asking these questions, but they’re no longer the bread and butter of development thinking.  This is partly because of a conscious push against the big ideas that were so hotly debated ten years ago.  Bill Easterly’s plea for people to do less planning and more, as he puts it, ‘searching’ has contributed to a fear of setting out an agenda for big change.  The focus on evaluation as the key tool for policy making is the logical next step – focus on what works now, not on bigger and inevitably vaguer questions about where you want things to go in the long run. 

But the lack of big ideas worries me (and I’m not the only one) and not just because I love a good argument. Policy making and decisions about resource allocation by governments, donors or NGOs, are not just a technical business.  It’s not a question of finding out what works and then doing it.  ‘What works’ for one group might not be what works for another.  Something might ‘work’ but still not be the best use of resources given the overall objectives of a community or of a country as a whole.  Someone really should be asking hard questions about the bigger picture.

It’s particularly disappointing that development thinkers seem to have given up on these questions just as the rest of the world starts to really address them.  British politicians love to talk about capitalism at the moment, and the media is full of debates about how wealth is created (or destroyed) and how it should be shared out.  The financial crisis and recession have opened up the space for new ideas and new thinking, but the micro-oriented development field hasn’t made much of this opportunity.

Small stuff is important.  But we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that the problems, or the solutions, of development are purely technical ones.  The big questions haven’t gone away just because we’ve stopped talking about them.