Saturday, 5 July 2014

Practioner's Dilemma: The Professionalization of Development

The economist Bill Easterly is likely the largest proponent against technocratic, heavy handed development efforts around today. He argues against the 'big development' type of development that repeatedly witnessed a strong lack of consistent success, and yet the largest voices in development such as Jeff Sachs, The World Bank, and The Gates Foundation are still working within this framework. As his recent book The Tyranny of Experts' name would suggest, Easterly has an issue with the professionalization of development that has taken a stranglehold of the decisions that are made across the Global South, and became a standard for all major (and most minor) development organizations. Professor Easterly refers to these experts themselves as the dictators, and the problem the continues to plague development efforts worldwide. The experts are the technicians who can fix technical problems, when in reality problems faced by the poorest one billion people are far more complex than any technical solution can handle. How can experts, such as Jeff Sachs, travel around the world preaching the technocratic solutions for poverty and one hand, and live in a multi-million dollar flat in Manhattan on the other?

And herein lies the problem. I want to be that same expert, technician and now apparently dictator.

I agree with Easterly, who echoes the likes of Arturo Escobar and Amartya Sen when he says that poverty reduction is something that can only occur through freedom, not technical solutions. A conflict exists between this approach and the more technocratic, expert-aligned approach, and it is very politically derived. When rationally-minded people are faced with seemingly logical solutions it is natural to take the path of least resistance, work within the bounds of reason which dictates problem identification, finding the most effective cost efficient solution and implementing it. This is how I was taught to find solutions studying Geographic Information Sciences and data base management, because this is how they are structured: within the confines of logic. Humans, on the other hand, do not easily fit into the confines of this model. We are often irrational and incomprehensible, we do things that often work against us, and often times do it repeatedly.Effective development, like all things, should be completed holistically. It should be entirely based around the needs of the beneficiaries, with the inputs of experts being done within a loose and accommodating framework.

 I have faith that while working for beneficiaries instead of for donors I can still be an expert, but an expert who doesn't carry only his laptop to hotels, hold meetings, and fly home. A balance must be struck between being a logically minded technocrat or expert and someone who can accept (not try to understand) the irrationality of human decisions. I anticipate learning from both schools of thought will help this become a reality in coming years.


  1. Great post, Corey. I think that it's certainly achievable to be an expert without being completely separated from beneficiaries. It depends not on our own abilities to contribute, but our abilities to connect with others and as cliche as it sounds, be the kind of development we want to see in the world.
    I worry that the focus on measurable results, which privilege technical solutions over more holistic ones, will continue to rule the big development game. But maybe those ideals can be shifted and we can create a new standard for development actors big and small.

  2. Okay, so I just crafted a large and detailed response and it didn't save... I have no idea where it went.. and now I am quite frustrated. So I apologize for this terse response, but I will try to in a pargraph or two say what I tried to say in my last attempt:

    I fear that when we discuss the technocratic vs. 'development as freedom' approach we are left with sitting in a precarious place near a very slippery slope. On one hand we may slide towards the top-down neo-colonialist and imperialist style development, which we've all seen is awful. On the other hand we might slide too far to a developmental relativism. By that I mean that we then suggest that development practitioners (or anybody outside the community) have no say. I think we can imagine the problems of a completely relativistic view of development.

    Is it not fair to say that some advances that we have made in the industrialized West can be applicable to developing countries to ENHANCE freedom? Can we not be experts in areas that we are experts in? Sub-Saharan Africa sits in a very different place today than 18th century pre-industrial America. The latter had no access to knowledge of industry, or technology; the former does, and it is readily available. So then, do we just completely ignore that last 200 years of development in America and say "let all nations figure it out on their own" (which is the perverted extreme of Easterly) or do we play a role in development as some sort of expert? If we do, then to what extent? It's a fine line we straddle between imperialism and relativism.

    1. Sorry to hear that, I guess we're one-for-one with my commenting on a old post of yours.Good point though. I definitely don't want to go down the path of extreme relativism because I'll find myself out of a job eventually. Indeed we CAN use the tools we have around us to our advantage and fight poverty with them, just can we do it without becoming 'experts' in Easterly's definition of the term? I'm not sure if the extreme of his point would be to let nations 'figure it out on their own', but closer to a less institutionalized, and professionalized form of development. I highly recommend the book if you're planning on sticking around the field. Cheers