24 April 2012

Zooming in to See Big Picture Development

If aid was to have a paradigm determined by recent reviews, reports and discussions it would be one with Bill Easterly and Jeff Sachs on opposite ends. It is requisite to say that they represent opposing views in order to introduce a new set of ideas presented by a group or an individual. In doing so, it cheapens the theories of Sachs and Easterly into a pair of immutable posts that share no similarity.

One does not have to look much further than Ron Paul’s foreign aid stance to see the extreme end of libertarianism that Easterly supposedly occupies. The same can be said for Sachs who is said to be the epitome of liberal aid, but did not fit so neatly into that picture when Nancy Birdsall of the Center for Global Development visited a Millennium Development Village and discovered that decisions were largely made at the local level.

The shades of grey that surround the two icons are filling in to show that the discussion and debate over aid is far wider than two professors at New York-based universities. Dambasia Moyo’s anti-aid book, Morduch and others look at spending of households, the randomistas testing out interventions, and Roodman’s middle view on microfinance are all examples of ideas that populate between and outside of the popular Sachs-Easterly paradigm.

Viewing the discussion of aid in shades of grey is a positive step forward. More competing big and small ideas about development can drive further innovations. Public pressure on the way the MVP is doing evaluations will have some level of impact. To a certain extent, the rise of pressure is due in part to the popularity of Duflo, Karlan, Banerjee and others. They are also receiving pushback from innovation-based researchers like Philip Auerswald and even Bill Easterly.

The clouds of big thinking have dissipated over the past few years and given way to hyper-localism. Delivering Development zooms into two villages in Ghana, Ponkrum and Dominase, to determine if the grand theories about aid and development that come from New York, London, Delhi, Western Kenya and even Ghana are applicable.

Author Edward R Carr comes from a different position than other development writers. Though there are many development writers, there are two general groups. There are the economists who look at various data and research to determine development interventions. Then, there are the aid workers with their experience in the system. Generally their books tell of challenging circumstances, broken systems, and corruption.

Carr, an anthropologist and geographer by training, arrives upon the scene in a round-about way. While doing an excavation near the Ghanaian coast, Ed uncovered a Fetish Priest who died in 1825 and was buried with goods that came from Europe. A small village that was largely made up of subsistence farming in 2000 experienced European trade roughly 200 years prior. In between the discovery and last year’s publication of the book, Carr observed globalization return and leave the villages thanks to a privately built and maintained road.

Through his observations and recorded evidence, Carr is able to show how development is not linear. He builds the metaphor of the shoreline of development where the tide of globalization ebbs and flows. This refutes the World is Flat point of view that globalization comes and stays. In showing this single story, Carr argues that the big theories are nearly impossible to apply when development and globalization to not necessarily take hold.

He summarizes these findings saying, “We can see how the current situation of those living in Dominase and Ponkrum is not the result of the lack of development or inadequate connections to global markets for their goods and the goods they might purchase. Instead these connections are the result of 170 years of engagement with global markets and development activities, as well as the decisions of these residents in the face of that changing engagement.”

What may appear to be chaotic farming and market engagement is well considered and tested. The plots for plating crops are set up to maximize the opportunity to have an annual yield. Placement is done so that some will thrive if it is a high or low rain year and all will flourish if there is average rainfall.

Carr tries to zoom out in the latter half of his book to take on the bigger theories. He attempts to connect to development at large, but stumbles a bit in doing so. The strength of the book is using 10 years of research in a pair of villages to show how grand theories have been wrong.

The research by Carr raises further questions about other development ideas that beg closer attention. Most interesting is the interaction between the men and women in the labor force. When the roads came to the villages, men attempted to seek other forms of labor due to the ease of transit. To do so, women were provided more land to farm. The greater farming area for women was an overall benefit to the farm. Carr observed that women were more efficient with their space than the men prior to gaining more land and maintained that edge after the expansion. When the quality of the road degraded and the men realize they were unable to find other labor, the families that stayed reverted to prior farming methods where men worked the majority of land at a lower rate of efficiency than the women.

Carr says this is a part of maintaining control in the household. The men could still farm the majority of land, let women farm more and bring higher returns. However, social and cultural mores dictate that the male maintains a large share of control. The lineage of landownership could be broken if man were to lose his social standing, thus negatively affecting the entire family. Given the previous evidence, it is possible that women’s equity in these two villages may be in part caused by men finding labor in formal markets. This questions the female-driven equity prescribed through the Girl Effect.

In the end, the solutions are not so simple. Carr offers some scenarios for how the future could play out in Ghana and how they could work to support or harm people like those living in the two villages. “Development and globalization do not directly cause anything to happen. They create opportunities and challenges that are addressed or mobilized by particular people with reference to their situations in particular places. These processes defy singular catalysts that might unleash their development potential,” he writes.

Globalization and development have a positive role to be played in for many of the world’s poor, but they are not without fault. "I think the problem is also that we use these tools ahistorically - we forget how people got into these situations, and what we have done in the past, so as a result we run the risk of using the tools that seek to eradicate poverty in a manner that furthers poverty," says Carr.

Disclosure: This review is my own opinion. I had a few conversations with Ed following my completion of the book. I was not offered compensation for this review. I paid for my own copy of the book.