There is never a bad time to test one’s assumptions, and now, given some political space for change, is a good time to do so. The fact that the major perturbations began in the cradle of international development (i.e. the rich countries) provides an additional imperative.
The five assumptions that I reflected on in the paper that i will present at this year’s DSA conference in Westminster are: (a) that growth is good, (b) West is best, (c) the inevitable dominance of economics in policymaking, (d) development cooperation should focus on poor countries rather than poor people, and (e) that the evidence base in development is growing stronger.
Was I thinking about some of these issues pre-crisis? Yes, "west is best" and that economics is in need of repair were 2 issues that I had been focusing on. Here the crises generate additional urgency. For the other 3 issues – growth, development cooperation and the strength of knowledge – the crises forced me to think more about the validity of the assumptions that underlay them.
For growth, I would argue that we should see it as something akin to technology: a force for good under the right governance and a force for bad under the wrong governance. The good news is that the growth we get is the consequence of choices, which are primarily political in nature.
For the ‘West is best’ perspective, the challenge is not so much to get away from this as an explicit starting point—the numbers of analysts advocating this are diminishing rapidly I think—but to devise ways of throwing off any implicit shackles of one’s own experience. How to reimagine outside of one’s own context is difficult and must be done with others from different contexts.
For economics, there need to be checks and balances so that it does not get so divorced from reality that it results in bad things. Economics is probably no more susceptible to this than any other discipline, but its privileged position means that an increased focus on the governance of economics is vital. That means incentives that promote a more diverse economics profession and a more diverse set of disciplines recruited for policymaking.
On prioritising development cooperation, it is time to revisit the question of where the balance of focus lies between poorest countries and the poorest people. People within middle income countries are trapped in poverty. India has 450 million living in poverty and they are trapped within a narrative of prosperity that deters development cooperation.
Finally on the evidence based assumption, is more always better? Are we standing on or slipping off the shoulders of giants? My sense is that where it is easy to generate evidence, we are generating it. Where it is difficult –credibly tracking crises in real time, globally constructed knowledge, building knowledge that has external as well as internal validity—we are not. I look forward to continued debate about such issues on this blog and at the DSA conference.
Lawrence Haddad is the Director of the Institute of Development Studies and the President of the Development Studies Association
The paper referred to in this blog is written as a part of a project called “Reimagining Development”, funded by IDS and DFID. A series of case studies at 34 places and spaces.