Waylaid Dialectic

May 28, 2011

And in breaking news researchers discover developing world is populated by people…

Filed under: Aid — terence @ 8:28 am

A while ago at the Development Policy Blog I made the argument that the TV Show the Wire has a lot to teach us about development. In that particular post I discussed how statistics and evidence, while essential in good development work, are still problematic tools.

One other way the Wire resonates is through its characters.

There are no saints in the Wire; and no wholly evil villains either. Everyone involved sits somewhere within a normal distribution of ambiguous motivation and imperfect ability. It’s one aspect of the show that’s particularly true to life. In the fictional world of the Wire people are complicated.

In the real world of development people are complicated too. And yet a lot of our debate seems to miss this. We tend towards dichotomy: virtuous economists against controlling planners, heroic NGOs against ill-intentioned aid agency staff, pragmatic aid agency staff against ideologically driven NGOs, searchers against planners, planners against local knowledge. This is mistaken, I think.

Which isn’t the same as saying that there’s no such thing as right and wrong or that we should all just meet in the middle. In the binaries above some groups are more right than others and some people have better intentions. And in development there are some absolute villains. Loggers, who bribe politicians in order to steal land and clear fell it. Donor country politicians who support boomerang aid… But much of the world of development is one of degrees of difference, not absolute.

On the subject of overly tidy categories the idealised type of saintly, knowledgeable poor people has to be one of the most prevalent in development circles. Be it in the form of the rational, utility maximser of neo-classical economics who never makes mistakes, or the stifled voice of participatory approaches, or the oppressed poor of idealistic NGO discourse.

I know I get uncomfortable when it’s challenged, when people explicitly state that poor people make poor choices, and act immorally at times.

I also know why I get uncomfortable: because admitting this seems only one step away from the classic conservative argument that people are poor simply because they make mistakes or lack fortitude.

It seems that way, but it isn’t. Because mistakes really don’t explain why people are poor. If they did, we’d all be poor because we all make them. We all make a lot of them. The difference is that, if you live in a wealthy country with a decent safety net, the odds are that your mistakes won’t cost you so much. Very rarely do the poor choices of individuals make them poor. But if you’re poor, such choices certainly have more severe consequences. And if development work can help people make better choices then – call it paternalistic if you will – but it’s worthy work nevertheless.

All of which is a long winded way of saying that I’m comfortable enough with Banjeree and Duflo type arguments for behaviour modifying development interventions. So long as we remember that the people doing the modifying won’t be perfect either. Like everyone else, they’ll make mistakes.



  1. I’m glad you invoked The Wire, one of my favorite shows. Davis Simon’s new show, Treme, probably gets even deeper into the lives of those without a safety net…In the United States

    Comment by Jason — May 29, 2011 @ 1:04 am

  2. I’m glad you invoked The Wire, one of my favorite shows. Davis Simon’s new show, Treme, probably gets even deeper into the lives of those without a safety net…In the United States

    Comment by Jason — May 29, 2011 @ 1:05 am

  3. Thanks – I’d been hoping Treme might serve well as a replacement for the Wire.

    Comment by terence — May 29, 2011 @ 8:57 am

  4. […] us about development. The first post is about the limit of measuring progress through statistics. The second post is about the complexity of people and how hard it is to stereotype […]

    Pingback by Interesting Links « Bounded Irrationality — June 1, 2011 @ 3:12 am

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