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Beyond the quest for "policy implications": Alternative options for applied development researchers

Humanity Journal's picture

This post, written by Michael Woolcock, is a contribution to an online symposium on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states. Be sure to read other entries by Deval Desai and Rebecca Tapscott and Lisa Denney and Pilar Domingo.

Indonesia fills out form on riceMy nomination for development’s ‘Most Insightful, Least Cited’ paper is Ariel Heryanto’s “The development of ‘development.'”[1] Originally written in Indonesian in the mid-1980s, Heryanto’s gem has been cited a mere 79 times (according to Google Scholar), even in its carefully-translated English incarnation. For me, this paper is so wonderful because it makes, in clear and clever ways, two key points that bear endless repetition, especially to today’s junior scholars. The first point is that inference from evidence is never self-evident: significance must always be interpreted through theory. Consider the seemingly obvious fact that the sun rises in the east every morning, he writes. What could be more universally and unambiguously true? The problem, of course, is that the sun does not rise in the east; instead, despite every piece of sensory evidence to the contrary, the earth rotates counterclockwise on its axis and revolves around a stationary sun, making it appear as ifthe sun rises in the east. But we only know this – or, more accurately, claim to know this – because today we happen to have a theory, itself based on more complex forms of observation and theory, that helps us interpret the prevailing evidence, to reconcile it with evidence from analyses of other cosmic phenomena, and thus draw broadly coherent conclusions and inferences.

Heryanto’s second key point is that we are all captives of language, of the limits of any given tongue to convey the subtleties of complex issues. From this premise he proceeds to unpack the clumsy, alluring yet powerful word that in English we call ‘development’, noting that in Indonesian there are at least two very different interpretations of its meaning, and with this, two very different words – perkembangan and pembangunan – connoting two very different teleologies and policy agendas: the former a natural, ‘organic’ process akin to flowers blooming (“software”); the latter to an overt, intentional and ‘constructed’ political project of nation building (“hardware”). When translated into English, however, both perkembangan and pembangunan are typically rendered simply as “development,” thereby collapsing into a singular popular conception what in Indonesian discourse is a distinctly pluralist one. In the opening week of my class at the Kennedy School, which typically has 50 students who between them speak around 30 languages, we begin with a lively discussion of what “development” means in Arabic, Hindi, French, Turkish, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish… It turns out to mean all sorts of things.[2]

I open this way because I think the next article we need in this “genre” – though hopefully one that quickly transcends it because it is both highly insightful and highly cited! – is something akin to what Desai and Tapscott have begun with their ‘Tomayto Tomahto’ paper. In short, echoing Heryanto, we need more development research on development research. Such scholarship, however, would go beyond providing a mere chronology of changing professional styles, methodological emphases and funding characteristics (scale, sources, time horizons, expectations) to explanations of how and why such changes have occurred. Such explanations would be grounded in analyses of the shifting historical experiences and geo-political imperatives different generations of researchers have sought to accommodate, the particular ideas these experiences and imperatives rendered normative, and the concomitant gains and losses these changes have entailed for those finding themselves managing the “trade-offs” (such as they are) between scholarly independence and public utility.

Spike Lee’s ‘Chi-Raq’: The Maestro Handles Complexity Adroitly

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Chi-Raq movie billDifficult social problems are fiendishly difficult to communicate. For, these are issues about which experts disagree and citizen-voters, too. The causes are unclear, the solutions are unclear, and then there is the ideological deadweight that tends to drag meaningful debate and discussion all the way down to seedy depths. Above all, public debate on complex social problems also leads to framing battles: you frame the discussion to privilege the ‘solution’ you want. So, for instance: what do we do about homelessness in our cities? If you don’t want public funds spent on it, you frame it as an individual responsibility issue. You argue that the homeless need to pull themselves up by the straps of their dirty sneakers. If you want public funds spent on the problem, you frame the issue as a structural challenge. You ask for a focus on unemployment, targeted welfare schemes, improved care for the mentally ill and so on.

Chi-Raq’, Spike Lee’s new movie, tackles a horrendously difficult problem: the horrific and persistent gang violence in inner cities in the United States of America (and, by implication, several such places across the globe). His setting is the South Side of Chicago. The title of the movie is a play on Chicago and Iraq. The movie opens with these stunning statistics: while American deaths in the Iraq War between 2003 and 2011 came to 4,424, between 2001 and 2015 there were 7,356 homicides in Chicago. Think about that for a second: 7,356 homicides.

Quote of the Week: Justin Farrell

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Justin Farrell, author of The Battle for Yellowstone"Environmental conflict is not ultimately about scientific true and false, but about moral right and wrong. It is not about the facts themselves, but what makes the facts meaningful. There are important moral and spiritual bases of conflict that observers and participants in the conflict have ignored, muted or simply misunderstood."

- Justin Farrell, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Yale University and the author of The Battle for Yellowstone
 

Why do we so often need to push back against ‘techie triumphalism’?

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture

What are the limits of technology?  Are tech experts overreaching when they attempt to 'reinvent' our lives? Suvojit Chattopadhyay explains why power relations and context still matters.

Girls use laptop in Najmi, Muthanna province, IraqHere is Kentaro, on his usual beat:

Talented chefs don’t believe their sauteeing skills entitle them to reimagine Web browsers, but talented technologists feel entitled to reimagine cooking, education and everything else.

And on a more serious note:

It’s a world full of trained engineers — and many college dropouts — who cannot be expected to grasp human dynamics any more than political scientists understand Java code. Many brilliant technology leaders have stories of bullying and isolation in their youths that would leave anyone with abiding skepticism of human groups, institutions, cultures. If family dinners and school lunches were painful for you, “disrupting” eating with a venture-capital-backed protein drink like Soylent can seem like liberation

and…

Indeed, technology has become a kinder, gentler variant of so-called trickle-down economics, in which one gives poor schoolchildren iPads and a pat on the back, without altering the toxicity of their work-starved, father-starved, drug-war-ravaged environment

Needless to say, I agree with the larger point. While it may be unfair to call out the unhappy childhood of some prominent tech leaders, it does partly explain why their ‘abiding skepticism’ of human behaviour leads them to place their trust on machines, rather than humans.
 

Prosperity of Nations: Does culture matter for entrepreneurship?

Shankha Chakraborty's picture

Economists have been increasingly looking at culture to explain the divergent economic fortunes of nations. Does culture matter for development? If it does, what kind of culture?  In a recent paper we argue that differences in economic development across countries can be explained by a culture of entrepreneurship, that there is a role for government policy to shift culture towards risk-taking and innovation but that, ultimately, culture is subordinate to institutions.

DFID is Changing its Approach to Better Address the Underlying Causes of Poverty and Conflict – Can it Work? Guest Post from two DFID Reformers

Duncan Green's picture

Aid donors are often maligned for bureaucratic procedures, a focus on short-term results at the expense of longer-term, riskier institutional change, and a technical, managerial approach to aid with insufficient focus on context, power and politics. Are these institutional barriers insurmountable? Can aid agencies create an enabling environment to think and work politically? 

Tom WingfieldTom Wingfield (top) and Pete Vowles (bottom) from DFID’s new ‘Better Delivery Taskforce’ have been trying to do just that. Here’s where they’ve got to.

For the past year DFID has been focussing on these issues and how we can both guard taxpayer’s money and have transformational impact in the countries where we work. The result has been the introduction of a comprehensive set of reforms targeting our process, capability and culture. Pete VowlesThis is about creating the conditions that allow us to better address the underlying causes of poverty and conflict, and respond effectively to the post-2015 agenda. At the heart of the reform is a revamp of DFID’s operating framework (ie the rules and principles which govern our work). Known as the ‘Smart Rules’, it can be downloaded here.

Like any institutional reform, this is a long term change process.  The next 12 months provide a real opportunity to strengthen our partnerships with a wide range of partners and enhance our collective effectiveness.

The Importance of Learning and Climate Change

Maya Brahmam's picture

While at the Carbon Expo in Cologne at the end of May, there was a great deal of interest in the climate change learning programs that we shared with attendees. The sense I got as I spoke with participants from a range of sectors (engineering, risk management, energy consulting) is that people are realizing that knowledge needs to be converted to learning to become practice, especially on a topic as complex as climate change. This was one of the drivers behind the development of our recent Massive Open Online Course on climate change.

Quote of the Week: Mary Midgley

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"There is this increasing faith that physical science is the answer to all our terrible questions. I want to fight against the whole idea that it is where you go to for enlightenment.”

- Mary Midgley, an English moral philosopher, who strongly opposes reductionism and scientism and any attempts to make science a substitute for the humanities. She is well-known for her work on science, ethics and animal rights.

The Interview: Silvio Waisbord

Roxanne Bauer's picture
Exploring ideas, innovations and fresh approaches to our world is at the heart of the public sphere. People, Spaces, Deliberation brings you significant voices from academia and the practice of development through a series of interviews.

How can the development sector be more innovative? 

According to Professor Silvio Waisbord, an expert on global media, development, and social change, one of the critical roadblocks to overcome is the mismatch between "organizational demands" and "how change is possible." 
 
Professor Silvio Waisbord on Innovation in Development

When a Spade is Not a Spade

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Polite conversation, we can all agree, often involves not calling a spade a spade…the same way you are not supposed to break wind in company. There are modes of obliqueness that keep friendships and relationships going where blunt speaking can very often sunder ties suddenly and violently. People have fragile egos. You have to be careful how frankly you deliver feedback to them. And, in many cultures, an ability to decipher oblique communication is regarded as a mark of high mental rank, even of being well-born. For instance, in my own culture, Yoruba elders say: a well-brought up person only needs half a word; the word becomes whole within him and he acts accordingly.

Not surprisingly, obliqueness is the hallmark of diplomacy. Somebody says something less than intelligent during a meeting and you reply: ‘That’s interesting’ or ‘That’s fascinating’. You don’t commit yourself and, unless they are really paying attention to nuance, they might never know that you don’t think much of the proposal they have just put on the proverbial table. In this regard, I remember that in the course of my legal training, while in the school for barristers and solicitors, we were taught polite ways of disagreeing with a judge without running the risk of ruining your client’s case or ending up in jail because the judge has convicted you of contempt of court.


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