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Technology Alone Will Not Save the World: Lessons from the 2015 Gates Letter

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture

Melinda and Bill Gates have made an annual tradition of publishing their thoughts on international development and its key challenges. Given the substance, I assume these letters reflect an annual manifesto for the organisation they head, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). Last year, I wrote about how the Gates Annual Letter was disappointing, perhaps not in the context of what the BMGF itself does, but what it ought to be doing, given its $42 bn muscle and its influential promoter, Bill Gates.

This year, the letter makes four “big bets” for 2030: child deaths will go down by half, and more diseases will be eradicated than ever before; Africa will be able to feed itself; mobile banking will help the poor radically transform their lives; and better software will revolutionise learning. In short, fast-tracking the identification ­technological fixes and expanding their reach over the next fifteen years will deliver a better world.

Unfortunately, these bets seem to me to be wildly optimistic. I may be quibbling, but from what we have learnt from research, there seem to be many reasons to suggest that we should be cautious with our optimism regarding what we can achieve with technology. The complexities of working on power, politics and implementation find no mention in the letter. Let us look a little more closely at each one of the bets to find out why that matters so much.

Quote of the Week: Martin Indyk

Sina Odugbemi's picture

“Negotiations are like mushrooms: They grow in the dark. That’s especially true of negotiations between longtime adversaries, where the domestic politics on both sides make it impossible to reach a deal if the negotiations are conducted in public.”
 
- Martin S. Indyk, Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy, Brookings Institution

Civil Society and the Dangers of Monoculture: Smart New Primer from Mike Edwards

Duncan Green's picture

Mike Edwards has just written a 3rd edition of his book ‘Civil Society’. It’s a 130 page primer, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy reading. I found some of the conceptual stuff on different understandings of civil society pretty hard going, but was repaid with some really interesting and innovative systems thinking, leading to what I think are some novel suggestions for how NGOs and donors should/shouldn’t try to support civil society in developing countries.

Edwards sets out some fairly arcane (to me anyway) debates, identifying three schools of thought that see CS as

  • ‘Associational life’ that builds trust and social capital (de Toqueville, Robert Puttnam, etc)
  • The Good Society: a good thing in itself
  • A protagonist in the public sphere, incubating debates that will eventually turn into laws and policies (think tobacco campaigners, or women’s rights)

"'What to do' depends on what one understands civil society to be. Devotees of associational life will focus on filling in the gaps and disconnections in the civil society ecosystem, promoting volunteering and voluntary action, securing an “enabling environment” that privileges NGOs and other civic organizations through tax breaks, and protecting them from undue interference through laws and regulations that guarantee freedom of association" (pg. 108)

"Believers in the good society will focus on building positive interactions between institutions in government, the market and the voluntary sector around common goals such as poverty reduction, human rights and deep democracy" (pg. 108)

"Supporters of civil society as the public sphere will focus on promoting access to, and independence for, the structures of communication, extending the paths and meeting grounds that facilitate public deliberation and building the capacities that citizens require to engage with each other across their private boundaries" (pg. 108)

Unsurprisingly, Edwards advocates a synthesis of all three, but then he gets interesting.

Aid Is Politics: We Need to Act

Maya Brahmam's picture

Stefan Dercon, Chief Economist, of UK’s DFID gave a thought-provoking talk about Aid Is Politics last week, and he made the point that much of what passes as political economy analysis is pessimistic or refuses to make policy suggestions. However, people who work in development do not have that luxury. They are in a country to act, to make a contribution.

Dercon quoted Esther Duflo, “We can do lots of bad policies in good institutional settings, and lots of good policies in bad institutional settings.” He continued, “Development policy as well as aid is still about doing the ‘right things’ and not the ‘wrong things’.” What we need to admit is that the process is political. Development actions are constrained by politics today and will affect politics tomorrow.

By acting, we’re taking a stand. Therefore, we better get some of the things right. And to do that properly, we must take into account the power structures and politics that are endogenous to a particular place. We should think through economic advice based on what tomorrow will bring. This won’t be easy, but we can push for this, and by so doing, gain a better political equilibrium in the countries we advise.

Quote of the Week: Cass R. Sunstein

Sina Odugbemi's picture

“Public figures are ordinarily rewarded for what they say, not for what they don’t. Grace is an underrated virtue; gracelessness is an insufficiently acknowledged vice.”

- Cass R. Sunstein, an American legal scholar and author. He taught at the University of Chicago Law School for 27 years and is currently the Robert Walmsley University Professor and Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. Sunstein also served as the Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration. He is the author of numerous books on legal philosophy and co-authored, with Richard Thaler, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2008).
 

Quote of the Week: Samantha Power

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"You learn in government what the obstacles are.  But that’s not so you can go take a nap.  It’s so you can figure out how to scale them or work around them.  Does one get a better sense about context and about impediments and about trade-offs in government?  Absolutely.  But those are not alibis – those are problems to be solved."
 

-Samantha Power, the current United States Ambassador to the United Nations.  Formerly, she served as Special Assistant to President Obama and as Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights on the National Security Council.  She has also written or co-edited four books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, a study of U.S. foreign policy responses to genocide. 
 

Working With The Grain: An Important New Book on Rethinking Approaches to Governance

Duncan Green's picture

Even though it’s relatively short (223 pages), Working With the Grain (WWTG) took me two months to finish, but I’m glad I did. It adds to a growing and significant body of literature on ‘doing development differently’/’thinking and working politically’ – Matt Andrews, Adrian Leftwich, David Booth, Diana Cammack, Sue Unsworth etc. (Like Matt and Adrian, WWTG author Brian Levy is a white South African – what attracts that particular group to rethinking governance would make an interesting study in itself.)

Brian summarizes the common elements of this emerging school of thought as:

"An insistence that the appropriate point of departure for engagement is with the way things actually are on the ground — not some normative vision of how they should be;

A focus on working to solve very specific development problems – moving away from a pre-occupation with longer-term reforms of broader systems and processes, where results are long in coming and hard to discern [...]

Recognition that no blueprint can adequately capture the complex reality of a specific setting, and thus that implementation must inevitably involve a process of iterative adaptation." (pg. 207)

What makes this book special is Brian’s CV – two decades at the World Bank, which experience he raids to provide great case studies throughout. It feels like he’s now gone back into academia (he teaches at Johns Hopkins and the University of Cape Town) partly to make sense of what he’s learned from 20 years of success and (more often) failure (he characterizes the orthodox governance approach as ‘a breathtaking combination of naivete and amnesia’). Unlike most such tomes, I found it clearer on the ‘so whats’, than the general diagnostic, which tends to get bogged down in endless 3 point lists and typologies (hence the two months).

Weekly Wire: The Global Forum

Roxanne Bauer's picture

These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.

Many in Emerging and Developing Nations Disconnected from Politics
Pew Research
In recent years, high-profile protest movements have erupted in several emerging and developing countries, roiling, and sometimes overturning, the political status quo in Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine, Brazil, Thailand and other nations. Millions have demonstrated, and activists have pioneered new forms of online engagement.  However, a recent Pew Research Center survey finds that many people in these nations remain relatively disconnected from politics. Although most vote in elections, few take part in other forms of political participation.
 
21st-century censorship
Columbia Journalism Review
Two beliefs safely inhabit the canon of contemporary thinking about journalism. The first is that the internet is the most powerful force disrupting the news media. The second is that the internet and the communication and information tools it spawned, like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, are shifting power from governments to civil society and to individual bloggers, netizens, or “citizen journalists.”  It is hard to disagree with these two beliefs. Yet they obscure evidence that governments are having as much success as the internet in disrupting independent media and determining the information that reaches society. Moreover, in many poor countries or in those with autocratic regimes, government actions are more important than the internet in defining how information is produced and consumed, and by whom. 
 

#5 from 2014: Politics in Development? Meet the New Institutional Economics

Kate Henvey's picture

Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2014.
This post was originally posted on January 29, 2014


Around the end December of every year, the pundits start coming out with their forecasts for 2014. This past December, the World Bank pundits predicted everything from girls outperforming boys in developing countries (girl power!) to the staggering idea that for Europe, 2014 will be a better year.

This year though, the World Bank’s Future Development Forecasts blog, included a prediction that caught these two political scientists by surprise— “as more and more economists point to the primary [sic] of politics in development, political scientists will wake up and wonder why they have been left out of the discussion.”

Joel Hellman, the World Bank’s Director of the Center on Conflict, Security and Development in Nairobi (OPSFN), predicted there will be a new movement of “political contextualists.” Meaning: we as development practitioners have to take a look at the broader institutional framework influencing the performance of the economy, and on development in particular. This is particularly relevant with regard to governance reform and strengthening institutions and service delivery in countries.

Politics in development, hear, hear! The World Bank’s People, Spaces and Deliberation blog has been making this case for years. Nevertheless, neither economists nor political scientists have really introduced a convincing framework for how this political contextualization would play out in development: how it influences development and how it helps us understand strategies that promote development effectiveness and the efficiency of development interventions.

Quote of the Week: G. K. Chesterton

Sina Odugbemi's picture

When a politician is in opposition he is an expert on the means to some end; when he is in office he is an expert on the obstacles to it.”

- Gilbert Keith Chesterton, a prolific English writer, critic, poet, philosopher, dramatist, and Christian apologist.  Chesterton is often referred to as the "prince of paradox."
 


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