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The Mini-Revolutions of the New Transparency

Gabriel Demombynes's picture

Development economics has been rocked by three mini-revolutions in recent years. The materials, methods, and medium have all been transformed—making for what Michael Clemens and I call “the new transparency” in a new working paper, forthcoming in the journal World Economy. We use the controversy around the Millennium Villages Project (MVP) as a case study to explain what we mean.

GH058S03 World Bank A separate new book, The Idealist, by journalist Nina Munk, traces the trials and tribulations of the Millennium Villages. The account of the attempt to jump-start development in rural Africa has generated reviews in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. The book jumps back and forth between a profile of Jeffrey Sachs, the project’s tireless promoter, and on-the-scene reporting at two Millennium Villages, which the author visited several times over six years. Munk’s narrative of good intentions stymied by the challenge of implementation makes for a gripping and heartbreaking read, particularly in the account of the site at Dertu, Kenya where ongoing drought overwhelmed the project’s efforts.

I worry that some might read this nuanced account and hastily come away with the conclusion that development is hopeless. Certainly, development is difficult, but there are many reasons for optimism, ranging from the amazing declines in poverty that have taken place in many countries (including Vietnam, my current home) to the successes of particular programs like conditional cash transfers. The troubles faced by the MVP’s integrated rural development approach are instructive, but they shouldn’t drive one to despair.

Another reason for optimism is the series of three mini-revolutions that Michael and I discuss in our paper. When I first worked for the World Bank, on a break from my PhD program in the summer of 1999, the materials, methods, and medium of development thinking were truly those of the old millennium:

  • The materials­ needed to formulate evidence-based policy—good data—were in short supply and not widely available. In fact, a major attraction to working in the World Bank at the time was the unique access it offered to data.
  • The dominant methods were evidence free. As Lant Pritchett memorably wrote around that time, “nearly all World Bank discussions of policies or project design had the character of ‘ignorant armies clashing by night’—there was heated debate amongst advocates of various activities but very rarely any firm evidence presented and considered about the likely impact of the proposed actions.”
  • The medium of development analysis was institutional reports and academic journals, which were out of reach to the masses, and the slow pace of publication meant that it could take years for debates to unfold.
All of that has changed. A culture of impact evaluation has seeped into the halls of development, and policy now proliferates at least in part on the basis of evidence. Data is widely available to anyone with an Internet connection, through the Bank, IPUMS, and countless other sites. And not least, the blogosphere has vastly accelerated and democratized development discourse. As Paul Krugman has written about economics more generally, now anyone can join the debate. All of this constitutes the “new transparency.”

Michael and I argue that this is all for the better, using the Millennium Villages controversy as illustration. Although the project itself refused to share any data with us, using publicly-available DHS data we were able to demonstrate weaknesses in the project’s own self-assessment. Later, our analysis using more DHS data, along with identification of a mathematical error, led to the retraction of the headline finding in the Lancet regarding the project’s impact on child mortality. The debate unfolded rapidly, with participation by development bloggers around the globe.

All in all, my experience with the Millennium Villages debate makes me highly optimistic that the mini-revolutions of the new transparency are changing development policy very much for the better.

For further information here is a post about my visit to the MVP site in Bar-Sauri, Kenya with several colleagues from the World Bank office in Nairobi, where I was working at the time. See this site for further links on the Millennium Villages debate.


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