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The problem of the "development expert"

Ryan Hahn's picture

Last year Bill Easterly came out with some harsh criticism of the development community after the release of the Growth Commission report. The crux of Easterly's complaint: "this report represents the final collapse of the “development expert” paradigm that has governed the west’s approach to poor countries since the second world war." But the problem of the expert is not one that is limited to development institutions—it is a problem faced by all large organizations.

I'm continuing to make my way through Clay Shirky's brilliant Here Comes Everybody, and here is another great passage:

Because of transaction costs, organizations cannot afford to hire employees who only make one important contribution—they need to hire people who have good ideas day after day. Yet as we know, most people are not so prolific, and in any given field many people have only one or a few good ideas...The institutional response to this imbalance is to ignore the people with only one good contribution; the dictates of 80/20 optimization forces a firm to maximize its output by ignoring casual participants. As a result, many good ideas (or good photos or good music) are simply inaccessible in an institutional framework, because most of the time most instiutions have to choose "steady performer" over "brilliant but erratic." It's not that organizations wouldn't like to take advantage of the idea of the occasional participant—it's that they can't. Transaction costs make it too expensive.

I think what Shirky is describing is at least partly the source of the problem of the "development expert" that Easterly is complaining about. And while transaction costs were high in the past, perhaps the proliferation of new tools for collaboration, e.g. prediction markets, wikis, social networks, etc., will permit development organizations to take advantage of some of the "brilliant but erratic" people out there. Of course, the tools by themselves are meaningless—what is really required are people in positions of leadership to push for these tools to be mainstreamed into development organizations. 


Submitted by MarcusW on
I'm a little dubious that these tools will make a significant difference. In my opinion, there are many features of traditional, hierarchical organizations which are essentially anti-innovative. Creating large organizations that are genuinely innovative is a very hard thing to do, and it is not done often. More often than not, in the private sector innovation comes from startups, and large private firms get their innovation by buying successful startups. How does it go in the development world? Well, the World Bank and the UN never buy small NGOs with radical, transformative development technology. So to a great extent they rely on their internal resources to generate innovation. For many reasons, organizations tend towards regularity over innovation. We shouldn't be surprised if large, unaccountable bureaucracies shielded from competition and market forces exhibit this tendency.

Submitted by Ryan Hahn on
@MarcusW: Thanks for the comment. I more or less agree with you - large development organizations probably aren't going to be at the forefront of innovation in this field. But as these tools become mainstreamed throughout the world, development organizations will eventually be obliged to adapt to their presence. While the end-effect may not produce a revolution in the way these organizations operate, even changes at the margin are welcome. Just to give a (minor) example: the PSD blog was the first blog at the World Bank. It was started in 2005, and we didn't even permit comments at that time. Now comments are very welcome, and the World Bank has set up a central platform for blogs: Of course, this does not amount to a revolution, but it does represent an incremental improvement in transparency.

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