Development practitioners: technocrats, missionaries or diplomats?

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ImageDuring a recent ‘Justice for the Poor’ mission to Vanuatu, our team had an illuminating meeting with a group of forty village chiefs in a community hall. The chiefs are the primary source of order and justice across the many islands within the archipelago. Most of them have received little, if any, formal education, their authority resting on their traditional status within the community.  Like parents everywhere, the chiefs are keen their children go to school – within the community hall, a prominent poster prepared by the villagers themselves places the healthy and educated at the apex of a social pyramid – and their efforts are strongly encouraged by donors as part of our collective quest to attain the second MDG. Yet something as laudable as educating children has already generated an awkward side-effect: children who can read and write are becoming less respectful of their illiterate elders, mocking them for their seeming ignorance, challenging their authority, and questioning the wisdom and legitimacy of their decisions.

For the people of Vanuatu, the encounter with modernity has been relatively recent and highly selective. So far, they have said ‘yes’ to monotheistic religion, roads, motor vehicles, money, primary school education, immunization and cell phones. It’s much less clear, however, that they buy the notion of the nation state (in terms of identity and political salience, being ni-Vanuatu is of third-order significance) and its role as the final arbiter of authority, or the idea that merit and professional norms should trump kinship obligations (wantok).  And it’s even less clear that powerful pressures to raise economic growth by simply selling off tracts of prime real estate to well-heeled loggers or tourism operators helps to retain the political space and administrative capacity to say ‘No’ or even ‘Let’s wait and see’ to those aspects of modernity they might otherwise reasonably reject. Having opened the door even a little to the virtues of 21st century modernity, it seems almost inevitable that its ‘vices’ (drugs, violent crime, anomie, pollution) will soon follow, bringing along social dislocation and political unrest.

Over the subsequent days, our team fell into an interesting conversation over whether modernity was in fact a ‘package deal’, perhaps even a Faustian pact. In Melanesia, it’s hard not to feel as if one is a 21st century missionary of modernity: we all fervently believe that children should get educated, babies should be immunized, women and men should have equal rights and opportunities, hiring and promotion should be based on merit, everyone (especially elites) should be subject to the rule of law, professional norms should trump personal expedience, and religion and state should be separate. All of these are quintessential features of modernity; indeed, the very definition of being ‘developed’ is that a country exhibits and upholds such characteristics, despite periodic pressures to do otherwise. Many of us have dedicated our lives to realizing these noble objectives.Image

For the early theorists of development, such as Karl Marx and Max Weber, modernity was indeed a package deal – all good (and bad) things came together. The emergence of a modern economy was thought to be inherently bound up with the simultaneous modernization of social relations (from intensive kinship obligations to extensive commercial networks), political systems (from autocracy to rational bureaucracies and the rule of law) and ideologies (from religion and patronage to science and democracy). The only serious debate was where one started to get the process moving, and in which direction the causal arrows pointed. One way or another, much of contemporary development discourse is an heir to these original assumptions: even if they disavow Marxism, those who strongly believe that economic growth is the primary driver of development faithfully presume ancillary objectives (such as education, good governance and gender equality) will follow inexorably in its wake; others may instead give precedence to advancing social justice, public health and political accountability, but do so believing that these are the foundations on which a vibrant and inclusive economy rests. Either way, today’s development debates largely continue to assume both that modernity is a package deal and that buying into that deal is highly desirable. To our zeal as modernity’s missionaries we just add the skills of the technocrat, believing that these sensibilities transform something that is merely desirable into something that is eminently possible, and possible within timeframes much shorter than if left to its own devices. Development is thus “history in a hurry”, as a colleague once memorably put it.

In his recent book, Francis Fukuyama argues that such assumptions are wrong. Historically, he contends, political modernization has taken place for many centuries – as it did in ancient China – without eliciting a concomitant economic, social and ideological modernization. Moreover, he shows that technocrats actually have a rather ordinary track record, at least when it comes to changing legal and political systems. Might it be possible that countries and communities everywhere have the capacity to incorporate those aspects of modernity they like and reject those they don’t? Might modernity not, in fact, be a package deal?

The jury will always be out on this, but my sense is that while Weber may have been wrong about the past, it’s highly likely he was right about the present. Even if one accepts Fukuyama’s long-run historical analysis of modernization and its discontents, it seems to me that the intense, integrated and multi-pronged forces undergirding modernization in the 21st century are not readily kept separable. Successfully navigating modernity, however, requires not so much the mindset of the missionary or the technocrat, but the sensibility of a different kind of professional. If the historical norm in institutional development is actually hybridity – idiosyncratic combinations of indigenous and foreign, old and new, traditional and modern – as historian Christopher Bayly argues, perhaps we should instead seek to be diplomats: helping to more deftly identify problems, priorities and possible solutions; to uphold a locally legitimate process of change; and to create spaces for more equitable contestation and negotiation as modernity’s virtues and vices are encountered. After all, if another defining feature of modernity is that diplomacy is the response of first resort to serious opportunity and antagonism (whether between neighbors or international adversaries or allies) perhaps it behooves those of us in development to do likewise, whether or not modernity is a package deal.

(This post draws in part on ‘Capability Traps? The Mechanisms of Persistent Implementation Failure’, co-authored with Lant Pritchett and Matt Andrews.)


Michael Woolcock

Lead Social Scientist, Development Research Group, World Bank

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