Development practitioners: technocrats, missionaries or diplomats?


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During 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.

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

Join the Conversation

A development worker
June 03, 2011

I love schools, vaccinations and human rights as much as the next person. Modernity may not be a package but the manifestation of modernity in a particular place and time is; and I am not sure I am happy enough with what I have seen of the way modernity works when it hits the ground in the developing world to become a diplomat its service.

I am struggling to find a metaphor that is up to the task though; one that reflects the dialectic tension between modernity and development work. If modernity can be thought of as a firm perhaps I see my job an advisor to the union of its workers. They want the firm to stay in business; but they recognize that its interests don’t overlap entirely with theirs; and they are set up to contest issues when it matters.

M Woolcock
June 06, 2011

Thanks. I agree that there are inherent limitations to the metaphors (and categories) deployed in this piece. Still, I think you raise two separate issues, perhaps the most important of which -- for present purposes -- is whose interests we're acting on behalf of (since "diplomats" aren't free agents or neutral third parties). Perhaps mediators, negotiators or envoys is better... In any event, as Bank employees we're presumably paid to uphold the Bank's interests, but these may not always be consistent with the interests of marginalized groups, and yet most of us come to the Bank because we believe it provides an unrivalled platform on which to advance the causes of such groups. Doubtless at various points in our careers we'll find ourselves on multiple sides of the same issue.

My general point here was simply that being an uncritical/unwitting cheerleader of modernity, or a well-intentioned technocrat committed to bringing "best-practice solutions" to bear on inherently vexed issues (such as governance and legal reform) is unlikely to have a happy ending. Its metaphorical limits notwithstanding, diplomats (in principle) seek constructive solutions that both sides can own and uphold; they are not overly discouraged by initial setbacks, even apparent failure; they take the other party seriously, seeking to discern not just its interests but its history and aspirations. It's the very possibility of equitable negotiation on these terms that is denied if we merely (but primarily) are rewarded for meeting global 'targets' or disseminating universal 'tool kits' that can be 'scaled up'.

June 14, 2011

I don't think that modernity means equality. Maybe in rhetoric but certainly doesn't seem to be the case in practice. Marx himself saw inequality as one of the great hallmarks of capitalist modernity, which is now a global project. Why do we push equity on developing countries when we know equity does not exist in "modern" places?

Catherine Riordan
March 11, 2012

I remember a transcript of a radio show from Vanuatu about 10 years ago entitled 'More Education Means More Stupid'. The chiefs from a number of the outer islands were complaining that because the children in their villages were spending more time in school, they didn't have time to learn the important skills they needed to survive in the village, and the folklore of the tribe - so from their point of view, there was an opportunity cost to children being in formal education in terms of learning survival skills.

As most children from those villages would not be educated beyond primary school, I wondered whether a generation who had neither the skills and knowledge to get work in the tourist industry in Port Vila, nor the skills to survive in their villages were being educated, or whether these children would serve as a 'bridge' out of their village for their own children?

April 03, 2012

The question over whether modernity was a package deal particularly struck me as I began thinking of the almost cookie-cutter-like programs that development agencies often implement using their "universal tool-kits". Although in the West, we have a relatively singular idea of modernity that combines education, medicine, and technology, what if this form of modernization isn't what the people of a particular village desire? Should these people be able to pick and choose what they want to modernize within their societies and what they wish to keep the same? If so, who gets to make this decision? The leaders of a community--not the children of course, who would be the ones going to school, getting vaccinated (or not, if the leaders decided these were the areas they would keep the same).

Of course, this is where the "diplomats" or development agents come in to help negotiate between "modernization" and "tradition". But as you mentioned, diplomats are not free agents who can simply listen to what the people decide and then help them implement their decision. They must represent the organization who sent them, those who empower them to do the work that they do. In the actual negotiation process, however, whose wants/needs are being considered more: the people in the village or the Bank's?

M. Demment
March 14, 2013

The wave of modernization, energized by the information revolution and globalization, will and is sweeping across the globe. I do not see individual social entities having much of a chance to pick apart and make decisions about which part of the package, the wave, they will experience…it will be all of it. The external forces are too strong. Whether the Bank or other donors interact with communities or not, they will all eventually face the wave of modernization.

The development community can be in the role, perhaps best described, as the adapters. They are bringing the first stages of change that will foreshadow what will come later. So perhaps we should think of development agents as adaptation agents who assist societies to understand the forces of modernization and best prepare them to absorb the changes. One of the keys to such adaptation is developing the human capacity that has the knowledge and exposure to integrate different worlds and make a peace between them. In the end it will be members of those societies, wise to the world and their local context, who will be critical to creating an effective functional social and economic unit.