The Development Worker from Planet Zorgon

Imagine, tomorrow, a race of technologically super-advanced aliens from Planet Zorgon lands. But instead of battleships, like in the movies, they send a squadron of interstellar development workers determined to help “the most vulnerable beings in our arm of the galaxy.”

The next day, they turn up at your house and are appalled at your living conditions. With a self-satisfied smile, they insist on training you how to use a miniature 29th century Medical Tricorder. Erm….gee, thanks mister.

What exactly would be wrong with that?

It’s not that Tricorders aren’t fantastic pieces of machinery – they are! It’s not that they don’t save lives – they do! It’s not even that you can’t imagine a radically different way of life from yours where a Tricorder is an absolute life necessity – you can, just about.

It’s that right here, right now, you can think of 200 other priorities in your life. Besides, if the thing eventually breaks, how on earth would you fix it?

Life without a Tricorder might be inconceivable to the kind of alien who sits on the ZorgonAID steering committee, but it’s extremely conceivable to you. You live it.

And then the thought occurs to you, “wait these Zorgonians are extremely prosperous. They clearly have way more resources than they need – enough to hand out stuff that I’m not asking for and don’t really want. But then, if they have all these resources, why don’t they, y’know, ask me what matters to me before making the choice for me? Better yet, why don’t they give me cash so I can choose what I want for myself?”

To a Zorgonian, the idea that replacing the broken stereo in your car to make your 45 minute commute less dreary, say, or replacing the leaky faucet in your bathroom might be a higher priority than a tricorder may seem utterly baffling. They don’t have faucets in Planet Zorgon, and everyone commutes by teletransporter. You’d never be able to sell an “intervention” to improve these things to a Zorgonian aid committee, because these technologies have no resonance at all for people who haven’t been in contact with them for 5 or 6 generations. Tricorders make for much better chatter at Zorgonian cocktail parties, and so Tricorders for Earth is what it’s going to be.

It’s not hard to guess what the Zorgonian Evaluation Team is going to find when they come to earth a few years down the road to try to measure project impact: a bunch of tricorders, half of them broken, many unused, virtually all of them underused. Even Zorgonian lefties will think dark thoughts about the “deepseated cultural beliefs” of humans that prevent them from taking minimal, common-sense steps to improve their lot. And the Zorgonian right will take it as proof positive that Interstellar Aid Just. Doesn’t. Work.

Western aid projects in Africa are in continual danger of this kind of Zorgonian overreach. From Yoga to Ultimate Frisbee to Bikes for Africa, the development scene is littered with Western Tricorders. New ones arrive at a rate more or less equivalent to that with which old ones are discredited.

This lack of focus, born of well-intentioned ethnocentrism, is at the heart of Development Bloat. And it matters. It matters because the legitimacy of the aid exercise – fragile at the best of times – must contend with challenges not to its best practices, but to its worst.

6 thoughts on “The Development Worker from Planet Zorgon”

    1. The Canaimitas are an *excellent* example of Development Bloat, Jeffry. There’s plenty of research showing this kind of input-based interevention doesn’t really have much of an impact on educational outcomes.

      See, for instance, http://www.povertyactionlab.org/evaluation/impact-home-computers-academic-achievement-low-income-children-united-states

      In some developing countries, the effect is *negative* -> access to a laptop leads to worse educational outcomes!

      It’s expensive, it’s trendy, it checks most of the boxes on the Boring Development Checklist. I’ll have plenty more to rant about this in posts to come…

      (BTW, thanks for dropping by on Day One!)

  1. There’s also plenty of research that educational outcomes don’t really have much of an impact on productivity, inspiration or general usefulness for society.

  2. Your point about tricorders is a good one. But you’re too sweeping on some points. For instance, Yoga. The Africa Yoga Project has created employment for >70 otherwise jobless youths, and community in low income urban neighborhoods.

    1. RCT or it didn’t happen!!

      😉

      You see what I mean, though. The question is always about opportunity costs. A similar expenditure of money and expertise in a less bloaty project might have created 100 jobs. Or 300.

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