Museveni Kenyatta Kagame

Taking “Context is Everything” Seriously

You’ll have noticed the pace of posting here has slackened. Truth be told, I’m having second thoughts about whether a blog on “Development” is really a viable project in the first place.

I started Campaign for Boring Development because I noticed nearly every blog on development out there were not actually about development at all. They were about development work. They were about the aid enterprise, about NGOs’ and multilateral agencies’ role with regard to development, about stuff expat aid workers like or about a series of more or less recondite academic discussions in the west on development research topics.

It didn’t take long to piece together why this happens: bloggers respond to traffic and the reader engagement it brings, and the thing that generates engagement is writing about the problems that Western development practitioners face. Poor people in poor countries, alas, don’t spend much time reading development blogs.

So the posts that were getting the most reader engagement here were posts about the lives of first world professionals involved in development. That thing I wrote on Bulte et al.’s double-blind seed RCT went the development-nerd version of mega-viral. The other post on why World Bank reforms don’t stick was another big hit among…wait for it…World Bank staffers.

Meanwhile, what I consider to be far and away the best stuff on BoringDevelopment – the posts on Seed Counterfeiting, in particular – basically languished.

This, I started to suspect, is why the globaldev blogosphere is the way it is.

The deeper problem is that “development” tout court is  too abstract a topic to make for a good, meaty, focused blog. And “African Development” or “Rural Development” don’t really solve the problem. These formulations totally decontextualize the process, bleaching out all the politics, the state context and the power relations that increasingly seem to me to be the heart of the matter.

Development, when you get down to it, is a political process. Whether you go for the right wing or the left wing variant of this idea matters less, I think, than whether you buy into the concept in the first place. If “context is everything” then “development” doesn’t make sense as a starting point for analysis: why would you start from a category that works by zapping the very thing that “is everything” out of the picture?

The upshot is: I’ve been spending more time reading about the gentlemen in the photo, and less reading about the econometrics of missing variables. I think it’s a much better use of my time.

I may be obsessed with the problem of counterfeit seed, say, but without a deeper appreciation of the basic ways power and influence flow through the Ugandan state system, there are very clear limits on how far I can take that obsession. I may find the marketing strategies of Kenyan seed producers riveting, but without a sophisticated understanding of how agro-inputs policy fits into President Kenyatta’s coalition-building approach, there are very clear limits to what I can do with it.

There’s hope for a blog on Ugandan development or on Kenyan development or on Rwandan development in a way there isn’t for a blog on “development” as such. Hope for relevance and insight into questions that ultimately matter.

So now I need to get a solid handle on the political economy of the Kenyan, Ugandan and Rwandan states. Will it be easy? No way. It’ll be much harder. But worth doing.

12 thoughts on “Taking “Context is Everything” Seriously”

  1. I don’t make a habit out of commenting on blogs I follow, but since you’re asking an existential question, here’s my 2 yen (soon to become my 0.2 HKD). I like your blog post as is. I like hearing about the “boring” and unsexy interventions that people are not talking about. This is why I read this blog. I don’t like how you poop on “Clowns without borders” and Skateistans and their relatives, but I still read them because I want to hear the other side of things, an opinion that isn’t mine. I’ll still read about East Africa with a passion, but that’s really not why I signed up for this blog in the first place. Please reconsider!

    1. I agree entirely. I think that “boring” development is very interesting, as an alternative to “sexy” stories that we hear every day, but do not represent the real truth or the important aspects of the work being done. I really enjoy your blog as it is now, but obviously you should write about whatever you’re passionate about. I just wanted you to know that people are still interested in what you’re saying… So I agree, please reconsider.

  2. The dilemma of whether to focus analysis on politics or policy… I have always believed that many of the solutions are out there or are way easier to find than it is to solve the political cleavages and problems that hinder governments/states/”civilization” from implementing said solutions. Not that policy can’t be difficult and controversial or that it doesn’t have its own technical dilemmas…

  3. It’s nice to have you back from your hiatus. I found the old mix of topics quite stimulating, with the general abstraction as a feature and not an insect. I may well turn out to be less enthused about the political economy of Rwanda; so I’m hoping you will provide us with a subtle mix of both kinds of knowledge.

  4. I was wondering what had happened. Whatever happened to swedow on Silly Fridays; bloated development; this works. It all dried up. I thought that you had gone on holiday somewhere and would be back, refreshed and ready for war again.

    One group, started by that Irish singer, say money spent on agriculture is twice as effective as development money spent elsewhere. But very few seem to realise it. Development, if truth be told, hasn’t got a clue where the focus should be. That is why I like Bill’s big move on agriculture. It is about food. The rest are wandering down the road of rcts and all that academic talk, forgetting the guy has fields and is hungry. E.g. the bottom billion are starving but don’t concentrate on food in their development especially as most of them are farmers. It is upside down. So blogs on seed don’t interest them. I know this might not suit but an African farmer would find these posts much more interesting than an Ngo in a big office somewhere in the West. To me, that encapsulates the problem with development. But that is no reason for you to discontinue on the major problem: fixing development.

    If you want to expand into other areas then do so. There is nothing wrong with that. But don’t forget the day job: fixing development. I can foresee the day when there will be only this sort of blogging left: fixing development. Try a bit of journalism blogging: about journalism, not news. Blattman, Bellemare: do a bit on academia in addition to the day job.

    But a less clear point. Do you think that these three in the photo read your blog. Maybe not but I am sure that they have an office somewhere where staff follow the blogging world. Maybe your points are actually being formed into policy. In fact, Kagame, very obviously, is very well informed with a strong view on development. He is bright enough for original thinking but he will get views from elsewhere. Kenyatta is as sharp as a whip. I know a blog which was followed intently by the powers that be in a nation. Policy came from it.

    Some topics for future consideration and make sure you hit very, very hard on them: dependency and its denial by the devlopers, corruption in development, the indigenous view of aid and development; China – the contrast to the aid and development world, i.e., successful; the USA just don’t have a clue that Africa thinks the USA doesn’t have a clue, about development.

    Try poetry.

    There once was a man from Bahrain
    Who made a journey by train.
    When he arrived it was raining
    the people were smiling
    and said,
    let’s wait for the man from Peru.

    There once was a man from Peru
    who decided to buy a canoe
    after four days of travelling
    and fighting the rapids,
    they said,
    why didn’t you get the train.

    to be continued, may be.

  5. Not everything can go viral on the net. But the piece on seed, if I recollect properly, ended up in the Guardian development columns, which seems to be funded, at least partly, by the Gates Foundation. That is also one of the major British newspapers and a considerable achievement. Lots of bloggers can’t say that and would be desperate to say that. Much more important, in my view than this ad infinitum retweeting and counting tweets, is getting these points in front of the British public, the British government who read the Guardian, and people that matter like Bill and that man from Nebraska. You shouldn’t measure everything by retweets.

  6. Por añadir apoyo también en español, te digo que hagas lo que te pida el cuerpo. Si mantienes el sentido crítico que has mostrado, seguirá siendo interesante aunque por los comentarios precedentes queda claro que nos gusta bastante el tema que hasta ahora tratabas. Quizás, como dicen, resultaría un buen cocktail añadir y relacionar en vez de sustituir.
    Un saludo

  7. I am not sure I understand you correctly! I understand the part about the mechanism and success of a development effort being deeply dependent on unique local circumstances (political etc).

    The thing I don’t get is your apparent separation of “development” from the “process of development”, like cause and effect. I would certainly focus on the activity of explicit development efforts as a subset of social engineering. You can separate the development context into problems, targets, plans, implementations, etc, and start thinking about the scope of a project – financial, temporal, geographic, social, etc. In addition different individuals or organizations place different importance on different measures of development.

    Perhaps what you were originally hoping to address is that people involved in the day to day of development work are so concerned with keeping the money flowing – the front end of the shop – that they have little time for self-critical assessments and little opportunity to optimize their impact by shifting to completely different intervention scenarios. I suppose by development you meant making the connection between concrete efforts and changes in economic or social measures. Or you wanted to weed out the waste or the losers – or identify killer apps in development.

    Wrt confining the scope of your blog, if I were you I would say screw it, just throw a bigger net out. Probably few would care and most would like an occasional change in emphasis. You are a one-man-show, unlike many of the blogs you link to. You should tap that as your strength, the freedom not to confine yourself to one single topic.

    In addition, sometimes it is easier and frankly more fun to understand a topic by understanding how one person goes about thinking about that topic – call it a meta level of understanding – and that is reason enough to follow this blog.

  8. You seem to judge the blog’s success based on reader engagement. How do you measure reader engagement?

    There are multiple possible goals you may have for this blog. What are your goals? Is reader engagement the best indicator of success?

  9. I really like the content as is. (As an idealistic fundraiser who struggles between projects that are salable and the projects that are the most legimately helpful) Heading to business school soon and this is the kind of clear-eyed non-Wall Street screed that I need to keep as a piece of my media diet.

    “Clear-eyed”, by the way, is one of the ways this blog could be best described, and one of its most useful attributes. As long as development remains a highly technical field (so, like, forever) there kind of needs to be a way that the inside-baseball world of development nerds can be accessible to a wider world of people who want to understand even if they can’t meaningfully contribute.

    Otherwise the public ends up with a knowledge/truth vacuum of what ACTUALLY helps and you end up with well-meaning projects like Tom’s Shoes that do more harm than good. Or to use another metaphor, a knowledge/truth vacuum results in the presidential polling journalism we had before early Nate Silver. Or baseball, pre-sabermetrics.

    I want to echo the request for the broad net approach. Even if the breadth means you don’t dive as deep into nuance as you (a development brain) would want, it might be accessible to, say, 500 people as a result. And, say 20 of them are in a position to do something about it or critically shape policy as a result.

    Plus you can always do follow-up posts to get into more detail on the minutia of a situation if that would slow the primary post down.

    Keep up the great work!

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