FAQ

Q: What’s good about development that’s boring?

A: Because the development enterprise is awash with trendy projects that don’t ultimately really address the needs of the bottom billion, and it’s time somebody said the obvious: the real work of development, the kind that turns around people’s lives, is kind of plodding. Rather than trying to sexy it up, we need to own it.

Think of it as a cri de coeur against the kind of development project that sounds great at a cocktail party but goes flat the second it hits the field. (If you want to hear the long version, check out The Manifesto.)

Q: Who wants to read a boring blog?

A: Hey, it’s development itself that’s boring. Blogging about boring development is fascinating.

Q: Who are you, anyway?

A: I’m a social entrepreneur. Last year, along with two African partners, I went to work for a South Sudanese agribusiness start-up. That forced me to dive head first into development debates. Then the tragic violence in South Sudan has left me with a lot more time to write, and here we are.

Before all that, I used to consult and write about Venezuela, which is where I’m from. Seems people liked it. You can buy my book about the Chávez Era here, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Q: Is the Campaign for Boring Development a real campaign?

A: I’m busted; it’s not. At least not yet. It’s really just a blog on development issues.

Q: Ermmmm…if it’s a blog, why do you call it a “campaign”?

Because it’s a blog with a campaigning spirit. And because I wanted to pay tribute to my favorite idea-turned-campaign.

Think of the name as an aspiration more than a description at this point: with luck, and if the views expressed resonate with people, there’s no reason it can’t turn into a real campaign over time.

Q: Who needs another development blog anyway?

A: Hey, I’m a blogger. When I’m trying to learn about a new area, my first instinct is to look for people blogging about it and dive into their work.

As you read development blogs, it doesn’t take long to realize there are basically three kinds: academic blogs bent on nerding it up for a specialist audience, institutional blogs, which are really more mouthpieces for their paymasters, and practitioner blogs, written by people in that-thing-we’re-not-supposed-to-call-the-field-anymore. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, but none of them were putting out the kind of material I wanted to read.

Academic and institutional blogs have obvious self-censorship issues, which Blattman has been commendably forthright about. In general, the career/institutional imperative to play it safe tends to make for slightly plodding, nothing-new-here writing that I’m sort of allergic to. TL;DR seems pretty rampant. Jargon is an issue for the academics, as is the general tendency to say bovine defecatory effluence when you clearly mean bullshit.

The practitioner blogs are a lot more fun, but they tend to be more about the experience of delivering aid than about the aid enterprise itself.

So I think there’s a bit of a gap in the market, a space for smart, opinionated, blunt analysis that’s focused on the big picture. CfBD is aimed right at that space.

Q: What inspired you to launch this?

A: Marc Bellemare’s brilliant piece on Development Bloat in Foreign Affairs from January 2014. It struck me that Marc was making the types of arguments lots of people I talk to make in private, but that you almost never read in print.

Many, if not all, of the aims pursued by development policymakers are laudable in and of themselves. The developing world would no doubt be better off with gender equality, and there may even be some poor people who would welcome the arrival of recycled soap, teddy bears, or clowns. But it is more than a stretch to categorize such efforts as part of development, which should focus on generating higher, more stable incomes. Indeed, many of those lofty development goals were attained by rich countries as a byproduct of such higher, more stable incomes — as individuals get wealthier, they demand better things from both the market and the state. It is hard to argue that environmental sustainability and establishing a global partnership for development, to take the most egregious examples among the Millennium Development Goals, are really part of the process of development — or that the world’s poorest people would rank them anywhere on their list of priorities. As the Swiss scholar Gilbert Rist put it in his History of Development, “ ‘development’ — previously regarded as a complex but relatively coherent phenomenon — has been broken up into a set of objectives whose links with one another are scarcely explained.”

The piece – and the idea of Development Bloat as an analytical cateogry – really spoke to me. But I thought that there was much more to it than anyone could hope to cover in one Opinion piece…hence, CfBD.

Q: Sachs or Easterly?

A: Easterly, basically – which is why I’m working on an African start-up rather than a Western NGO. But keeping an open mind is key, so I’m taking Easterly’s MOOC too.

Q: Acemoglu & Robinson or Banerjee & Duflo?

A: It’s complicated.

 

10 thoughts on “FAQ”

  1. This is a great idea. You are so correct about how people in the developed world are practically like a bunch of crack addicts – looking for that next “hit”, or like children who only want to eat ice cream and candy all the time. I hope you have an impact.

  2. Great site. Was wondering, what do you mean the tragic violence in South Sudan has left you with more time? Surely with the uncertainty and chaos there, the business is even more important now than before?

  3. Ha, definitely not calling you a wuss, who’d want to be trying to work in the middle of fighting? But I guess that’s what my question is getting at – you’re kind of suggesting there actually is more to development than just increasing incomes. For example, when there’s an active war, you can’t increase incomes. So, governance and conflict mitigation are part of the development picture. Or would that sort of thinking be ‘development bloat’?

    1. Damn, foiled by logic! You’re right of course.

      The ideas in this blog don’t really apply to acute crisis situations. I don’t really have much to add to debates on humanitarian aid, which is obviously essential, but not the same thing as development at all.

      The formulation I’ve sort of settled on is that a Boring Development approach deals with 70% of the problem for 70% of the poorest people. Not a bad starting point at all – and way better than building damn skateparks – but certainly not the whole story either.

  4. Interesting – that 70% calculation somehow didn’t find itself into the manifesto.

    In any case, not sure I agree this is about humanitarian aid. Presumably, if governance were more effective in places like South Sudan, there would be no violent conflict and no need for humanitarian aid. In that case, incomes could rise and “development” could happen. So assistance in improving governance – before discontent turns into war – might be a useful step in supporting development. But I take it you think that type of assistance is development bloat. But at the same time, you can’t work on your business which increases incomes, because there’s a war. So I guess I’m trying to figure out how you resolve that paradox.

  5. As a young professional trying to launch a career in global health policy, I applaud your ‘campaign’ honesty and blunt analysis- hopefully your posts don’t send me into a career crisis. I look forward to following your blog, cheers!

  6. I find a lot in here (and in the manifesto) to agree with. But there are two things that give me pause, and I wonder how you’d respond to them.

    1. There’s something almost self-refuting about narrowing the “practice” of development to income-generation, starting businesses, etc. Business–using scarce resources to make money–is exactly the thing that governments (and international organizations and nonprofits and all the quasi-public sector institutions) are notoriously bad at. Development agencies will be bad at promoting business for the same reasons they’re bad at all the other aspects of development bloat that you catalog so well. It seems like the claim that development (or more problematically, aid) should be about raising incomes is akin to the proverbial politician who says the lack of private sector development is a problem and as a solution proposes to establish a Ministry of Private Sector Development.

    2. Something that bothered me in Bellemare’s piece is that while he criticizes the mission creep and bloat and argues for a greater focus on incomes, it’s actually very vague what focusing on raising incomes would mean in practice. If it were obvious and easy to know how to spend money to make more money, then someone would have done it already without a development project being involved. Moreover, I think it’s hard to argue that the most successful examples of aid you can find are overwhelmingly in the health sector, a sector decidedly not focused on boosting incomes (except in a very indirect way).

    I like the blog and I’m glad you’ve joined the conversation.

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