The Boring Development Manifesto

I. Development Does Not Photograph Well

The real work of development is not glamorous. It’s not exciting. It doesn’t photograph well. It doesn’t make for great cocktail party chatter.

The real work of development happens under a bucket of sweat in a small African farm, as a farmer sows a high yield hybrid seed variety, adds a micro-dose of fertilizer and contemplates the prospect of feeding her family comfortably every day for a whole year for the first time in her life.

It happens in the dusty hubbub of deafening bulldozers as they build a road that will bring a previously inaccessible community within easy reach of a market where they can sell their harvests and buy the necessities of life for the first time.

Development is not the sum of our fantasies about development, because:


“Making the Lives of the Poor Better” is not the same thing as “Fighting Poverty”

Particularly in the short term, these two goals are in tension. Plenty of development interventions make poverty easier to bear without making the poor less poor.

The old, tired, boring debate about whether “aid works” is going nowhere, in large part, because it fails to grasp this distinction. For Easterlistas, it’s obvious that aid doesn’t make the poor less poor. For Sachians, it’s obvious that aid makes the lives of the poor better. To me, it’s obvious both are right.

And yet, Easterly is more right. Because, improving the lives of the poor is a noble goal. For many, it is a religious imperative. But it is not development.

The only way you can fight poverty is by boosting poor people’s incomes. Incomes. 

For the bottom billion, the road to higher, more stable incomes is anything but easy. Anything but glamorous. In the short term, it can involve working harder and consuming less.

The Chinese farmer who leaves his children behind in the village to be cared for by grandparents to seek higher income in the city is making a heart-wrenching choice, one that may help him escape poverty while making his day to day life harder, not easier.

Someone living on $1.25 a day who manages to boost his income by 7.5% every year is still making just $1.55 a day three years later. And that’s unspectacular stuff. Manage to sustain that rhythm, though, and after 20 years that person is making $5 a day. (They call compounding magic for a reason.)

From a rich country point of view, $5/day sounds like a miserable living. For someone on $1.25, though, reaching $5/day means a completely transformed life. It means a real chance of feeding everyone in the household enough nutritious food every single day. It means being able to afford school fees for everyone, all the time. It means giving the next generation a fighting chance to reach a kind of middle class lifestyle and security.

Steadily rising incomes for the poorest isn’t “an important aspect of” development. Rising income is development.

III. Sustainable, but not sustained

There is enormous confusion about the economic processes that bring about sustained improvements in income – a systematic confusion between development and the benefits of development.

Far too often, Development Interventions seek to skip the boring part and jump directly to providing the benefits of development. Rather than trudging through the hard, boring work of investing in the productive capacity of the poorest so they can make more money, they jump directly to providing the things the poorest would provide for themselves if only they had better incomes.

The gains such interventions achieve are real, but they rarely outlive the project’s budget. As aid workers leave, village life quickly returns to the way it was before. Improved cookstoves sit in the corners of huts, unused. Water wells run dry for lack of simple spare parts.

These failures have been encyclopedically documented, and seldom understood.

There’s a bitter irony at play here: Africa has become a sprawling graveyard for projects that were meticulously designed for sustainability, but could not be sustained.

But it’s not surprising: development projects that target the benefits of development end up providing goods/services that, by definition, people on bottom billion incomes can’t sustain.

How has the development agenda become so top-heavy with projects that are sustainable, but not sustained? The answer is Development Bloat.

IV. Development Bloat is the Imperialism of the 21st Century

Development bloat is the imposition of first world ideological priorities on third world development agendas, programs and dreams. Development bloat is the exporting of first world ideological neuroses onto a territory where they are alien, ungrounded and a hindrance.

Development Bloat is what happens when First World People look at their own lives, ask themselves what they like about them, and think, “isn’t it terrible that poor villagers in Africa don’t have this?” without stopping to ask themselves what relevance that thing might have to people in an African village.

Development bloat is compassion as contempt.

Development bloat projects can produce fleeting improvements in poor people’s lives. But those improvements cannot be sustained because they don’t rest on the bed of economic dynamism that, alone, could sustain them.

Development bloat trades a phantasmagoric, notional version of sustainability for the real thing.

Development bloat is development for people unwilling or unable to make the imaginative leap to picturing today’s poor as tomorrow’s up-and-coming middle class.

Development bloat is a particularly insidious kind of 21st century imperialism: an imperialism built on self-delusion, drunk on self-righteousness, and blind to its own blindness.

If you want to fight poverty, fight development bloat.

V. Why Income?

Focusing on the income of the poorest is the key to fighting Development Bloat. Where income is the central focus and dominant metric of a development intervention, a buttress is established against the undercover imperialism of the bloat agenda.

Interventions that raise incomes are, at least potentially, profitable to deliver. You can imbed them in a business plan. With a little creativity, they can be delivered via Social Enterprise, or by enterprise tout court. Whether the organizations that deliver them are for-profit or not, the activities themselves generate a cash return.

And projects that generate a positive cash return tend to continue. Because profitable enterprises are not expensive to keep going, they’re expensive to stop.

Development bloat is exciting. Business is boring.

Committing to boring development implies understanding that many priorities that have long sought to be delivered through aid interventions may be better moved forward by enterpreneurs.

17 thoughts on “The Boring Development Manifesto”

  1. While I trust in the best intentions of the author, I gotta disagree about development and business creation in emerging markets being boring. How so? We work with scores of young entrepreneurs starting businesses, ranging from food carts to gum arabic harvesting, from poop processing to venture finance. Each of these ventures has as much excitement, intrigue, frustration, grit, and gumption as, say, Howells’ “A Hazard of New Fortunes.” Venture development in emerging markets have enough drama and humor to be a novel or movie.

    Also, while working with a farmer in the field can be arduous, I’m not convinced that that’s either boring or a prerequisite for good development.

    OTOH, I completely agree that “projects that generate a positive cash return tend to continue. Because profitable enterprises are not expensive to keep going, they’re expensive to stop.”

  2. Very interesting blog- been waiting for someone to write about this! I esp agree people tend to impose what they think would work for the developing world yet in actual sense, it wont until the real problems are tackled. And no better conclusion:
    Projects that generate a positive cash return tend to continue. Because profitable enterprises are not expensive to keep going, they’re expensive to stop.

  3. Glad these ideas are more widely talked about now, but I still feel uneasy about ‘increasing incomes’ as the only viable and worthy end of Development – to me, it sounds like a more macro version of Development Bloat, which is to say, the idea that higher incomes = better livelihoods. Why? Because the very term “development” implies working from a lower state of being (i.e. developing world) toward a higher one (i.e. developed world). This for me is highly problematic, and it’s a flaw in the foundations of the philosophy of development for which I have yet to see a viable resolution. That’s a lot of the reason I got out of the field.

    Perhaps if we take for granted that the more insidious consequences of globalization are here to stay for now, then I suppose I am forced to agree with you in the short/mid-term. However, this planet can obviously not sustain limitless growth of incomes in a neoliberal capitalist macroeconomic system – I believe that genuine “Development” will necessarily involve the planet developing toward lifestyles transcend the absurd inequalities in wealth distribution that are characteristic and consequence of neoliberal capitalism. Just my two cents. In any case, I’m encouraged to see folks in the field thinking critically and progressively about Development.

    1. “However, this planet can obviously not sustain limitless growth of incomes in a neoliberal capitalist macroeconomic system ”

      That’s quite a Malthusian view of the world. It wasn’t true then, I don’t see why it would be true now.

  4. I get to see some of this “boring” stuff at work when I visit my new wife’s home country, Honduras. Unfortunately, too many of the peasant farmers take their families to the cities and end up without a job and living in tin houses in the slums.

  5. It’s understandabe that most of you guys from the aid-originating western world subscribe to the Easterlist view on aid, and love to ridicule Sachians. You don’t live in conditions that aid is trying to mitigate! You can afford to write books and run regressions showing how aid doesn’t work while seated in air conditioned buildings, with running water, internet, and pest free. If you were living in the conditions where i grew up and where i work, you would use the very lenses am putting on to assess the “boring” or “unsustained” development. Undoubtedly sure Africa would be worse off without aid. In Makerere University where I teach, nearly all the PhDs, text books, laboratory apparatus etc are donations from the west. Recently, when the EU suspended aid to Uganda because of the corruption scourge here, nearly a 1/4 of my students have dropped out and intake for 2013/14 academic year has reduced by nearly 21%. Why? The economy is breeding. There is a way aid money flows into the hands of the poor that they can afford to pay tuition, treat their children in modern clinics, etc. Even civil servants (teachers, police, prisons, nurses etc) haven’t gotten salary for 5 months. So with suspension of aid, household incomes are going down. Bottomline: poor societies in Africa would be worse off without aid. As the author votes for Easterly ahead of Sachs, think about the 234/100k mothers or the 78/1k children who would have died had Gavi fund not provided our health ministry with the aid to save their lives!

  6. Look, Africa doesn’t lack for entrepreneurs. The reason they rarely make much money is that they’re laboring in countries where the governments are hopelessly corrupt, incompetent, and unwilling to provide the basic services required of a state: law, order, and infrastructure. The key to development isn’t promoting more entrepreneurialism; it’s figuring out how to transform predatory patrimonial regimes into Weberian, bureaucratic, development focused ones. Development isn’t an economic or business-related challenge; it’s a political one.

  7. Your description of development bloat coincides neatly with the whole Base of the Pyramid markets, where startups rush in with one solar lamp, cookstove, water purifier/puller whathaveyou. And let’s not get started about all the mPilots that never scaled on the phone. Have fun with your efforts on the blog, fresh questioning is much needed to clear all that litter across Africa.

  8. Very thought provoking and engaging article as well as comments. Our divergent paradigms due to our varying geosociocultural particularities. No matter what context we are from, our voice needs to be heard in these conversations, which I wish would happen more often, especially among evangelical Christians here in North American. The church, parachurch, mission organizations and Christian NGO’s have alot to learn from this dialogue. Ive begun to write on these topics regarding an evolving missional paradigm at

  9. Very insightful indeed. Truthfully, development cannot be glamorous as has been portrayed by ‘developed’ nations and ‘development’ partners.

    The sum total of the efforts of the lasts three decades, plus, paint a totally different picture of what ought to have been vis a vis what is.

    The average poor individual may have from less than a dollar a day to, say, 1.25 dollars as illustrated here, but the inflationary component negates any tangible progress.

    It is time we restructured our development engagements, with a clear focus on overhauling the household and grassroots economies, the only sure way to guarantee the sustainability we wish for.

  10. Very interesting, and right to focus on increasing incomes for the poor, and the poorest. But then you quote Bellemare, seemingly with approval, “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.”

    Gender equality as a western plaything, equivalent to soap or teddy bears? Ever looked at what providing basic education to girls (and women) would achieve for development, both in the short term and longer term? Do you really think gender equality is the same thing as bright shiny playthings of misguided westerners, and to be scoffed at as a development objective?

  11. Lots of food for thought in here. I work in what seems to be the shrinking world of research-for-development, and I often ask myself whether we are contributing to development bloat or not. You’d be hard-pressed to find a non-profit that has as successfully delivered outputs that have increased incomes for farmers, but it’s not so simple as developing improved crop varieties or better crop management practices and handing those over to farmers any more. And then the question is: if the middle section of the value chain — the part between the science of agricultural research and farmers’ hands — is missing or complicated, is it even worth it to do the research part? If you are interested in talking with someone who works with smallholder farmers, hit me up.

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