The Development Bloat Checklist

Ten questions to ask of any development project:

☐ Does it provide something most people in rich countries have/use, but few people in the recipient community have/use?

☐ Is the project likely to be abandoned once donor funding runs out?

☐ In order for the project to succeed, would people in the recipient community have to significantly change their habits or reorganize their daily routines?

☐ If the cost of the project was just handed out to recipients in cash, would they spend the cash on the thing the project provides?

☐ Are freebies at the center of the project?

☐ Are pictures of Smiling African Children featured prominently in the project’s marketing?

☐ Does it target middle income communities rather than very poor ones?

☐ Is the target population living in a city rather than the countryside?

☐ Is the project’s main target something other than people’s incomes?

☐ Does it assume a competent/non-corrupt local government to work?

Count the number of questions you answered “Yes” to:

0-2: You’re probably on the safe side

3-5: There are some worrying signs of bloat here.

6-8: Bloatier than a cow in a salt-lick factory.

9-10: Run awayyyyyyyyyy!

13 thoughts on “The Development Bloat Checklist”

  1. Very interesting new blog! Most of these make excellent sense to me, but I wonder about targeting people in cities being a bad thing? It seems to me that the aid industry is doing a fairly poor job of functionally catching up to the fact that the majority of people in the world now live in urban areas, while urban poverty can be far worse than rural poverty (not that it’s a competition). Most NGOs and agencies don’t seem to have the first clue how to work with, for example, urban displaced populations, residents of informal settlements (i.e. slums), etc., and conditions there are often horrifying. Obviously targeting matters hugely, and I’m under no illusion that many dev’t agencies are very motivated to target the poorest. But the broad statement that targeting cities equals bloat strikes me as problematic.

    1. Thanks for writing in! I definitely see where you’re coming from – an urban target in and of itself doesn’t imply bloat. That’s why I think you’re probably safe if you’re answering “yes” to one or two of the questions on the list. But together with two or more other “yeses”, I think an urban focus can be an indicator of bloat – if for no other reason than because in most cases (giant generalization alert) deep rural poverty is way worse than deep urban poverty.

  2. Best of luck with your new blog. One nit-pick: This sentence could be improved “Would you describe the project’s impact on recipients’ incomes described as largely indirect?”

  3. This checklist sounds to me like a good idea for when to choose charities to support. Those of us who try to do a small something to help usually do it for personal reasons, I support scholarships because that made a difference in my life and I want to pay it forward, but I wonder if I am really having all the impact I can have donating to a city kid in a city so she can have jeans and sneakers to go to school. I will not drop my sponsor child and run away towards another charity cause, but I will definitely think about what I will support next. You are already giving me food for thought.

    1. Thx! I’m 80/20 on the Lant Pritchett Love/Hate scale. As a fan of The Wire, I’m as sensitive as the next guy about the pernicious effects of arbitrary quantitative targets (Pritchett’s kinks) – it’s just definitional that they’ll skew incentives.

      Where I really don’t agree with him is on the question of the narrow vs. the wide agenda. I just don’t understand why Pritchett thinks an international development agenda should talk to the politics of Brazil – Brazil has big time internal dynamics leading it to deal with its own stuff.

      I’m much closer to Paul Collier on that one: middle income countries have their own (very serious) problems, and in the grand scheme of things they’re dealing with them. The macro problem isn’t with them. The problem is with the LDCs, which you can’t even call “developing” without a heavy dose of irony.

  4. Quico, I’m in a position where I can influence where an organization donates money to development programs. Besides this checklist, how do I make sure what I recommend is the best investment? specifically i’m looking for organizations and programs that work in Latin America, ideally with some sort of presence in Montreal, so i thought this was a great place to ask. If you have specific recommendations those are more than welcome as well.

    1. Step 1. Get clear, do you want to do Humanitarian Aid (stuff that makes poor people’s lives better) or Development Aid (stuff that makes people less poor.) You need to have that debate within your organization, because everything else depends on how you answer that question.

      Step 2. If you want to do Development Aid, ask a lot of questions – I just proposed 10 above, but that’s only a starting point. Be contrarian. Remember that the stuff that makes for the best story in Canada is rarely the stuff that’s most relevant to people’s needs.

  5. I’m intrigued by your repeated assumption that ‘income increases equal development’. You’re closer to the truth than those who believe that mere succour for the poor, housing, clean water, etc, constitute development. But I don’t know that incomes are enough either. If a remote village gets a road, electricity, a health centre, a school, *and* a significant increase in ag yields that pushes the whole pop above $1.25, we might see that village as having become a lot more ‘developed’. But a country consisting largely of such villages would definitely *not* be recognised as a developed country – that means industrialisation, urbanisation, and so on. Projects that seem to have very little to do with the poor – mega-dams, private sector reforms, mining, etc – can drive *that* process.

    In other words I think you need to take your division between humanitarian and development further – there’s humanitarian (makes poor’s life better), poverty reduction (makes people less poor) and development (transforms and modernises economies, unleashes economic growth, and helps with poverty reduction).

    Most of the really important work being done on the ‘bottom billion’ isn’t really arguably *development*, in the sense of a transformation of economies from ag to industry and so on. And the ‘new bottom billion’ is about economies that are growing sharing that wealth with their poorest members – I’m not sure that’s ‘development’ either.

  6. I would quibble with the checkbox “Is the target population living in a city rather than the countryside?” There is value to improving the quality of life and of livelihoods in cities in emerging markets.

    1. You know, I sort of agree. It’s the weakest item in the list: more a reflection of my interests than of underlying development dynamics. Help me think of a better one!

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