Lant Pritchett on what Obama got right about development

by Lant Pritchett, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University Obama's speech at the MDG conference and the announced US Global Development Policy are the result of long preparation and internal discussions within the administration as part of the Presidential Study Directive, lead out of the NSC, announced a year ago, and the QDDR, prepared by State, both processes having been watched over by the Washington think tanks and advocacy groups.

While one could immediately focus on the "architecture" part of the speech and read the Beltway tea leaves of who is up, who is down, and what that means for this organization or that, it is worth at least first stepping back and asking where this first official US development policy came down on the big debates on development, where, I think it comes out a big winner on four big ideas.

First, the speech and policy put economic growth front and center as objectives of development and development policy.  It might seem obvious that economic growth that increases people's command over resources is the single most powerful force to improve nearly any indicator of well-being -- from poverty to food security to health to education -- but, surprisingly, that point can get lost.  The "development is about more than growth" backlash, which had important elements of truth, easily got carried away into "development isn't at all about growth" and it is good to see economic growth back front and center of development objectives.

Of course growth these day must carry some adjectives as baggage -- "sustainable" and "broad based" can never be too far away -- but both of those are perfectly legitimate qualifiers and a small price to pay for the primacy of growth.

Second, the speech came down hard, and right, on the debate between improving systemic capability and programmatic action.  This was of course not easy to do in the context of a speech on the MDGs, which lend themselves to a programmatic vision of development.  Functioning systems of education have multiple and complex objectives -- spreading a common socialization, improving learning of the basics, identifying and promoting excellence.  The goal of development is that a country can have an education system that, as a natural part of its operation as a system composed of many actors and pressures, sets and achieves goals, some of which are then mapped into particular programs.  The same is true of all other spheres of social and governmental action -- infrastructure, law and order, health, economic policy.  The speech clearly identified building this capability as a central (and difficult) part of development.

This resists a very powerful tendency to reduce development to a series of specific targets, each of which can be addressed by the implementation of sufficiently resourced programs (programs which can be cocooned or stove piped around systemic dysfunction), which can be crudely caricatured as the "show me the money" approach.

The MDGs are correctly interpreted as what will be accomplished when there has been development -- not vice versa.

Third, the speech gets right the need for innovation, with rigorous evaluation as an important component of an environment for innovation.  The endeavor of "development" as a conscious acceleration of the progress of nation-states is now at least 50 years old.  If it were easy and obvious then as a social movement it would have disappeared under the weight of its own success and be a historical curiosity, like abolitionists.

The paradox of the external organizations that attempt to support development is that people tell them "we'll give you your budget if you tell us for sure what you are doing will work."  This leads to a powerful culture of pretending that much more is known about the "theory of change" that leads to development that really is known.  The fact that the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world has just spent eight years devoting fantastically high level of resources to "develop" Afghanistan (with security as one element of that) with results that range from mixed to shambolic should make it obvious that we need much greater openness within the development community to an approach of structured experimentation -- on all fronts.

The same skepticism about "one size fits all" that made "Washington Consensus" two dirty words should be taken to the range of "expert" advice in sectors from education to health to public sector governance to "institution building." All of which is mostly just repeating the conventional wisdom and closing off, rather than opening up, space for novelty and innovation.

Fourth, one thing the speech gets right it does so by omission.  There is no dollar figure.  The message "lets do more" is always popular because it also means "business as usual" for what is already going on.  "Let's do better at what we are doing" is a tough internal sell, but one that is useful -- including, I believe, to people who are actually on the ground, doing the work.  Anyone who has actually worked inside the development industry knows how much better things, at least potentially, could be, but also how tough achieving that will be given the inertia of massive organizations.  So while tackling policy and "architecture" might seem arcane relative to the apparent obvious gain of spending more money.  More is better, but better is better too and more is even better after better is better.

As to whether the proposed changes can advance the correct development agenda of growth, expanded public capability, innovation with evaluation, and improved assistance...well, that's a topic for another day.