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How did the book go down in Obamerica?

November 25, 2008
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Just got back exhausted from an intense two week tour of the US organized by the hyper-efficient Kristen Prince at Oxfam America. Highlights included an afternoon on Capitol Hill in West Wing Wonderland discussing the book with Congressional staffers, big and enthusiastic turnouts at the Gates Foundation, Northeastern, Georgetown and Brandeis Universities and the World Bank (where we broke our sales record), a presentation to some Silicon Valley types at Stanford (I’ve never had valet parking outside one of my talks before…), and an enjoyable knockabout with Lant Pritchett at Harvard’s Kennedy School (Lant’s a climate change denier – he doesn’t deny it is happening, but thinks we shouldn’t spend any money on it. He was part of the misleadingly named ‘Copenhagen Consensus‘, which mercifully seems to have dropped off the map of late). So what emerged from this extended road test with about 1000 of the USA’s best and brightest?

The Q&As covered every topic under the sun, but four clusters of issues recurred.

First was around the central argument of the book that development emerges from the interaction between active citizens and effective states. The frame made sense to almost everyone, but raised some of the trickiest questions in development: how do you build or strengthen states in places like Afghanistan or the Congo? What is the role (if any) of NGOs in such efforts? Is there a sequence (as in South Korea) where effective states are built under autocracies, and active citizenship comes later? If so, could pressing for citizenship in low income countries actually imperil development?

Then a set of issues around NGOs themselves: our accountability (or lack of it); the extent to which we can engage in processes of social and political change without endangering our impartiality; the extent to which NGOs can become part of the problem by setting up parallel structures of provision that undermine the state, or by luring away qualified personnel from state jobs.

This leads naturally to a third set of issues, around aid and aid reform. Hopes are high in the new America (I’ll post separately about that), so people were keen to discuss how to improve the quality of aid, and its ability to strengthen, rather than undermine, citizens, states and their interaction.

Finally, the big issue of climate change and how (whether?) developed and developing countries alike can shift to a model of low carbon development was clearly preying on the minds of most people (OK, maybe not Lant Pritchett – but I suspect he was just being contrarian to liven up the debate).

There were other topics that cropped up slightly less often: migration; the link between shocks and change; and inequality and the pros and cons of redistribution. I think I made a tactical mistake on this last one – people are happy to talk about inequality in the US, but the very word redistribution seems so politically loaded as to close down debate (look at the row over Obama’s exchange with Joe the Plumber on ‘spreading the wealth’ during the campaign). I should probably have found a euphemism for the R word that allowed me to talk about the issue without violating the taboo. Hey ho, too late now.

These are pretty much the same set of questions that have recurred in the UK and elsewhere on the tour. I have partial responses to most of them, but at the very least, they seem like some of the most promising and urgent areas of enquiry as we try and deepen our understanding of development.


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