Is the British development bubble a good thing? Reflections after another session at DFID.

January 24, 2014 10 By Duncan Green

To be an aid  and development wonk based in London is to inhabit a very unrepresentative bubble. Beyond these shores, Australia has UK_Government_logos_2012_-_UK_AIDfollowed Canada in downgrading aid by absorbing it back into the foreign ministry, and subordinating aid policy more explicitly to national self interest. In Europe, most governments are cutting their aid budgets as part of their austerity packages. Wherever I go, people ask me why the UK government is bucking the trend, ramping up aid as it cuts other (far more vote-catching) budget lines, and to be honest, I struggle for an answer. The development NGOs claim it’s all down to our wonderful lobbying and public awareness work, but a vibrant green NGO scene hasn’t had much success on environmental policy, so not sure that stands up.

Organizationally, in addition to a disproportionate number of big development NGOs, the UK has a cluster of top notch thinktanks (IDS, ODI, IIED), generating a rich intellectual exchange on ideas in development and aid. This is backed up by dozens of development studies courses at undergrad and post grad levels (really hope they can all find jobs one day) and globally renowned academics (Robert Chambers, Paul Collier, am I allowed to claim Ha Joon Chang for the UK?) The London-based Guardian is way out in front on its coverage of development, with two separate (and excellent) sites:  Poverty Matters and the Development Professionals Network. Everyone bumps into each other at seminars, parties etc – there is a constant intellectual buzz.

The strengths and weaknesses of this British development bubble came home to me last week, as I attended a DFID seminar on ‘beneficiary feedback and the rigour of evidence.’ 50 DFID staff and NGO evaluation wallahs, some great speakers, and a genuine, nuanced and well-informed exchange on the issues.

So what were the downsides? (Hey I work for an NGO, there’s always a downside.) For starters, the title – ‘beneficiary feedback’ made a lot of people cringe. As Robert Chambers argued, words matter, and that phrase establishes a clear frame of them/us, upper/lower. We do stuff to them, then ask them for feedback on whether it was helpful and congratulate ourselves on our inclusiveness. Imagine we used the phrase ‘mutual accountability’ instead, and really meant it.

Second, as panellist Jeremy Holland pointed out, the ‘who’ is often more important than the ‘what’ or the ‘how’. Who provides the feedback? Who do they feed back to –other local people, or experts/donors/academics? Who evaluates the data? Who decides what is good quality and what isn’t?

To which I would add, who is in the room at DFID? Because on a quick skim, I saw 50 white faces, not one black or Asian one (the gender balance was OK). If the British Bubble leads to that kind of skewed ‘voice’, that’s pretty worrying, not least because the of the post colonial baggage that goes with being ‘Great Britain’. Check out the handy map of the very very few countries that the UK has not invaded.

British invasions

Third, which side of the brain are we using? Robert argued strongly that the whole aid business is far too ‘left side’ (numbers, evidence, linear systems, the world as an independent external object of study through cleverly designed observation). Robert calls this the ‘things’ hemisphere, whereas the right hand side corresponds to ‘people’ – relationships, complexity, systems. What do we lose by adopting a left-sided view of the world?

Fourth, and this may have just been down to excessive politeness (another failing of the British Bubble), there seemed a general desire to move on from trench warfare over what constitutes evidence (Big Push Back Forward v RCTs – all criticisms of which are now dismissed as ‘straw men’), and discuss how to improve both qualitative and quantitative methods, and select the right combination of methods for any given area of enquiry. Interestingly, Robert argued that cost effectiveness is a much better/less loaded word for what we seek than ‘rigour’ (which is often equated with quantitative methods), provided ‘cost’ includes human and financial costs and benefits. We need to recognize that both quantitative and qualitative methods can either be rigorous or rubbish, depending on how they are implemented.

Stefan Dercon, DFID’s chief economist, made the useful suggestion that a more conventional left-hand-side rigour should be applied to the selection of people to talk to, so that you understand ‘how they fit into society’, what voices they represent and what the information they share can (and importantly, cannot) tell you. But that how you then talk to them should use a range of techniques, designed to fit any given context.

And one other rather intriguing suggestion (didn’t catch the name of the member of the audience from whom it came): the current way of exchanging knowledge is very vertical – gurus like the panellists speak, write, blog, and their wisdom supposedly percolates down to the grateful footsoldiers of the aid business and academia (maybe even beyond). Instead of panels, why not ask the panellists to do an online surgery, where people who are actually working on this in the field (maybe even some beneficiaries…) can ask for guidance and suggestions on how to improve their work. Has anyone tried this?