Friday, August 30, 2013

The unglorious truth about rapid economic development

About a month ago, I forwarded to several friends in the development biz this op-ed written by Zack Exley in reply to a controversial op-ed by scion Peter Buffett against charitable "conscience laundering," i.e. the $316 billion annual "business" of philanthropy.

I asked for their reactions.  I got none.

Now I think I know why.  Because it makes development professionals seem inconsequential. For that matter, it makes the World Bank, NGOs, and a lot of economic literature seem inconsequential.

Here's Exley's "secret" to how poor developing countries in the 20th century became rich and developed [emphasis mine]:

How did they pull billions out of poverty so quickly? Unfortunately, the answer is totally unfashionable and will never, ever be discussed at hipster social venture forums. They all had one thing in common: the people in charge -- whether they were social democrats, conservative nationalists, communists or military dictators -- carried out programs of rapid economic development designed to give most people access to means of making a living.

But how did that do that? They built factories, railroads, universities and everything else required to make the things and do the things that go into a decent living (or were valuable enough to trade for them). Communists and dictatorships used various forms of force -- often brutal. Democrats and republicans (small d and small r) used the market and public-private partnerships. By hook or by crook, wherever eliminating poverty was one of the top few national priorities, it was eliminated.

You know, I can't think of a single counter example.  I can't think of a single country that sincerely tried to invest in rapid economic expansion and failed to achieve it. The agent isn't important, it's the action. The action always works.    

In international development, we're always chipping away at the edges, dealing with obstinate or corrupt bureaucrats and elected officials who won't take our advice, donor agencies engaged in external turf battles and internal pissing matches, and apathetic communities who don't believe in us, or believe that their leaders will listen to us.  And yet to effect massive, dramatic economic development, donors don't matter.  It's the "locals" (to use the condescending development vernacular) that must be onboard, from the small towns up to the president or prime minister. And when that happens, so do economic miracles. 

Ideology and political economy seem irrelevant, I hate to say it.  

Go ahead, somebody prove me wrong!  

By Zack Exley
July 29, 2013 | Huffington Post

No comments: