Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Technocrats and development

A little bit lost in The New Republic's election coverage is some new grumpiness from David Rieff: "The Gates Foundation's Delusional Techno-Messianism." Rieff's basic complaint appears to be that many aid organizations either see or portray development as a technocratic challenge: find the right tool, and poverty and underdevelopment will be history.

Certainly development was often seen as a technocratic challenge during the early decades of development assistance. Indeed, much early development assistance came in the form of so-called technical assistance: sending experts from rich countries to show the poor countries how it is done. This, not surprisingly, turned out to be futile or even counterproductive.

I don't know of many (if any) development agencies that take a similar approach today. Certainly Rieff offers no evidence that the Gates Foundation does. My impression is that the Gates foundation focuses on empirically assessing, on a small scale, which strategies work and which do not, and then trying to scale up those that work. This is technocratic, yes, but it does not pretend that such limited, context-specific strategies will 'solve' the problem of development.

Gates strikes me as the epitome of someone who is both optimistic and clear-eyed, which are the very qualities Rieff claims to admire (see my Oct. 23 post). In fact, Rieff's only piece of evidence about Gates in the piece actually has nothing to do with what the Gates Foundation does or promises to do, but rather with how Gates, in 2009 (why publish a complaint about it now?), described the Green Revolution.

Gates noted that it “averted famine, saved hundreds of millions of lives, and fueled widespread economic development.” As Rieff correctly counters, many of the techniques promoted by the Green Revolution turned out to be unsustainable and to do long-term ecological and economic damage. But hindsight is 20/20. More importantly, if we are to avoid such problems and yet not become utter luddites, the best approach seems to be exactly what the Gates Foundation is doing: experiment on a limited scale with a particular initiative before putting it in wider circulation.

Moreover, Rieff is unfair to Gates in that the latter, in the same speech from which Rieff draws the above quotation, also "warned that as scientists, governments, and others strive to repeat the successes of the original Green Revolution, they should be careful not to repeat its mistakes, such as the overuse of fertilizer and irrigation." So Rieff, in criticizing Gates' statement, is essentially just parroting what Gates himself said immediately after.

The other aspect of Rieff's central complaint is that many aid organizations portray development as a simple, solvable problem in search of the right instrument (or money), as this helps them raise much-needed funds from people who might otherwise be less generous. Here Rieff is correct, but surely there is no worse agency to pick on than the Gates Foundation, which does not need to advertise what it is doing to raise money — indeed, that is one of its great strengths.

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