Comprehensive Development, or Piecemeal

In Sunday’s New York Times, economist
William Easterly raises a question about which approaches to developing the
poorest nations hold most promise, a comprehensive effort or piecemeal. He
suggests that comprehensive efforts have failed because they cannot be
adequately monitored and measured. Piecemeal efforts, on the other hand, are
not only measurable, they benefit from their singleness of purpose making them
manageable. It’s a counter-intuitive way to think about how to end poverty and
improve life for the world’s most desperately poor.

For the past couple of decades it’s been standard thought that the most effective form of development for the most under-developed nations is to change the whole system that fosters poverty.

Poor Africans have
no market or
democratic mechanisms
to let planners
in New York
know which of
the 449 interventions
they need…
William Easterly

Integrated development has come to be the accepted philosophy and practice. This means program planners attempt to address everything from irrigation, to clean water, to food supplies, to marketing, to education and training, to gardening and planting, to political education. And a whole lot more. So much is needed and so few physical resources are present that the assumption is everything must be done at some stage in the process.

But William Easterly, writing in Sunday’s New York Times says this approach has had negligible results because it lacks feedback and accountability. Those who know best what is needed are often not in position to influence the planning and they get what planners think they need, which doesn’t bolster loyalty and commitment to hoped-for outcome. And they aren’t asked about end products, so evaluation is too often based on how successful planners were in getting inputs to the people.

In addition, when everyone is responsible, as in a comprehensive project involving many specialists, no one is responsible. Therefore, setbacks and failure can transferred to someone else’s responsibility.

As uncomfortable as this charge makes me, I’ve got to admit I’ve seen this in large-scale projects more often than not. The African countryside is littered with abandoned tractors that some development expert thought would bring great change to agriculture without first checking with people to see what they really wanted or needed.

Likewise, I’ve seen small projects succeed and propagate themselves when local participation and limited scope has made them manageable and responsive to the local community. Several projects of Church World Service in Senegal started twenty years ago on a small scale, for example, are today self-sustaining and function under local leadership.

I think Easterly makes a good point. Massive projects at the very least must be broken down into manageable parts and local participation should help determine the input and the style of the project if it is to succeed. NGOs such as United Methodist Committee on Relief and Church World Service employ these tactics from the outset and they generally are successful in small scale development.

My impression is that they aren’t as single-minded as Easterly seems to advocate. They demonstrate much more skill and savvy than he seems to acknowledge when he writes of single-purpose organizations. But one thing is clear. You get more bang for the buck going with these organizations than with the big guys who get caught up in their own processes and can’t adapt to the realities on the ground.

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