19 October 2008

in search of "development"

So you've probably noticed that my blogging has been quite sporadic, and the reason is one that I predicted when I started: my life here makes lousy blogging material. An illustration: last night somebody asked me what I did all week, and I found myself totally at a loss for words. I think I said something about lots of reading and then changed the subject. From time to time there will be lots of scintillating travel blog material as I trot off elsewhere in the UK and Europe, and to Africa (more on that later...). In the meantime, I think the only way for me to keep up my blogging mojo is to share a little bit about what I'm reading, writing, and thinking about at Cambridge. I will try to keep it interesting, and if anyone out there feels inspired to respond or question, please fire away.

First, a little bit of background. My program is an M.Phil in Development Studies, and if you don't know what "Development Studies" means, you're in good company-- I encounter a lot of puzzlement from fellow Cambridge students, usually those in the sciences or humanities. The type of "Development" in question is not the development of children, nor is it much concerned with nonprofit fundraising. In this case, "Development" refers to the project of raising standards of living in the non-industrialized countries of Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

The development project really began in the churn of world events after the Great Depression and World War II. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were established to provide funds for reconstruction and to prevent another collapse in the worldwide financial system, respectively. (The extent to which both institutions have since drifted from their original missions is a fascinating topic in itself.) The success of the Marshall Plan, the U.S.-led and -financed effort to rebuild Europe after the war, made the idea that rich countries could help poor countries grow their economies seem attractive and realistic. In his 1949 inaugural address, President Harry Truman called for "a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas." As usual, there was a large dose of enlightened self-interest mixed in with the benevolence: aid would become a potent Cold War containment strategy as the U.S. wooed developing countries away from the Soviet sphere of influence.

Sixty years later, it's amazing how many of the fundamental issues surrounding development and international economics remain unresolved. Our current international financial crisis has loomed in the background, and sometimes taken center stage, in most of the lectures I have attended so far. John Maynard Keynes (the economist I mentioned in last week's tea-drinking episode, and one of the fathers of the above-mentioned World Bank and IMF) wrote a lot about the causes of the Great Depression, and substituting a few words you could make him sound like he was writing about what's going on right now. Karl Marx is enjoying a bit of a renaissance as well. I'm happy to be in grad school right now for job market reasons, but it also seems like I've come here at the perfect time to revisit all of these great political-economic-philosophical debates.

I should also mentioned another, more contemporary debate that has attracted my keen interest--to the extent that I suspect whatever conclusions I arrive at for myself will heavily influence what I do with my working life. In this corner we have Jeffrey Sachs: economist, UN advisor, friend of Bono, and the man that I once said was "who I want to be when I grow up." And in this corner we have Bill Easterly: economist, critic of Bono and Jeffrey Sachs, who was essentially chased out of the World Bank for his contrarian opinions. To boil them down to one sentence apiece: Sachs believes that we already know what needs to be done to achieve big development goals, and what we need is more money, more effort, and more willpower from the international community. Easterly believes that big development plans are doomed to fail, and that the people who really make development happen are not the "planners" but the "searchers" who experiment on the ground and find smaller-scale solutions that work. You can see why the Sachs view wins on emotional appeal and is more likely to be embraced by the development "industry," but in a lot of ways I find Easterly more persuasive. The planners vs. searchers dichotomy is a little bit artificial, of course, but I have a feeling that someday I will face career decisions that will present some variation of this question-- and I want to be ready to make the choice when that time comes.

1 comment:

Keith said...

Hey-- I'm just tuning into your blog. I'm much more sympathetic to Easterly's position on development-- the empirics are generally convincing, and it is much more in line with most economic theory; big aid projects can't be the plan for the long-run anyway. I've read the elusive

In any case, hope you're doing well. Have you read Easterly's new book? I've only read elusive quest for growth