Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Fog of Development

I've spent a good part of the last few weeks thinking about development assistance, especially development assistance in (subnational) conflict zones. For three years, I've supported a World Bank project researching the impact of development initiatives on such conflicts in Asia. It's been an absolutely amazing experience, which I will blog more about this summer, when the results are published.

Perhaps the most amazing finding, to me, is just how little donors know about where their money goes in these places, much less about what the impact of their projects may be. I've decided to coin a term to describe this: The Fog of Development.

The Fog of Development has many driving factors, but the underlying one is epistemic: we just don't know what we know. And this has at least three dimensions:
  1. Development agencies don't, and apparently can't, follow the money. So we have don't have any sort of precise sense of what effect the "development" spending is having. (You can look from the ground up at individual projects to make project assessments, but it's near-impossible to track a particular dollar from the donor down to the village.)
  2. The developmental state, if it does collect development-related data, does so extremely badly, and  it collects conflict-related data even more haphazardly. Or, if it does collect these things well, it usually refuses to share them, or actively distorts them. In ways you as an analyst cannot determine.
  3. When foreign developmental agencies try to collect the impact data themselves, they usually fail, for two reasons. First, they often refuse to answer "sensitive" questions, for fear of being excluded (or for fear of their lives). Second, if they do ask the "sensitive" (i.e. crucial) questions, they are probably not going to get honest answers from respondents, who suffer from the same incentives and fears, but worse.
In sum, we don't know what we don't know. And yet the band plays on.