Turning Development Upside Down
A book about reforming relief and development

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Chapter 201 The Problems - Overview

Not just one problem - a network of problems

Chapter 2 gives an overview of the problems that seem to be causing development failure. In some ways talking about the problems in relief and development is overwhelming. Everything seems to be a problem.

There are problems of too many people, not enough development resources, a dysfunctional development process, and not much useful information.

And one has to go further than just to see a problem that is merely a symptom, but to understand the root causes that are the underlying reasons for development failure. We have to identify systemic factors that go beyond the rather simplistic or journalistic NORTH version of the problems to one that reflects much more of the SOUTH's viewpoint.

A quick look through what has been written about development, or attending a conference on some aspect of relief and development will make it seem that development has a zillion problems. So it is not one problem, it is many. But because there seem to be a zillion problems, its is virtually impossible to figure which one of these problems is the most critical problem.

My education about relief and development has been long. I first saw the impact of failed development in the form of dead people in 1974 in Nigeria. Already the impact of oil wealth was distorting the social and economic framework of the country and super-wealth was growing while terrible poverty remained critical and getting worse. How can children starve when there is so much wealth?

Bad numbers
But I was exposed to some of the problem of development a decade earlier when as a young accountant with Coopers and Lybrand, I worked verifying the costing for a major infrastructure project being planned for World Bank financing. My analysis of the costing suggested that the World Bank numbers were off by a full 50%. My conclusion was that the project would cost twice as much as the World Bank was estimating, and that, of course put the whole economic justification for the project in jeopardy. The project was funded, and the infrastructure constructed and I understand at a cost not far off the estimate that I had made. But the question remains how the original estimate was so far wrong.

It is easy to point a finger at a single problem and use that to explain away the terrible performance of development. It can make a good news story, but it is not going to be very helpful if the aim is to improve relief and development performance. The level of corruption in developing countries is one issue that constrains development success, and while I regard this as an unacceptable situation, I do not believe this should have been such a big problem. Why is this corruption so big, and so prevalent? Why has this issue not been successfully addressed over a period of perhaps as much as 40 years?

Value Destruction
I had plenty of opportunities to assess performance in development. It took me a long time, however, to realize that almost everything that I was being asked to assess was a complete waste of time and money and effort. Too many of the interventions were value destruction rather than value creation. Almost none of the donor support was going into things that would improve the socio-economic situation and be sustainable. That is not to say that it would be better to ignore the problem of “under-development”, but it does raise the question of how this can be done a lot more effectively.

Institutional constraints
In my assessments, big constraints to success in relief and development originated in the systems and procedures of the World Bank, the UN and its specialized agencies and all of the other ORDA organizations that were providing funding. Over the years, as development performance got worse and worse, these institutions added more and more to the basic framework of constraints. It was a feedback loop gone mad.

Colonial overhang
A lot of people have the view that the SOUTH's economic circumstances are a result of “colonialism”. In the 1980s, there were lots and lots of times when I have tried to address the issue of development performance with World Bank and UN staff, and the response has been couched in terms that it was a problem carrying over from the “colonial” era. This was used as an excuse for everything. This happened in Nigeria. This happened in Madagascar, This happened in Ghana. This happened almost everywhere I worked. And it was not long before the dialog between beneficiary government and the donor organizations picked up on this and created a universally acceptable excuse for failing projects

Weaknesses in accounting
The weakness of accounting and management oversight in relief and development is a glaring problem to anyone with experience in the corporate world. It is difficult to understand how the World Bank and the other donor organizations allowed accounting to become one of the weak links in development. Maybe it was a “racist” thing. How can we (whites) in the NORTH possibly ask these ignorant (black) natives in the SOUTH to do good accounting? Or it might be because the World Bank and the donor community never had any good accountants on their staff and in their leadership. They never understood the value of good accounting, and just ignored it. The real reason may be the first or it may be the second. Or it could be a bit of both. But I am horrified that accounting is one of the failures in development, when it could so easily have been one of the great successes of development.

Wrong scale and Economic Distortion
There was a realization during the 1980s that scale was an issue. But it seemed that the scale had to be big, because the problems were so huge. When I started to write “privately” about performance of development early in the 1980s one of the issues that I wanted to see addressed was the question of scale. Around this time Schumaker wrote his classic “Small is Beautiful” making the case for “appropriate scale”. Big projects in a small economy create huge distortions and disruption far out of proportion to the benefits that could possible be achieved.

Government implementation
When was government ever the the most efficient way to do things. Good projects have gone wrong because the implementing structure did could neot do it. This is about government and how it is organized more than a question of South innefficiency.

Science and technology
Science and technology is a problem, because it is not a solution. The problem is that science and technology has made it possible for the North to advance in ways that leave the South even further behind. Knowledge is not being used to achieve stability and sustainability in relief and development.

Corporate Behavior
The whole issue of public responsibility for private (corporate) behavior is an area of great importance. And while there have been a growing number of suits brought in the United States to get damages from corporate organizations, it is a clumsy mechanism that does little to solve the problem when it needs to be solved. The big tobacco companies (Big tobacco) are being sued because of the cancer causing elements in their products, and are now after years and years of litigation are now starting to lose cases. And the asbestos manufacturers and industrial users are also starting to lose suits regarding the safety of their products and work practices going back decades. But this is not a solution, all it does is moves money from one group to another, but the problem remains.

The whole arena of weapons of mass destruction, whether nuclear, chemical or biological needs addressing. The science needed to do good and the science for catastrophic weapons of destruction is not very different.

The whole area of genetics. The issues are all over. There are issues in genetic modification of plants, and animals and humans. These are not only academic issues but are also tremendously important in development performance The whole area of sustainability in the long term. The idea that we will destroy things that have been around for a million years, but in our lifetimes, we will be destroying these things getting something for ourselves, but leaving nothing for the future. Why are we stopping some progress in science and technology so that some groups can continue to prosper, while other groups cannot participate.


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