I. Development Does Not Photograph Well
The real work of development is not glamorous. It’s not exciting. It doesn’t photograph well. It doesn’t make for great cocktail party chatter.
The real work of development happens under a bucket of sweat in a small African farm, as a farmer sows a high yield hybrid seed variety, adds a micro-dose of fertilizer and contemplates the prospect of feeding her family comfortably every day for a whole year for the first time in her life.
It happens in the dusty hubbub of deafening bulldozers as they build a road that will bring a previously inaccessible community within easy reach of a market where they can sell their harvests and buy the necessities of life for the first time.
Development is not the sum of our fantasies about development, because:
“Making the Lives of the Poor Better” is not the same thing as “Fighting Poverty”
Particularly in the short term, these two goals are in tension. Plenty of development interventions make poverty easier to bear without making the poor less poor.
The old, tired, boring debate about whether “aid works” is going nowhere, in large part, because it fails to grasp this distinction. For Easterlistas, it’s obvious that aid doesn’t make the poor less poor. For Sachians, it’s obvious that aid makes the lives of the poor better. To me, it’s obvious both are right.
And yet, Easterly is more right. Because, improving the lives of the poor is a noble goal. For many, it is a religious imperative. But it is not development.
The only way you can fight poverty is by boosting poor people’s incomes. Incomes.
For the bottom billion, the road to higher, more stable incomes is anything but easy. Anything but glamorous. In the short term, it can involve working harder and consuming less.
The Chinese farmer who leaves his children behind in the village to be cared for by grandparents to seek higher income in the city is making a heart-wrenching choice, one that may help him escape poverty while making his day to day life harder, not easier.
Someone living on $1.25 a day who manages to boost his income by 7.5% every year is still making just $1.55 a day three years later. And that’s unspectacular stuff. Manage to sustain that rhythm, though, and after 20 years that person is making $5 a day. (They call compounding magic for a reason.)
From a rich country point of view, $5/day sounds like a miserable living. For someone on $1.25, though, reaching $5/day means a completely transformed life. It means a real chance of feeding everyone in the household enough nutritious food every single day. It means being able to afford school fees for everyone, all the time. It means giving the next generation a fighting chance to reach a kind of middle class lifestyle and security.
Steadily rising incomes for the poorest isn’t “an important aspect of” development. Rising income is development.
III. Sustainable, but not sustained
There is enormous confusion about the economic processes that bring about sustained improvements in income – a systematic confusion between development and the benefits of development.
Far too often, Development Interventions seek to skip the boring part and jump directly to providing the benefits of development. Rather than trudging through the hard, boring work of investing in the productive capacity of the poorest so they can make more money, they jump directly to providing the things the poorest would provide for themselves if only they had better incomes.
The gains such interventions achieve are real, but they rarely outlive the project’s budget. As aid workers leave, village life quickly returns to the way it was before. Improved cookstoves sit in the corners of huts, unused. Water wells run dry for lack of simple spare parts.
These failures have been encyclopedically documented, and seldom understood.
There’s a bitter irony at play here: Africa has become a sprawling graveyard for projects that were meticulously designed for sustainability, but could not be sustained.
But it’s not surprising: development projects that target the benefits of development end up providing goods/services that, by definition, people on bottom billion incomes can’t sustain.
How has the development agenda become so top-heavy with projects that are sustainable, but not sustained? The answer is Development Bloat.
IV. Development Bloat is the Imperialism of the 21st Century
Development bloat is the imposition of first world ideological priorities on third world development agendas, programs and dreams. Development bloat is the exporting of first world ideological neuroses onto a territory where they are alien, ungrounded and a hindrance.
Development Bloat is what happens when First World People look at their own lives, ask themselves what they like about them, and think, “isn’t it terrible that poor villagers in Africa don’t have this?” without stopping to ask themselves what relevance that thing might have to people in an African village.
Development bloat projects can produce fleeting improvements in poor people’s lives. But those improvements cannot be sustained because they don’t rest on the bed of economic dynamism that, alone, could sustain them.
Development bloat trades a phantasmagoric, notional version of sustainability for the real thing.
Development bloat is development for people unwilling or unable to make the imaginative leap to picturing today’s poor as tomorrow’s up-and-coming middle class.
Development bloat is a particularly insidious kind of 21st century imperialism: an imperialism built on self-delusion, drunk on self-righteousness, and blind to its own blindness.
If you want to fight poverty, fight development bloat.
V. Why Income?
Focusing on the income of the poorest is the key to fighting Development Bloat. Where income is the central focus and dominant metric of a development intervention, a buttress is established against the undercover imperialism of the bloat agenda.
Interventions that raise incomes are, at least potentially, profitable to deliver. You can imbed them in a business plan. With a little creativity, they can be delivered via Social Enterprise, or by enterprise tout court. Whether the organizations that deliver them are for-profit or not, the activities themselves generate a cash return.
And projects that generate a positive cash return tend to continue. Because profitable enterprises are not expensive to keep going, they’re expensive to stop.
Development bloat is exciting. Business is boring.
Committing to boring development implies understanding that many priorities that have long sought to be delivered through aid interventions may be better moved forward by enterpreneurs.