Sunday, October 14, 2012

Peter the pessimistic 'Expert'.

The presentation last week (see previous post) went well and the days have been busy since. The main goal for upcoming weeks is to get words on paper. That is, write my dissertation. But, of course, more than that happened last week: among others me being an 'expert' for a SIPA course. This was quite fun.

Students of Columbia's Master "MPA in Development Practices" have to do an assignment in which they have to "apply the concepts and tools from the readings, as well as the class discussions and practical exercises, in order to produce a coherent, well justified design for a country-specific development program." This they then have to present to a panel of four experts who give comments. In addition to three real experts (a professor from SIPA, a professor from the National War College, and the chair of the Millennium Promise), I sat in as well.

A total of four projects were presented, each by a group of 6 SIPA students. Each group received a problem and several (hypothetical) millions of dollar. And each group then had to design a development program (+- 40 pages each) to solve one of the following problems, in brief:
  1. Youth unemployment in Tunisia;
  2. Low levels of agricultural productivity in Haiti's northern corridor;
  3. Slow recovery of Sri Lanka's eastern province;
  4. Provincial malnutrion in Mozambique.
Needless to say I know little about Tunisia, Haiti and Sri Lanka, and only a bit more about Mozambique because of my dissertation's Africa focus, and found myself using what I learned from old development economics courses. Of course I also made some remarks regarding evaluations, cellphones and surveys, which is much closer to my current work. Of the four people in the panel I was probably most pessimistic, though. There were three major points that I emphasized:
  1. Incentives: All four presentation expected complete government buy-in and participation. I emphasized that they should not take this for granted. While outsiders might have the best of the project in mind, bureacrats or local government officials might not. The latter's incentives might be different: they might see a development project as a way to get a new car or some extra money to buy a television. They might also not been paid for months and very unwilling to take on extra work.
  2. Local capacity: All four projects involved new, additional management structures and the need for local capacity. The to-be-created management structures were to be embedded in ministries. Some others structures would be cross-ministry with bureaucrats from different departments sitting in. All projects, of course, were directly reporting to the prime-minister or president. This held even for the 'small' projects; say $10 million. Important is to keep in mind that each of these projects will join another several hundred (if not thousand) projects that already take place in the country: there are so many World Bank projects, each developed country has a large set of development agencies and NGOs, etc. All of these projects want to put management layers like this in place -- often burdening developing countries' governments that are underfunded and do not have enough staff in the first place.
  3. Tradition: Each of the four projects would spend a lot of time and money on trainings, workshops, etc. For example, to decrease corruption in Tunisia it was suggested to have a set of information meetings to discuss ways to increase transparency. Or to increase productivity in Haiti it was suggested to hold meetings with farmers and tell them about new farming techniques and seeds. I pushed back on this a lot for two reasons. First, these issues (corruption, gender, farming, etc.) do not change from one day to the next. Farming, to give one example, is based on centuries of tradition. They are often the result of structural issues and do not change due to a workshop. Using one type of seed might not depend on output but risk (i.e. decreasing variability in output). Second, who are we to come in and say "you do X, that's wrong, do Y". I have been working in Congo for the last 4-5 years and still do not know the place. We do not know a country after reading 2 or 3 books about it. I really think that we -- us young-dog but well-meaning Westerners -- have to be more humble.
Was I too pessimistic. Maybe. Maybe not. It is important to mention them I think, though. SIPA students go on to be the world's leaders and while these were hypothetical cases, several of these students will definitely be spending 10s if not 100s of millions of dollars for developing projects in the very near future.

No comments:

Post a Comment