Just another quick link, this time to Tales from the Hood.  This post on American Culture 101 sums up very nicely a theme I have been seen over and over in my research and which I find quite disturbing – the heroic nature of the (usually white, American) volunteer or development worker, and the patronising and moralising tone of the discourse around the poor and ‘needy’.

We love identifying with the benefactor. We love being the giver.

Not everyone can recall the message of Acts 20:35 offhand. But I’m guessing even many non-Christian Americans are aware of the existence of a Bible verse which says that it’s “more blessed to give than to receive.”

And that gets at the other half of the problem: While we love giving, we’re terrible at receiving.

Our culture is grounded in the belief that we can do it. We can go it alone. We can figure it out… We’d rather be poor and know that what we have we earned ourselves, than accept a handout.

Being able to survive on one’s own strength is almost a moral quality. “She worked hard and took care of her children, despite terrible challenges” = “she is a good person.”

And although we almost never say so directly, needing help is almost, well, immoral.

Fair trade coffee serves up benefits for Guatemalan farmers

While I don’t have much time to blog lately, given then theme of this blog I couldn’t not put a link to this article. This is a research project I would love to have done in Honduras….

Odyssey | Fresh-Brewed Research.

I just watched the TED talk by Emily Duflo, a French economist who believes it is possible to know which development solutions work and which don’t – by using randomised experimental trials to test different approaches to development problems. I was fascinated with her idea, and can clearly see the how policy-makers and development practitioners could find it useful.  She is right, there is a lack of information on the outcomes of development, and the more information policy makers have the more likely they are to make good decisions.

But I also felt very uncomfortable with the idea.  And I don’t think it was just my natural aversion to numbers and to economists. After some reflection I realised I had three core issues with Duflo’s idea, and these concerns were strong enough to drive me out of my unintentional thesis-writing induced blogging hiatus to post this (particularly as a quick google search didn’t turn up any other bloggers discussing it).

My three concerns are these:

1. Generalisation and over-simplification. Although Duflo does briefly state at the end of her talk that one of the limitations of the idea is that what works in one place may not work in another, I think she underestimates how much of a limitation this is, or perhaps she overestimated just how much the results of an experiment in social policy can be generalised.  Her example of the education experiment is one example.  This experiment showed that one of the most effective ways of increasing the number of years children stay in school is through worm treatment.  This is very likely the case in many areas… where there is a worm problem.  Anyone with a health background might have been able to remind her that this will of course only continue to be effective if treatment is repeated over and over… or if the source of the worms is eradicated. Just giving a worm treatment is simplistic.  Unfortunately while most development problems are more complex and multi-faceted, experiments by nature are only able to test a limited number of variables and therefore lend themselves to simplistic solutions.

2. Developing world comunities as experiment subjects. While I know Duflo and her research group probably have great motivations and want to help find development solutions, I feel very uncomfortable with the idea of using experimental methods in this context.  There are significant ethical issues related to knowledge and power, including questions who is designing and running the experiment, who owns the data, how the participant communities are represented. There’s a paternalism inherent in the idea of doing experiments like this, where white western researchers define the problem and offer the  solutions. I admit I don’t know how much input she has had from participant communities and developing world researchers, but at this point the whole idea of doing experiments on developing world communities seems rather neo-colonial to me.

3. Ignorance of structural and institutional injustice. This relates to point 1 and over-simplification. Duflo thinks that underdevelopment can be addressed by addressing the smaller problems – getting kids immunised or into school for example.  This is similar to an idea I have heard from research participants in my own research – that development is the sum of many small changes, from the bottom up.  I was not convinced when I did my research, and I am not convinced now.  While there is, and will always be some value in making changes at a grassroots or community level, I don’t believe that these changes are enough.  Solutions like those offered by Duflo do not take into account structural and institutional conditions that perpetuate systems of poverty. Racism and sexism, class and caste systems, corruption, these all contribute to poverty and until these are addressed (and the way in which they are addressed will differ between communities) there will be no significant development.

While I can appreciate the value of Duflos work for those working on specific development problems in defined areas, these issues ring big alarm bells for me.  It seems to much of a western-expert-led quick-fix-solution to me and I wouldn’t like to see it replacing long term qualitative research and development experience, and even less, usurping the knowledge of developing world communities themselves.

As an antidote to the discourse on saving the developing world, perhaps Duflo might benefit from some conversation with Design for the First World, a competition for designers, artists, scientists, makers and thinkers in developing countries to provide solutions for First World problems.

I think the world need more of this kind of thinking.

Our fellows in the first world often come to visit and give us their well intentioned but often very problematic ‘solutions’. We thought, why don’t we pay back? Dx1W is a competition for designers, artists, scientists, makers and thinkers in developing countries to provide solutions for First World problems.

From my research blog:

Hi from New Zealand! We have been back in New Zealand for a month now, have settled in our new home and are now well immersed back into the university routine so it really is about time I posted here. Because I have been busy with travel, moving and settling in work on my thesis has slowed to a snail pace but there are a few things I should catch you up on.

After leaving Honduras in early February I participated in the Doctoral Colloquium at the CSCW (Computer Supported Cooperative Work) conference in Savannah, Georgia. It was a very interesting experience, which reinforced the relevance of my study. In the midst of a sea of brand new applications and web tools, the more than ten years of experience the network I am studying has was of great interest to many. While I went there to learn more about CSCW and computing, I found that I spent a lot of my time sharing what I have learned. As there seemed to be a lot of interest I am currently thinking about expanding my presentation into a journal article.

While there is much I could write (and will write) about the computing aspects of this study, this is a development studies thesis, and my interest is evolving well beyond the internet networking. The network founder uses the term ‘human capital’ to refer to people’s “time, energy, expertise, experience, talent, and contacts”. As I continue my analysis and start writing it is the people and organisations within the network and what they are saying and doing that is capturing more and more of my attention. I’m also interested in the philosophy of the network (constructive, positive and apolitical) and how people in the network interpret and work within that space, and how this all interrelates as a model for development.

So onwards I go. I am still trying to finish up some last minute interviews via the internet, and working on transcribing and coding those that I have completed. Within the next few weeks I hope to finally start putting some words on paper (or at least on the screen) and starting to write. I’ll let you know how it goes!