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Natsios’s Second Law?

March 25, 2013

In my previous blog post, I asked if resilience as an analytical lens is too accurate to be useful. If this came across as glib, that was not my intention. I was making a point about how difficult it is to figure out how to help people improve their lives, however well-intentioned one is, and even when armed with sophisticated analytical tools. Development – or human progress, or “history looking forwards” as I like to think of it – is tough to understand, and far tougher to make happen or catalyse. It is imbued with competing ideologies. And with the competition between the heart and the intellect because, as David Hume explained, reason tends to be the slave to passion, not the other way around, despite the enlightenment of which he was a part. So what I feel to be right, often goes against what the data say.

The reality is that this strange, ever-growing international development community of which I am a part, certainly unprecedented in history, is a confused and confusing maze of sometimes coherent and often incoherent ideas and approaches. At a fundamental level there is still a tendency to confuse aid with development; to confuse ends with means; to focus too much on the technical at the expense of the political; and to focus too much on the political at the expense of the technical. Most people are engaging with intelligence and a good heart, but it’s all just so difficult.

One of the fundamental problems is that wherever one sits – in a developing or donor country parliament, in a developing country or donor country civil service, in an internationally, nationally or locally operating NGO, in an intergovernmental organisation, or even in business – the levers available remain few, short, and hard to shift.

Tools, techniques and data for use in problem analysis, on the other hand, have come on in leaps and bounds, helped by fertile minds, strokes of insight, the hard slog of data crunching and model development, improved education, and by the rapidly increasing power and accessibility of computers. In the past few years a slew of analytical approaches designed to sharpen development policy and practice have emerged. To mention only a a few, we have seen:

Household Livelihood Security/The Livelihoods approach. This takes the household as the intended locus of benefits, and takes account of knowledge, income, wealth, access, demand, relationships, power, identity and other factors in trying to understand the constraints to household security and how to eradicate or mitigate them.

Rights-based approaches. There are probably as many RBAs as people who use the phrase, but from a development perspective a rights-based approach to development tends to focus on understanding the relative roles and comportment of diverse rights-holders and duty-bearers in determining outcomes for poor people and communities. It recognises that most people are simultaneously rights-holders and duty-bearers, that the complex web of interactions between them is critical to rights fulfilment, and the role of representative politics in mediating between the desirable and the feasible.

Peacebuilding. Again, there are many versions of this but in essence most proponents of peacebuilding tend to focus in different degrees of emphasis on two mutually reinforcing elements: strengthening the capacity within society to manage conflicts non-violently; and preventing actual conflicts, i.e. reducing the likelihood of violence by trying to reduce the frequency and depth of divisions and differences between people.

Political settlements. Proponents of the political settlements approach use a political economy lens to analyse how elite power bargains can be influenced so they confer maximum economic and social benefits on non-elites.

Resilience. The resilience lens allows analysis of people’s (often communities’) ability to withstand and absorb changes in their circumstances, and where possible to leverage such changes to make developmental progress. In many respects resilience is the cousin of fragility, with which it is usually seen being as negatively correlated.

Chaos. And of course many people continue (quite healthily) to believe that overarching analytical theories are hubristic and pointless, since development is an organic process resulting from the interaction between so many factors that it is better not to try to get ahead of ourselves, but simply aim to help people improve their readiness and capacity to deal with their circumstances, e.g. through education and transfers, and leave the rest to them and history.

I could of course go one, but the point I am making is that civil society, governments, donors, and the rest do not lack for analytical frameworks and constructs through which to view and programme development policy and resources. Indeed, such tools and frameworks provide ever more sophisticated and powerful lenses. Meanwhile at the macro level, an erudite discourse on how to measure poverty and identify who and where the poor people are, becomes ever richer. The debate about Collier’s and Sumner’s rival Bottom Billions is one example; as is the recent announcement of a Palma ratio, an update on the century-old Gini coefficient, designed to improve policy makers’ ability to understand and measure progress on inequality. Meanwhile the New Deal proposed by the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding is based on a powerful and challenging framework for describing fragility and the risk of violent conflict. One of the fascinating things about the current international discussion about what will replace the defunct Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015 is how rich and diverse the contributions are, especially when compared to the dry, technical and esoteric discussions of the 1990s which produced the MDGs themselves.

The problem is, while these tools and analyses no doubt give us a more detailed understanding of poverty, insecurity and other obstacles to peace and prosperity, most of their potential users are sitting in institutions which lack the levers they need to act on the more precise and accurate knowledge and information to which they now have access. Knowing that resilience is significantly reduced by inadequate and unfair governance is a start, but who has access to the levers which can make governance fairer, any time soon? Knowing that elite bargains have an impact on the opportunities of non-elites is helpful, but only for those with genuine influence on how those bargains are made. Knowing that duty-bearers are failing rights-holders is a start but…. well, you get the picture. If you’ll forgive my mixing metaphors: we lack the right levers and so we revert to looking for problems which fit the implementation tools we do have. We revert to what we did before: the hammer seeks the nail.

Andrew Natsios wrote a couple of years ago that a fundamental problem for development programming in an era of increasing demands for accountability for results, is that the most easily measurable interventions are often the least transformational, while the most transformational are often the least measurable. I have quoted and referred to this simple insight with profound implications so many times, that I have come to think of it as Natsios’s Law.

I’m beginning to wonder if there isn’t another, related law: that our ability to understand and describe societal problems in sophisticated detail is in inverse proportion to our ability to address them.  If so, I can think of four implications for those making and implementing policy, programmes and projects:

1. Don’t promise too much.

2. Given how hard it is to chart progress in the big picture, it makes most sense to work at a smaller scale: with individuals, households, communities – and support their efforts to make a difference to the bigger picture they are part of.

3. Rather than defining problems and their solutions, and knowing that we will be getting it wrong, perhaps it is more realistic to focus on a vision of a better future, keep it in view, and aim to make progress towards it. The means to get there will no doubt be different from what we thought, but if we keep the end in sight, we can adjust and readjust as we go.

4. If the hammer is no longer the right tool, because banging in nails is no longer the right intervention, then perhaps it is time to come up with institutions and organisations more fit for the purpose at hand.

Chaos theory, anyone?

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