Tag: aid effectiveness

Challenging conventional wisdom: in praise of Galileo and other iconoclasts

As neuroeconomist Greg Berns pointed out in his 2008 book, Iconoclasts, humans face many constraints on innovative thinking, including the urge to conform, the tendency to interpret sensory information in familiar ways, and of course, the fear of missing out on a promotion, or even losing a job. Over 20+ years working in health and development, I’ve come to realize just how powerful these constraints are. I’ve observed many development policy and health policy experts following the dictates of conventional or ‘organizational’ wisdom, even as they perceived, ever more clearly, its unsoundness. Reflecting carefully, I’d have to place myself among those who have often “gone along, to get along”. These reflections have increased my appreciation of iconoclasts, those too-rare individuals who question even the most cherished, or revered, beliefs. I am thus inspired to share a few tidbits about Galileo, perhaps the most famous iconoclast in human history.

A great scientist.     As most know, “Galileo made major discoveries about the motion of planets and stars, the motion of uniformly accelerated objects (i.e. that two objects would fall at the same rate regardless of their masses), sound frequency, and the basic principle of relativity, among other things—and major advancements in technology, including inventing or improving upon the telescope, microscope, thermometer, pendulum, and the compass. His work was central to most future developments in science, including those of Newton and Einstein, and most of what he discovered was in contradiction with conventional wisdom.” Summary by Tim Urban at waitbutwhy.com.

..and iconoclast.     What is most praise-worthy, in my view, is that Galileo did all this despite the threats and repression of the Catholic Church. Ultimately, Urban notes, in 1633, “the Church found him ‘vehemently suspect of heresy,’ and placed him under house arrest for the rest of his life.”

…and clever(?) public communicator.     Striving to get his not-acceptable-to-the-Church views understood more widely, Galileo wrote a book – Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. It presents a series of discussions, among two philosophers and a layman, and is written in vernacular language. Salviati argues for, and explains, Galileo’s views; Sagredo is an intelligent layman who is initially neutral; and, Simplicio, presents the conventional wisdom about the structure of the universe. The 6:10 – 8:10 section of this episode of the Great Books TV series, gives a description of the book and a dramatic presentation of one of the exchanges. Despite the technical complexity of the topics, you can see, the dialogue is witty and engaging. Much of what Simplicio says were well known to be the views of the Pope (Urban VIII), indirectly insulting the Pope and contributing to Galileo’s later conviction and sentencing to house arrest. Nevertheless, the book, and all the trial-related publicity it received, doubtless helped draw attention to the problems with the conventional wisdom and persuade many to rethink their long held beliefs about how the universe is structured.

Dialogue Concerning Development Thinking? A few development policy and health/ development experts are working to challenge unsound, but deeply held, and operationally-entrenched, beliefs. Bill Easterly, Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock, and Matt Andrews come to mind. Reading bits of Galileo’s Dialogue, I couldn’t help but wonder whether something similar might be useful for challenging those beliefs.

The perils of hubris: review of “The Idealist” by Nina Munk

A masterful character study and window into the human experiences of the development enterprise.

In “The Idealist”, author Nina Munk, has done a masterful character study of Jeffrey Sachs; her narrative captures his brilliance and passion, as well as his hubris and hyper-sensitivity to criticism. Her book also portrays, at a human level, some of the persistent challenges and characteristic failings of the development enterprise.

Anyone with even a passing interest in the efforts outsiders make to “develop” poor countries and poor people will want to read this book. It should be required reading for development students and professionals.

The early section conveys Sachs’ impressive intellectual gifts and achievements (tenured Harvard professor at 28). Most of Munk’s narrative, however, focuses on his efforts to help developing countries. He starts out providing advice to Bolivia and Poland – on macroeconomics and stabilization – topics close to his research, and, on which he is an acknowledged expert. These early contributions are viewed positively. He provides similar support to Russia’s more problematic reforms in the 90s. Discussing Russia’s disappointing results, Sachs blames Robert Rubin, Dick Cheney and Larry Summers (p 22). This is the first manifestation of his delusions about the primacy of influence outsiders have on how a country or society evolves; it is far from the last.

Despite the Russian disappointments, Sachs had acquired a taste for engaging in real world events, and especially helping to fix other countries. In the early 2000s, he broadens his activities well beyond his professional expertise, and sets his sights on ending poverty in the developing world.

Sachs determines the world’s poor are stuck in a “poverty trap” and an intense package of coordinated support (a “big push”) is what is needed to get them out. He contrasts this with traditional development assistance which he perceives to be too piecemeal and fragmented. Eventually, this led him to launch the Millenium Village initiative. Sachs passion and advocacy skills allowed him to mobilize millions of dollars to demonstrate the transformative power of this new, and improved, development strategy. In researching her book , Nina Munk spent considerable time over 6 years in two “Millenium Villages” supported by the Sachs-led project. The effort pays off; this part of the book really shines. Munk tells the story of implementing Sachs’ vision in a Kenyan village (Dertu) and a Ugandan one (Ruhiira). She captures essential elements of the complex relationship between “the helpers” and those whom they wish to help. Her portrayal of individual aid recipients and implementers is compelling and compassionate. She conveys much of what is involved, on the ground, up close and personal, with implementing aid. And, she captures something of what it feels like to be a recipient of development assistance. In doing so, she captures, at a human level, some of the persistent challenges and characteristic failings of the development enterprise.

Munk shows how important a compelling vision is to mobilizing attention and funding. And she shows the mechanics of how this vision can break down when it meets reality and real people. She shows just how it is that “top down” approaches to helping far-away people fail.

MOOCs and the unmotivated

When we discuss MOOCs’ potential for scaling up public officials’ learning opportunities in developing countries, many concerns naturally arise. Will they have access to a good internet connection? Will they have a computer or tablet? These are important questions, and I look forward to learning the answers. I’m encouraged that so many people from developing countries are participating in MOOCs; enterprising faculty are even using MOOC resources within schools and universities as a means to strengthen course quality.

Folks with many years of experience teaching in face-to-face and small, facilitated online courses worry that unmotivated officials will fare poorly in MOOCs, since they have less support and structure. I share their concern to a degree. MOOCs certainly demand a higher degree of learner-directedness (and a degree of familiarity with the technology and tools). But, motivation? Do MOOCs require more motivation to learn? Will an unmotivated participant learn much in a face-to-face short course or a small, facilitated online course? I am skeptical.

Keith Devlin, a Stanford math professor, currently offering his second MOOC recently noted that a number of the students in his MOOC are frustrated that his course isn’t teaching them:

many forum posters  seem to view education as something done to them, by other people who are in control. This is completely wrong, and is the opposite of what you will find in a good university.  ”To learn” is an active verb. The focus should be creating an environment where the student can learn, wants to learn, and can obtain the support required to do so. There is no other way, and anyone who claims to do anything more than help you to learn is trying to extract money from you.

Professor Devlin’s suggests the best any course can do is to create an opportunity to learn. And, at least for mathematical concepts, no course can succeed in educating the passive, unmotivated student. I suspect this holds true for policymakers and public officials in developing countries.



What I Talk about When I Talk about Capacity Building

What people mean when they say “capacity building” varies greatly – and in important ways. So, and with apologies to Haruki Murakami, I want to clarify What I Talk about When I Talk about Capacity Building. I think of capacity building as [defn] the planned development of knowledge and skills and other capabilities through provision of targeted learning opportunities to individuals.

I have in mind a range of activities that provide structured learning opportunities for individuals and groups. Among other things, this includes training courses and series of structured topical exchanges among would-be learners with access to valuable knowledge resources.

My own work focuses on helping developing country public officials in building the skills they need; hence, when I talk about capacity building I am thinking specifically about the kinds of activities that will work for learners in this context.

Many people link capacity building implicitly to a reform process (e.g. implementing a new funding system for hospitals). Hence, when they assess whether capacity building is “working” these people would look at what is going on with the reform process. If reform implementation is stalled, they might suspect that capacity building activities were poor or implemented in a way that constrained reform progress. To assess the ultimate effectiveness of capacity building activities, they would scrutinize reform results.

That is not my definition. I recognize that provision of good quality and timely learning opportunities to individuals involved with reforms can be very helpful. However, I am uncomfortable linking capacity building to reforms. There are many opportunities to contribute to valuable development and social goals by providing learning opportunities to public officials in instances where no reform is envisaged. Even where a reform is taking place, the chain of influences that links learning support provided to reform results is typically long and complex; frequently, the complexity of this relationship makes it impossible to meaningfully assess capacity building activities’ effectiveness by scrutinizing  their contribution to reform results.

Hence, I use the phrase capacity building activities to refer to learning and skill-building support for people irrespective of whether there is a reform happening (or hoped-for). I see capacity building activities as any learning opportunity that supports public officials in building the skills or accessing the knowledge they need to do their jobs better. Using this framing, capacity building activities’ effectiveness would be assessed by examining the degree to which they helped public officials to do their jobs better.