Beyond Sachs & Easterly

Development Policy19 Feb 2010Marieke Hounjet

As is probably a common trend with large conferences that address similarly large questions, both policy and research are problematised a lot. Hence it becomes almost an inappropriate environment for optimistic stories. Although such stories would be pleasant to hear every now and again, speakers have been strongly arguing why the stories need to be told as they are told. In one roundtable on the second conference day Bruce Jentleson (Duke University) commented on the theory vs policy debate that “the temptation is to go to Greece and write novels”. However, in the same breath he said that the questions posed in this conference are not asking ‘if’ but ‘how’, which seems to be the academic way of being optimistic that things can be done.

A panel on the second morning brought some attention back to the development debate, discussing approaches to foreign assistance ‘beyond Sachs & Easterly’. The overarching argument was that both Sachs’ macro planning and Easterly’s attention to local innovation misses the middle. There are internal dilemma’s to how aid institutions work here and now; namely, how donors engage in problematic bilateral relationships, and how aid sectors fit uncomfortably into the country’s bigger picture. This makes the question regarding whoever is right (Sachs or Easterly) irrelevant for as long as “these big structures of governance” remain unresolved.

Like the other talks that I attended on the first day, this roundtable also had plenty of field research references, as well as a representative from the World Bank, Kai Kaiser. This created an atmosphere where scholarly and policy perspectives were balanced. In my last blog I referred to a point that again was stressed on day two, namely that a better understanding of how aid institutions work, in this case the World Bank, can enlighten both theory and policy. A tension Kaiser described was that the World Bank’s commitment to anti-corruption ‘reform’, especially strong under Wolfowitz, contradicted in some ways the practical programming in which the World Bank needed to make do with what Merilee Grindle has named ‘good enough’ governance. As Kaiser explained, a way to approach programmes that have high corruption risks is to ‘ring-fence’ them, but in terms of country ownership and long term sustainable impact this is not considered effective.

Even though the internal issues can illustrate the constraints aid institutions have to work with Paul Smoke (New York University) insisted that the way in which even policy-makers from the same institution follow a ‘silo approach’ is a marginalised topic in the literature. This seems surprising as a similar line was argued in a roundtable on the first day; hence not only ‘peacebuilders’ shy away from intermingling with ‘development practitioners’ similarly do World Bank employees working on different projects.

Hence, when we are talking about ‘capacity’ Smoke says, and especially the frequent instances in which it is described how developing countries are lacking capacity, actually international development actors lack the capacity to address these issues of how they can work successfully both in cooperation with the country’s government and not least each other.

To conclude, where in the last blog it was argued that the burden in the theory vs policy debate lies with academics; here the burden is placed with aid agencies instead of developing country governments. However, if we take the advice of some of the speakers of this conference to heart, this indirectly means that also this burden lies in fact with academics, as they are supposed to produce theory that is relevant for the policy-makers of the above aid agencies. In other words, academics seem not to get away with only posing the ‘how’ question. It needs to be answered as well.