Last year I wrote a paper called Paradigms, Poverty and Adaptive Pluralism. In it I explored how technological advances and complexity sciences were together helping to reframe a longstanding divide between two opposing paradigms in international development.
Because of the relevance of this to current debates on complexity and aid, I welcome this opportunity to share these ideas here. I warmly invite feedback from the across the aid blogosphere, which (as I explain in my next post) I see as a new and vitally important feature of the international development ‘system’.
‘Paradigms’ is one of the most over and mis-used terms in the social or physical sciences. This is arguably because it is so potentially useful. For Thomas Kuhn, who did so much to bring the term to popular attention, a paradigm was a strong network of commitments – conceptual, theoretical, instrumental and methodological. Of course, he was writing about the physical sciences. In comparison, I define a paradigm as a coherent and mutually supporting pattern of:
- concepts and ontological assumptions;
- values and principles;
- methods, procedures and processes;
- roles and behaviours;
- relationships; and
- mindsets, orientations and predispositions.
I find the above useful because it explicitly includes social, values-based and personal dimensions of paradigms – all things which matter a great deal to social scientists.
In my 1997 book Whose Reality Counts I presented two alternative paradigms - as I then understood them – which contrasted things with people, as shown in the table below.
The ‘things–people’ distinction is useful for identifying and understanding relationships between many phenomena and for diagnosing problems. It points up the contrasts between disciplinary and professional orientations: the things paradigm is more associated with engineering and economics, the people paradigm more with anthropology and sociology. And the contrasts in the two columns indicate differences which are evident in much practice. At the same time, there are many cross-overs and cross-applications.
One key difference is that the things paradigm works in contexts (including human contexts) in which inputs and receiving environments are relatively uniform and controlled, and there is clear causality leading to desired outcomes.
Because of this narrow applicability, many of the errors and failures of development policy and practice have stemmed from the dominance of the things paradigm. This dominance goes back at least to the Marshall Plan, to the creation of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, to development projects in the 1950s and 1960s devoted to infrastructure such as harbours, railways, roads, communications, dams and irrigation projects, and to the idea that Third World countries had to catch up with capital investment in ‘infant industries’. These all gave primacy to things over people.
Engineers and economists were in charge. It was they who set norms and procedures. For the infrastructure projects of the time, these largely made sense. But the things paradigm was then embedded in the values, culture, hierarchies and staffing of the World Bank and of bilateral and other organisations.
Non-economist social scientists were few, of low status, and regarded at best as useful to call in to deal with any ‘people problem’ in implementation once the planning had been done. So top-down, standardised approaches and methods came to be imposed on diverse, uncontrollable and unpredictable people and conditions, often with bad results.
There followed a long and continuing struggle for a better balance that put people first, with their participation from the start and throughout in projects and programmes. There were calls for a new professionalism to shift the balance, effectively from things more towards people. There was progress. For many reasons the balance did indeed shift.
Some attempts to introduce top down routinized procedures were abandoned. Participation and empowerment became part of the rhetoric even if less often of the reality of development. Local people were much less regarded as a residual. People living in poverty, women, children, those who were vulnerable, marginalised and socially subordinate, were given more priority. Though there remained far to go, their knowledge, aspirations, capabilities and priorities were better recognised and brought more into development processes. Especially in the 1990s, the centre of gravity of the balance between things and people began to shift towards people.
But the 2000s brought reversals. ‘Things’-related procedures were increasingly imposed on processes and people. In much development practice, problems were aggravated by the way linear logic, assumptions of predictability, objectively verifiable indicators, impact assessments, logframes and results-based management were more and more required by donors and lenders. More and more the assumption took hold that ‘we know what to do’ and all development required was more money. Good practice and performance, so often dependent on intangible personal and inter-personal unmeasurables like commitment, honesty, energy and trust, were undermined and sapped by the spreading culture in much development of targets, indicators and measurement, and the implicit and even explicit orientation of ‘If it can’t be measured, it won’t happen’.
‘Rigorous’ impact assessment was increasingly demanded. The so-called gold standard for this became randomised control trials (RCTs). These can make sense for medical research where there are many highly standardised units (people and their bodies) and inputs (immunisations, medicines, treatments) but misfit the realities of the complexity of social and much other change, with their uncontrolled conditions, multiple treatments, multiple and indeterminate causation, and unpredictable emergence .
In such contexts, RCTs are liable to postpone and limit learning, and to be costly, slow and inconclusive. Another contested manifestation of this control orientation has been the logframe. Thought by many in the late 1990s to fit realities and programme and project needs so badly and to have so many defects that it would die a natural death, the logframe has to the contrary flourished and spread to become a methodological monoculture in donor requirements.
So in the name of rigour and accountability what fits and works better in the controllable, predictable, standardised and measurable conditions of the things and procedures paradigm has been increasingly applied to the uncontrollable, unpredictable, diverse and less measurable paradigm of people and processes.
The misfit is little perceived by those furthest from field realities and with most power. But then all power deceives. Aid recipients do not tell donors what they experience. They think about future funding. Because funds and power are involved, these tightening and constraining shifts pass largely unremarked and unchallenged.
And what can be called ‘things procedures’ like the logframe are convenient for understaffed donors: they transfer transaction costs and any blame to those whom they fund. Recipients of aid funds are like frogs in the proverbial slowly heating pot and they adapt; but more than the frogs, they increasingly feel the pain. They do less and do it less well. They would like to jump out but fear for their survival if they did.
In my next post, subtitled Expanding Paradigms, I examine the limitations of this simple binary opposition of things and people. Shifts in technology and advances in the complexity sciences are starting to transform these paradigms, helping bring nuance to and even transcend these longstanding divides.
In the meantime, I do welcome readers to share your thoughts and ideas on the above.
Robert Chambers 10/02/2011 Institute of Development Studies, Sussex