01 December 2010

Civil Society, Technology, and Development

Shanta Devarajan, the World Bank chief economist for Africa, has written a short summary on the post-WW2 history of development thinking/activity. He goes through the first attempt to correct market failures through government services and intervention ("the big push"), and then the second attempt to correct for government failures, which include rent seeking, lack of accountability, and the accumulation of massive debt, resulting in the much derided "structural adjustments" imposed by the IMF and others ("The Washington Consensus"). He advocates a progression to "Development 3.0", which emphasizes the role that civil society* and information technologies can play in empowering people to hold their government accountable. Accountable how? He outlines two areas where the government has been deficient:

  • When they don’t use market incentives, governments have difficulties in monitoring and enforcing performance by frontline service providers.  The result is absentee teachers, clinics without drugs, impassable roads.
  • A second, more pervasive imperfection is in the political system.  Even in democracies where the median voter is poor, politicians who advocate anti-poor policies (such as some of the government interventions above) continue to get elected.  One reason is that politicians are able to control the flow of information to the electorate, convincing them to vote for policies that are, in fact, not in their interest.  In the water tariff example, politicians run on a platform of maintaining free water—and get re-elected.
He goes on to ask: "Can we use technology and the voice of civil society to address these government failures?" And he gives a couple of specific suggestions.
Rather than imposing conditions, we can empower poor people to monitor service providers.  With some 80 percent of Africans having access to a cell phone, it is not difficult to have parents (or the students themselves) send an SMS message if the teacher is not in school, or there are no drugs in the clinic or the purported road maintenance program is not happening.
Rather than writing reports on the costs of distortions (and whispering them in the Finance Minister’s ear), we could disseminate these results—in digestible form—to poor people through their cell phones.  Get the information out about who benefits from infrastructure subsidies, which districts have the highest teacher absentee rate, etc.  This is information about poor people’s daily lives; they should be the first to receive it.  As better informed voters, they may then start voting for politicians who advocate in their interest.  Going further, why not prepare these reports in collaboration with poor people?  After all, the analysis is about them. 
I was heartened by this World Bank summery for a few reasons. One is it's recognition of civil society as essential to the development process. It gets us away from the paternalistic, almost neo-colonial approach advocated by the same organization in the past that saw the poor as passive recipients of rich-world development schemes. Another is the implicit recognition of the dual importance of science and religion, of which technology and civil society, respectively, are largely derived. Finally, it advocates a culture of learning in which development is measured by participation and engagement as well as material wealth. 

In the book chapter "Promoting a Discourse on Science, Religion, and Development", Dr. Farzam Arbab, current member of the Universal House of Justice, writes brilliantly on these themes. I encourage you to read the whole thing, you will see that Baha'i thinking on development is way ahead of its time, the "development community" is only beginning to catch up. In the following passage he echoes Devarajan's prescription of empowering the poor to be co-collaborators in the production of knowledge. 
The building of a world civilization — the content within which, I have argued here, the field of development needs to organize its operations — calls for a level of capacity far greater than anything humanity could have imagined during its long childhood. Reaching such a level will require an enormous expansion of knowledge. But if all that is accomplished is growth in magnitude, the practical results will be sad indeed. If the current arrangements that assign the ownership of modern science to small sectors of society are maintained, the consequence will be no more than the widening of the gap between the poor and the rich. Development, that is, cannot be viewed as the mere preparation of the majority of humankind to become efficient users of the products of science and technology. A fundamental concern of any program of social and economic development has to be the right of the masses of humanity not only to have access to information, but to participate fully in the generation and application of knowledge; the extent of each human being's participation should be determined only by the measure of his or her capacities.
*While there are many definitions of civil society, I found this one useful:
"the aggregate of non-governmental organizations and institutions that manifest interests and will of citizens; individuals and organizations in a society which are independent of the government"

Update: Check out Owen Barder's excellent response which originally led me to Devarajan's post. Barder is a development practitioner with a wealth of practical experience in development

Update (2): Geoffrey Cameron over at Jeune Street has also commented on this article, contrasting Devarajan's views with that of Bill Easterly's recent piece.

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