Authoritarian development relies on technocratic solutions, tries to implement pre-fabricated ideas and plans in whatever local situation and – this is its core misunderstanding – beliefs that development is the result of deliberate design by experts or politicians. Mainstream development aid is based on the concept of authoritarian development.
Examples? In recent years much aid money has been spent for programs trying to improve the water supply for poor people in remote areas in African countries. From a technocratic point of view quite simple interventions – drill some boreholes, install an appropriate technical equipment, set up administration and maintenance structures. Full stop. But a variety of different instances has impeded a sustainable functioning of many of those projects. Maintenance wasn’t done properly, spare parts were difficult to access, administrative measures failed, neighboring families got into quarrels, and so forth.
What has been the general response of the aid community to such failures?
The agenda of “aid effectiveness”!
A topic that by now has been discussed in lengths for several years. The more “aid effectiveness” has become an issue the more extensive targets on output, outcome and impact have been defined. Additionally, a whole new business branch for controlling and evaluation (together with a substantial bureaucratic apparatus on the contractors’ side) has been set in place to “secure” results and therewith an effective application of aid money.
With several years of controlling and evaluating have we got a substantial improvement of the quality in our aid programs? I doubt. Not for the reason of more examination and evaluation. Because we start with the wrong assumption that a certain “impact” can be defined beforehand and that this impact is the result of certain interventions or, the other way round, that certain interventions generate a specific impact. Unfortunately, believing in this assumption is like hunting the moon.
System Sciences and Complexity Theories explain why. Expressed in their terms, development is an “emergent property” of a “social system” in a complex environment. A social system consists of “adaptive actors” always trying to “self-organize” their own situation. The future status of such a system is always the result of all the interactions between all the elements and can never be predicted. Systems change in non-linear ways, sometimes over-reacting, sometimes with explosive surprises, tipping points and the like.
Development interventions – e.g. creating new wells – interact with existing elements – e.g. local power relations, role of gender, educational systems. Together they form an unique “adaptive social system” whose development can’t be predicted. It can’t be predicted because it not only depends on current information whose future relevance is impossible to know, but also on information only available in the future.
So, will the authoritarian development consensus be abandoned?
Interestingly, I see two contradicting developments:
Firstly, Western states have abandoned this authoritarian approach regarding their own development already long time ago. They resumed to modern forms of adaptive arrangements, like periodic elections, plebiscites, polls or of course any form customer orientation in the public or private sector. Receiving constant feedback is key. And the central planning systems of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc have eventually been overthrown some 25 years ago. Thus, for already quite some time we have a double standard in our (Western) development thinking, free and open development in the West and authoritarian development in the emerging world.
Secondly, the double standard has been strengthened by the Paris-Accra-Buzan development process, the official communication and negotiation setting between donor and partner countries. Starting with the Paris Declaration in 2005 all agreements rely on the idea that a “partner country” develops along a clear and linear plan and that alignment and harmonization of plans can bring about planned results. (Look at my blogpost regarding the situation in Mozambique).
So, although most of the assumptions of the authoritarian development consensus have been proved wrong in the West, the Western donor community continues with this consensus in the South.
Further thoughts on the history, the moral questions and other interesting arguments of Williams Easterly follow.