Getting better all the time
Many of you will be familiar with his book which has been reviewed extensively elsewhere – but I just wanted to share a few salient points from his presentation and the discussion which followed.
His main thesis is that people’s quality of life in the developing world has been steadily improving over time, and that tremendous progress has been made which is often overlooked in the dominant media narrative around disasters and the increasing voices of the aid skeptics.
He points particularly to the fact that if you take a longer term perspective there has been steady progress in indicators such as life expectancy, child mortality rates, literacy, water and sanitation access and so on. This progress is more striking and more evenly spread than progress in incomes. Even those in the most disadvantaged parts of the world have a better life expectancy and better health than those in the richest had 150 years ago. Indeed significant progress has been seen even in those countries whose economies have stagnated or declined. He also argues that while income inequality has grown massively both within and between counties that outcomes in areas such as health and education have actually converged – very relevant and very encouraging for UNICEF’s renewed focus on equity.
He was careful to stress that there are still many problems and a lot of work remains to be done, but that progress is real and the future positive i.e. the development glass is half-full rather than half empty (appropriately since his regular column in Foreign Policy is titled “The Optimist“).
He also made the case that aid has had an important role in catalyzing this change. He argued that aid is often judged against its role in promoting economic growth, but while its far from clear that aid leads to growth, this is the wrong measure by which to judge aid and that its impact on other aspects of quality of life is a better benchmark – and here the role of aid is much clearer.
He explained that a large part of this progress is due to the creation and dissemination of new technologies – here meaning technologies in the broadest sense including both physical technology but also process and cultural innovations. In response to a question from the audience he distinguished between two types of technology – “innovative technology” – things like cellphones, vaccines and “process technology” such as legal systems and institutions. He explained that innovative technology is much easier to transfer from place to place than process technology which is highly contextual and evolves over time e.g. a public finance system that works in one country can’t just be picked up and transferred to another country and work effectively. It might also be more effective to look to other developing countries for process technologies that can be adapted rather than trying to import developed world approaches that might not easily fit in an environment with more limited resources as well as different traditions (and maybe trying to impose developed world models has been one of the failings of big aid especially in the areas of institution and capacity building).
He also suggested that innovative technologies can sometimes substitute for more complex processes giving the example of how creating a modern water and sanitation system can be very complex and expensive, but use of simple water testing/purifying devices and use of soap can massively reduce the mortality and morbidity from waterborne disease at a fraction of the cost (While I take this point in terms of making aid affordable and practical – I’d still see this as a step along the way rather than a long term replacement for having good locally adapted infrastructure).
So in a sense he was saying that “knowledge” is the killer application for development. But one of the challenges is the dissemination of that knowledge and also creating a demand for new knowledge or technologies. Building this demand can be quite challenging (I’ve written about the difficulties of building demand for knowledge in an organizational context before), and especially so if the technologies go against local culture and traditions and the value of adoption isn’t immediately apparent.
This last topic fascinates me since a lot of aid work around capacity building and communication for development is effectively about trying to transfer and adapt “process technologies” but these are the hardest type to explain and to transfer. There’s often a lot of buzz around innovative technologies (mobile phones, cookstoves, vaccines, solar panels), and these seem more susceptible to quantitative measurement through tools such as clinical trails, RCTs, cost benefit analyses. They might well be a focus because they offer comparatively quicker results. Process technologies are harder to take root since they not only involve identified good practice principles but also adaptation to local culture and politics – as well as behavioural change. In reality of course the two are not divorced since you also need processes to deliver innovative technologies. Yes, you can run externally funded immunization campaigns -but for them to be sustainable in the longer long term they need to be locally financed and managed through an effective local health system. So perhaps we are leaving some of the bigger challenges for later – which is fine as long as we don’t put them off altogether!
One ray of hope for the marketing of new technologies is that once people have accepted them, then they are unlikely to be willing to go back. Creating higher expectations can be a very powerful way of encouraging and sustaining change. Once you have a cellphone it becomes hard to manage without it. Once you are used to your teachers turning up regularly to class and know you can complain if they don’t then it’s hard to turn back. Ironically this might be part of why we don’t recognize the great progress that has been made – because we already expect it and demand it – so perhaps the best approach is to be both grateful and optimistic, but also critical and demanding at the same time.
Here is the Ustream recording if you want to see the whole talk for yourself: http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/15268574
Bonus: Liesbet Steer from ODI also attended the session and shared a project she has been working on called “Development Progress” which brings together practical examples of progress stories from developing countries which are backed up by evidence – and includes quite a few examples of process innovations. This is a nice complement to Kenny’s book in highlighting what can be done.