Breaking the good news


Perhaps it’s the promise of imminent summer holidays, but there seems to be an uncharacteristically positive vibe around in aidland at the moment.

In March, Charles Kenny told us boldly that “things are getting better, everywhere” (2011: x).  In May, Living Proof  launched a marvellously slick collection of multimedia resources on the progress being made against poverty, and this week, ODI brought their own feel-good study to the party… 

ODI’s report ‘Development Progress’ draws together lessons from 24 case studies from developing countries who have made progress on development over the last two decades.  They are progress stories – not ‘success stories’ – describing movement towards wellbeing rather than some optimal level of development having been reached.

Synthesising from the case studies, ODI identify four key drivers of development progress: “smart leadership; smart policies; smart institutions and smart friends”.  These drivers are elaborated to give a useful run-down of the many factors we know to be important in development, and the study appropriately frames aid as a modest but valuable part of the picture.  One question that sparked debate in our office was why the ODI team chose to describe these drivers as “smart”.  What does this mean?  Smart as opposed to stupid?  Given the framing of the study, surely “progressive” would seem like a more accurate word.  Or, to push the envelope a little – “just” leadership; “just” policies; “just” institutions etc?  (Although “just friends”?  Maybe not).

It must have been a tricky report to write.  No matter how careful your caveats, there’s always something a little uncomfortable about summing up the whole trajectory of (say) Uganda’s water sector, or El Salvador’s governance reform in four paragraphs.  And interestingly, this discomfort seems to become markedly greater when the story that is being told is a positive one.  Social science has long been plagued by a critical bias – where studies exposing failure and identifying problems are presumed to be more scholarly and independent than those identifying success and pointing to solutions.

Which is why it is so refreshing to see ODI taking on a study like this.  The assumption that ‘critical thinking’ has to be critical has arguably contributed to a major skew in development studies – where the balance of good news and bad news reflects incentives in academic culture, as much as the ‘truth’ of what’s happening in the world.

It may have been slightly out of ODI’s comfort zone, but as it redresses a longstanding imbalance in the evidence, ODI’s progress stories surely represents the best of its values as a research institute.

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