The world is messy and there is no silver bullet for development

That headline is my feeble summary of a superb 6,000 word article at the New Republic by Michael Hobbes: Stop Trying to Save the World – Big ideas are destroying international development.

In the last year he has read all the books on the shortfalls in development he can find.

The article covers a lot of ground. Here are the three biggest points for me:

There is no silver bullet that will fix all problems or work in all situations.


We need to modify our expectations that we can find a silver bullet.


Projects that work splendidly in one specific location in one set of circumstances won’t scale up by a factor of a thousand and might not do any good if you roll it out across the country.

I often talk of unintended consequences.

New phrase for today is “complex adaptive systems.”

Cultures, societies, economies, and even local towns are exquisitely complex systems that are the result of millions of decisions, each of which interacts with all the other decisions. If you change one major component or introduce a new participant, everything in the system will respond and all the variables will then react to each other. You can’t even guess what will happen with those variables. You probably don’t even know what most of the variables are.

The reactions in a complex adaptive system are likely why Jeffrey Sach’s Millennium Village Projects failed so spectacularly. From observations by Nina Munk in her book, The Idealist (one of multiple books mentioned in the article that I am aware of and really want to read):

Without electricity to run [the equipment] or specialists to maintain it, the advanced medical equipment gathered dust—in Kenya, that means literally. … The borehole [for water] broke down and water had to be shipped in by truck.

The core of the problem, as Munk describes it, was that Dertu became a sort of company town, with the Millennium Villages Project providing the only reliable source of employment, benefits, and public services. Thousands of new residents came from the nearby refugee camp and other parts of Kenya, seeking jobs or handouts. Where Dertu was once a stopover for nomads, the influx of donor money, the improved infrastructure, the free housing and education and health care, had given people a reason to stay. Sachs’s funding couldn’t keep up. And eventually, it ran out.

What did things look like a few years later?

They were now really living in a kind of squalor that I hadn’t seen on my first visit. Their huts were jammed together; they were patched with those horrible polyurethane bags that one sees all over Africa. … There were streams of slop that were going down between these tightly packed huts. And the latrines had overflowed or were clogged. And no one was able to agree on whose job it was to maintain them. And there were ditches piled high with garbage. And it was just—it made my heart just sink.

Looks to me like even with all that money and effort, there was more poverty when the project finished than when it started.

Unintended consequences are everywhere. Mr. Hobbes says:

This is the paradox: When you improve something, you change it in ways you couldn’t have expected. You can find examples of this in every corner of development practice. A project in Kenya that gave kids free uniforms, textbooks, and classroom materials increased enrollment by 50 percent, swamping the teachers and reducing the quality of education for everyone. Communities in India cut off their own water supply so they could be classified as “slums” and be eligible for slum-upgrading funding. I’ve worked in places where as soon as a company sets up a health clinic or an education program, the local government disappears—why should they spend money on primary schools when a rich company is ready to take on the responsibility?

The article points out that deworming medicine is wonderful for improving health. (The article has a photo of two bottles of albendazole – ah, yes, reminds me of the $10 valuation issue for $0.02 mebendazole.)

Yet impact studies show spreading a successful local deworming project to an entire country has minimal impact. A metasurvey of dozens of deworming studies showed that while there are individual health gains, there are no educational gains.

The article says the payoff from the $0.49 deworming treatment is a $30 increase in earnings. Not per year, but lifetime. The article says deworming is a good thing, but hardly the tool to end poverty.

How can that be? The article contains a hint:  The major issue in that one village was likely intestinal worms. When that obstacle was removed, the children thrived and learned. There is a long and unknown list of obstacles to improving education in an entire country. Removing just one obstacle (like worms) means there is still a long list of obstacles blocking progress.

Mr. Hobbes points out a huge amount of development has taken place. A billion or two people are living far better now than 30 years ago. More and more people are moving out of grinding, dirt-eating poverty.

He suggests that it is our expectations that are a problem, not development itself.

We expect some amazingly cool, super-duper project will end poverty in a few years.

We need to adjust expectations.

We ought to continue the deworming. We ought to keep all the tools available. We should learn the local situation and only then use those tools that make sense in the circumstances.

We need to stop looking for the next big thing that will solve it all.

I’ve summarized the article poorly and will try to circle back to discuss it in more detail. In the meantime, please check it out yourself.

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