“My name is Arturo. I’m an urban economist.”
“My name is Steve. I’m an agricultural economist.”
“My name is Ming. I’m an health economist.”
When I first started working at the World Bank, nearly everyone that seemed important was an economist. Never mind the fact that most I met did not have degrees in economics. Even those that did often failed to apply some of the more basic principles of economic thinking.
They were economists because that’s what discipline had currency. It’s what would make government ministers shake hands a little more firmly.
To the average person in international development, it seems that economics is monolithic. It carries a veneer of absolutism. It’s undeniable. It wields a sword, “Woe unto unbelievers!”
But what if economics is not any of these things?
Recently, Dani Rodrik wrote a blog Economists vs. Economics. He explains how critical economists are of the very discipline that the World Bank—and the international development field more generally— loves to love.
Rodrik writes that,
The point is not ‘to reach a consensus about which model is right,’ …but to figure out which model applies best in a given setting. And doing that will always remain a craft, not a science, especially when the choice has to be made in real time.”
What does it mean for all those “economists” at the World Bank if what they know—or don’t know— isn’t that monolithic? If the successful application of what they know actually depends on context?
Let’s be compassionate if only for a minute. Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the task team leaders, the project managers—the “experts”.
It’s scary for them. It might mean their whole worldview, which has propped up their legitimacy, comes crashing down.
Will ministers still shake their hands? Take their loans?
Will they have to work harder to understand their project contexts? To find the right model?
Will they have to travel more? Be based “in the field”? Be paid a local country salary instead of an international one?
It’s worth focusing more on what “understanding the project context” means. Lots of defined variables can factor into the mysterious thing we call “context”. Population, gross domestic product (GDP), climate, type of government systems and institutions, under-five infant mortality, access to clean water, local politics, and so on. The list could go on forever. We can theorize about which variables matter more —often based on simplified models of prior studies from other contexts—but given the complexity and diversity of the social world, it’s with great uncertainty that a model from one place will work in another.
So what are we to do?
In many cases, it makes sense to try to understand the world through the eyes of another. Perhaps the eyes of the very people we seek to assist. Could this help us at least define the problem a little more accurately?
Here’s an example:
A project leader seeks to minimize the waste found in municipal waterways in a developing country. She assumes it’s a waste collection problem because that’s what it is in many parts of the developing world. As a next step, to understand “context” better, she might get some data from the local government.
How often do the waste collectors come? How many trucks do they have? How many waste bins? How many roads? How many staff? How is collection and disposal financed?
Sure, this is some kind of way to understand context. They are questions that seem to make sense. They are questions that have numeric answers and therefore seem solid. They are important questions but they are not sufficient.
Only from talking to people does the project leader gain critical insight. By asking local women about the garbage collection, the project leader discovers the following: there is regular garbage collection.
But the problem is, after the early morning collection, the women go to the market and buy fish. They return home to gut and clean the fish. They throw the fish remains in a plastic bag and toss the whole bundle in the waterway.
Why? Because their homes are small and clean, the climate hot and humid. If they keep the fish guts indoors, it becomes very stinky. They don’t want to hold on to the fish guts or most other trash until the next morning’s collection.
How very rational.
This is what we mean by understanding context. It means being open to the stories of regular people. It means being open to being surprised and humbled—your understanding of the very problem, let alone solution, might not be right.
As the World Bank continues with implementation of its Citizen Engagement strategy, there is tremendous opportunity to engage with and learn from the stories of regular people.
We have to be careful it does not become a mere collection exercise.
These stories are not commodities to be extracted and packaged as a way for the next bureaucrat to check-off another process box. They are tools and resources.
They are lights in the dark to help us understand what we can otherwise not know.