Learning and development: three essential books

Partners in Development: The Report of the Commission on International Development, Lester B. Pearson (Chairman), Praeger, 1969
Rural Development: Putting the Last First, Robert Chambers, Longman, 1983
Development Projects as Policy Experiments, Dennis A. Rondinelli, Routledge, 1993

Good books on development tend to stay in print a long time, not least because there is a timeless quality in good development. Two of my three favourites are still available new and unused. Robert Chambers' Rural Development: Putting the Last First is now in its 27th year and must be in its 50th printing. Dennis Rondinelli's Development Projects as Policy Experiments, dating from 1993, is also still in print, deservedly so. That's the good news. The bad news is that a new copy of the Rondinelli will cost you a great deal (potentially $220!). Chambers' book is available at a much more reasonable price.

My third choice, although not necessarily in that order, is Partners in Development: The Report of the Commission on International Development (commonly known as ‘the Pearson Report’). This one, now more than 40 years old, has long been out of print. The Internet, however, solves all problems, and if Amazon can't find you a used copy somewhere, Abebooks will. I recently found Partners in Development for 20¢, a Chambers for 82¢, and a Rondinelli for $14.69.

Partners in Development: The Report of the Commission on International Development

‘The Pearson Report’, published in 1969, which was originally written to investigate the effectiveness of the development assistance of the World Bank, is important for many reasons, most notably because it identified clearly almost all of the failings of the development enterprise four decades ago and proposed remedies that are still valid today. It spoke of the need for universal primary education, of vast needs in health and nutrition, and the importance of food production and research in agriculture. It identified the debt burden of developing countries as an issue needing urgent attention – at a time when that debt was only 5 per cent of what it subsequently became. It dealt at length with the need to develop the private sector in the developing world for local investment and manufacturing.

The Pearson Report was not all-seeing. It neglected the environment, and it had little to say about women. It reflected the hysteria of the day about population growth, although its ‘low’ prediction for world population in 2000 was right on target. Interestingly, it saw trade liberalisation as a major key to long-term development, and it may have been the first major development publication to use the term ‘structural adjustment’ – 15 years before it became the donor weapon of choice. The Pearson version of liberalisation and structural adjustment, however, was different:

The growth of world trade must be accompanied by liberalization. This in turn implies a willingness on the part of industrialized countries to make the structural adjustments which will enable them to absorb an increasing range of manufactures and semi-manufactures from developing countries.
(Pearson 1969: 72)

This is the polar opposite of what came to pass: a requirement that developing countries open their economies to the manufactures of the world, while swallowing medicine that weakened their abilities to invest in the education, health, infrastructure, and research required for competition in the global economy.

Partners in Development talked about a ‘crisis in aid’: the damage caused by tied aid, the wastefulness of technical assistance, aid skewed in favour of some countries while others were ignored, and low overall volumes of official development assistance (ODA). The report said that ‘international support for development is now flagging. In some of the rich countries its feasibility, even its very purpose is in question. The climate surrounding foreign aid is heavy with disillusion and distrust’ (Pearson 1969: 4) – a cry that rings down the decades as an excuse for rich countries to seek advantage, cut back, do less.

The report called for a new partnership, including the creation of new multilateral institutions that could bridge the gaps and minor faults of bilateral assistance, and it called for a ‘worldwide cooperative campaign’ that could lead to rapid growth and economic independence for developing countries. ‘It is a noble goal,’ the report said, ‘to which mankind is called in the last third of the twentieth century.’

To achieve the goal and the considerable ambitions of the report, its authors came up with a target: ‘Each developed country should increase its commitments of ODA to the level necessary for net disbursements to reach 0.70% of its GNP by 1975 or shortly thereafter, but in no case later than 1980’ (Pearson 1969: 152).

One wonders what the world might have looked like today had the recommendations been implemented – even by halves: had trade from developing countries been advanced rather than blocked; had investment in local capacities not been constricted; had debt fallen instead of skyrocketed; had aid been used more intelligently and reached anything like the targets that were set. The importance of the Pearson Report today lies not so much in what it got right or what it missed. It lies in its dramatic demonstration that very few of today's ideas about development are new. And it is a sobering and tragic reminder – if one is needed – of 40 years of lost opportunity, broken promises, and hypocrisy in the world of international development.

Development Projects as Policy Experiments

Dennis Rondinelli's title sums up his book in a phrase. He asks why so many development efforts fail, and he presents a brief history of once sacrosanct ideas, lying abandoned like so many tractors, rusting in forgotten fields: integrated rural development, basic human needs strategies, sectoral development, structural adjustment. The problem, he says, has been the boundless faith placed in planning and control, and in systems for project administration that were beyond the capacity of donors and recipients alike to implement efficiently: ‘The tendency to abstract, rationalize, standardize, control and complicate not only created the conditions for failure but inflicted hardships and frustration on the intended beneficiaries’ (Rondinelli 1993: 78).

Failure, of course, tends in some quarters to provoke even greater levels of control. Rondinelli was writing in 1993, but little, it seems, has changed. In a powerful 2010 article on the dangers of over-controlling development assistance, former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios writes about what he calls the two tensions in development programming: ‘accountability and control’ versus ‘good development practice’. He says that the balance ‘has now been skewed to such a degree in the U.S. aid system (and in the World Bank as well) that the imbalance threatens program integrity’.1 Natsios goes on to say that the control element ‘ignores a central principle of development theory – that those development programs that are most precisely and easily measured are the least transformational, and those programs that are most transformational are the least measurable.’

Rondinelli argues that ‘perfectionist planners’ are the bane of good development, and that ‘The inherent uncertainty about the outcome of all development projects suggests that alternative methods of planning and implementation must be employed’ (Rondinellli 1993: 158). He says that central control and coordination are the least effective instruments of influencing decisions and behaviour. Instead, he argues for adaptive management and a culture of learning that embraces error detection and correction as an alternative to the all-too prevalent suppression and punishment. Good management in any walk of life is about learning – not just about what works, but about what does not work. And it is about remembering and applying the lessons so that mistakes are not repeated, so that success can be the foundation for more success. It seems simple, but it can't be repeated enough in the world so accurately described by Andrew Natsios.

Rural Development: Putting the Last First

Robert Chambers takes the Rondinelli idea to the grass roots. Chambers speaks to the ‘outsiders’ who create development plans and projects, often without understanding what they are seeing, without hearing what they are told, and without getting off the tarmac and spending time with the people whose lives they aim to change. His description of the different levels of poverty, powerlessness, and vulnerability, and of the biases applied to the problem by outsiders, was and remains groundbreaking. Chambers gives us the nuts and bolts of learning about poverty, poor people, and change. And he cuts sharply into the ‘bafflegab’ that haunts so much thinking and writing about development.

[One] failure of analysis occurs in the ritual call for integration and coordination, and even maximum integration and maximum coordination. These words slip glibly off the polished tongues of practised non-thinkers. They can be strung together in alternate sentences to give a semblance of solidarity to a smokescreen of waffle.
(Chambers 1983:154)

For years after this book came out, I would take it with me on trips to Africa and Asia, and at night, sometimes in the guilty comfort of an air-conditioned hotel room, I would read a few pages to remind myself what I was supposed to be doing. I would often pause at page 47, where Chambers quotes from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland: ‘You don't know much,’ said the Duchess, ‘and that's a fact’.


Andrew Natsios (2010) ‘The Clash of the Counter-bureaucracy and Development’, Center for Global Development, www.cgdev.org/content/publications/detail/1424271, accessed 17 August 2010.