Jonathan Glennie in the Guardian a couple of months ago:
The Independent Commission for Aid Impact (Icai) published its report on the effectiveness of the UK Department for International Development’s engagement with the World Bank last week… It is very much a document for our times, bereft of political analysis and adopting a technocratic approach to evaluation. It demonstrates the limited nature of development inquiry when discussions of “results” and “value for money” become the dominant currency of debate. While the rest of the world is discussing the transition to a post-neoliberal era and the role the major international institutions will play in it, Britain’s aid experts are bean-counting.
Not that bean-counting is unimportant. Questions relating to the effectiveness of the Bank’s lending and project portfolio are crucial, especially in an era of austerity. But to treat the World Bank as simply a bank or collection of projects to be assessed is to forget that it is also the home of orthodox development policy and economic theory…
So while the Bank’s own evaluators (generally reckoned to be well-equipped and relatively independent) say that 59% of country assistance strategies are completed satisfactorily, the really interesting question is how many of those helped the country rather than hindered it.
Hmm. Well, yes, OK. There is something deeply disturbing about the technocratic way in which the World Bank, in particular, talks about policy - during the height of the Washington Consensus it would talk cheerily about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ policies where others might use ‘free market’ and ‘non-free market’ or other, more descriptive terms. The Bank is based on the assumption that development is a technocratic, practical task, and it naturally struggles to deal with the idea of development as deeply political - and that mindset spreads to other development institutions, like DfID.
But. While Glennie is certainly correct that the development community is transitioning out of the ‘neoliberal era,’ that doesn’t mean a results-focused, evidence-focused approach is rendered inappropriate. After all, what are we to replace the neoliberal approach with? Hopefully not by another ideologically-driven set of shibboleths, just allowing a larger role for the State. A larger role for the State than the Consensus allowed is certainly called for, as is a greater focus on civil society, power and participation, and all the other current fads.
But surely the real transition should be away from these kind of ‘big ideas’ and ‘schools’ altogether, towards something much more - well, results-focused? The really interesting interventions in the debate at the moment seem to be from those - like Esther Duflo and Abhijit Bannerjee in their book Poor Economics - who use a rigourously results-based analysis that draws more from science and medicine than from ‘bean-counting’.
What Glennie means, I think, is that it’s not enough to assess how effective a policy is at achieving its goals - we must also assess whether the goals were the correct ones. That is common sense, but I think it’s also splitting hairs to an extent. If an AIDS intervention reduces infection rates, it’s a success; if one intervention achieves a greater level of reduction than another and costs less, it offers better value for money. Let’s not let our fear of a return to the bad old days get in the way of the badly needed dose of reality these methods offer.