On Development

Reading this week:

  • The Undercover Economist Strikes Back by Tim Harford
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

I wanted to share a few thoughts on development work. The methods and effect of development work is a popular topic among Peace Corps Volunteers as would be expected. Books like Dead Aid are pretty common reads among PCVs, and I pay close attention when people like Tim Harford or Tyler Cowen talk about development. The topic of development is consistently in vogue due to the number of international agencies out there and the billions of people targeted by the work.

I think the current trend is to bash development work. There are projects like What Went Wrong? to document where projects failed (to be fair to them, their eye is towards doing it better). Having read Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux travels through Africa and takes a dim view of the effect of development work (again to be fair, he doesn’t bash their intentions, except for the proselytizing ones).

The biggest thing I’ve learned since being here is that it is hard to tell what’s going to stick. I’ve brought a counterpart to several workshops, including workshops on animal husbandry, mushroom growing, rice growing, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, and beekeeping. Of these, so far the only project we’ve implemented is orange-fleshed sweet potatoes.

I think it is inevitable that most development projects are going to fail. I don’t blame anything like the culture or people becoming dependent on handouts, I just think of development work like a business. It might not be universally true, but most of the projects I’m around here to implement are really about introducing new businesses. A fish pond provides other benefits, but the end goal of digging a fish pond is to sell the fish and make money. If I teach a farmer about beekeeping the end goal is to harvest and sell honey and beeswax and make money. If we get farmers to plant a new crop, the end goal there is to have diversified the outputs of the farm to allow the farmer to sell more products and make more money. In that perspective, a lot of development work is about helping people start a new business.

Unfortunately, even under the best of conditions, most businesses fail. Businesses fail here for the same reasons that they fail back in America. A lot of these projects have a pretty high start-up cost in terms of money, time, and labor. Digging a fish pond is hard, and even if digging a pond out of dirt is “free,” it still takes weeks or months. People are already busy doing things like hoeing and weeding their fields by hand, and the time it takes to dig a fish pond is time the farmer could have spent doing other things. After the pond is dug, it takes money to buy the fingerlings to stock the pond. People also must have all these resources available before they even begin as there aren’t really any sources of credit available to villagers around here. Back in America, people who want to start a business can take out a business loan to get the capital to start. But a farmer here who wants to stock a reasonably-sized fish pond has to have at least 150 Kwatcha when they’re struggling to put together 20 Kwatcha every four months to send their kid to school.

Even if a farmer overcomes the startup costs, they may find that the new business just isn’t cost effective. A farmer could decide to undertake improved animal husbandry as a business and start raising goats. The farmer could very well find that raising the goats takes time away from growing maize (so he can’t grow as much) and that the cost of vaccines, supplemental feed, and paying for any damages that the goats cause if they escape is more expensive than anticipated. He could find the market price he counted on doesn’t materialize and goats sell for less than he expected, driving down profits from his goat business. So the farmer sells off his goats and gives up on animal husbandry. That has an effect on the rest of the community. Where I live, people wait for someone else to try something new. If that other person is successful, then they’ll undertake the risk and start that same project. If that person fails, then they won’t bother with it. My village grows a lot of onions because one person tried it and found it profitable. It was hard to get anyone to dig a fish pond because years ago they tried it and it failed. Now that my host dad has dug a fish pond, people are waiting to see if he makes money before they try it themselves.

Although it is hard to predict what projects exactly will be successful, I do think there are some things you can do to improve your chances. A lot of these have been detailed elsewhere. Just handing a village something like a tractor with no training on repair and no way to pay for gas is going to be pretty useless. You have to make sure there is actually a market for whatever you’re proposing people make or grow, and a way to get it to that market. Projects should focus on people’s ability to maintain it using the resources they have available.

Along those lines, one lesson I have learned is on the definition of “low cost.” Sometimes I Google for ideas for things like improved solar dryers and come across projects that comment on their “low cost.” But when these projects say that, they usually mean that they are less than $25 or something like that, maybe even $2. But around here, $2 is a term’s worth of school fees, which I mentioned a lot of people have trouble scraping together. So if you come in with your “low cost” project of $2, you could be asking someone to choose between your project or sending their kid to school. So while I understand the need to spend money to make money, “low cost” can still be very pricey.

But with all that, I do think development work is very possible and very important, even if it could be done better. I think the timelines on a lot of these projects are really too short to tell if you’re going to be successful. I have two years here in Zambia, but the agricultural cycle takes about a full year. That means I really only have two shots to introduce a new agricultural system. And if I introduce something in that second cycle then I’ll probably be gone before I can really tell if it works. Agricultural projects can take years to pay off; techniques such as conservation farming require 3-4 years of labor invested before the farmer really starts to see savings in labor and fertilizer. On the health front, if I teach about malaria or HIV, then really the metric there is if they get malaria of HIV for the rest of their lives, not just in the two years I’m around to watch.

But development does have an effect on people’s lives. In Dark Star Safari, Paul Theroux meets people he knew and taught or taught with as a Peace Corps Volunteer and then afterwards as a university professor. These are people that have successful careers and have raised families. People have a lot of teachers in their lives, and each affects them, but who’s to say Mr. Theroux there didn’t have some meaningful impact in improving at least some of his student’s lives? Even if most businesses we help people start eventually fail, some will succeed and give people a shot at making more money than they otherwise would, with follow-on benefits like being able to send their kids to school or invest in more businesses. If they don’t start any businesses, then all of them will fail.

I’m very much in favor of development work as a whole. I think there are a whole lot of ways to do it wrong, and I’m not even sure the Peace Corps method is the best method if you’re main goal is improving lives most effectively and cost-effectively (America gets other benefits from the Peace Corps, don’t forget). But I think it is going to be easy to point out the ways the development fails because the nature of development work means most development projects will fail. But some will succeed and it is hard to tell on what timeframe they’ll make an impact.