Rethinking development in an age of uncertainty

Both the World Bank and the OECD have begun to question the central tenets on which their thinking and advocacy is based. This is a welcome step and will hopefully lead to more nuanced and collaborative development policy

Multilateral watchers may have been surprised – and possibly delighted – to see two hugely influential organisations break very publicly from the party line in December. The implications for policy and practice could be profound. What links them together is the concept of uncertainty.

First, the World Bank. This year’s World Development Report is all about ‘mind, society and behaviour’, arguing that a better and more nuanced understanding of human behaviour might actually improve the way development interventions are designed and delivered. Moreover, these interventions should be the result of ‘complex and iterative processes’ that recognise the complexity of social change in dynamic environments.  Absolutely. Anyone who has read Ben Ramalingam’s excellent critique of the ‘Fordist’ tendency in development policy (replicated in many systems of public service delivery) will applaud these sentiments.

The World Bank rather boldly suggests that ‘development policy is due for its own redesign based on careful consideration of human factors’. Which sounds like (and is) a way of working that should be standard practice, but is none the less welcome for it. The report is built around a body of emerging research from the behavioural sciences, citing now-household names like ‘Nudge’ authors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, ‘thinking fast and slow’ author Daniel Kahneman, and creative economists like Robert Shiller. It is influenced by the methodological approach of Ahmit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo from MIT in Boston, and arrives on the heels of some innovative UK thinking on new models of development from David Booth, Tim Kelsall and others at the Overseas Development Institute and the Institute for Development Studies.

The report is worth a read. I am not finished yet, but in my defence it is 215 pages long. So far, I think the most remarkable thing is a new openness to uncertainty – the idea that the development experts don’t have all of the answers, and that, just maybe, some of the approaches taken in the past suffered from a lack of care and attention to context and the historical nuance to the detriment of communities.  That feels like development progress.

The same might be said of the OECD, whose latest research suggests that income inequality is detrimental to economic growth to the tune of nine percentage points of GDP for the UK between 1990 and 2010. This is rather incredible stuff from an organisation representing the mature global economies and, concurrently, their mainstream policy agendas. The research notes that the ‘gap between rich and poor is now at its highest level in 30 years in most OECD countries’, and that this rising inequality ‘has curbed economic growth significantly’. Their call for a shift in policy echoes that of the Economist last year, which similarly suggested that growth at all costs and trickle-down distribution might not be the only answer after all.

Hats off to these august institutions questioning the central tenets upon which most of their thinking and advocacy have been based to date. Let’s hope they are examples of a new model of policy and practice that is more humble in genesis, more nuanced in formulation, and more collaborative in delivery.


This blog was written by Dr Henry Kippin for Public Finance on 12 January 2015. Click here to read the full blog.  

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About Henry Kippin

Dr Henry Kippin is executive director of Collaborate. He is a visiting fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London, and at the UNDP Global Centre for Public Service Excellence. Henry was previously a founding partner of the RSA 2020 Public Services Hub, an advisor to Accenture’s global Public Services for the Future programme, and head of research at an international development agency. He has a PhD from the University of Sheffield and is co-editor of ‘Public Services: a new reform agenda’, published in 2013 by Bloomsbury Press.

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