Debate: Whose Business is Development? Experts in an Open Society | World Bank Institute (WBI)

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Debate: Whose Business is Development? Experts in an Open Society

Experts have been in charge of the formal business of development for 50-odd years. But despite good intentions, they cannot boast an impressive track record, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa. Sure, there has been progress on several fronts. But too many people still live in abject poverty, lack decent basic services, and suffer daily indignities at the hands of the very authorities meant to serve them.


To illustrate the point, let’s take basic education in my country, Tanzania. The sector has had no shortage of expert involvement, of all stripes. The Ministry of Education employs hundreds of experts, many with advanced degrees; and staff members are constantly away on courses, seminars, and exchanges with other experts seeking to further boost their capacity. For decades, this cadre has received help from a large group of development experts—from Scandinavia, the United Kingdom, the European Union, Japan, the United States, the World Bank, and others. These experts and their consultants from academia have advised on everything from education financing and governance reform to teacher training and child-friendly schools. Increasingly, many NGOs have joined the fray, doing research and advocacy, serving on task forces, and contributing papers and inputs at the table of policy dialogue.


And what do we have to show for it? Education is priority number one in Tanzania, taking up about a fifth of public revenue and donor money. The education budget has also grown: in absolute terms it is more than three times what it was a decade ago. Primary school enrolment is close to universal, and secondary school enrollment is expanding fast. Thousands of classrooms have been built and teachers trained. The country’s leaders and their donor partners have wasted no opportunity to tout this success. Last year, at a colorful ceremony at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, Tanzania was presented with a special MDG (Millennium Development Goals) award for its achievements in education.


But look a little closer, and the story is less pretty. The millions of children in school are not learning. According to the large-scale and independent Uwezo Survey, 7 out of every 10 children in Grade 3 cannot read Swahili at their level, 8 out of 10 cannot do math, and 9 out of 10 cannot read English. Even after seven years, when they have completed primary schooling, half the children cannot read Grade 2-level English. Yet many of these children go into secondary schools where classes are taught in English. No surprise then that in 2010, only 1 out of every 10 students graduated from tenth grade with a decent passing grade in the national examinations. A new study shows that some of the teachers in fact perform worse than their students, spending on average less than 2 hours a day in the classroom.

The import of all this is that millions of children complete school each year without the skills and wherewithal to thrive—their personal and community aspirations dashed.

Given these facts, it is difficult to see education in Tanzania (or Kenya, Uganda, and many other countries) as anything other than a massive failure. One could marshal similar evidence for health and water and infrastructure. So, after 50-odd years of advice and studies and reforms and programs, why have the experts not managed to deliver a system where children are learning?


It is not because of a lack of knowledge. The facts that services are not working well are widely publicized. Indeed some experts spend considerable energy drawing attention to them. However, most experts are fuzzier about what it will take to turn things around, and even less equipped to help make change happen.

There are three key problems:

  • First, experts tend to see things through a technocratic lens, when many of the key challenges are political or institutional.
  • Second, experts emphasize the formal approaches in which they have been trained, when in fact things actually work quite differently. It doesn’t help that the education and socialization that experts go through have a distancing effect, leaving them with little appreciation for the circumstances, politics, and practical constraints faced by ordinary people.
  • Third, experts tend to be driven by institutional incentives that give priority to certain output—log frames, reports, formal and clear governance structures, rules—the production of which can easily displace outputs that may be of greater benefit to the people. Shaking up this status quo is difficult, because experts tend to form a sort of self-reinforcing priesthood that is difficult for outsiders to penetrate. The sum effect of this is that experts often lacking the very expertise they need to make things happen.


The good news is that it’s not as if people are waiting for answers to fall from the heavens—or from the experts; everyday, in many communities, people are thinking, crafting solutions, acting to move on and up. The problem is that all too often development reforms and projects are irrelevant to these local efforts, and at times even undermine them.


So, what if instead of thinking of bringing in experts to fill in gaps in a community’s or a country’s capability, we identified how people are already analyzing problems and getting things done? This approach need not romanticize what ordinary people can do or actually do, but rather make their everyday, pragmatic knowhow—and knowdo—a starting point for development. The purpose of development then would not be to create and apply expert solutions, but rather to help enrich the conditions in which people can do more of what they already do well–by making it easier to get, compare, and share information; learn from each other and from outsiders how they have made things work; search, experiment with, and craft solutions; and team up to get things done.


In this scenario, expertise is distributed and contingent, rather than anointed and appointed. It is local and rooted, and connected and cosmopolitan, with anointed experts brought in only as needed. Because expertise flows in an open architecture, it is more effective in a marketplace of ideas, as an enabler of more nimble innovation. Bad ideas fizzle out quicker when they fail to deliver, and good ideas thrive because they have currency. When parents pull children out of schools, that’s good feedback; when a teacher takes the initiative to do something extra, the idea and the motivation behind it is sought out with great curiosity. Far from the relatively closed society presided over by the disembodied priests of technocracy, the open society democratizes the production and flow of knowledge, subjecting it to far more rigorous scrutiny, and in the process enabling people to spur their own development.

Rakesh Rajani is the Head of Twaweza, a ten-year initiative to promote citizen agency and improved service delivery in East Africa.

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