A Better Way for Development Theory and Practice
Editor`s Note: Habtamu Girma is Lecturer of Economics in the Department of Economics at Jigjiga University, Ethiopia. He can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
The ultimate objective of academia and policy regimes lies in promoting the wellbeing of people. Hence, devising theoretical and practical tools meant to scale up the well-being of people and communities is at the heart of academic and policy endeavours. Taking the particular context of the developing world, however, the teachings and practices on issues of well-being are blurred, if not too abstract.
As emerging empirical evidence from development literature suggests, old ways of looking at theory and practice that was intended to address the welfare of communities doesn’t appeal in the particular contexts prevailing in the developing world. As a result of that, it is not unusual to observe that development policies have remained ineffective. As a postgraduate student of economics, I remember what our professor told us from his rich experience in development teachings and practices in Ethiopia and other countries in Africa. Worth recounting, in this regard, was why communities often are nostalgic about the past. It is becoming customary in development discourse that post-intervention studies carried out often produce unexpected results, where subjects are far less content with the outcome and even plea for the pre-intervention days. This is despite communities’ material needs being better served as a result of interventions aimed at community development. More often than not, development theorists and practitioners are unable to explain those instances, which they ascribe to a paradox, the nostalgia effect.
In my view, if one thoroughly looks into the issue, there is no paradox with the nostalgia effect, and it could be explained. The pillar of my assertion goes to the conventional teachings and practices on development, which I suggest is based on a distorted understanding of the concept of well-being. The dominant narratives in development literature takes for granted development synonymous with material fulfilment. Crucially, the role and importance of non-material aspects of life are considered a residual.
So whom to blame then?
As I understanding it, developing countries are underdeveloped because of corrupt education and policy regimes. With today`s teachings are tomorrow`s policies, where there is a fault in the education system, there would be mess in the policy regimes and overall governance system too. Development literature demonstrates the link between the education system and underdevelopment. Dependency theory, one of the post-colonial development theories, has a controversial but important narrative as to why developing countries are underdeveloped. Dependency theory begins by segmenting the whole world into developed and underdeveloped, not only for economic or structural reasons, but also on the nature of their relationships. False paradigm hypothesis, a subsidiary of dependency theory, describes the sort of interactions between developed and developing world as unfair, if not deceptive. According to its narrative, the developed world has been injecting misleading curriculum and policy regimes to weaken countries on the ‘periphery’ of development horizon. Some hardliner intellectuals even dub such a relationship between the two polar worlds as post-modern colonization. Their argument is that the education system is the major tool of post-modern colonization. Structural economists assert that the intellectuals and policy practitioners of the developing world are products of those corrupt education systems, and hence it is unrealistic to expect that they would come up with theoretical and policy tools which address the real developmental challenges of their people.
In my opinion, one should not overlook the perspective of dependency theory. Indeed, a number of empirical studies attest that the education system and policy regime of developing countries, including Ethiopia, are incompatible with institutional, structural and socio-cultural and value systems specific to their people and communities in general. According to those studies, the bedrock of underdevelopment in developing countries is a ‘one size fits all’ principle dominating the academic and policy regimes. Some manifestations of this problem are: overlooking the importance of indigenous knowledge to promote the well-being of people; considering all the western ideals and thoughts as righteous (in an almost cult-like fashion). On the other hand, local wisdom was taken as irrelevant or not modern.
In many instances, those challenging those corrupt educational systems and policy regimes have been punished. Intellectuals who defy western thought and emphasize the need to look inward encounter setbacks, where their work is often portrayed as sub-standard and irrelevant. Their work would also be suppressed, lest it be disseminated and enlightens the victims. Therefore, where such is a governing reality in the academia and policy regimes, expecting the academicians, researchers, policy makers and/or implementing bodies to remedy the complex developmental challenges of their people and communities is like expecting honey from a fly, as one Amharic proverb goes.
What is expected of the academia and policy circles then?
My suggestion lies in the need to challenge the conventional development theory and practices, based on the principle of one size fits all, from philosophical, theoretical, methodical and policy perspectives. Hence, it is expected to pinpointing alternative ways out of underdevelopment and promoting wellbeing of people and communities in the developing world in general. More specifically, it confronts one of the characteristics of the dysfunctional education and policy regimes prevailing in underdeveloped world, namely the disregard of the role and/or importance of socio-cultural institutions of communities in defining the fabric of all aspects of governance and public life. To that end, key areas of emphasis ought to be exploring the linkage between behaviours (motivation) of people on one hand, and the overall environment on the other. It also requires modelling the behavioural and institutional elements specific to the developing world, focusing on the unique conditions of particular communities. Academic endeavours must also draw inferences on behavioural (motivational) and institutional or structural elements and their possible implications for the well-being of people and communities of interest.
All in all, academic and policy circles have to depart from the conventional paradigm. As such, development theories have to make be based on an interdisciplinary approach. Therefore, diverse fields of social science and methodological approaches are required for synthesizing, explaining and making inferences on the wellbeing concept. Development policy should also be redesigned to be more case-specific. Rather than adhering a top-down approach, policy regimes should be designed and formulated on the local realities and contexts. When evaluating development practices, a host of variables need to be considered. As such, formulating policies and strategies aimed at promoting the welfare of communities should take into account factors in the realm of economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, past system of governance, history, geo-politics & geography, among others. This is how the academic and policy regimes revisited to better serve the expectations of helping achieve collective wellbeing.
From: pp.6-7 of WEA Commentaries 8(2), April 2018