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Intellectual heritage

What the know-it-alls don’t understand

by Philip Lepenies

In depth

US President Harry Truman, who was the first to express the idea of development cooperation, welcoming India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his family in 1949

US President Harry Truman, who was the first to express the idea of development cooperation, welcoming India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and his family in 1949

For 50 years, critics have been saying time and again that development cooperation tends to fail because it consists in a unilateral transfer of knowledge, unaware of the reality of recipient countries. This unproductive attitude is rooted in ideas of progress from the late 18th century. For the sake of discovering better options, it is important to understand this heritage. [ By Philipp Lepenies ]

Development cooperation has always been criticised. It is not aid itself that is questioned, but the approach of external experts conveying their knowledge to needy people. One obstacle for successful development cooperation appears to be the experts who believe they have all the answers, but who largely ignore the views of the partners they are trying to help. Experts are, ironically speaking, acting as know-it-alls.

Economist Albert Hirschman took up the issue in “The strategy of economic development”, his classic of 1958. He considered the “visiting economist syndrome” a reason for the lack of success. Hirschman stated that foreign consultants and experts tended to prescribe measures, programmes and strategies after only minimal contact with the “patient”. In his later works, especially “Journeys toward progress” (1963), Hirschman discussed a sense of excessive optimism of the development experts towards solving all development problems. Borrowing from the works of writer Gustave Flaubert, he spoke of “la rage de vouloir conclure”, development professionals’ mania to try to bring everything to conclusion.

Social anthropologists have similarly criticised the tendency of development-cooperation professionals to fly into partner countries with finalised programmes in their luggage, in spite of being unaware of what local people think. In the early 1980s, Robert Chambers of the Institute for Development Studies in Sussex argued that a fixed mindset did not allow such experts to get a clear picture of the reality of developing countries. Richard Rottenburg later noted that development cooperation always implies transferring models from the rich world to poor countries, even though the rhetoric of cooperation and dialogue serves to disguise the unilateralism. The gap between rhetoric and reality then caused misunderstandings and failure.

Economist William Easterly recently gained a lot of attention for “The white man’s burden”, his book of 2006. He lambasts know-it-all planners in a way that is very similar to Hirschman’s assessment of the “visiting economist”.

Development-cooperation professionals typically do not accept such criticism, but only consider it some kind of cartoon. They often did not take the critics seriously because they had long since adopted a jargon of partnership and cooperation. In rhetorical terms at least, they are far beyond notions of paternalistic help. Therefore, they cannot recognise themselves in the caricature of the know-it-alls.

This kind of criticism, however, keeps popping up again and again, so it probably does point to something relevant: apparently, development cooperation is afflicted by some kind of Pavlovian condition, with professionals too often believing to already have every solution at hand.

Development cooperation is, in essence, not about equal partnerships. Donors are more powerful than recipients, and their knowledge is superior in important ways. Development agencies actually do believe they know solutions to problems, and they have reasons for doing so. After all, they have acquired vast bodies of knowledge – and others can and should benefit from that knowledge. But transferring such knowledge into practice is difficult.

Linear path of progress

Since its inception, development cooperation has always been less a form of capital assistance and more a knowledge transfer. US President Harry Truman said in his 1949 inaugural address – the speech that marked the birth of development cooperation – that industrialised countries had the knowledge necessary to end poverty in the world, and that they had to make this knowledge available to the rest of the world.

For a long time now, the World Bank has similarly been speaking of the necessity to close knowledge gaps between rich nations, emerging markets and developing countries. The World Bank considers itself a “knowledge bank”, collecting and administering information on development around the world.

The notion of knowledge transfers between countries is much older than the notion of development cooperation. It is rooted in the philosophy of progress and civilisation of late 18th century France. According to this paradigm, all societies were on a linear path towards progress. In time, each nation was expected to develop in exactly the same way as the others. In this world view, the differences that existed between countries were of a qualitative nature. There was no such thing as cooperation. Nations were simply following one another, with the “civilised” ones marching in front, and the “less civilised” or even “savage” following suit.

Initially, the terms “civilisation” and “progress” were used interchangeably. Moreover, the idea of progress was intrinsically linked to knowledge: beginning in the 17th century, progress meant the growth of scientific knowledge in the course of history. Originally, progress was only something that had taken place in the past.

The notion of progress as a vision of a better future society only developed ­during France’s Enlightenment. In 1793, the Marquis de Condorcet was the first to offer a non-Christian prophecy of things to come. His “Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain” (Sketch of a historical picture of the progresses of the human mind) foresaw a golden global future with full equality among nations as well as within them.

Condorcet’s writings include a kind of anticipation of development cooperation. Not only did he believe that revolutionary France was ahead of other countries and showed substantial progress in comparison to Africa and Asia. He also predicted that “unquestionably” the moment would come in which “we” (the civilised) would become useful tools or generous liberators for “them” (the less civilised). Copying the example of Christian missionaries, messengers of enlightenment were supposed to travel to distant places and teach people scientific knowledge, or “the truth”, as Condorcet put it. Condorcet’s theory was universalist, reflecting a concept that was in vogue at his time.

Progress was supposed to benefit all of humankind. The vision included political progress. Such progress was already evident, for instance in the USA’s Declaration of Independence and in the universal declaration of human rights passed by the National Constituent Assembly of revolutionary France. Knowledge transfer was supposed to accelerate progress in less developed countries. People in more advanced countries assumed they had gotten to where they were because of their greater degree of know-how. Learning from those lagging behind did not fit into the picture.

Development cooperation is thus an heir to notions prevalent at the turn of the 19th century. The mentality of Western professionals in development cooperation is still marked by these ideas. Moreover, these ideas also raise expectations in developing countries, where people hope for advice and expert information. While failure is not necessarily a consequence of this intellectual heritage, experts’ behaviour according to typical patterns seems to be one.

Mutual process of learning

The suggestions the critics make to improve development cooperation are quickly summarised: development cooperation must become a process of joint learning with so-far unidentified results. There must be a mutual process of learning instead of a one-sided transfer of knowledge. Development professionals should stop to stubbornly try pushing through their pre-conceived models.

These proposals seem surprisingly simple, even trivial. Nonetheless, enduring criticism suggests that they are rather hard to implement, even though development experts are certainly not non-sensitive robots and often do quite a lot to adapt to a foreign country and its culture.

Economist John Maynard Keynes wrote that politicians are frequently unaware of how much they owe to the ideas of dead economists. In a similar vein, ­development-cooperation professionals seem ignorant about how much their thinking is shaped by the ideas of French Enlightenment of more than 200 years ago.

This heritage needs to be understood. Then it will become easier to change and improve a certain kind of seemingly automatic behaviour. Once people know why they act in certain ways, they are able to change their be­haviours. Understanding the intellectual history of one’s own profession is probably the most important step towards changing oneself. We will know that progress has been made only once the ongoing criticism of know-it-all
experts dies down.