The mistakes made by most development reformers

Dani Rodrik is interviewed:

Suppose you’re in a setting where the rule of law and contract enforcement are really weak. And you realize that they don’t change overnight. Are you better off promoting the set of policies that presume that rule of law and contract enforcement will take care of themselves, or are you better off recommending a strategy that optimizes against the background of a weak rule of law? And I say that the evidence is that you do much better when you do the second.

The best example is China. Its growth experience is full of these second-best strategies, which take into account that they have, in many areas, weak institutions and a weak judicial system, and therefore they couldn’t move directly to the kinds of property rights we have in Europe and the United States. And yet they’ve managed to provide incentives and generate export-orientation in ways that are very different from how we would have said they ought to have done it, which would have been to simply open up their economy or privatize their enterprises. There, second-best strategies have been very effective. The same can be said of Vietnam, say, or farther afield, a country like Mauritius.

The full interview is interesting. Hat tip to the Development Impact blog.

Understand the world you live in. Think about the politics of reform. These are good points. It’s kind of amazing they need to be said out loud as news, but people do need reminders.

One trouble I have is that I think even very smart and experienced people are profoundly bad at knowing what the problems are in the economy, where the political winds are blowing, and what will work. This needs to be said out loud as well.

To take an example from a smaller scale: I spend a lot of time studying local labor markets in Africa, especially when people opt for crime or mercenary work rather than farming and business. I try to figure out what holds back legal work and test programs that deliver those things: skills, capital, socialization, and so on. And I get it wrong almost every time.

What I mean is that the experiments never end like I expect them to. Even (maybe especially) when they work out. I was blindsided by how frequently the poorest young men in slums of Nairobi have a home robbery or theft, meaning it’s almost impossible to accumulate capital. I was amazed that, yes, with a little skills and capital that a young woman can become the 183rd tailor in her community and turn a good profit.

This isn’t a defeatist point of view. I’d make a different point: the way I’ve learned how things operate is to work with a government or organization to try out a policy and succeed or fail. This kind of trial and error seems crucial to me. Karl Popper called this the piecemeal social engineer. Deng Xiaoping called it crossing the river by feeling each stone.

This sounds like a good way to figure out the way your world works (your model), and then to reform. A lot of people would say this is China’s secret to success: informal experimentation on a grand scale. The problem, as I see it, is that most governments and aid organizations I’ve worked with are really, really bad at this. They don’t use the lessons from past failures to try again a different, better way. They don’t throw out bad programs.

I think Dani would agree. He pushes policymakers to do more diagnosis before acting, to figure out the right model. But as the LSE economist John Sutton once said (in a truly terrific lecture), implementation trumps diagnosis. I think the best diagnostic is probably trial and error.

In any case, to me the important question is not “what is the right policy?”, but “what is the process for generating good policies over time?”, and more importantly “how to get governments and aid organizations to adapt to the good and throw out the bad?”.

I don’t know a good answer. To me, this is what makes most development aid and planning not just fruitless but downright dangerous.