One sure-fire way to start an argument in any development policy meeting that includes a cross-section of the international development disciplines is to contribute, as softly and gently as possible of course, a comment along the lines of it being time for the economists to move over and let those who see effective development from the perspective of people, not data, begin to run things. This is even more fun if you are in The World Bank or the IMF at the time!
Of course - and maybe ironically - it always helps to have a little recent data to back up this prod at the powerbrokers of international development. Data such as that recently reported by CARE and OXFAM: "Despite years of international relief efforts, hunger is on the increase. An estimated 10 million people die from the effects of malnutrition each year, and 850 million suffer from hunger worldwide. The number is increasing by four million people a year."
So this jab at economists in international development is not of course a little light relief in the course of a tedious meeting. It is deadly serious. When two highly respected agencies can report that when it comes to that most basic of human needs - hunger - after all of our collective efforts - most often led by economic policy arguments - the issue is getting worse at the rate of 4 million [the population of New Zealand] each year, then we all need to not just scratch our heads but dig deep into our strategic synapses. This is not good stuff.
But economics is clearly important if we are to find effective and sustainable solutions to very serious development issues. Clearly there will need to be strong economic components central to any effective development of strategic platforms.
As it turns out, the economist and the people side of development are on the same page. A recent 15-hour each way return trip to Wellington and Sydney gave me an opportunity to read a book recommended by economist friends [yes, I do have them!] - Knowledge and The Wealth of Nations by David Warsh [published by Norton]. How revealing: Essentially [as Bill Orme also touches on in his recent blog], given where economics has reached today [though how we got here is a fascinating and illuminating read], economists and the communication/media community are talking the same necessary development game even if the languages are very different.
The key development policy goal is to improve the human condition. This is spelt out, relative to overall and specific development issues in a myriad of development documents - most notably the MDGs. Warsh states it this way from an economic perspective: [The key question of course, is]: "What does economics have to tell us about the prospects for our lives?" [page 342]
There are very complex responses to that question but in the end Warsh boils the answer down to two elements that I will characterize with the quotes below. They are insights that have significant implications for development policy and the vital role of communication and media at the heart of the development strategies that emanate from those policies.
Quote 1: "We have come to the end of our story...of how, during a few years in the 1980s, land, labour and capital became people, ideas and things" [page 399].
If you see economic growth as being centrally dependent on land, labour, and capital then there is very little room for the things that concern most people in communication and media - knowledge, culture, debate, dialogue, the voices of those most affected, creativity, and so on. By definition, those elements are pushed to the margins. But when, based on a huge amount of economic research, thought, modeling, and testing, economic growth is seen to derive from people, ideas, and things that changes everything. Now what the communication and media community are focused on - see above - is absolutely and centrally vital to economic growth.
Quote 2: "It is the growth of knowledge that is the engine of economic growth. As the poet Blake put it, 'Trust can never be told so as to be understood and not believed'"
This is knowledge related to all three of those core elements: people, ideas, and things. A central component of communication and media development strategy is the generation and sharing of knowledge. As a result of the fertilisation of those ideas across and between people, new knowledge is generated. This is what we do - be it media freedoms or local participation in decision making we are about trustworthy knowledge as the vital element for development progress.
So I need to apologise to all economists previously disparaged. I was stuck in an early 1980s understanding of economics as land, labour, and capital - with the impenetrable walls built around those concepts for anyone approaching development from a people and ideas perspective.
Onward - together! Though it might be a good idea to assess all of our development policies - including the Bank - through the people, ideas, and things prism. My suspicion is that development planning is still far too heavy on things and too light on people and ideas, with a consequent negative impact on knowledge. But others may have another view. And at least we all have a similar perspective.
Oh - and no more economist jokes - promise!