The Story

I just figured out why people call me controversial, when I hold the same opinions as pretty much everyone else who works in international development. (I’ve written about this before; I am just the one who writes this all down.)

It’s because my views don’t match the media narrative about development – the metastory. And unless you’re done an unusually pragmatic course on international development, or actually worked in this field, the only story you have about international development is that one you learn from the media.

Nick Kristof is the most prominent example of the typical media narrative: whites in shining armor, helpless poor people in need of our charity, simple programs with immediate, long-term impact. Basically, international development is easy if you just care enough and are ready to spend some money. Good solutions are right around the corner!

Nobody who actually works in this field believes the metastory any more. But the media keep looking for that story, because it’s the one that the reporters all know. A few journalists – Glenna Gordon, Jina Moore, and Stephanie Strom come to mind – have been writing about development long enough that they know they field, too. They write different stories.

But the others, the ones working international affairs or disasters or whatever – they come looking for the same old story and they find it. (Penelope Trunk has a good take on this phenomenon.) I do a lot more media than ever gets published; no one ever wants my quotes because they don’t match the metastory.

Three of the topics no one wants my opinion on:

1.       Innovation – to use a deeply American sports metaphor, focusing exclusively on innovation is like throwing a Hail Mary pass when we ought to just use our running game. [1] Spend too much time chasing innovation, and you run the risk of failing to support the boring programs that are proven to work.

2.       Crowdsourcing – I think it’s just one more way of collecting data. And the problem with data has never been getting enough of it – the problem has always been getting the right data and then knowing how to use it. A new data collection method doesn’t solve the problem of what to do with it once collected.

3.       The future of international development – It’s not mobile technology, social entrepreneurship, or heat stable vaccines. It’s partnership, where donors and recipients recognize that both gain from the process. It will mean businesses getting involved in development because they’ll benefit from it, and the slow erosion of exploitative fundraising efforts because the communities who benefit will help to design the campaigns. This isn’t going to happen overnight, but it is what the future will look like.

Those aren’t exactly radical, contrarian opinions. Everyone I work with would agree with me, as would almost every development professional I know. But they’re not the story.

[1] Random aside: I grew up watching American football with my dad. We lived in Syracuse but cheered for the Dallas Cowboys because it was the 80s, he was an immigrant, and the Cowboys were America’s team. By the time my brother hit elementary school, we discovered Central New Yorkers supported the Buffalo Bills and switched allegiances.


photo credit: wili_hybrid