Does development have a diversity problem?

Nikita Taniparti (Fellow, CID Growth Lab)

By Nikita Taniparti (CID Growth Lab)

To some, this question may seem absurd. The work of development is to improve quality of life and expand economic opportunity across diverse global communities, and graduate programs such as the MPA/ID program at HKS are enormously diverse in national origin, gender, and professional and lived experience. Yet, a 2020 survey of MPA/ID alumni (which received a response rate of 25% of all alumni) conducted by the Elevate MPA/ID Initiative revealed that most respondents saw racism as relevant in their workplace or sector. In the survey, roughly half of all respondents reported encountering discrimination in some form (either being harmed by it, being complicit in it or observing it) and that “most do not feel fully empowered to challenge racism.” A full 90% of respondents expressed a desire for the MPA/ID program to better equip graduates to deal with issues of racism and discrimination that they will face in their work and workplaces.

The “Diversity in Development” seminar series, running throughout the 2021/22 academic year is one direct response to this problem. But what is the problem, exactly? The series is centered on the term “diversity” as opposed to “discrimination” because the problem is deeper than just the presence of active mechanisms of discrimination. But better defining the problem itself is part of the agenda of the series. HKS has established noteworthy actions and systems in support of diversity, equity, and anti-racism that are grounded in pushing against the institutional structures of discrimination in the US context. Are there also institutional causes that practitioners and researchers face within the field of international development? If so, how can we empower ourselves to act against the inertia of discriminatory global systems and in different national and local contexts? The late Desmond Tutu once said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” This series aims to help students and other participants better understand situations of injustice in order to more effectively battle oppression in their work.

Fall Semester 2021

The first session (Oct. 20, 2021), “Rethinking Approaches to Development” of the series interrogated the problem and offered possible frameworks for understanding and acting on it. MPA/ID student Racceb Taddesse moderated the discussion between Zoe Marks, Lecturer in Public Policy at HKS, and Dani Rodrik, Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy, as they discussed issues of diversity in development and asked the question, “what is harmful that we want to solve?” Both professors framed the goal of development similarly — as about “overcoming inequalities in access to economic opportunities and better life chances” and making individuals and communities “more included, more respected, and more dignified.” Each then broke down problems where the absence of diversity can undermine those goals through frameworks that they have found useful in their own work and teaching.

For Professor Rodrik, one lens of diversity  centers on “who we are trying to help” and the need to recognize different margins of exclusion and discrimination in different contexts. In the discussion, it became clear that issues arise when there is a disconnect between who is setting the development agenda in a context — often outsiders — and who understands and has leverage over the true margins of exclusion in that place. A second dimension is “how development is done”. Given that contexts are radically different — unlike in the natural sciences which follow the same rules in Germany and Madagascar — we truly need a diversity of approaches and perspectives to improve outcomes in different places. Professor Rodrik’s third dimension is on “who does the work of development and development research”. He emphasised that published researchers are now of more diverse national origin than in the past; however, where research is done — especially research that gets published in top economics journals — is not. This has implications for what questions get asked. In total, he presents an argument for more diversity in participation and voice to better align the energy, tools, and capabilities of the development community to better address issues that really matter to diverse societies.

Professor Marks reflected on how race was not discussed openly in her graduate training at Oxford and framed her understanding of the problem as essentially about power. She stressed that the institutions of development today are built upon “long-entrenched legacies of unequal access to power” with origins in Colonialism that we must recognize to understand the ways in which unequal power continues to manifest today. This includes the power of who finances development, who sets KPIs and objectives, and who redistributes global capital. Prof. Marks provided a framework around “the who,” “the what,” and “the how” of development and internationally-focused work more broadly. The first dimension here is a call to recognize and cultivate who is represented in classrooms, syllabi, boardrooms, and wherever decisions are being made that aim to represent the interests of a community. The second dimension is what content gets prioritised in teaching settings, again grounded in her own training. Prof. Marks’ new course at HKS aims to teach students basic language that is important to understand race and racism beyond the US perspective. The course provides evidence on multiple racial paradigms, with the goal of helping students confront racism even as it shapes our global institutions. Professor Marks’ third dimension focuses on “how do we know what we know” and emphasises the need for a diversity of tools and perspectives and disciplines like Professor Rodrik, but also how we go about building consensus in different settings.

The two professors answered several questions and explored the substantial overlap and smaller differences in their frameworks. Prof. Rodrik discussed the state of the field of development economics in relation to diversity, how it has changed over time, and the role for interdisciplinarity (as well as pitfalls to avoid). He also discussed the importance of understanding both the proximate and deeper causes of poverty in their full richness in contexts where we work. Prof. Marks provided several practical perspectives for increasing inclusion in the practice of development, expanding space for conversations about race, and for better navigating complex challenges of exclusion and discrimination in unique contexts. Both speakers agreed that change comes from within societies and spoke about how international actors can and should be “supporters of ongoing change rather than instigators.” They reflected on the importance of this for diversifying power, voice, and ideas, and for the essential effectiveness of development work.

In the second session (Nov. 17, 2022), “Alternatives Visions of ‘Development’ panellists were asked to discuss the goals of development itself and the extent to which a vision of development is shared across diverse communities and perspectives. The session aimed to understand how we might reconcile and integrate different goals and approaches of development to highlight any common goals. While the four speakers each presented a different entry point on the ultimate aims of development based on their research and varied experiences in practice, several shared goals and values emerged over the course of the conversation with the moderator, Nikita Taniparti, Research Manager at the Growth Lab. The four panellists in this session were: Megan Hill, Director of the Honoring Nations program at Harvard University; Lant Pritchett, Fellow at the London School of Economics and former Chair of the MPA/ID program; Christy Thornton, Director of Undergraduate Studies for the Program in Latin American Studies at Johns Hopkins University; and Meera Tiwari, Associate Professor in the Department of Social Studies at the University of East London.

Dr. Pritchett presented new research into the empirical connections between a wide range of measures of human well-being and stressed the importance of economic growth toward a broad range of development outcomes. This research finds that national economic development is a necessary condition for many human outcomes, and especially so at low levels of initial economic development. Dr. Pritchett argues, empirically, that growth is not only necessary but sufficient for some outcomes that we value. He stressed the importance of not losing sight of the importance of national economic development in the pursuit of a wide range of goals from gender equality to environmental sustainability to inclusiveness of opportunity, and more. While these are worthy goals, Dr. Pritchett raises concern that many efforts of the development community that are aimed too narrowly fail to meaningfully achieve their goals and that resources would be better spent for the envisioned beneficiaries.

Professor Tiwari described what human development looks like on the ground through her work in India. She stressed the importance of understanding development as a process and how this process should ultimately be centred on enabling people and societies to strive for what they want to do rather than an externally provided set of goals. She contrasted the consequences of a top-down approach to development and a bottom-up or grassroots approach by using the example of Bihar, India. This example showed how when there is an expansion of the opportunities that people have access to, it is impressive how collective organisation can and does emerge to solve local problems. Often, top-down approaches stagnate at the local level such that neither meaningful improvements in the headline indicators of well-being are achieved nor robust systems for local, collective action are strengthened. She concluded by describing that not every situation has a one-size-fits-all solution, but that every context should be evaluated from the perspective of the people that “development” efforts aim to support.

Ms. Hill provided clear and compelling examples from her work with tribal nations in the U.S. and Canada that highlight how visions of development must be grounded in local context and history. Across tribal nations in North America — as of 2021 there were 574 tribal nations in the U.S. alone, constituting almost 2% of the total population — development goes hand-in-hand with sovereignty and self-determination. Despite the diversity of tribal nations, there is a common path through which tribes have achieved development success through increasingly exercising their sovereignty to organise their own laws, local institutions, and local governments to better meet the needs of their people. This process is necessarily slow but has improved well-being and expanded opportunity across tribal nations because it results in public services, civil society engagement, and even private sector activities that are a much better match for citizens’ needs and that build on the tribe’s culture and strengths.

Professor Thornton discussed the topic in relation to her work as a historical sociologist. She zoomed out to the macro level of the global stage and described how the largest and most powerful development institutions today follow a rather narrow and limited approach. Though conventional understandings of the history of development institutions typically start with the Truman years at the end of the 1940s, the history of development is older. Prof. Thornton discusses work that has argued that development was actually driven by emancipatory ambitions on the part of “third world” leaders before this, as they collectively organised to put forth a set of demands to the world. Prof. Thornton’s own research explores Latin American examples to show how the Global South pushed for internationalism from the bottom-up. When these foundations are understood, important shortfalls of international development organisations can often be seen more clearly. These shortfalls include the tendency for systems to treat the process of development more as one where the supply of development ideas, institutions, and operations are provided from the Global North with very insufficient focus on what should be driving the process — demand from developing nations.

As the panellists responded to questions and explored one another’s perspectives, some common themes emerged. Prof. Tiwari pointed out that there are complementarities to each view, and that a convergence of goals is possible by giving voice to the local actors who can define what development is for them, while measuring income and outcome indicators like GDP or GNI per capita that have robustly illustrated the trajectory of developing countries. Dr. Pritchett discussed how state capability and sovereignty are often strong determinants of strong economic outcomes and cited research by Ms. Hill’s colleagues that shows striking evidence of how development efforts tend to go wrong when externally defined institutions do not match local ways of doing things. Professor Thornton added that international agencies for development can internalise the priorities of local actors by being confronted with grassroots pushes for change and described the institutions themselves as constantly evolving. In total, this session arrived at a shared vision of development practice that centers around empowering local visions of development. This echoed the discussion in the first session of the “Diversity in Development” series and will be a subject of future sessions.

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