The return of the “missing middle” – A response to David Roodman

There are lots of problems with development assistance. One of them is that people like me don’t really know what we’re doing, but pretend that we do. Or more specifically, that we rarely make explicit why we think that what we are doing will lead to the results that are hoped for.

My thinking on this has been stimulated by David Roodman of the Center for Global Development. David is in the process of writing a book about micro-finance and posed a question about definitions of development.

That reminded me of a piece of work I led for the Gates Foundation on “Exploring ‘development success’: Indicators, stories and contributing factors” and the train of thought that that rather frustrating piece of work – we were too quick to go along with the client’s slightly confused request (such are the delights of consultancy) – stimulated. David’s thought-provoking post and my comment is here, but the thrust my comment was:

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I agree that making explicit one’s conception of development, and assessing interventions with the help of a theory which sets out how one might expect to move towards that conception of development is useful and doesn’t happen as much as it should in international development.

That setting out one’s theory – surely one of the foundations for anything pretending to be social science or anything with aspirations to being part of evidence-informed policy – doesn’t happen as a matter of course is, I would suggest, a large part of the reason why we (folks who work in international development) don’t really know what we’re doing, and are making little progress towards having a better idea. And that, along with a lack of accountability, is a large part of why what we do often doesn’t deliver the results that are hoped for.

I guess what I’m saying is that while your insight shouldn’t be that novel, I’m afraid that it is, and am keen to join forces to push its implications! I might start asking “what’s the theory?” (and “where’s the evidence?” and “who’s accountable?) 100 times per week, including of myself.

That you need to ask “are there other useful definitions of development” should give us all pause for thought, particularly those of us who work/have worked at places such as the Center for Global DEVELOPMENT and the Overseas DEVELOPMENT Institute.***

Since posting that response I’ve been thinking some more about the probability that without a theory of what it is you’re trying to do, it will be very difficult – and perhaps impossible – to make an evidence-based assessment of whether you’re succeeding, or to have effective accountability.

I’ve also remembered that I wrote about this nearly 10 years ago, in a report for the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee where I talked – drawing on analysis by David Booth, Howard White and the National Audit Office – about the  “the missing middle” in DFID’s Country Strategy Papers which “state clearly DFID’s poverty reduction objectives and DFID’s planned spending, but lack analysis of the causes of poverty and strategies to break into these causal relationships.” Saying that there is a “missing middle” was a polite way of saying “you don’t know what you’re doing”.

Will I still be writing about this in another ten years’ time. Please no.

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