D.C. scholars and think tanks have lost any confidence in our existing understanding of development. For example, Blau and Liskey argue that U.S. development efforts have constantly been plagued by thinking in terms of modernization, progress, and solving for the ‘root causes’ of backwardness:
Our review raises concerns about a concept of operation premised on identifying root causes of conflict. The premise that we can know root causes is necessary for social science, but it may not be useful in the real world. Identification and mitigation of root causes that drive conflict may not be reliably attainable. Therefore, basing policy on such a premise may be ineffective and result in confusion and disunity of effort.
And, an upside-down view of governance suggests taking a step back for conceptualization:
This way of thinking about governance and development implies that
donors need to reassess their own role in the process, and their traditional
approaches to managing ‘donor-recipient’ relationships. But the first step
is for them to change their mental models, and to stop viewing the world
through an OECD lens. Without this they will not make the necessary
investment in understanding local political dynamics, or make the (often
uncomfortable) changes needed to their own organisation, values,
practices and behaviour.
It seems the development world has discovered postpositivism and doubt the traditional approach toward development grounded in the Western experience and ‘scientific’ knowledge, and it’s about time. If you take a recent history of USAID management, development firms and agency appear to be overly bureaucratic. Yet, many USAID projects are contracted out to profit and non-profit firms that operate without the same level of organizational discipline. The disorganization goes both ways: field agencies lack coordination with their principals in national capitals and are unable to connect with and empower local institutions. Switching to a network-mode of organization isn’t just about privatizing state functions, but also improving the ability of nodes to connect with each other – both inside, outside, and between national governments. Approaching development problems without understanding the perspectives of those other actors decreases the ability of development agencies to form relationships that lead to the fulfillment of strategic outcomes (the military has offered a solution to this problem in Operational Design). Thinking about development from a postpositivist epistemology stresses an understanding of a society’s unique existing socioeconomic structure and not by applying abstract theory.