China: Failed development or just development as usual?

China’s new bullet train system is about to open, with 90 trains a day running from Shanghai to Beijing at 300km/h. The journey is expected to take under five hours. A similar length journey on the US rail system takes 18 hours.

Not bad for a country that, only a decade ago, was yet to put a person into space.

China’s land reform and agricultural reform policies are credited with lifting millions out of poverty. These World Bank researchers make the point that what has lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty has not so much been good policies, nor a rise in trade and manufacturing, so much as the abandonment of bad policies. It’s easy to lift people out of poverty if what is keeping them there is outrageously stupid government policies such as collectivised farms and the compulsory purchases of grains at very low prices. Continue reading

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How not to be a manager

I recently attended a workshop called ‘Beyond Management – how to get to grips with social complexity and the desire to control’. It was hosted by our friends at Development Action and facilitated by Allan Kaplan and Sue Davidoff from The Proteus Initiative.

The description of the workshop was: ‘to provide participants with an experience, one which gives people working in a social context a different way of interpreting the work they do, and through this, a better understanding of what can and can’t be managed’.

In other words; how to stop being a control freak. Continue reading

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The word on the street

I got stopped by some joker with a clipboard the other day, who asked if I wanted to become “a project partner” with the NGO he worked for. “Sure,” I said, and taking him at his literal word, began listing all the projects they could help me with.

Unsurprisingly, it turned out that being a ‘project partner’ meant setting up an AP to donate money to them every month.

Perhaps I’m being picky, but NGOs have spent decades trying to get the public to understand that development requires the building of mutually respectful relationships with aid recipients that go beyond just handing over money. Continue reading

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Reporting development progress

The Overseas Development Institute in the UK has been producing a well-written series of short reports on development progress in particular countries. The results are synthesized into another report Mapping progress: evidence for a new development outlook but the individual country reports are well worth a read.

The latest in the series are:

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The politics of nostalgia

Nasser comic

The good old days of aid funding. Terry and the Pirates satire from Mad Magazine, circa 1960.


On sunny days at least, New Zealanders can be charmingly optimistic in a naive sort of way, which I guess is why New Zealand has a high profile in international trade negotiations.

You’d need to be optimistic to be a trade negotiator. After ten years of arguing, the WTO has accepted that a full trade agreement is unlikely and is now having a crack at a much more limited objective. But, just setting the agenda for discussion is proving difficult. The economic mood has changed, developing countries are more confident and the ‘Washington Consensus’ on development is in tatters. Continue reading

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Development experts: The shocking truth revealed!

Anyone following current debates about our aid programme should remember the following rule of thumb for interpreting political discourse: once politicians and their ideological fellow travellers start attacking people who can’t fight back, it is a sure sign that they’ve run out of actual intellectual ammunition.

The classic example is beneficiary bashing. Government X implements poor macro-economic policy, unemployment rises as a result, and politicians from government X start blaming ‘dole-bludgers’ for being too lazy to get a job despite having had one until the very moment the economy started to tank. Beneficiaries tend to be poor and socially marginalised, and rarely afforded a chance to tell their side of the story in the media, so they’re a safe target. Continue reading

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Moral muddles and aiding the banks

Moral hazard sounds like the sort of thing a politician ought to worry about. And it is, although not in the way you might imagine. While the name ‘moral hazard’ suggests theology, it’s actually an insurance industry term used to describe the propensity of people insured against a particular risk to behave more recklessly because they no longer bear the full weight of the risk.

The example used in economics textbooks is usually the claim that people with home insurance are likely to be less careful in securing their home knowing that, should something happen, they will be spared the full costs. Like many examples in economics textbooks, this is a little far-fetched, yet the problem is a real one. And it’s one that Foreign Affairs and Trade associate spokesperson John Hayes needs to think about. Continue reading

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The pleasure and pain of foreign direct investment

As foreign direct investment to developing countries increases, the benefits and losses continue to be debated.  At the Guardian UK’s Poverty Matters blog, Lisa Denney is happy to see Timor Leste taking control of its development path.

While natural resources have proved to be a curse for some countries, Timor-Leste has used its new-found financial independence to take greater ownership of its own development. Without needing to rely quite so heavily on donor money, Timor is now able to fund programmes it feels are important for its own development, which do not necessarily cohere with the interests of the donor community. Continue reading

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If we’re right, how come nobody cares? New thinking on public engagement

How do we encourage the public to support the work of international development groups? In the UK there’s quite a debate on this question, particularly in light of the change in the political environment marked by the election of a Conservative-led government.

Some are calling for groups to fit in with the new paradigm:

“Appeals to justice and obligations to deliver on commitments made at global summits are less effective than arguments that demonstrate enlightened self-interest, and the damage that current policies do to both consumers and the poorest people on earth.”

Others are saying the tendency to focus on short-term goals, such as raising money, at the expense of deeper values, has increased public cynicism about development issues: Continue reading

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Twenty years of (un)sustainable development

Next year is the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Summit on Environment and Development. At the 1992 Rio Earth Summit governments committed themselves to the ‘Agenda 21’ programme of action for sustainable development.

After that, everything went on pretty much as it did before. Continue reading

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