Of Penn, Pigs and Cod

September 02, 2011

If there is one thing that Development Experts hate, it is celebrities acting as if they know something about development.  Of course, if there’s another thing that at least some Development Experts hate, it is other Development Experts acting as if they know something about development.  The good news for those folks, at least (and you know who you are): if Development Experts are as clueless on how to promote development as the celebrities, maybe the celebrities aren’t the big problem.A recent article in Rolling Stone bemoans the slow pace of development efforts in Haiti as “a disaster of good intentions.”  The piece is part of the usual depressing pattern –outsized expectations driven by hope and development agency hype are rapidly dashed by the reality that recovery takes a long time – and that even after a massive earthquake knocks down most buildings, no country is a tabula rasa for trendy new ideas.   Janet Reitman, condemns naïfs in leadership positions with little knowledge of development reconstruction alongside development bureaucrats more concerned with turf that bricks and mortar and a dysfunctional Haitian government.   Surely there was some of all of that.The record of Development Experts in Haiti is… mixed, after all.  My colleague Todd Moss pointed me to the story of the response to a swine flu epidemic in the country in the late 1970s and early 80s.  Experts agreed that all 1.3 million of the country’s Creole pigs should be slaughtered.  USAID brought in bigger and better American pigs.  Sadly, the US varieties were not skilled at coping with the environment faced by the average pig in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere –they wanted feed and wouldn’t eat scraps, they fell ill and had small litters.  Many smallholders lost an important source of additional protein as a result.  (As an aside, what is the issue with pigs?  They killed off 300,000 in Cairo a couple of years ago in another over-reaction to swine flu.  The pigs ate through as much as 3,600 tons of food waste a day –food waste now left rotting on the streets.  The second rule of development should be Leave the Swine Alone).Back to modern-day Haiti, however, the actor Sean Penn is one of the few to come out of the Rolling Stone piece looking reasonably good.  You may wonder, as Vij and Julie do over on the Rethinking Blog, why he’s running a camp in Haiti, but he seems to be asking a lot of the right questions about things like drainage.  Apart from one time when he’s hoodwinked by the bureaucrats and the supposed experts, the story suggests he’s getting stuff done.  And in other news last week, it turns out Bob Geldof is fronting a $300m private equity fund investing in Africa.  Maybe being an entertainer doesn’t immediately discount any ability to do something useful in policy circles (Republicans: think Ronald Reagan.  And Democrats: … Kal “Kumar” Penn?).Meanwhile, Development Experts do still know a lot (I became convinced after being called one, once).  So celebrities interested in development issues should certainly speak to Development Experts before going off and trying to help (it is disappointing for the cause of global development, then, that I have yet to be invited to Lake Como, given tickets to a U2 concert, or even a voucher for free popcorn at a viewing of Mr and Mrs Smith).But if celebrities should be humble, so should Development Experts.  They don’t know all of the answers, either.Which brings us to Cash on Delivery Aid.  CGD has been battering on about COD like a cook in a chippy, but with some reason.  It’s the idea that donor agencies pay countries for delivering outcomes (X more kids in school or vaccinated) rather than paying contractors and consultants to deliver the services which might (or might not) lead to those outcomes.  Roving Bandit argues that COD “gets rid of the need for development experts.”  I’d put it differently: it forces them to be humble.  Rather than lording it over recipient countries saying “you’ll only get the money if you spend it like I think you should,” experts are put in the position of saying “you’ll get the money if you deliver results, but I might have some good ideas about how you can do that, if you are interested.”  And recipients have the incentive to look for advice –after all, they’ll only get the money if they deliver the outcomes.So, humility all around.  That’s my very important, completely original, idea.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.