This article was inspired by Professor Howard White's address to the the 3ie symposium, “Thinking Outside the Black Box”.
The devil is always in the detail
The lessons of anthropology are more often seen as intellectually engaging than practically useful. However, Professor Howard White argues that leaders in international development cannot afford to ignore them.
He cites as an example the failure of the $67 million Bangladesh Integrated Nutrition Project (BINP). This project aimed to address malnutrition through educating mothers as to the best way to feed their children. While the idea seemed sound, an anthropologist who knew the country would instantly have seen a flaw: the scheme assumed that mothers decided how their children were fed. In fact, Bangladeshi men generally carry out the food shopping while decisions over child care are often made by mothers-in-law. The people with the ability to reverse malnutrition were not those being educated.
A project can work in one place and fail in another. Those who assume similarities between Africa's diverse countries need to recognise this. Anthropology is well-placed to indentify these crucial differences, but 21st century Africa still presents a challenge. With the rapid development of many African economies, societal norms are shifting at pace. Anthropology's relevance to international development rests on its ability to keep up.
The challenge of shifting behaviour
Those in charge of BINP were frustrated that many Bangladeshis understood the principles of good nutrition but failed to follow them. Knowledge was not changing behaviour.
Professor White suggests that we should not be surprised by this. He offers drink-driving as a Western case-study of behaviour change lagging far behind knowledge. Norms of behaviour endure because routine and tradition are stubborn obstacles.
This has consequences for a host of international development projects across Africa, particularly those focused on increasing the use of contraceptives. If we accept that shifting behaviour takes time, it is necessary to judge projects against realistic long-term targets, and not to expect too much too soon. In addition, if knowledge is not enough, it is important to explore fully the role that incentives can play.
The danger of "elite capture"
International development projects increasingly focus on empowering those citizens who have traditionally been powerless. This goal is worthwhile but extremely hard to achieve.
White cites the example of Indian self-help groups (SHGs), collectives of women who pool their money to create micro-banks for their members. While the women are supposed to have complete control, they often lack the ability or confidence to deal with the complexities of financial management. They usually turn to a highly educated non-member for help. This is termed "elite capture", and with this comes the danger of exploitation. Women's power has all but vanished.
Citizens who have long been excluded from positions are likely to have been deprived of education. Giving these citizens positions of power is not the same as empowering them; they must be given the education to use their new-found status. This will take time but then there is rarely a short-cut to meaningful reform.
Measuring the things that count
International development can advance only if it recognises its successes and its failures. Professor White warns that costly aid projects often still receive lightweight evaluations. He considers the example of school capitalisation projects, which seek to increase school performance through increased funding. The evaluations of these projects tend to consider only the total amount of money spent and not what it was spent on. A chance to understand the mechanism behind success is wasted.
The financial crisis has placed aid budgets under scrutiny while this pressure is intensified by critical voices such as Dambisa Moyo and Robert Calderisi who seek to damn the entire practice. Rarely has international development been under such pressure to prove its efficacy. The only effective response is a new era of comprehensive and thorough evaluation.