Monday, October 28, 2002

In the next few entries in this Blog I am going to do some riffs on things that have been bothering me on the topic of this Blog.

There is now a lot of interest in K4D, but it seems to me that a lot of it is based on economic analyses that are flawed. Some economists have used econometric methods with cross sectional data on the growth of capital, labor and GDP to conclude that much of economic progress is based on growth of productivity, and extrapolated that improved (technological knowledge) is the basis for improved productivity. I would agree that one can not improve the productivity of labor and capital without improving technology, but ascribing all the increase to that one factor seems to me unjustified.

It was once common to include “land” (or more generally natural resource endowments) among the determinants of GDP. It should be noted that in general natural resources are not “natural” – they are “stuff” that has been turned into resources by the accumulation of knowledge. Thus you have to know where something is, how to retrieve it, and how to use it, (and increasingly how to conserve it) to call it a resource. It seems to me that part of the increase in GDP has come from turning “stuff” into “resources”. This is not a new discovery; in North America the first economic applications of science and technology were in the discovery and mapping of resources – exploration, mineral prospecting, identification of soil, forest and fishery resources, etc. Without recognizing this reality, K4D programs will miss a key programmatic element needed to create wealth.

What do we do about institutions and policies? Most development professionals think that if you get the institutions and policies right, then development will follow. But institutional develop is not normally seen as a key element in K4D strategies, nor is improving the general policy making framework. In a future entry I will come back to the fact that knowledge is indeed embodied in institutions.

Perhaps because I worked in the Division of Research in Epidemiology and Communications Science of the World Health Organization, I am impressed by the need for problem identification as a key element in development. Epidemiological evidence allows health officials to define more cost effective strategies to improve health. Seems obvious, doesn’t it. Indeed, we can see HIV/AIDS is a grave global health problem because we have information on its incidence, prevalence, and lethality. Knowledge not only lets us define cost-effective strategies to reduce health problems, but allows us to identify those problems in the first place, and helps to set relative priorities among health problems. Similar arguments could be made for many fields. Again, I wonder how many K4D strategies devote sufficient attention to improving the knowledge base about societies’ problems.

While I am on the topic, let me point out that the focus on increasing GDP per capita is only a poor surrogate for solving societies’ priority problems. I think one of the key features of technological success is that they are associated with so rapid a decrease in cost of goods and services as to make econometric tools difficult to apply. Thus in the industrial revolution, the costs of key goods and transportation services decreased so fast as to make them almost disappear from consciousness as constraints. Similarly, we can see that there has been a real improvement in the lives of people in developing nations in terms of life expectancy, health status, food availability, access to information, etc. that seem to be invisible in the GDP per capita figures.

The basic point I am trying to make is that knowledge for development is a more complex field than improving technological knowledge to promote innovation and industrial productivity.

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