Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Thinking About Development at the Village Level

Development: The process of doing many things better and better.

Several days ago I posted some thoughts on the (limited) use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in testing the values of innovations in the context of international development. The basic point was that in my opinion, social and economic development is a process which produces many changes, and only some of those changes are suitable for analysis by randomized controlled trials. The development process itself is advanced by cultural change, and I don't see how the factors that bring about and enhance that cultural change can be studied through randomized controlled trials.

In the recent past there was some controversy over the application of randomized controlled trials to the Millennium Village Pjoject. According to the project website:
With the help of new advances in science and technology, project personnel work with villages to create and facilitate sustainable, community-led action plans that are tailored to the villages’ specific needs and designed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Simple solutions like providing high-yield seeds, fertilizers, medicines, drinking wells, and materials to build school rooms and clinics are effectively combating extreme poverty and nourishing communities into a new age of health and opportunity. Improved science and technology such as agroforestry, insecticide-treated malaria bed nets, antiretroviral drugs, the Internet, remote sensing, and geographic information systems enriches this progress. 
Over a 5-year period, community committees and local governments build capacity to continue these initiatives and develop a solid foundation for sustainable growth.

There are two mixed approaches here.
  • One is working with the village to create an action plan. If done well, that might help to institutionalize a process in the village of planning for cooperative efforts to overcome development problems.
  • The second it technology transfer of solutions to the specific problems identified.
I rather like the idea of developing village self governance to foster a proactive policy of identifying and solving problems. Certainly I like the idea of using improved technology to improve agricultural productivity and health.

Perhaps more importantly, sometimes such an approach can be used to help a village out of a poverty trap. A village that creates a dirt road to the nearest highway may make it possible to get crops to market, and get to the local market town for a variety of purposes. A village that gets telephone connectivity that it had not had before may similarly get lots of benefits that help it break out of poverty. Such in innovation may lead to a number of positive developments which eventually change the culture of the village, leading people to be less fatalistic and more active in problem solving.

I doubt that RCTs would work to evaluate either the effort to build local planning capacity, nor to evaluate the specific innovations chosen by the individual villages. That is not to say that quality in those respects would not matter, but qualitative evaluative approaches might better be applied than RCTs.

I think a fundamental basis for village development is learning.  People should be learning how to do new things and especially how to do better the things that they are already doing. Farmers should be learning how to grow better crops and to grow their crops better; builders should learn how to build better buildings and to better build buildings.

I rather like the idea put forth in the Positive Deviance Initiative. This organization surveys people in a village to find those who perform some function best, and then encourage others to learn from them. For example, they can survey young children in a village and see which ones are healthiest and best nourished (often the better nourished are the healthiest). It has turned out that the mothers of these "positive deviant" children are better at raising the kids -- perhaps finding more protein in the village to improve their diets, or maintaining a more hygienic environment. Those mothers have proven more than willing to share their approaches, and neighboring mothers have proven willing to learn from them.

Note that learning in a village does not just mean individual learning, nor school learning. It has been shown in hundreds of studies that when a new cultivar of an important crop is introduced in a village, some early acceptors try the cultivar first. Often such a cultivar doesn't serve local needs -- it doesn't grow in the local conditions, or it proves vulnerable to local diseases or pests, or the folk simply don't like the product. If it proves good, cultivation of such a cultivar can spread quickly as other farmers copy the early acceptors. Thus the village learns collectively whether or not a new cultivar works, and farmers learn together to grow the useful ones.

In some villages, people will form cooperatives. For example, a growers cooperative might be formed to save money through bulk purchase of farm inputs (seed, fertilizer, pesticides, fuel), to share farm equipment, to provide storage for produce, or to market produce. All of the learning techniques used by organizations can them come into play, including hiring needed expertise, moving employees to where their skills are more needed, or obtaining training for key employees.

One of the more important forms of community learning will be in institutionalizing contacts between the village and others. Presumably the Millennium Villages Project helps the people in the villages to improve contacts with local government, with sources of technical assistance, and perhaps with markets for the things produce in and sold out of the village. Here I am talking about institutionalizing new ways for members of the village and people outside to deal with each other.

Ideally, a village culture will change through such experiences. People in the village will become more proactive in identifying problems, more accurate in identifying important problems that will yield to their efforts, and better at solving those problems. They will become more active in learning to do more things better and better.

The purpose of this post is not to support any specific project, but rather to describe my view of development, as it plays out at the village level in poor countries. In those countries, a large number of people still live in rural areas practicing subsistence agriculture. Economic development will depend on the productivity increasing in the villages so that a smaller portion of the national population can provide the food and fiber needed by the rest of the country. As we know, that change will also lead to people moving from the villages to towns and cities, both because they are no longer needed on the farms and because they can be more productive elsewhere.

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