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Development policy: overestimating the capacity to change things

Room for Manoeuvre: An Exploration of Public Policy in Agriculture and Rural Development, edited by E.J. Clay and B. B. Schaffer. Gower, Farnborough, 1985, 209 p., $13.50.

Radical critique of development politics is not new. For a long time it was based primarily on Marxist or "dependency"-oriented studies, stressing the close relationship between the "development business" and the interests of the dominant classes in the industrialized countries. In the last couple of years radical criticism has also emerged from a quite different perspective: neoliberals attacking the inefficiency of state intervention which distorts the salutary effects of market forces, distracts resources from productive use, and inflates an unproductive bureaucracy. In contrast to the often rather academic character of these approaches, this book, edited by Edward Clay and the late Bernard Schaffer, promises a radical critique of development politics from an insider's perspective and ideas on how to detect and use the largest "room for manoeuvre" given in particular situations for pursuing objectives which are in themselves mostly uncontroversial (fulfilment of basic needs, increase of productivity, equitable land reform).

In an introductory chapter, the editors explain their concern "to analyze public policy on development as the process and practice of what governments actually do, to explain the linkages between intentions and outcomes". For them the basic problem is the widely followed "common sense" or "mainstream" model of public policy, which represents public policy as a dichotomous linear process of two distinct but sequential phases, the process leading to the decision for a particular policy and its implementation land the problems related to it). This implies the fiction of an independent decision-making process oriented exclusively toward particular development objectives. The gaps between intentions and outcomes then appear to be due to difficulties of implementation, thus apparently removing all responsibility from policy-makers' shoulders. The target-group approach is seen as a logical supplement to the described policy model: trying to improve the situation of a specific social group, planners and politicians tend to base policies on highly selective data and problems and thereby to isolate the target group from the social development of which it forms part. Several case studies elucidate particular problems and contradictions of the mainstream model. Percy Selwyn's analysis of agricultural budgets in Mauritius shows that budgetary allocations hardly imply any real policy decision but tend to be self-perpetuating: "Those in society who would benefit from a re-ordering of priorities in expenditure may have little information on what is required, and may in any event have little political influence." Edward J. Clay demonstrates that the establishment of "Special Planning Units" related to problems of foodcrops and nutrition in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka might theoretically have contributed to a strengthening of the planning process, but in practice had little impact on agricultural development as they had not been integrated into the regular political process. Rural women constitute one of the most typical target groups in recent years. Florence McCarthy points out - commenting on such a programme in Bang ladesh - that "with women treated as a separate issue much that could be done to stabilize inputs onto the rural areas becomes fragmented." The role of women is isolated and is entrusted to "urban-based women, who... know nothing about rural women".

Perfect solutions, Stephen Biggs - in a survey of common themes in agricultural policy - stresses the inadequacy of the dominant "normative institutional engineering approach" to policy formulation, which proposes abstractly perfect solutions to social problems without considering the specificity of each local situation. Taking the example of a rural credit scheme in Bangladesh, which serves landless labourers and poor rural women, Biggs shows that the cautious evolution of such a scheme out of a locally conceived and initiated action research project can help to promote the situation of the rural poor. Two case studies on multilateral institutions {Martin Evans on change in the strategy of the Asian Development Bank; Diana Hunt on the experiences of the International Fund for Agricultural Development in Kenya) indicate that here the gap between policy formation and implementation tends to be even larger as a result of the tension between their international character and the attention paid by member states to their own national sovereignty. Thus, basic-needs-oriented concepts were at least in part converted back into across-the-board assistance (Evans) or aid for middle and rich peasants (Hunt).

The third part of the book focuses on "The Languages and Practice of Public Policy". A shorter contribution by Raymond Apthorpe stresses the need for a comprehensive interdisciplinary approach recognizing the existential character of development problems. The concluding article by Bernard Schaffer - which occupies about a quarter of the book - summarizes the different aspects of critique of the "mainstream" model and indicates ways toward an alternative treatment of public policy, drawing on the results of the preceding case studies and supplementing them with other examples. To me, his most interesting criticisms were:

- on the compartmentalization of a social whole into apparently independent sectoral realities;

- on the decisionality of the model suggesting that well-considered, rational decisions have been taken, when, in fact, alternative strategies were excluded long before (as in the case of the "decision" to drop atomic bombs on Japan in 1945);

- on the manifold escapes from responsibility, frequently based on the pretence that the results of carefully carried out academic studies did not leave any other choice than the "chosen" policy.

Alternative models. Nevertheless, I finally finished reading the book with a certain sense of frustration. In contrast to the extensive criticism of the "mainstream" model, few indications are given of alternative policy models to enlarge the "room for manoeuvre". These parts of the Schaffer article remain vague. The alternative model has to have an inclusive character; the attempt to make their own strategy unassailable has to be replaced by the "willingness of the institutions to be involved with their critics" and to organize the "process of alternative participation". I agree. But what does that mean with respect to existing political structures and - even more fundamental - what does it mean for the potential of development politics to modify prevalent historical tendencies in favour of particular social objectives?

I suspect that one reason for the vagueness of the proposed alternative model is to be found in an incomplete analysis of the state of affairs. The editors never arrive at the question why, after all, the mainstream model has dominated development planning. In a short joint conclusion, they emphasize "that the whole life of policy is a chaos of purposes and accidents. It is not at all a matter of the rational implementation of so-called decisions through selected strategies". - This could be the clue to the whole problem: development planning tends to overestimate its capacities to change the "normal" course of history, to have an impact on what would have happened without the planning effort - even seemingly successful strategies quite often just successfully anticipate historical tendencies. This would suggest, first, looking for some kind of development tendencies hidden behind the "chaos of purposes and accidents" and then detecting the crossroads where appropriate political intervention could possibly push the course of events into the desired direction.

Wolfgang Hein