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Archive for February, 2011

In Oxford February 15th?

If you fancy learning a bit about Bhutan, IT for Education, and theories of Technology and Modernisation in Development swing by Oxford for the day where there will be an interesting lecture given on these topics at 5pm, St. Anthony’s College, Oxford. More information below:

Information technology, education and modernisation in Bhutan: the cultural space between policy and practice

Nick Fiore, London School of Economics
15 February 2011 17:00 –
Dahrendorf Room, St Antony’s College

Conveners: David Johnson and Chelsea Robles

Part of the seminar series: Education and the Politics of Culture and Modernisation in Bhutan


What we choose to believe…

In the reports, speeches, PR, and literature of the international development world, we often take informational truth for granted. We have ministerial aid programs, World Bank project syntheses, and project cycle charts thrown in our faces ad nausea. This overload of analysis can be overwhelming and often misleading. Given these statements, I’d like to point out a recent finding and some food for thought to back them up.

It may seem trivial, to point out a contextual misunderstanding of academic literature by a UNESCO report that I was recently reading, however there are more than a few reasons why I believe otherwise. The report is a thematic study titled, “Applying New Technologies and Cost-Effective Delivery Systems in Basic Education”. It attempts to comment on the potential benefits of ICT in Education, however is tainted due to a misguided approach to research.

For example, the authors make the claim, on page 19 of their report, that, “The global context can act as a powerful site for the ‘recognition of, and support for, cultural difference’ and for the assertion or protection of differences on the part of both parties in the exchange (Giddens, 1990, p. 7). In this, school linking appears to hold particular significance.” The report, a non-academic paper, uses the academic work of Anthony Giddens in this case to support its argument. Most, would simply accept this use of literature to support the UNESCO stance as accurate and move on. However, after some digging into the work of Giddens, and the use of The Consequences of Modernity in their citation, a few things appear questionable.

Most importantly, The Consequences of Modernity by Anthony Giddens calls into question modernity as a positive force. In fact, page 7 of Gidden’s masterpiece of sociological thought never mentions the phrase UNESCO includes in their quotations, ‘recognition of, and support for, cultural difference’. Nevertheless, the authors of this paper on ICTs in Education use it and additionally come to much different conclusions about technological use than Giddens.

In reality, on page 7, Giddens spends all of his time talking about modernity as a “double edged phenomenon”, where certain opportunities for the expansion of a rewarding existence have grown through modernisation, but how there is also an incredibly destructive and sombre side to modernity, often brought along by new technology in previously unknown spaces. Giddens follows this by page after page of critical analysis of new technology and systematically proves its destructive capability. He follows much of this analysis with discussions of the role of modern institutions (including new technologies) in changes in value orders and unitended consequences in the development process across societies, all of these points left out by the UNESCO authors.

And surprise, surprise! The authors of the UNESCO paper go on to conclude that, “There are demonstrable successes in broadcasting and in the use of distance education, and important potential in the use of computer based technologies.” This argument was in large part set up by the misuse of the Giddens literature that provided the supposed theoretical basis to legitimize the later claims in the report. Ironically, this misuse of a well respected set of theories calls into question the legitimacy of this entire piece of research by a supposedly well-respected development actor. It is another example of how we trust large institutions and they let us down time and time again with broad-based assumptions and academic misconduct. Was UNESO simply being careless and lazy, seeking to add another source to their list of citations? Or were they seeking to give legitimacy to biased and pre-meditated conclusions about IT for Education based on their current support and funding of such initiatives? I leave the final conclusions up to you, but shame on you UNESCO!

What are your thoughts on the integrity of development literature, its relevance, and the industry of thought in this confusing and often contradictory field?

The Evolution of Ignorance

Paul Krugman’s recent talk of intuition vs. models has inspired me to dig up one of his old papers from 1994, “The Fall and Rise of Development Economics.” The paper is long but the theme is clear—knowing more sometimes causes us to know less.  Here is an (extremely) abridged version:

Krugman uses the example of the mapping of Africa where “the improvement in the art of mapmaking raised the standard for what was considered valid data. Second-hand reports of the form “six days south of the end of the desert you encounter a vast river flowing from east to west” were no longer something you would use to draw your map…And so the crowded if confused continental interior of the old maps became “darkest Africa”, an empty space. Of course, by the end of the 19th century darkest Africa had been explored, and mapped accurately. In the end, the rigor of modern cartography led to infinitely better maps. But there was an extended period in which improved technique actually led to some loss in knowledge.”

He parallels this to story of Hirschmann and how an idea was rejected by the economics community because it was impossible to be formally modeled—that is, until our modeling techniques got better and the idea was, well, modeled.  Like it or not, this is the way modern economics works—with models as necessary simplifications of reality.

“Still, there are highly intelligent and objective thinkers who are repelled by simplistic models for a much better reason: they are very aware that the act of building a model involves loss as well as gain. Africa isn’t empty, but the act of making accurate maps can get you into the habit of imagining that it is. Model-building, especially in its early stages, involves the evolution of ignorance as well as knowledge; and someone with powerful intuition, with a deep sense of the complexities of reality, may well feel that from his point of view more is lost than is gained.

But that initial narrowing is very hard for broad minds to accept. And so they look for an alternative. The problem is that there is no alternative to models. We all think in simplified models, all the time. The sophisticated thing to do is not to pretend to stop, but to be self-conscious — to be aware that your models are maps rather than reality.”

“The truth is, I fear, that there’s not much that can be done about the kind of apparent intellectual waste that took place during the fall and rise of development economics. A temporary evolution of ignorance may be the price of progress, an inevitable part of what happens when we try to make sense of the world’s complexity.”

I’ll stop my rampant butchering of the paper as there are many more interesting bits.  If you’re interested, more here.

Long, Long Way From Home

I find the idea of migration-for-development pretty intriguing owing to the fact that it has the potential for wide-reaching effects, even if it’s often not practically never very popular in receiving countries.

The idea is simple—that wage and productivity differentials between the developing and developed worlds are large enough to benefit those who move from the former to the latter—but the mechanics are not, of course.

For example, the demand for skilled migrant labor in developed nations is typically higher than that of unskilled demand.  This is good in the sense that it provides incentives for workers to invest in their own skills in order to reap the benefits of migration.  But it’s also negative in that it isolates the poorest who lack resources to improve their human capital in the first place.

Temporary movement of persons (TMP) schemes can fix this problem by targeting the poorest and allowing them to work abroad for short durations.  This runs into a number of issues—what if they overstay their visas or become victims of exploitation?  Or what if, in the end, the durations are just too short to provide much benefit at all?  In a recent analysis of a program in New Zealand, these problems never manifested and program participants received much larger gains in annual income than did beneficiaries of other traditional types of interventions (more here).  Whether similar results could hold elsewhere remains to be seen.

Success will hinge on the development of the scheme itself—whether costs borne by migrants are low enough to justify their stay as well as whether migrants have repeated opportunities to work in foreign labor markets.  Equally important are the incentives behind labor demand, particularly regarding worker skill level.  Private sector demands should drive the migrant quotas so as not to undermine the receiving economy’s labor demand and supply disparities.

There’s more to the story, particularly in the implementation process.  But basically, much of this boils down to an incentive compatibility issue, i.e. how to ensure that everybody behaves as they should honestly or ‘truthfully’ behave.  And of course, that’s not so easy, is it?

Still, the success in New Zealand allows me some not-entirely-baseless optimism.  For some more on migration for development, check here for starters.