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Development myths – ODI’s take on the Gates letter

22 January 2014

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Author Bio

Claire Melamed was formerly a Managing Director and Director of Poverty and Inequality at ODI. She is now the Executive Director at the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data.

Statue of Atlas- Lightmatter (Creative Commons licensed via Flickr)

Yesterday the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation issued their annual letter, focusing on three common myths about development. It got us wondering what ODI colleagues, working in different fields, would see as the most problematic myths in their particular area. A lot of helpful ranting ensued, and here’s the summary – ODI’s top 16 development myths (with, of course, the usual ODI disclaimer – these are the views of individual researchers, some people in ODI will disagree violently with some of them, and we don’t, blessedly, have an official ODI view on anything). 

Myths about aid

  • Vast amounts of aid are spent on poor people in other countries.  People consistently over-estimate the amount spent on aid – surveys in the US, for example, report that people think that 10-25 per cent of the federal budget is spent on aid, when the real figure is around 1%. 
  • Aid is either working well or could work better, and those are the only two options. Defenders of aid often argue that the effect is always benign and the only question is how much good aid does, but we know that isn’t true. There is a third option: aid can, and sometimes does, do harm, whether by coming with harmful conditions attached, supporting harmful projects or processes, or promoting aid dependency.
  • ‘Proper’ aid is all about saving lives. We are very attached to the idea of aid for things like schools and hospitals, but aid to train civil servants, or to invest in roads or communications technology, may be just as important a contribution to improving, not just saving, lives.
  • India (and other middle-income countries or MICs) doesn't need aid. India and other MICs may need aid less than even poorer countries, but aid spent in those countries can help save and improve lives, and reduce climate impact.
  • We can all work in partnership for a better world. There are a lot of warm words in the development business, which can obscure some of the tricky politics involved in questions of distribution and more systemic change. When tackling bigger issues such as inequality or tax there will be some huge battles between the haves and the have-nots. At some point, we may need to choose sides.

Myths about emergencies and disasters

  • Women are always the most helpless victims in a disaster. Both by words and pictures, women are often portrayed as the ultimate victims when disaster strikes – but often they are the ones with far better survival strategies than men.
  • Unburied bodies create mass epidemics by contaminating water supplies. A frequent journalistic standby when reporting on disasters, but we don’t think it’s ever actually happened.

Myths about development and climate

  • Providing universal access to energy will have a serious impact on greenhouse-gas emissions and climate change. Poor people consume very little energy. Estimated addition to greenhouse gases from universal access is +0.6% of global total emissions.
  • Climate-change mitigation is uneconomic/costs too much. The benefits outweigh the costs.
  • The poor are responsible for environmental degradation. Most environmental degradation is due to the consumption patterns of middle- and higher-income groups.

Myths about governments and policy

  • ‘Good’ data necessarily leads to ‘good’ decision-making, and transparency always leads to accountability. Good decision-making and accountability is almost impossible without good, publicly available data.  But one doesn’t lead to the other – lots of other, more political, things have to happen for data to be used well to make good decisions or to promote accountability.
  • All developing countries are corrupt (and we are not). Bill and Melinda’s letter is great on corruption in aid, and on how it’s not as big a problem as you’d think. We agree, and would add that discussions about corruption tend to focus almost entirely on corruption in poor countries, as if it were exclusively a 'development’ problem. In fact, there are some developing countries that are less corrupt than you’d think, and some richer countries that are much more so – it’s a global issue.

Myths about agriculture

  • Agricultural production, or food production, is not keeping pace with population growth. This may have been true at some point in the 1980s,and may still be true for some countries, but for most countries, and most regions within Africa since the early 1990s, it is not.
  • Yields per hectare in African farming are stagnant. Not true for at least 10 years, more like 20.
  • Desertification is causing the Sahara to advance south at up to 4km a year.  While human activity does have an effect on African drylands close to the Sahara, there is no evidence that this is causing desertification on a wide scale, or that the Sahara is advancing south.
  • Countries have to develop away from agriculture rather than with it. Evidence on the diversity of growth models, including those based around a strong agricultural sector, seems to be over-shadowed by an assumption that higher-value (mainly industrial, manufacturing and services) growth is what every country should eventually aspire to. Why not higher-value agricultural growth with strong domestic and export markets? Or a combination of agricultural and industrial growth?

Every sector has its zombie ideas that won’t go away, and development is no different. Some myths are harmless, others lead to bad decisions and bad policy. We came up with 16 in a few hours, and I suspect that’s just the start – what are yours?