written by Michael Woolcock
Half-way through my HKS course on ‘Social Institutions and Economic Development’ I host a class, usually timed to be given on the eve of spring break, on what it means to be a “development expert”, especially as it pertains to engaging with social institutions. For better or worse, I now have enough grey hair and professional visibility to often have that awkward title bestowed upon me, but while I like to think I have come to know a little about development processes, and probably know more now than I did 25 years ago, the notion of being deemed a development “expert” is a label I try to wear lightly, if I must wear it at all. In this class, I stress that technical expertise is real, rare, its application deeply necessary and consequential, and for certain kinds of development problems, exactly what you need. For other kinds of development problems, however – and certainly the bulk of those problems associated with building state capability – routinely prioritizing the singular deployment of a narrow form of technical expertise as the optimal solution is itself part of the problem (in the sense articulated in the “Solutions when the solution is the problem” paper I wrote with Lant Pritchett back in 2004).
These days, my preferred metaphorical, ideal-type juxtaposition is between expertise that fills a space and expertise that creates and protects space; this distinction roughly corresponds to, respectively, Theory X and Y in the management literature (as famously articulated by Douglas McGregor in 1960). I like this distinction expressed in the terms of ‘filling’ versus ‘protecting’ space because it broadly reflects the different skills and sensibilities that, to me, are so readily on display in development decision-making – whether in the board room, the online seminar, the policy forum, the diplomatic table, or the village meeting hall. The space-fillers primarily perceive their job, and their kindred colleagues’ job, as one of “controlling” (empirically, epistemologically, managerially) the extraneous “noisy” factors intruding on the space they’ve carefully “identified” so that, into this space, their particular, somewhere-verified “solution” can be deftly but decisively inserted. It’s what Atul Gawande calls the savior doctor model, in which one provides “a definitive intervention at a critical moment… with a clear, calculable, frequently transformative outcome.” I’ve checked the key indicators (‘vital signs’), asked my go-to questions, diligently eliminated various possibilities; I’ve scanned the decision-tree as I understand it, and determined that the highest-probability solution to this problem is X. The faster and more “cleanly” I can do this, the more genuinely ‘expert’ (and efficient and effective) I believe myself to be. Providing such decisive input into this space is emotionally thrilling; it vindicates all my years of elite education and hard work, pays me real money, yields the tantalizing allure of future successes at grander scales with higher stakes, and bestows upon me tangible professional accolades and high social status. Like nature, I abhor a vacuum, so I’ve confidently stepped in where the “less rigorous” fear to tread. I’m trained and socialized to think counterfactually, so I can’t help but indulge my vainglorious ceteris paribus fantasy that, but for my presence at that moment, things would have turned out so differently… Heck, I’ve changed history!Continue reading On being and becoming a “development expert”