Must-Read: Chris Blattman: The Mistakes Made by Most Development Reformers: “Understand the world you live in. Think about the politics of reform. These are good points….

…It’s kind of amazing they need to be said out loud as news, but people do need reminders. One trouble I have is that I think even very smart and experienced people are profoundly bad at knowing what the problems are in the economy, where the political winds are blowing, and what will work. This needs to be said out loud as well…. I spend a lot of time studying local labor markets in Africa…. I try to figure out what holds back legal work and test programs that deliver those things: skills, capital, socialization, and so on. And I get it wrong almost every time…. Experiments never end like I expect them to…. I was blindsided by how frequently the poorest young men in slums of Nairobi have a home robbery or theft, meaning it’s almost impossible to accumulate capital. I was amazed that, yes, with a little skills and capital that a young woman can become the 183rd tailor in her community and turn a good profit.
This isn’t a defeatist point of view. I’d make a different point: the way I’ve learned how things operate is to work with a government or organization to try out a policy and succeed or fail. This kind of trial and error seems crucial to me. Karl Popper called this the piecemeal social engineer. Deng Xiaoping called it crossing the river by feeling each stone…. A lot of people would say this is China’s secret to success: informal experimentation on a grand scale. The problem, as I see it, is that most governments and aid organizations I’ve worked with are really, really bad at this. They don’t use the lessons from past failures to try again a different, better way. They don’t throw out bad programs…. The important question is not ‘what is the right policy?’, but ‘what is the process for generating good policies over time?’, and more importantly ‘how to get governments and aid organizations to adapt to the good and throw out the bad?’…

Originally published at on April 10, 2015.