Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Muddling Through: How Development's Past Shapes Its Future

| November 4, 2009

International development is back.  President Barack Obama has given it significance in U.S. strategy not seen since the Cold War.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's much touted "Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review," emphasizes her own belief that it is, "a core pillar of American power."  Development has its critics; one being former World Bank economist William Easterly who thinks what international development "is doing, will do, can do, or should do" remains, "muddled."  He has a point.  Development's means and ends are jumbled.  In part, development is trapped by its own chequered history.  Yet, this past is not necessarily a liability, it could even provide an opening to improve the development process.

In the mid-twentieth century, many would have seen development's means and ends as modernization.  Indeed, modernization was nearly synonymous with development, presupposing that progress it offered created modern, industrialized societies on the lines of those in the West.  For the United States, the New Deal was influential, providing examples of how broad, intensive economic and social change could be cultivated with state intervention and planning.  After World War II, a generation of Americans sought to apply the lessons of programs like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in far corners of the globe. 

During the Cold War, modernization offered a means to contain communist influence and its importance as a basic component of U.S. strategy was widely accepted.  The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) reflected this.  By the mid-1960s, it had a worldwide staff of 18,000 and an annual budget of over $3 billion. 

"Third World" commitments tied modernization to counterinsurgency efforts.  This was especially true in Vietnam.  There, USAID was essential to the struggle.  By 1967, its Vietnam office had 7500 personnel and a budget of $495 million.  John H. Sullivan, a mission veteran later recalled, "the best and brightest of USAID went to Vietnam." Richard Holbrooke was one, serving in the Mekong Delta.  He might have shared Sullivan's sober conclusion that, "there was no way anyone could do development in that war zone."  As the conflict ground on, USAID's reputation sagged.  With an aid policy decried as a "shambles," Richard Nixon offered "New Directions" for foreign aid.   

It was a major revision of development policy.  Instead of "impersonal measures of GNP growth" (a staple of modernization programs) alleviating poverty became paramount.  But reforms also sapped agency capacities.  Worldwide staff was slashed to less than 8500 by 1975. USAID increasingly contracted its work to NGOs and businesses while its own core competencies atrophied.  Agency limitations that critics bemoan today are one legacy of Vietnam. 

In the West, Vietnam was part of a larger crisis challenging the faith in progress in which modernization was rooted.  Left and right, many came to doubt the state as an agent to promote social and economic change.  Modernization fell out of fashion and supporters reorganized the call of "sustainability." But what development was supposed to accomplish became ambiguous and the Cold War's end only made rationales fuzzier. 

September 11, 2001, and the "War on Terror" offered development a familiar strategic role.  In Afghanistan, development is again yoked to counterinsurgency.  As new policies are discussed, the past echoes.  Richard Holbrooke, Obama's regional proconsul, has suggested development programs there that mirror what "Roosevelt...[did] in the 1930s... a massive multibillion dollar program." Part of Jeffrey Sachs' vision of an "end to poverty" is built on an historical example that helps "us understand how international development can succeed"—the TVA.  In his own work, Easterly also echoes the past, repeating a long-standing animus toward development based on a "big plan." 

Too often this sounds like replay of yesterday's battles.  Supporters fall back on ideas from bygone eras while opponents trot out critiques generated in days gone by.  All parties need to step away from the long-standing preconceptions and categories that shackle discussion.  Then, perhaps, a fresh look at the sometimes uncomfortable lessons of history can open up new opportunities to integrate fresh ideas and actors into a complicated process.  Most of all, there should be sober consideration of how armed conflict profoundly skews the process; a reality that hobbles even the best development approaches.  A hard look at development's past holds the potential to build a better process for the future.

David Ekbladh is assistant professor of history at Tufts University and a research fellow with the International Security Program at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ekbladh, David.“Muddling Through: How Development's Past Shapes Its Future.” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, November 4, 2009.

The Author