Against innovation (mostly)

(This post discusses ideas from a paper that’s currently under review. You can read it here.)

Amartya Sen gave a talk today in Amsterdam. For those who don’t know him, he is the originator of the Capability approach to development (where development is measured by people’s capacity to fulfill their potential in things as diverse as their health or their intellectual abilities). He is now 81 years old, and has lived through famine, partition and war. Among his many achievements is an Nobel prize for saying that it is worth measuring the human cost and benefit of economic policy, and providing ways to do so.

His lecture was on the importance of fundamental welfare interventions in making it possible for countries to develop, notably universal healthcare and education. He made the point that India is the first country to attempt to become an industrial superpower with an unhealthy and uneducated population – and that this attempt will ultimately prove unsustainable.

His talk made me think about the current shift in the development field toward thinking about technological innovation as a driver of development, epitomised by the belief that a design-based approach can solve problems that are otherwise insoluble, and that what can be measured can be fixed. From these two beliefs spring the belief in data, and the evolving field of data-in-development that I am currently studying. No one, of course, has claimed that data or innovation can cause  development on their own, but there is a certain amount of magical thinking occurring that disregards the gap between basic welfare and the kind of business growth that creates economic opportunity.

In terms of the discourse in the international development world – if not in terms of the actual efforts taking place on the ground – one could say that we are experiencing a transition from Human Development of the kind advocated by Sen to Innovation as a framing for development. If people can create apps, the thinking appears to go, and if everything is only designed right, then the poorest countries can ‘leapfrog’ the processes that today’s high-income countries have undergone over the course of centuries.

There is, of course, the argument that innovation is important everywhere, and that the kind of problems faced by many of the lowest-income countries require visionary solutions. Henry Ford once said that if he had asked people what they wanted in order to improve travel, they would have said ‘faster horses’ since they couldn’t imagine the automobile.

However, Sen argues that basic needs in development can only be answered by some very old ideas. Universal healthcare, economic equality, basic education, meaningful and progressive taxation, political representation. For people to benefit from technological innovation, these things need to be in place otherwise – as Sen points out – there is no sustainability to what results. Unless you make people healthier, more secure and more able to advocate for their rights, it doesn’t really matter how visionary the elite get to be. They will still live in a place where they can catch malaria at any moment, and where there is political and economic instability so that sustained growth is not possible.

Importantly, the innovation approach tends to be corporate-driven. As a multinational corporation you can call the search for market share in your particular area development (Facebook’s internet.org, for example, empowers the poor by enabling them to access Facebook) – or you can empower people financially by giving them a voter registration ID that is also a Mastercard (as just happened in Nigeria). You can even empower them as welfare recipients, by signing them up for a biometric database that allows companies to target people for marketing as well as allowing them to identify themselves so they can claim social welfare entitlements. What all these things have in common is that they also empower corporations by giving them new forms of access to the public, and that they turn the public into consumers even in the context of being welfare recipients or voters. They also enable new forms of tracking, sorting and potentially surveillance by creating new databases and maps that parallel people’s existing digital footprints.

Sen’s talk made me remember that establishing welfare systems takes visionary thinking as well, on a level that the innovation discourse hasn’t really connected with yet. Creating jobs and inclusive economic growth is inevitably an innovative process because it requires the invention of new policy tools and institutional configurations. But these innovations take place at the national level and are done by governments, and are much harder for outsiders to create. It’s fine to make a new water pump or a ball that creates electricity when it’s kicked around. But giving someone access to preventive healthcare or a school, Sen says, is much more important because then they will be able to participate in building their own society.

The extent to which these things are at odds – innovation thinking in development and Sen’s structural approach – is debatable. It’s possible for them to coexist peacefully, as George Bush hoped humans and fish might one day do. But no matter how smart ‘we’ are in developing solutions to help ‘them’, it’s nothing compared to what ‘they’ can do if they have the chance. After all, it’s how ‘we’ got to be in a position to think about development in the first place.

(Note – this post draws on various conversations with the researcher Laura Mann, whose blog can be found here).

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