What is development bloat?

Development Bloat is a new term on the development block. Canadian agricultural economist Marc Bellemare first coined the term in a Foreign Affairs article this year. There is now a new website called The Campaign for Boring Development devoted to the subject.

Its philosophy is akin to that of Bill Easterly who sees the failure of development as being due largely to a “tyranny of experts” and blueprint approaches from technocratic managers sitting in comfy desks in DC.

The website publishes a list with which to check projects for “bloat”. the checklist is perhaps a heuristic device to get us talking, which is good as the debate on aid effectiveness should not be chilled. The list asks questions to help us ascertain if the project serve the needs of the designers or the recipients.

As a designer of trade and environment focused projects I find this useful. It mirrors some key evaluation criteria like sustainability of project outcomes. I would also add “Tendency to use jargon” as one criteria for bloat – see my post on jargon in the development business.

Aid delivery described in this way echoes the critique by Milton Friedman on the Four Ways to Spend Money – at one extreme if you spend your own money on yourself you will spend it carefully through to the other extreme when you spend someone else’s money on someone else – ” if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get”. Friedman calls this “government”.

Here is their “checklist”:

The Development Bloat Checklist

Ten questions to ask of any development project:

☐ Does it provide something most people in rich countries have/use, but few people in the recipient community have/use?

☐ Is the project likely to be abandoned once donor funding runs out?

☐ In order for the project to succeed, would people in the recipient community have to significantly change their habits or reorganize their daily routines?

☐ If the cost of the project was just handed out to recipients in cash, would they spend the cash on the thing the project provides?

☐ Are freebies at the center of the project?

☐ Are pictures of Smiling African Children featured prominently in the project’s marketing?

☐ Does it target middle income communities rather than very poor ones?

☐ Is the target population living in a city rather than the countryside?

☐ Is the project’s main target something other than people’s incomes?

☐ Does it assume a competent/non-corrupt local government to work?

Count the number of questions you answered “Yes” to:

0-2: You’re probably on the safe side

3-5: There are some worrying signs of bloat here.

6-8: Bloatier than a cow in a salt-lick factory.

9-10: Run awayyyyyyyyyy!

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