Wednesday, June 26, 2013

On scepticism and serendipity in development

I have not read any works of Albert Hirschman, but this review by Malcom Gladwell of his new biography written by Jeremy Adelman is very interesting. I plan to read Adelman's book at the earliest.

From the review, it is apparent that Hirschman saw development as a highly non-linear process, where tensions created by crises and conflicts have a beneficial role (in addition to its conventional negative consequences), and serendipity and happenstance results in good outcomes. His scepticism of grand narratives and comprehensive plans as the path towards development is similarly obvious. I am sympathetic with this world-view, though not when taken to its extremes of scepticism.

Gladwell highlights Hirschman's embrace of uncertainty and crisis, even failures, as "general principles of action" in the path towards development. He quotes Hirschman,
Creativity always comes as a surprise to us; therefore we can never count on it and we dare not believe in it until it has happened. In other words, we would not consciously engage upon tasks whose success clearly requires that creativity be forthcoming. Hence, the only way in which we can bring our creative resources fully into play is by misjudging the nature of the task, by presenting it to ourselves as more routine, simple, undemanding of genuine creativity than it will turn out to be...
While we are rather willing and even eager and relieved to agree with a historian’s finding that we stumbled into the more shameful events of history, such as war, we are correspondingly unwilling to concede—in fact we find it intolerable to imagine—that our more lofty achievements, such as economic, social or political progress, could have come about by stumbling rather than through careful planning. . . . Language itself conspires toward this sort of asymmetry: we fall into error, but do not usually speak of falling into truth.
On Hirschman's inclination to doubt (be sceptical) things since "it allowed for alternative ways to see the world", Gladwell writes,
But Hirschman would come to recognize that action fuelled by doubt allows for failures to be left behind. Spain (where he went to fight the Civil War) was a tragedy, but it was also, for him, an experiment, and experiments go awry.
Also it prevents the originators and implementers of the initiative to not become captives of their own idea. It provides a healthy detachment which lends objectivity when assessing the initiative. This is of great significance in the development policy space where bad ideas do atleast as much damage as the benefits produced by good ideas.

While Hirschman's point about the positive unintended consequences of bold schemes and plans and the importance of tensions (in development) is understandable, I cannot agree with its exclusionist tone. To say that crises and conflicts can have the seeds of success and development is one thing. But to argue that all such crises and conflicts have beneficial effects may be like saying "all dark clouds have a silver lining". Even more questionable is the argument that creativity arises only from mis-judgements and failures.

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