In June, Yuen Yuen Ang, Assistant Professor of Political Science and Center for Political Studies (CPS) Faculty Associate, spoke at a panel on “What Should Tomorrow’s Aid Agencies Look Like?” Jointly organized by the Global Development Network (GDN) and Center for Global Development, the event featured Professor Ang as a winning author of the GDN Essay Competition on “The Future of Development Assistance,” sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The contest invited “original and innovative thinking on development assistance.” An international jury of development experts selected thirteen winners out of 1,470 submissions worldwide.
Ang’s GDN essay, titled “Making Details Matter: How to Reform Aid Agencies to Generate Contextual Knowledge,” draws on ideas from her new book, How China Escaped the Poverty Trap. Her book explores a broad question: What are the conditions that enable effective adaptation in organizations? While her book addresses this question in the context of the Chinese bureaucracy, Ang extends insights from her book to the problem of reforming aid agencies.
In recent years, there has been a growing consensus that the aid community should shift toward adaptive management, localized programs, and replace best practices with best-fit solutions. But while this desire to change is highly encouraging, Ang stresses that “prescription ≠ practice,” meaning “it is one thing to tell aid agencies that they should adapt, but another to explain how to adapt.” Ang’s GDN essay brings attention to the “how” of adaptation.
At the panel, Ang highlighted two conditions that are necessary for aid agencies of tomorrow to effectively tailor solutions to local contexts. First, she underscored the issue of evaluation. While it is relatively easy to assess performance based on best practices, it is difficult to determine what fits and what doesn’t in a flexible, best-fit paradigm. Ang pointed out that overhauling the evaluation criteria of entire organizations is neither feasible nor desirable. Instead, she recommended that aid agencies carve experimental pockets within their organizations, that is, special teams tasked to use local knowledge to solve local problems.
Second, Ang argued that in order to achieve creative, localized aid, aid professionals must learn how to build markets with weak institutions. Contrary to popular beliefs that we can only build markets with strong institutions, Ang’s book shows that whether in China or in other societies, actors have historically built markets with weak institutions, such as through communal property rights (China, late medieval Europe), risky public financing schemes (China, antebellum America), and piracy (Nigeria). In fact, we almost certainly have to do so, she argues, because all poor economies begin with weak institutions. Instead of bemoaning this reality, Ang urges aid agencies to harness weak institutions to catalyze development.
September 2016. Ang, YY. How China Escaped the Poverty Trap. Cornell University Press, Cornell Studies in Political Economy. Now available for pre-order on Amazon.