Self help for the ambitious development professional

Nick Ishmael Perkins
Director, SciDev.Net

You can’t fault the European Commission for ambition.

From the grandly titled ‘opening ceremony’ to the parade of heads of state – 7 on the first day it was clear this was a gathering that intends to make an impact. But then the business of poverty reduction should be approached with a certain boldness.

EC President Barroso in his opening remarks reminded us that the EU is the largest contributor to overseas development aid – committing over half of the global total annually – and it plans to get bigger. By 2014 they are hoping for a budget of 100 billion euro over 6 years. I suppose if they can’t think big then who can?

And big thinking was what we expected. The conference set itself a tantalising and timely central question – how do we make economic growth sustainable and inclusive? This goes well beyond aid and gets to the heart of public policy in rich and poor countries alike. The latest edition of The Economist features a similar question on it’s cover.

However there were three things which keep occurring to me on the first day which will need to be resolved if we are to achieve a sustainable answer to this central question:

  • the question is not new. As a number of panelists in the high level panel on resilience and partnerships acknowledged, this is part of a set of questions 30 years in the asking. There was no consensus on why it has taken so long to resolve. And, more importantly, a straw poll suggests that half those in that session remain unconvinced things are about to change.
  • there is no evident concentration of effort. The full EDD programme packs over 40 sessions in its 2 days, many of them featuring fascinating work. However, it is not at all clear they are equally concerned with the central question. Often it feels they are, understandably, flying the flag of their programmes and partnerships. Not perhaps the best example of joined up development thinking.
  • resilience is a proxy. One theme that constantly resurfaced in the sessions I attended was resilience and it’s role in the face of climate and financial crises. But as most self-help gurus would tell you, it’s your view of life, as much as any capital social or otherwise, which determines your resilience. In this regard, questions of what interventions build resilience obscures to some extent the question of what is our vision of development. Admittedly this latter question is where the conference agenda wants to get to but not where the actual discussion is at.

But then the self-help gurus will also say that when a question is too big or complex we tend to focus on easier to manage queries and solutions.

I thought of this particular observation as I asked myself another potentially complex question  where are the scientists?

This post is part of our blog on European Development Days (EDD12), which takes place 16 and 17 October 2012, in Brussels, Belgium.

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