Reinventing Development: The Sceptical Change Agent
Palgrave Macmillan: 2017
International development seems to be going through one of its periods of self-doubt. Changes in the dynamics of the industry are prompting some genuine soul-searching, along with the usual doses of cognitive dissonance and head-in-the-sand denial. In this context, Reinventing Development, by Adam Fforde, is a timely contribution to the current debate around some of the key aspects of international development and how it is enacted. Perhaps best known for his work on Vietnam, Fforde cites several examples of development projects undertaken in that country, and in which he was directly involved, to help bring “a heady draft of oxygen” into the discussion of development practice.
The book’s central thesis is that any attempt to influence social change — of which international development is just one example, and the focus of this book — cannot, in all intellectual honesty, predict causes and effects: “A good change agent has to have the right to be sceptical — not to be pessimistic about prospects but to be sceptical about the value of knowledge. Specifically, the right to scepticism means a right to assume … that, in a given context, change processes are unpredictable. This implies that any specific knowledge that claims change can be predicted can be said to be unwise, often dangerous and ill-founded.”
Or, as a wise person once said, shit happens. Fforde argues that the history of development has been punctuated by numerous “enthusiasms” that claim to have the knowledge necessary to assure implementation success. All have professed to contain the magic bullet, but they can’t all be right. That is the central conceit Fforde takes on, acknowledging that doing so does not always make him popular.