Why the theories underlying economic development matters

I have been accused on several occasions of being too theoretical in my training approaches. These comments typically come from highly experienced development consultants and not from the target groups of my training, namely government officials, development facilitators and experts based within developmental organizations. I am not denying that I like to raise some more nerdy-like topics during my training, but this is based on my belief that you cannot be a developmental practitioner without understanding what the deeper knowledge bases are that we are working with.

I am always amused by this negative attitude towards of theoretical bases, especially when these consultants themselves start blurring the lines between the bases that they work from and the outcomes that they prefer.

Why do theories matter?

Bodies of knowledge, or theoretical basis are useful to development practitioners and are not only the domain of clever academics. Not only does a body of knowledge or theory provide us with some guiding principles, it also provides us with lines of inquiry or research questions. A theory also provides a boundary which typically explains what a theory does not cover. You could say that each theoretical base has its strengths (which means that it can structure, explain or questions certain phenomena) and its limitations (which means it does not provide structure, explanations or questions for other phenomena). So the main point is that a theory gives a development practitioner guidance as to what a theoretical base can inquiry, what questions it can find answers to, and which topics it does not provide much insight into. The main function thus of a theory is it helps us structure questions so that we can develop robust answers.

The importance of questions in development practice

Very often we find that developmental practitioners have posed very weak or generic questions at the start of a project or intervention. For instance, the question “how can we help the poor in this region?” is a poorly defined question as you will not be able to deal with the hundreds of answers ranging from “they must do it for themselves” all the way to “we must do it for them“.

Einstein is quoted as saying “if I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than 5 minutes“.

So we have to ask more specific questions that lead to more precise questions. These questions are shaped by our theoretical bases. For instance, someone from an engineering background (using an engineering base) will ask that question slightly differently than someone from a business background (using business management) or a social worker (using certain social subjects).

The result of blurring the lines between theories is that questions becomes blurred, leading to vague answers. When questions becomes blurred by experienced consultants, manipulation may occur.  This can be achieved by sequencing questions in a way that people (beneficiaries, donors, organizations, political interests) are lead into one or two “solutions” or conclusions. These conclusions, recommendations, or solutions (call it what you will) are also sometimes known as “magic bullets” or recipes for success. We all know that magic bullets are blind, because they are so dependent on a specific context or the experience of the expert advising them.

You should never trust the answer of a research study or report if you do not understand which questions were asked to guide the study. Despite the content of the research, the questions gives an important hint as to which theoretical bases where used, which also provides us with a clue to the limitations (or blindspots) of that theory.

I am not arguing that we cannot combine theories, rather, I am arguing that we should always remember which theories we are combining in our work. For example, if you are promoting value chains and you are not basing your questions on business management theories (including production, industrial, strategic and other forms of management), then on what bases are you relying for your questions? Are you depending on gut feel, past experience, anecdotal experience, ideology or personal value systems? Or even worse, do you see value chain promotion as an answer to an unasked question? (What was that question again?). And let us say you are depending on the example I provided of business management as a basis for value chain promotion, then what are you blind to because of the choice of theory? Business management theories provide very little insight into social issues, market functioning (not to be confused with marketing management) poverty alleviation, or more technical or scientific issues that you are typically confronted with when working with value chains in a developmental context. I could have of course used another example, but this is one that I am frequently confronted with.

Perhaps it is worth your while to reflect for a few moments on which bases you draw when you come up with recommendations or are confronted by a specific problem. You will be surprised to find that there are many other bases that will provide you with different questions that you might want to consider reading up on. Perhaps you will even find some explanations why some of your favourite viewpoints seems to be so vulnerable or prone to failure within certain contexts, or why people resist some of your ideas. Let me know what you find!!

One Response to “Why the theories underlying economic development matters”

  1. luchokool Says:

    When I was working in Fundacion Social in Colombia, I had the priviledge of sharing some of my time there with a great Master of Life, Bernardo Toro. He tought me many things. One of them is this:

    If you cannot solve a problem, one of the following is happenning:

    1. You do not understand the theory
    2. The theory is wrong

    In any case… come back to the theory

    I agree, dear Shawn. Theories and (despite my disgust) ideologies are the lenses through which we make sense of the world. For me, the highest level of awareness is the ability to question our own theories.


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