Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The paradox of the silver bullet

On Monday, I spent an hour with an Ivy League professor who is considered to be a contender for a Nobel Prize.  He has an idea that he is sure - absolutely sure - can revolutionize the field of development and economic growth.*  As I listened, my right brain could not help but be taken in by his enthusiasm, and I told him to let me know what I could do to help out.

My left brain, however, was flashing a yellow light: his idea has been tried many times before, though in somewhat different incarnations. Based on my long experience, he is unlikely to achieve what he is hoping (though he may well make a solid contribution).

I realized I was listening to was a guy in thrall to a silver bullet.  After thinking long and hard about a problem, he had come up with what he was SURE was going to be the breakthrough answer.

After our conversation, I began to think about the last 25 years of my career in the field, and about the  silver bullets that I had become enthusiastic about over those years.  Here is a partial list, starting in 1983:

- population control through family planning
- rural off-farm employment
- agricultural productivity
- smallholder tree crop farming
- housing reform
 -household energy retrofits
- girls' education
- microcredit
- SMEs (and credit for SMEs)
- better rule of law, especially property rights
- more open trade
- financial sector reform

In many cases, I got as enthusiastic about my latest silver bullet as the professor.  And in most of the cases, I made some progress and hopefully some positive impact - although never to the extent I had feverishly dreamed.  After so many silver bullets, you would think I would have learned.

The paradox here is that, on the one hand, there *is* no silver bullet; but on the other hand, you almost have to believe in your particular silver bullet to expend the energy and make the sacrifice to make progress.  Many of the projects I did in my "official" development career required levels of effort and commitment that were irrational when the personal costs and benefits were tallied.  And lord only knows what an irrational labor of love GlobalGiving has been.

Today someone sent me a link to a spirited discussion on SocialEdge about Kiva.  One of the commenters pointed out that microcredit is not a silver bullet for poverty alleviation.  He is right.  But the folks at Kiva have done an exceptional job in advancing the popular understanding of the role that credit can play as part of a package of things that can raise people out of poverty.  And in doing so, they have sacrificed much personally.  For that, we owe them (and the Ivy League professor) thanks.

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* The professor asked me not to identify him or the idea until he reveals it later this summer.

5 comments:

Jim said...

Dennis, both a wonderfully candid and a happily hopeful way to look at it. I've recently come to realize that my burnout on "silver bullets" has turned to a paralyzing, unproductive cynicism. Your way of looking at the issue is another burr under the saddle to get me moving again.

Dennis Whittle said...

Thanks, Jim! Keep us posted...

James said...

Awesome post though I'm 3 months late. Just curious, has the professor's new idea been released yet? If so what is it?

James said...

Awesome post though I'm 3 months late. Just curious, has the professor's new idea been released yet? If so what is it?

Dennis Whittle said...

James-

The person is Paul Romer, and his concept is Charter Cities. You can read about it here:

http://chartercities.org/concept