Friday, October 22, 2010

CGD as Social Capital

Last Wednesday I went to the Center for Global Development for the launch of my friend Devesh Kapur's new book Diaspora, Development, and Democracy.  Book launches in Washington, especially about public policy, can be either mind-numbingly boring or maddeningly partisan, and I generally avoid them.  But the minute I walked in the door over at CGD, I was happy to be there.

Why?  Because CGD is one of the rare places where smart people with often sharply different perspectives and positions come to listen to - rather than talk at - each other.  When you are there, you have a real sense that people have come to learn from one another to understand the world better.  Unlike so many other places in Washington, in the blogs, and on TV, people don't come to CGD only to score points or to win intellectual arguments.  Instead, they come to present their arguments and listen to others and then go away and refine their own thinking.

I sat there on Wednesday wondering  how CGD came to be this way.  Part of it is due to Nancy Birdsall, the co-founder, who cares less about winning arguments and more about the truth than almost anyone I know.  Ed Scott, the other co-founder and core funder, has a similar personality.  He is gruff and opinionated, but in the end he cares about what works, not about ideology.  Together, they have recruited exceptional fellows and staff, all of whom have their policy disagreements and petty disputes but who feel (to the outsider, at least) like a family.  Many of those of us who attend CGD events feel like part of an extended family.

CGD has become the leading think tank on development because of the social capital that it has built over the last ten years.  Other academic institutions and think tanks have impressive rosters of scholars, but the whole is often less than the sum of the parts.  (Don't even get me started on talk radio and TV talk shows.)  CGD is the opposite - the whole is far more than the sum of its parts because the parts respect and listen to each other.

After the discussion, I went out for drinks with a couple of former classmates, including Devesh.  We joked about the paper he and I recently published on aid accountability.  Devesh and I see the world very differently, to say the least, and from the outset I questioned my sanity at having agreed to write a paper with him.  At times, we both felt like strangling the other over one point or another.  Yet despite (and maybe because of) these differences, we persevered and wrote a paper that, hopefully, sheds a little new light on the topic.  And that reminds me of the initial question I had for Devesh when he asked me to do it:

"Why on earth do you think we should write a paper together?" I asked.

"Maybe so we will learn something," he replied.

And he turned out to be right.