Chris Blattman has an interesting post in which he ruminates on a recent study in Ethiopia: people shown movies about personal success stories were later more likely to engage in future-oriented behavior than a placebo group shown entertainment movies or a control group shown no movies at all. He goes on to reference other research coming to similar results.
My epiphany occurred when I was walking through Addis Ababa. There is a beautiful, functional city there, buried beneath a ubiquitous layer of rubble that makes the roads almost unusable. My first reaction was to think about organizational structures for clearing the rubble. I had a chat with a transportation planner who assured me that just about everything has been tried, but the rubble remains.
Then I thought about Europe in the immediate aftermath of WWII, when there was also rubble everywhere, devastated infrastructure, agricultural collapse—just about every catastrophe societies could be subject to. In Germany the “rubble women”, many of them widows, ventured forth, clearing the debris by brute force to begin the process of recovery. What was the difference between the women of Dresden, Berlin or Hamburg in 1945 and those of Addis today? It wasn’t education, since nothing you learn in school helps you deal with clearing away acres of brick and concrete. It wasn’t political or social organization either, both of which had been pulverized, like the cities, by the twin disasters of the Third Reich and its utter defeat. I know there are some who will say “social capital”, but for me this is more a label than an explanation.
My hypothesis is that the advantage of the rubble women was that they knew what their cities had looked like, and how it had been to live in them, before the chaos of war and air raids. They could easily visualize what the coming years of focused effort would bring them, and from this image they could draw a sense of agency. The residents of Addis can’t close their eyes and see the better Addis of tomorrow; for them, the extra work of hauling rubble is just that, extra work. And even if you had the vision yourself, it wouldn’t do much good unless it were widely shared, so that you could count on others to keep going until the end.
If I’m right, agency is the core issue in development. Without it, outside interventions will have only temporary benefits, and interventions themselves need to be examined for the effects they are likely to have on beneficiaries’ sense of agency. Of course, agency is also an intensely political phenomenon, having everything to do with whether people think that they can claim and keep the fruits of their labor.