Reflections on a "Semester" Focused on International Development

During my learning sabbatical, I thought I would gain a more unified understanding of how countries progress. Instead, I lost faith in the existence of any grand theory. All theories I came across over-simplified reality. They told biased narratives and narrow views of causation.

However, as the aphorism goes: while all models are wrong, some of them are useful. Reading development theory has given me a number of ways to think about the issues that hold communities back. Is it health and disease burden? Poor soils and lack of agricultural productivity? Bad geography? Weak infrastructure? Lack of access to efficient markets? Extractive institutions, corruption, and poor governance? Bad educational opportunities and brain drain? Violence and instability? Historical oppression and racism? Market-distorting aid? Low state capacity? Kin-based institutions? Yes and more. For each community and context, different factors may rise or fall in importance, but most occur concurrently.

Here's a video I made that summarizes some of my learnings:

What is International Development?

To me, international development is fundamentally about the search for interventions that systemically increase an individual's power to escape suffering. While non-economic interventions in healthcare or political advocacy can have very high impacts on suffering reduction, I personally favor income expansion - helping someone earn more money.

Why Focus on Income Expansion?

Over the last few decades, more holistic metrics like the Human Development Index and Multidimensional Poverty Index have tried to capture more nuanced views of development than economic indicators alone. However, these indicators remain highly correlated to income/consumption metrics. Economic power persists as a focus of development because it is easy to measure and a reliable proxy for other kinds of well-being (at least in low-income countries).

Personally, I like income expansion for a few reasons:

For these reasons, my primary evaluation metric when choosing what opportunities deserve time and attention is their expected income impact. That is, what multiple of income is a someone earning pre and post intervention? This is why Iā€™m excited about remote work. In the absence of freer immigration policies, helping someone find remote work is one of the most direct ways I can systematically increase their income.

The Need for New Development Metaphors

Since the industrial revolution, humanity has had great success at mastering the environment. We harnessed electricity, engineered factories, and built airplanes that defied gravity. However, this mastery has come at a cost. We've had so much success at mechanizing the world that we've over-applied mechanistic models to systems that don't function anything like machines. Our attempts to control things like the economy, politics, cities, and nature constantly confound our expectations. Faith in top-down design has too often failed to account for the bottom-up, emergent order of life. Metaphors of society-as-machine need to be updated to incorporate society-as-organism.