Shane Heywood

Musings on market-oriented approaches to International Development

Just So Stories: Unconvincing stories with Unconvincing Impact in International Development

As a child, I fear I went through a stage where I was pretty annoying. The source of this, er, character flaw was an unremitting need to not only know how things worked, but also why they worked the way they did.

My mom’s ineffective attempts to skirt questions from the little Jamaican inquisitor often failed; awkward questions about salacious lines in Danielle Steel novels often ensued.

Funny enough, a concerted focus on the mechanisms behind impact claims – how things work, and why they work the way they do – is a practice that is patently often absent in International Development. With the end objectives often crucial to the wellbeing of others – e.g. ending absolute poverty – being clear on the mechanisms behind these outcomes is of particular import.

These stories are often called “Just So Stories,”: it is the supposed explanation between an outcome and its causal factor, with an incorrect or even absent assessment of the specific mechanism leading to the outcome.

For example, at a very basic level, it is like a claim made by a child, that ambulances causes accidents, by virtue of the fact that at each accident, there is an ambulance. Ambulances do not cause accidents; instead, ambulances respond to accidents after they have occurred. Clearly, the mechanism between the causal factor (the ambulance) and the outcome (an accident) is wrong.

The challenge is that in more intricate and nuanced issues, an inability to correctly assess the mechanism can be difficult.

One possible example is the claim that Colonial-Style education has hampered the ability of developing countries to grow. The purported culprit is the implementation of a rote-learning style, which discourages independent thinking: a key criterion for innovative ideas, businesses and economic growth. If we dig deeper, however, this claim looks incredibly specious.

For one thing, the Colonial style of education was based on the British educational system. If rote-learning had such a debilitating effect on the economic growth of the developing world, why did it not have the same effect on Britain’s economic progress? Does independent thinking automatically lead to thriving busineses, much less economies?

Second, China’s academic system has often been accused of being excessively focused on rote-learning methods. Yet, the country’s economy grows without cease. Hong Kong, a former colony, also has robust economic growth.

My point here is not to argue that Colonial style education, through rote-learning, has not had a debilitating impact on the economic growth of the third world.

Instead, I want it understood that as in the above example, the link between causal factors and outcomes are essential and nuanced, demanding verification before acceptance.

Such a lesson holds particular importance in the field of social entrepreneurship. Claims on changing lives can be made with less rigour than an Assistant Brand Manager’s “low-fat” product claim for margarine.

How exactly does this field, with its dual objectives, actually deliver impact to low-income individual? Being intellectually vigilant and rigorous in the claims we make will only help, not hinder, our ability to improve the livelihoods of low-income individuals.


One comment on “Just So Stories: Unconvincing stories with Unconvincing Impact in International Development

  1. lebert heywood
    February 19, 2011

    Interesting ! Like the insight on your antics as a Child.

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This entry was posted on February 7, 2011 by in Uncategorized.

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