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What can development policy learn from evolution?

There’s a lot of sound and fury these days about reforming international development. The Obama Administration wants to “modernize” U.S. foreign aid — make it more effective, efficient.

Owen Barder, a development expert based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and author of the great blog Owen Abroad, has some excellent advice for the change-makers:

Abandon top-down design strategies and embrace evolution.

Here’s his presentation with audio.

(You have to go to Owen’s site at the presentation link above. Below is just a static screen grab)

Owen Barder

This is no sloganeering. Owen is making the case for taking a more adaptive approach to improving development — and against attempting to come up with some grand plan by design.

It’s pretty interesting. Owen talks to a scientist about a soap factory and also to an analyst about how one community significantly cut down on corruption by simply publishing in the local newspaper the amount of development funding that was going to schools for aid projects (making it hard for middlemen to skim).

His argument in brief:

  1. Development is a wicked, complex problem.
  2. Wicked, complex problems can be solved by evolution, not by design.
  3. Evolution requires variation and selection.

Sounds a bit wonky, I know. But Owen makes it fun and compelling.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.