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American Magazine


Meeting of the Minds: Part II

By Sally Acharya

Photo: Women in the rice fields

What kind of world is emerging in the twenty-first century? That’s a question that leads myriad places—from the stars to the developing world to the halls of AU. It’s part of what led a Smithsonian space expert to team up with an SPA professor and look at the future of interplanetary travel. It was on the minds of a think tank director and an SIS professor as they worked together to understand the myths of development. In the process, the scholarly pairs modeled something that is becoming a hallmark of the twenty-first century workplace and classroom: teamwork.

Development Redefined: How the Market Met Its Match

By Robin Broad, SIS, and John Cavanagh

Are people “the poorest of the poor” if they live on less than a dollar a day?

Is a country developing if its economy is booming?

The answers might seem obvious. But sometimes, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Robin Broad and John Cavanagh have questioned many of what they call the “myths of development” in their effort to understand how decades of development policy have sometimes done more harm than good.

The husband-and-wife team brings both practical and scholarly expertise to their recent book, Development Redefined: How the Market Met Its Match. Broad is a professor at the School of International Service with a strikingly wide-ranging background. She has, for instance, conducted fieldwork among farmers in the Philippines and also worked as an economist at the Treasury Department and U.S. Congress.

Cavanagh is director of the nation’s oldest progressive think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies, and an expert on third-world debt. Together, they set out to analyze the fashions and failures of decades of development policy.

The problem they found, in simplest terms, is that numbers can be misleading. A country pushing to join the developed world can appear on paper to be making progress if aspects of its economy are prospering. “Unless you look at figures of inequity,” Broad observes, “it can look good.”

Subsistence farmers, for example, may not contribute much on paper to a country’s economy. They may be tilling a few acres of vegetables and rice, but the harvest goes mainly to feed their families—with, perhaps, a few extra tomatoes or bags of rice sold to neighbors at local markets. They may earn so little in cash that it amounts to less than a dollar a day.

Money isn’t circulating much. On paper, it’s a grim picture. If their land comes into the hands of the local business elite or international corporations, things can start to look better. Many small farms may combine into a vast tract of sugar or pineapples grown for export, bringing in foreign currency and raising the gross national product. The farmers, meanwhile, may move to the cities and earn more than a dollar a day.

Far away in Western offices the numbers can be encouraging.

But Broad and Cavanagh have also done fieldwork together, and they know that those one-time farmers may end up being squeezed into sprawling and crime-ridden slums, struggling in unhealthy conditions to earn cash that doesn’t actually buy as much food as they once grew. When that happens, has a country truly improved?

It’s a question that both of them think about a great deal. But turning their thoughts into a book was a challenge, even though they can talk to each other any time—or, perhaps, because the couple can talk to each other any time.

“We approach it as if we were work colleagues. We block off time on our calendars, because if not, you’re doing it at 11:00 at night,” Broad says.

Cavanagh and Broad have written numerous articles together, and this was their second book. “I love collaborative writing. I think it’s actually much more difficult than writing on your own,” says Broad. “We don’t literally sit there and write every word together, but you read every word. You fight over every word. You can’t get away with anything. The final result is as if one has gone through dozens of drafts.

“I actually have the belief—and I bring this to my graduate seminars—that not only is collaborative work good because that’s what the world needs, but collaborative work leads to better analysis and better writing. It’s similar to having a really good outside editor, but it happens throughout the process.”