So says the headline of an op-ed in the Zambian Post. I couldn't agree more. My rule is: listen to what foreign experts have to say, but make your own decisions.
But wait. I am one of the foreign experts that the article refers to! Even though I and my colleagues are not named, the editorial is about a brainstorming that the World Bank had organized with us (and which had already stimulated this blog post). The author of the op-ed, Father Peter Henriot, was present as a representative of Zambian civil society via videoconference.
Reading Father Henriot's article, it is clear that we came across as arrogant outsiders with little knowledge of Zambia and ready to advance ill-fitting policies. For me, this is an interesting lesson in failure to communicate.
The central dilemma that we were trying the participants to recognize is that helping the poor in a sustainable way requires promoting structural change. That in turn may require making investments in areas--non-traditional economic activities or urban areas--which have a greater potential for generating productivity increases than the areas where the poor currently are.
Investing in the poor directly--augmenting their human capital--is desirable in and of itself, but whether it constitutes a growth policy (in addition to social policy) depends on whether lack of human capital is a binding constraint on economic opportunities. The question here is whether there are profitable employment opportunities for the poor to deploy their human capital in. Often, the answer is no. We have plenty of experience, from Africa in particular, that it is possible to achieve striking increases in educational attainment (and often life expectancy as well, in non-HIV/AIDS-stricken countries) without corresponding improvements in overall productivity of the poor or of the economy as a whole.
On the other hand, saying that you should increase economic opportunities while enhancing human capital assumes away the trade-offs: increasing social spending--without cuts in other areas--serves to appreciate the real exchange rate, which is the single most effective way of killing production incentives in non-traditional economic activities. Disregarding this evidence and the implied trade-offs is not very helpful.
So why were we unable to get these points across? First, the videoconference setup did not help. Videoconferencing is more conducive to speech-making than to exchanging ideas. Second, our language probably did not help either. As economists, we use lots of shortcuts and skip steps in our arguments when we are amongst other economists. This can lead to misunderstanding when there are non-economists present. (Clearest example of this is that Father Henriot took us to be making an argument in favor of trickle-down growth. We were not. It is precisely because I recognize that growth may not necessarily trickle down in the short-run that I argued for a social policy in addition to and coordinated with a growth policy.) And third, let's admit it, we are often arrogant and presume to know more about the determinants and consequences of economic behavior than our track record justifies. (For example, we may have been too quick in assuming that most of the non-traditional high-productivity activities would be urban, whereas there is some evidence that many of them may be found in rural areas as well.)
I would like to believe that all these sources of miscommunication and misunderstanding would have been sorted out if we had a chance to discuss these issues at greater length with Father Henriot. Even if we could not come to an agreement on the policies to be followed, at least he may have ended up with a better idea of where we are coming from and why our take may differ from his with regard to appropriate strategy--and perhaps also with just a few doubts about how strongly he should hold his own views.
But note to self: avoid videoconferencing next time and do remember who the audience is...