Pre-palaeolithic policies in development and diplomacy


A more aggressive approach to defend a division of labour based on comparative advantages against the belief in holistic approaches is necessary. I propose to refer to policies who are negating the benefits of division of labour, and praise a holistic consensus approach, as pre-palaeolithic as it is the kind of thinking about productivity that was common before the Palaeolithic.

Adam Smith described the mechanism of division of labour brilliantly, but division of labour predates by far the enlightenment. Simple things as maintaining and catching fire, making simple stone tools are only possible when there is division of labour in society. Division of labour is necessary to make a well crafted stone tool. Only a craftsman, someone fully dedicated to it, and provided for by the others, could make a good stone tool. The craftsman has the comparative advantage on making stone tools: he needs the least work (and food) to make a good stone tool, and the tool will be better. Compared to the toolmaker, the others have a comparative advantage to offer food. Their tools would suck anyway, and it takes them way longer to make even one tool. Only with division of labour a fire could be maintained. Without division of labour, we could not enter the paleolithic, we could not even get into the caves. We would still be pre-paleolithic. To make even simple modern goods, like a toaster,  there is a need for a staggering amount of contributions from people from all over the world. Productivity is mainly the fruit of increased division of labour (and of course also other elements such as innovation).  Division of labour is the result of expertise and competition. It is based on the comparative advantage. Real division of labour does not work if it is imposed top down. It is the invisible hand compared to the planned economy.

However, in politics, diplomacy, development and administration, flexibility, coördination, integration and holistic approaches are often valued more than the efficiency gains that can come from division of labour. Meetings and joint programming are seen as good in itself, while it is a failure of division of labour. Coordination is believed to be more important than competition. Overlap is regarded as the highest form of waste, while in industry and governance redundancy opens op more efficient pathways for innovation and keeps abuses in check. The multidisciplinary team tries to arrive at a consensus view to impose a top down division of labour encased in grant strategies, instead of letting the battle of interests run transparently leading to a more dynamic and iterative balance.

One of the examples of this thinking is the 3-D approach: Defence, Development and Diplomacy one policy, rightfully considered by Easterly for the price of the worst development idea ever. Lumping all objectives together, all indicators together to one big meaningful mess until practical results are not relevant anymore. Or like in the case of Afghanistan, claim all objectives are important, but in reality the military objective trumps everything. Ranting about the failure of the Afghan war seems like flogging a dead horse; but why do donors repeat the 3D-approach in the Sahel when it worked so badly?

I admit, coördination is often necessary and subpar. However, the root of efficiency is more often than not a lack of division of labour, rooted in competition. It is not the lack of meetings among top brass or top down planning amongst generalists that holds back the world. Why do we organise development aid based on “best practices”or “international standards” and seldom as  a competition of bottom up approaches and ideas in a localised context, based on localised expertise, with advice of external ressource persons? In developed countries, we see well honed silo’s in the form of one-sector ministries divided in well separated departments. However, donors promote in the developing world comprehensive, integrated, over the board approaches.

My praise for division of labour based on comparative advantage is just another lens looking at the world of complex systems approach as discussed by Owen Barder, Tim Harford, and William Easterly with his “seekers” versus “planners”approach. Taking it one step further, we see the arrogance of modernism, where leaders believe expert top down planning with micromanagement of the underlings is the way forward (James C. Scott, Seeing like a state).

I would like to launch the term of pre-palaeolithic policy for a policy that values the benefits of generalist approaches (buzzwords: generalist, holistic, joint strategies, joint programming, consensus, coördination, cartels, monopolies, corporatism, 3d approach, public private partnerships, Ujamaa, ubuntu, Buzan, Paris agenda, participation) higher than the benefits coming from competition and division of labour (buzzword: competition on basis of comparative advantage, selection, expertise, tender procedures, protest, emancipation).

Pre-palaeolithic policies make us play development like small children playing soccer: everybody chasing the ball.

The dream of doing everything together as one big family, with one vision, everybody the same skills and capacities, and everybody doing the same in unison, was a good idea while it lasted, let us say for the first few 100.000 years, but most people value at least some of the luxuries form the palaeolithic and beyond, and don’t want to go back.

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One Response to Pre-palaeolithic policies in development and diplomacy

  1. MJ says:

    Excellent palaeolithic rant! Looking forward to the Bronze Age version next. 🙂

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