Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Numbers Game

Since shortly after the second world war, when major development efforts began in what was called the third world, hundreds of projects have set out to bring a quantifiable good to some quantity of people. Though methods have changed and theories have developed, the planning of development projects is today at its core quite similar to what has gone on for the last sixty plus years. The project planners set targets, and the targets are always numbers. There is a problem with this method, however. Numbers provide planners with better information to make decisions, but concurrently reinforce a way of viewing issues that is radically disconnected from the nature of development. Development is about empowerment, and in a system of top down planning, it is the planners who are empowered.

Numbers help set goals. Most simply, numbers are countable, so they make projects accountable. They make something achieved or not achieved. They are attainable. Numbers can impress donors, governments, and voters. Because they provide something concrete, numbers have come to hold a central position in the world of development. Without a doubt, numbers are necessary to monitor and evaluate projects, yet the way that numbers are set up and used can detract from the very goals they are intended to quantify.

If, as a planner, I look only at numbers, then I have the power to solve the problems of development by balancing the other half of the equation. This makes me quite an important guy. I can direct resources where I think they will be best used. I can get even better numerical information, balance an even better equation, and pretty soon I can lay out a plan to solve just about anything. That can be quite gratifying. Hitting a target becomes less about the overarching goal as it is about me. This sort of ivory tower planning has occurred in innumerable situations in the short history of the development industry, from the halls of academia, to the UN, to the management levels of any international and national NGO. It has produced the kind of surveys in which poor families have their every possession catalogued, from livestock to land to eating utensils. All in the name of informing the planners, so better decisions can be made for them.

My intention is not to demonize the development industry or those who study the challenges facing people in the developing world. Rather, the point is to remind us that there is a person who is represented by that number, and if our goal is empowerment, we should be aware of whom it is that is being empowered by our actions. Not many country directors, World Bank economists, or members of the board would like the field staff to show up and take account of every possession in their homes.

Development has some very large numbers involved. Billions of people live on some few dollars a day, don’t have access to clean water, and don’t get basic healthcare services. These numbers need to be fixed. But this is not an equation that can be balanced. To balance it is to treat people as numbers, which does not allow them to be free acting, independent variables.

In any project there has to be a plan, and that plan must involve some numbers to monitor and evaluate its effectiveness. But that plan should also have at its heart the notion that each number, each targeted individual, is actually an independent variable, and the true goal should be to make them even more independent, not to pigeonhole them into some preconceived scheme of economic behavior.

In the end, numbers are a tool like any other, and can be used wisely or poorly. Tools are empowering to those who use them, but if we become too enamored with our tools, we lose sight of our goals. In the orthodoxy of development speak, it is kosher to say that the planners and workers serve those people who are the targets of their projects. But if the targets are numbers, and the numbers are a tool, then who is serving whom? In our desire to fix these broken numbers, we must not lose sight of a basic equality, stemming from our shared humanity, with those whom we are there to serve.


  1. An interesting and somewhat thematically related article about can be found here:

  2. Do you think that this might be where the dreaded 'Mission Statement' can come into play? To help add dimensionality to the starkness of goals specified in terms of numbers, and to remind us what really lies behind them?