2025

There is a movement among development experts — those that spend their lives thinking about how to improve well being and reduce poverty all around the world — that has been given various labels: adaptive management, doing development differently, feedback loops, and problem-driven iterative adaption. The central thesis is this: whatever big idea cooked up in Washington DC or Oxford or Seattle is not going to fix poverty is some far-off place, much less in multiple far-off places. In many ways, it’s the antithesis to how the Gates Foundation attempts to reduce poverty. The Gates Foundation gives grants to universities and research centers to develop solutions to big problems; say, the need for better toilets, or condoms, or bananas, or wearables for pregnant women. It then pays its 1,500 or so employees working out of its Seattle headquarters to develop strategies to get poor people in poor places to actually use these things.

But experts who have worked their entire careers in development think this approach to reducing poverty is as ridiculous as the failed One Laptop Per Child project, which assumed a single computer could address all the myriad factors that cause poverty and poor education. (I’m not one of those critics; I think the Gates Foundation has already done some good and could potentially strike gold with an HIV vaccine or by preventing a future Ebola-like outbreak.) The alternative, these development experts argue, is to first understand the local context and political dimensions of any problem. Second, assume that you’re going to get things wrong and adapt to the results and feedback you collect along the way. Third, if you want changes to last, they must be owned and co-developed by local actors. Indeed, there’s a whole manifesto that was drafted at Harvard by Very Smart Folks hoping to reform the Development Industrial Complex. The problem for all these smart folks focused on “problem-driven iterative adaption” is that, as you could guess, they’re not great at telling simple, illustrative stories.

Fortunately for them, Zadie Smith takes up their cause in her latest novel, Swing Time, which tells the story of a young woman from North London who falls into a job as the personal assistant for an aging pop superstar, Aimee (think Madonna). Looking for adventure and some middle-aged meaning, Aimee builds “the Illuminated Academy for Girls,” in a rural village of the Gambia to serve as a shining model for schools everywhere (think Priscilla Chan’s The Primary School). For a few years, the school becomes Aimee’s obsessive passion, the topic of every dinner conversation, in which funny anecdotes illustrate how the pop star philanthropist creates opportunities for young women that they could have never imagined. However, as is so often true in development, the dinner conversations don’t match reality. “The Illuminated Academy for Girls was not that shining, radically new, unprecedented incubator-of-the-future I had heard so much about around Aimee’s dinner tables in London and New York,” recounts the narrator. But it does have its successes thanks to the persistent adaptation of a former development worker, Fern (Fernando), who takes the time to understand and navigate the political dynamics of the village. As the narrator from North London observes during a visit to the Gambian village for her boss:

I visited classrooms all morning and for the first time got a feeling for what Fern had achieved here, in our absence, despite Aimee’s interference, and by working, in a sense, around her. Just behind the main building, Fern had used some of Aimee’s money to create a garden in the yard, which I don’t remember him ever mentioning in our board meetings, and here all kinds of produce were growing, which belonged, he explained, to the parent body collectively, which—along with many other consequences—meant that when first period ended, half the school did not disappear to help their mothers on the farm, instead staying on site and tending to their seedlings. I learned that Fern, at the suggestion of the mothers in the PTA, had invited several teachers from the local majlis into our school, where they were given a room to teach Arabic and Koranic studies, for which they were paid a small fee directly, and this stopped another large portion of the school population disappearing at midday or spending a part of every afternoon doing domestic chores for these majli teachers.

… many small but interesting things were happening, every day, which were then argued over and debated at the end of each week, in the village meetings, which led to further adaptations and changes, few of which I sensed Aimee ever knew or heard about, but to which Fern closely attended, listening to everyone in that strikingly open way of his, making his reams of notes. It was a functioning school, built by Aimee’s money but not contained by it.

I love that final line: built by some rich person’s money, but not contained by it. I hope that is true of every grant I manage. And how I wish that Zadie Smith were the author of the dozens of grant reports I read each year!

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