Are big ideas “destroying international development” as Michael Hobbes (or at least his provocative headline writer at The New Republic) would have us believe? Casting a wide net of blame for “save the world” failures, he comes up with some big fish: Playpump, the once-heralded invention that was supposed to harness the power of children’s play to pump water in Zambia; “Deworm the World,” an initiative to rid millions of children of intestinal worms; and the Millennium Villages, an effort to combine a comprehensive set of interventions to help poor communities escape the “poverty trap.” While Hobbes uses these as examples, his real target is what he calls “the paradigm of the Big Idea—that once we identify the correct one, we can simply unfurl it on the entire developing world like a picnic blanket.” Beyond highlighting the sin of “solutioneering,” he comes close to rejecting the idea of generalizable knowledge altogether: 

“The repeated ‘success, scale, fail’ experience of the last 20 years of development practice suggests something super boring: Development projects thrive or tank according to the specific dynamics of the place in which they’re applied. It’s not that you test something in one place, then scale it up to 50. It’s that you test it in one place, then test it in another, then another. No one will ever be invited to explain that in a TED talk.”

A lot of ink has been spilled on the follies of international development over the decades, of course.  On just my own shelf I have dozens of representatives of the genre, from Hirschman’s Development Projects Observed (1967) to Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor (2014), and a lot in between.  In his own recent contributions, Hobbes argues for far less hubris and more humility, patience, and learning-as-you-go.

I’m all for that. 

But I’m reluctant to give up on Big Ideas – if they’re the right Big Ideas, pursued by people who balance aspiration with realism.  (Interestingly, in another recent piece, Hobbes highlights a couple of initiatives that meet his own test for the right Big Ideas.)

So here are four Big Ideas that the Global Development and Population Program spends time (and grant dollars) on:

The Big Idea of facts. The deficit of core economic, demographic, health, education, crime, and other statistics in low-income countries profoundly handicaps policymakers’ and citizens’ ability to take action, at every level, from national to local. This is a problem that has to be solved country-by-country, sector-by-sector, but it doesn’t have to be a process of continual micro-level reinvention. Many data collection methods are replicable and the results are often more useful when the information is standardized and valid comparisons can be made across countries and regions.

When we support the collection of information about whether teachers are present in schools and kids have textbooks, and about whether health centers have the medicines and vaccines they are supposed to, we’re investing in the Big Idea of facts. (That’s the Service Delivery Indicators project.) When we provide funding for groups trying to measure informal employment and compare the experience of men and women, we’re investing in the Big Idea of facts. (That’s Data2X.) And when we help build an ever-expanding base of compare-and-contrast impact evaluations around the world, and help expose decision makers to the type of information that can help them make the best-educated guesses about what’s going to work—that, too, is an investment in the Big Idea of facts. (That’s the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation and many other organizations.) 

The Big Idea of local. It’s not easy for a foundation sitting in Menlo Park, California, to know what’s going on anywhere else, let alone in Dar es Salaam, Accra, Ouagadougou, Mumbai, or Lima. What we do know, though, is that individuals embedded in their own contexts, engaged in debates that affect them, their children, their fellow citizens, and their countries’ futures, are often in the best positions to figure out how to define and advance social and economic objectives. (That’s the Think Tank Initiative, Amplify Change, Fundar, Twaweza, Pratham, the INDEPTH Network, and many other organizations around the world.)

The Big Idea of open. Despite their proximity to the equator, many of the countries in the Global South have suffered from a severe lack of sunshine. Until recently, citizens have been in the dark about who was buying up the rights to exploit natural resources and how much they were paying, what governments were spending on priority programs and sectors, and whether government-run services were of adequate quality or not. Underperforming governments have been able to act with impunity.

But expectations have changed and, with remarkable speed over the past 10 years, key information about both government and corporate practices is available to watchdog groups and average citizens. (That’s the International Budget Partnership, the Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency, the Natural Resource Governance Institute, Publish What You Fund, Creative Commons, the Transparency and Accountability Initiative and many others.)

The Big Idea of global. Increasingly, the distinction between the “developed” and “developing” world is falling away, eroded by the threat of collective problems like climate disruption and Ebola, and by the convergence around common problems like the rising tide of chronic disease everywhere. Many wicked problems affect people in all countries, and their solutions will require shared values, know-how, and action.  (That’s the common agenda we have to promote reproductive health and rights at home and around the world. It’s the Open Government Partnership. And it’s our many conversations with our colleagues in the Environment, Education, Performing Arts, and Philanthropy Programs, as well as the Madison and Cyber Initiatives.)

Give up on Big Ideas?  Not me.  Find the right ones?  We’re trying.