I just finished Jeremy Adelman´s biography of Albert O. Hirschman, Wordly Philosopher. It is a deep and detailed account of the life of a remarkable person. Reading it is a breath of fresh air, in which the values of integrity and consistency stand out in a career full of difficulties.
Too original, too bold, too interdisciplinary, too reformist or too liberal. He suffered the mistrust of his enemies, but also from some who were considered friends.
This made him wander for many years across occupations and universities, until late in his maturity, he found shelter at Princeton.
The irony is that Hirschman was the antithesis of a radical. His problem was, translated into a political metaphor, being too right-wing to liberals and too left-wing to conservatives.
He would reach his convictions combining a very strong theoretical background with an empirical analysis free from bias and strongly anchored in real forces.
His only bias was that of hope against fatalism. His consistency was expressed in being honest with his believes in a world that rewarded and still rewards, the combination of the various forms of ideology and power.
It is significant in this regard the tension surrounding his relationship with the World Bank which resulted in his “unauthorized” book Development Projects Observed. In it Hirschman defends projects as development tools as they represent the concrete, compared to overall comprehensive plans or strategies of which he was suspicious.
But at the same time, he would distance himself from the Cost Benefit analysis orthodoxy and rejected the idea that some index could provide a comprehensive ranking of Bank projects.
Opposed to this, he would highlight, among other things, the importance of qualitative assessments, the discovery of unintended effects or the analysis of a project’s social and political repercussions.
He was also opposed to the practice, still used, of isolating projects in technocratic bubbles. World Bank’s management reaction to such wisdom was very negative, rejecting the report’s publication. After this experience, Hirschman closed his trilogy of books on development and began to think of Exit, Voice and Loyalty, which would become his most famous work and the most revealing of his own life experience.
As an epilogue, I can’t help but think on what Hirschman’s reaction would have been to the impact evaluation work that we promote in this blog and the evaluation methods which we use at the IDB. I have an opinion, very nuanced, but I invite you to read the book to have your own.
Lastly, this is my last blog entry as Strategic Planning General Manager at the IDB. I will talk about other things from my next destination as the IDB Representative in Chile. Thanks you for your attention in all these years.