When it Comes to Developing Countries, A Hero is Not the Answer

June 17, 2013
By Jenny Li Fowler, Harvard Kennedy School Communications

It may be romantic to think that heroes hold the key to the future of developing countries, but in reality heroes alone never make the difference. That is one conclusion in a new Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Working Paper authored by Associate Professor Matt Andrews.

In the paper, titled “Going Beyond Heroic-Leaders in Development,” Andrews offers a three-part argument why conventional hero orthodoxy – when an individual is identified as “the hero” of a specific event – is problematic and wrong for many developing countries.

First of all, Andrews argues that true heroes have not emerged in many developing countries in recent years, and often those who have been labeled heroes at first are discredited later. To illustrate, he cites Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali, both of whom were heralded as reformers by the international community before being ousted by the citizenry of their respective countries.

Second, Andrews argues that heroes are often more a reflection of their times than shapers of them. He notes the case of Rosa Parks as an example. This hero's symbolic gesture of refusing to sit in the back of the bus occurred around the same time as many other significant political, religious and cultural developments. The mix of all these factors accelerated the civil rights movement, not Rosa Parks alone.

Third, Andrews argues that the stories about hero-leaders doing special things mask the way such special things emerge from the complex interactions of many actors — some important and some mundane. He refers, for example, to Lee Kuan Yew, the first prime minister of Singapore. Lee is often referred to as the "father" of that country, but it would be wrong to ascribe Singapore's success solely (or perhaps even predominantly) to this man. Lee described his own role as that of orchestra conductor and not hero. He did not have many of the ideas that made his country famous. He did not manage many of the change processes. Others played these roles, in his orchestra of change.

"It is disempowering to see leadership as something that demands waiting for special individuals to do special things. It is empowering to see leadership more empirically; as something that emerges in certain contexts and manifests in multiagent groups," Andrews concludes. The associate professor goes on to ask, "What contextual factors facilitate the emergence of leadership? Who makes up the multiagent group? Can policy interventions help create facilitative contexts and mobilize potential multiagent groups? These questions are not only pertinent to policymakers but could also be useful for academics thinking about and researching leadership in the development and change process."

Matt Andrews is associate professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School. His research focuses on government reforms in developing and transitional governments. A recent book, "The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development," raises questions about where change happens, what change involves, and who leads change.

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Associate Professor Matt Andrews

Matt Andrews, associate professor of public policy

"It is disempowering to see leadership as something that demands waiting for special individuals to do special things," writes Andrews.