ODI’s David Booth responds to my post on the ODI’s Africa Power and Politics Programme
“The APPP could hardly have hoped for a more encouraging reception for its first policy brief than the one provided by Duncan’s blog of 15 April. Encouraging and suitably challenging!
The point of a policy brief is to be, well, brief, and focused on implications. So it’s not surprising if Duncan finds some of our formulations a bit too pithy and in need of substantiation.
Duncan quotes us generously, but there is much more where that came from, freely downloadable from the APPP website. It’s also worth saying that the evidence base we are drawing on is not just APPP research but a large body of other work, including stuff to which Duncan refers us.
Let me pick up just a couple of points of apparent disagreement.
Citizen pressure and public goods
Obviously, one of them has to be our proposition that citizen pressure and bottom-up demand for accountability is a weak factor in improving the governance of public services. This poses a rather direct challenge to the way most international NGOs view their mission, so Duncan’s ‘alarm’ is understandable.
We are aware of walking into a lion’s den in posing this issue so bluntly. But we are doing so with good reason. There is a real conflict here between the conventional ‘progressive’ viewpoint and what virtually all documented experience shows.
In elaborating, we said: ‘… client “voice” is a weak source of results-based accountability unless accompanied by strong top-down pressures of some kind’’. The qualification is important. It is meant to capture two things.
One is the almost universal finding that public service improvement comes when there is successful action to improve provider motivations. And this doesn’t come mainly from the bottom-up (even in the UK, where service users are much more empowered, providers respond poorly to having ‘demands’ placed on them). The other is the fact that the documented successes in so-called ‘social accountability’ almost always involve political forces (new parties, new leaders or something of the kind); rarely are they just movements of ‘citizens’.
This is actually what the IDS research and related ODI and IDS evaluations tell us. None of them provide a blanket endorsement of civil society action on accountability. If this seems surprising, it’s because there has been a huge amount of over-selling of ‘demand side’ interventions on the basis of partial reading of the evidence.
So I hope Duncan’s alarm will soon give way to agreement. The challenge to conventional thinking about ‘good governance’ applies to all of us, not just to the soft target provided by official donor governance work.
The politics of aid
There are many other points I might pick up, but I will leave democracy, Amartya Sen and universal rights for another occasion. And on the important question of how to avoid sliding back into ‘decent chap-ism’, I will defer to my APPP colleague Tim Kelsall.
For now, let me just comment on Duncan’ scepticism about uptake of APPP findings by official aid. Of course, yes, the obstacles are pretty daunting. Backing off and concentrating on the ‘do no harm’ agenda at home, as suggested by Mick Moore and Sue Unsworth, has much to be said for it. But it is too easy to take the existing aid set-up as a given, and see the function of research as limited to feeding its appetite for ‘take-aways’.
As we said in the brief, aid needs to fit the needs of development, not the other way round. For sure, this is not a simple matter. It is about public attitudes and the long-term shaping of opinion in the North, and not just about the civil servants or the ministers who are currently in charge of things – which is why, as Duncan notes, drivers of change and political economy analysis don’t change behaviour all that much. But public attitudes to development have been substantially remoulded in recent years by NGO campaigns, not always for the good but significantly nonetheless – and with Oxfam often in the lead.
Given this success, it seems a bit soon to give up on the possibility of shaping a more mature general consensus on what matters and what doesn’t in governance for development. I think we should talk about how we can work together on this.”
Duncan: Thanks David, and I really hope you’re right about getting aid donors to think more about politics and context. But using blogger’s prerogative to have the last word, I’d just like to say that there’s at least one straw man in here – the idea that NGOs like Oxfam see change coming about purely by bottom-up civil society organization. In fact, both our theory of change, and the practice of our advocacy usually involves cross sectoral alliances with business, allies within government, churches as well as community organizations, peasant associations and the like. I’d go further, often, NGOs’ most important role is to act as catalysts and convenors, bringing groups together who would not normally talk to each other. So where I differ with you is not that change comes about from a combination of top down and bottom up, but in the APPP Policy Brief’s far too dismissive line that ‘citizen pressure is at best a weak factor and at worst a distraction’. I think events in North Africa are just the latest reason (on top of all that work by the IDS Citizenship team) to say that that statement is simply wrong. US civil rights movement, anyone? The struggle against apartheid? I notice you don’t repeat it in your post – perhaps it wasn’t quite what you meant to say?