If you want an overview of the current debates on inequality, read Kevin Watkins’ magisterial Ryszard Kapuściński lecture. Kevin, who will shortly take over as the new head of the Overseas Development Institute, argues that ‘getting to zero’ on poverty means putting inequality at the heart of the development debate and the post2015 agreement (he doesn’t share my scepticism on that one). As a taster, here are two powerful graphs, showing how poverty will fall globally and in India, with predicted growth rates, in a low/high/current inequality variants. QED, really.
Why don’t people in power do the right thing – supply, demand or collective action problem? And what do we do about it?
My last few days have been dominated by conversations around ‘convening and brokering’, including an exchange between assorted ODI wonks and a bunch of NGOs on the findings of the Africa Power and Politics Programme, and a ‘webinar’ (ugh), with our Latin American staff on the nature of ‘leverage’ (a closely associated development fuzzword). Yesterday I set out the best example of this approach that I’ve found to date, the Tajikistan water and sanitation network. Today it’s some overall conclusions from the various discussions.
David Booth from ODI described the question he is trying to answer as ‘why don’t people in power do the right thing?’ He thinks aid agencies (both official and NGOs) have moved from thinking that the answer is building capacity in government (supply side) to strengthening the voice of citizens to demand better services (demand side), but argues that both approaches are wrong.
The mistake, he argues is seeing power as a zero sum game, whereas often the barrier to progress is better seen as a collective action problem: ‘doing the right thing involves cooperating with others and people aren’t prepared to take risks and bear the costs of working with others, unless they believe that everyone else will do so too.’
That requires a different approach, getting everyone into a room to build trust and find joint solutions to a common problem.
ODI argues that on the ground, a lot of aid agencies realize this, and are doing it already. But the official line (often driven by donors’ funding decisions) is that they are exclusively building demand-side accountability, so their reports and narrative airbrush out all that ‘collaborationist’ activity with local government officials, politicians etc. That’s a problem because it inhibits their ability to share experiences and learn how to do things better.
As evidence, ODI cited an evaluation it did for Plan of a ‘Community Scorecards’ project in Malawi that was proving remarkably successful. The programme design was classic demand-side: entitlements, rights, holding duty bearers to account etc. But when ODI investigated, they found that reality involved brokering local-level reform processes and working with local officials to help them raise concerns with central government. Solutions included communities agreeing to help with school construction. In agriculture, problems included fertilizer subsidies being traded on secondary markets, sometimes for sex. The project brokered contacts with police and the courts to help sort it out. Little of this appeared in the official project narrative.
All well and good, but Oxfam’s Jo Rowlands argued that the NGOs’ approach is different to ODI’s in one important aspect. While ODI argues for ‘going with the grain’ of existing institutions and traditions, the NGOs are more normative – going with the grain but at the same time seeking to change it, through a kind of ‘affirmative action convening and brokering’ that ensures the voices of previously excluded groups are at the table. So for example, our work with protection committees in the DRC involves helping them build trust with local government and ‘armed actors’, but also ensuring the committees have an even gender balance, which has transformed the confidence and self-perception of many women participants.
This kind of transformative approach usually involves something additional to just convening and brokering (Tajikistan is a bit of an exception). In livelihoods it involves investing in technical assistance and building organizational capacity so that smallholder assocations can benefit from value chains. In women’s rights it involves building ‘power within’ as well as brokering the kinds of discussions the protection committees have in the DRC. Elsewhere it may involve running pilot programmes to demonstrate new solutions around which the discussions can take place.
Which leads me to a key dividing line between two kinds of convening and brokering. The more innovative kind involves acknowledging that there is a problem, but admitting that we don’t have a solution, and want to get everyone in the room to try and find one. That’s the Tajikistan model, but is still something of a rarity (NGOs often think they know the answer, even when they don’t….). That is very different from merely trying to build an alliance around a predetermined policy demand (a much more common approach).
Which all left some important questions and dilemmas hanging in the air. They include:
- Given that social change often takes place through a cycle of cooperation and conflict (see diag), when and where is the ‘problem-solving approach’ the best answer? Just during the kiss and make up phase, or more generally?
- Is this approach easier in some sectors (children, water) than others (taxation, livelihoods)? Or is it easier in service delivery work (more pragmatic) than influencing (more normative)?
- ODI argues that the trick is to pick the moments when the stars are aligned for some kind of collective action breakthrough, but how do you recognize such moments, apart from in hindsight (not a lot of use for practitioners)?
- What kinds of people are good at this, and do they work for aid agencies? In my experience, lovers of ambiguity, policy entrepreneurs willing to take risks, and networkers happy to talk to people they disagree with or even dislike are in pretty short supply in the aid world
- David Booth argues that ‘meetings are of the essence’, but what distinguishes useful convening-type meetings from pointless NGO gabfests. (JAM – Just Another Meeting)?
- Which brings us to the role of donors. To what extent can they cope with the uncertainty over attribution and the long timescales involved in this kind of work? How do we take them with us?
Finally, we agreed to ask for your help. David Booth reckons we need a good snappy name for this new approach – open-minded on solutions, trust-building, convening and brokering, problem-solving etc. Any ideas?
And since ODI is funky and digital these days, here’s my 3 minute download, which they filmed straight after the meeting
This review appears in the Evidence and Policy journal, where it is now available free online (after I protested about the scandalous, rip-off $30 they were charging). Or you can just read it here. Note to self: in future, I will not write anything for journals that are not open access (thanks to Owen Barder for that suggestion).
In recent years, the public and policy debate over climate change, ‘climategate’, and the debacle of the Copenhagen Summit (and seemingly the wider UN negotiations) has brought home the tenuousness of the links between knowledge and public policy-making. ‘Do the research and they will come’ is clearly not a credible doctrine. Knowledge, Policy and Power, written by a group of researchers from the Overseas Development Institute, tackles some important aspects of these links, building on ODI’s strong track record on the interface between research and policy-making.
The book has good instincts – sceptical of all things linear, of researchers claiming to know more than they do, stressing the importance of values, beliefs, assumptions, taboos and other group pressures, hidden power and in/exclusion in what are often portrayed as neutral processes of research and debate. There is ample discussion of the relative strengths and weakneses of different kinds of knowledge, whether derived from practice, ‘pure’ research or the people themselves.
Knowledge, Policy and Power argues that four key dimensions need attention in understanding how research translates (or doesn’t) into policy: the political economy of the knowledge-policy interface, the actors who engage at it, the types of knowledge used and the role of knowledge intermediaries. It devotes a chapter to each of these, and concludes by summarizing its ‘core messages’ as:
1. Systematic mapping of the political context is necessary to improve the success of knowledge-policy interactions. Adopting the position that ‘it’s all down to political will’ is not only inaccurate but also counterproductive.
2. Understanding the role and behaviour of actors is not a simple matter of imputing self interest, but of considering the interplay of actor interests, values/beliefs and credibility and the power relations that underpin these.
3. Research needs to be complemented by other forms of knowledge, based on local conditions and practical experience.
4. Anyone working in this field as a ‘knowledge intermediary’ needs to think through a range of possible approaches to ensure their role is effective.
Along the way, it scans a vast literature to cull numerous useful typologies – of states, schools of thought, influencing factors, forms of knowledge etc, which can provide useful tools for those seeking guidance. The chapter on ‘facilitating knowledge interaction’ is the most practical and useful, setting out and discussing a spectrum of roles for ‘knowledge intermediaries’ (which I guess includes people like me), from low level ‘informing’ to ‘engaging’ to ‘building adaptive capacity’. With sensible guidelines on how do decide which approach to use in a given situation, it came closest to fulfilling the ‘how to’ promises of the book.
For the book claims to be a practical guide, which brings me to my first of three main criticisms. It isn’t very practical. The style doesn’t help: Firstly the language is variable, (chapters feel like they have been written by very different authors), but veers overall towards the opaque, with the verbiage of post-modernism (plural contexts mediated by contested discourses etc etc) scattered liberally over the text, seriously blunting its ability to communicate a clear message. Even the (very welcome) case studies seem too abstract! Example: ‘The difference between an informal designation process (Viet Nam) and a dual system where birthright and elected leaders share control (Morocco) is manifest in the degree of regulation and openness.’ Yeah, right.
That may be why, although I had regular glimmers of recognition and the odd wry smile, I had no ‘aha moments’ when reading this book. That is unfortunate– I think revelatory ideas are probably in there somewhere, but are so buried beneath the dense language, that several readings would be required to uncover the gems, and few people will have sufficient time or patience.
My second problem with Knowledge, Policy and Power is the alarming extent to which it blurs (or more accurately, ignores) the boundaries between research and advocacy. The book recommends that researchers consider ‘shaming techniques directed at veto players’ and ‘building wider movements’ as part of their day job. It contrasts the Brookings Institution (high credibility, but limited advocacy role) with the much more overtly partisan and activist Heritage Foundation, and the authors seem to prefer the Heritage model, but don’t discuss the costs of doing so. The section on credibility is rather weak and ignores the issue of reputational damage.
I work for an organization which specialises in ‘research for advocacy’, but even I was alarmed by this – if research organizations veer too blatantly towards activism or ‘policy-based evidence making’ they risk reputational damage that can be close to permanent. Instead, I would have liked to see much more discussion on the kinds of alliances researchers can make to improve impact, while preserving their reputation, and the challenges they face in forming those alliances (for example NGOs typically work on much shorter timescales than researchers, resulting in much mutual frustration). The book seems to assume that researchers can do it all – they can’t, and nor should they.
My final point is that Knowledge, Policy and Power includes only passing reference to shocks, or ‘critical junctures’ as they are categorised in Why Nations Fail. The discussion portrays a largely steady state world of research, engagement with policy makers, and civilised debate, but in advocacy terms, readiness for such junctures is all. Very often, it is scandal, failure, crisis and disaster that drive change in policy, and that carries important implications for researchers and advocates. The most obvious is that when a shock hits, researchers should be repackaging existing research to show its relevance to the current crisis and making every effort to get it into the hands of policy makers, even if that means temporarily abandoning the cherished five year research programme. A discussion on the use of research before and after elections would have provided another excellent example of influencing in practice.
Overall, I think there is enough in here to warrant close study by researchers seeking to improve the policy impact of their work, but be warned – you will have to work at making this book produce practical guidance.
The Africa Power and Politics Programme (APPP) is winding down as its five year funding from DFID comes to an end, and I’ve been wading through the 120 page synthesis report as well as the strictly-for-wimps Policy Brief. Both are entitled ‘Development as a collective action problem: Addressing the real challenges of African governance’.
Like previous APPP work, the papers are intriguing and frustrating in equal measure. David Booth from the ODI, the principal author, appears torn: his comfort zone is the abstruse conceptual landscape and language of political science. But his paymasters are practical men and women who insist on their ‘so whats’. ‘Researchers have a duty to provide more than negative messages and evidence of complexity. There needs to be a meeting point between researchers’ recognition of complexity and practitioners’ hunger for guidance.’ He does his best, and promises much, but it doesn’t come easy, with conclusions that often stop just as they get interesting (at least to prosaic practitioner types like me).
First comes the standard take-down: a comprehensive and persuasive rubbishing of mistaken approaches. Yes, the development world may have moved on from ‘magic bullet’ approaches, accepting the APPP’s core argument in favour of adopting ‘best fit’ approaches, ‘going with the grain’ of existing histories and institutions in any given place. But in practice ‘even the most reflective country activists and the best governance advisers have trouble imagining what to do differently.’
On current aid practices, the synthesis report is far more damning than the Policy Brief (perhaps in deference to DFID’s sensitivities). Booth lambasts the ‘per diem culture’ (or as my colleague Ben Phillips puts it, ‘carpe per diem’) that undermines genuine attempts to resolve local collective action problems, as well as
- ‘the distortions caused by the availability of donor money and organisational templates, now delivered to the remotest rural areas by local governments and NGOs, and
- mechanical application of donor-inspired policy guidelines by sector ministries in ways that not only contribute to policy incoherence but prevent local actors from coming together to provide their own solutions.
He’s particularly critical of direct funding to grassroots organizations, arguing that ‘in Pakistan and elsewhere, civic groups that get funding from development assistance end up with no members.’ But he then acknowledges that in Malawi ‘in fact, some of the promising experiences do involve NGOs as actors, and some involve the use of project funds’ although frustratingly, there are no further details.
APPP reckons a more profound conceptual shift is required, ditching the ‘straitjacket of principal-agent thinking’ on governance. It pours equal scorn on supply side governance (governments are keen to run the place better, they just need training) and the more recent switch to demand side (just help citizens’ groups who are dying to hold governments to account, and that will lead to development). ‘The conventional idea of supporting a pent-up ‘demand for good governance’ must be put aside.’ ‘Citizen pressure will normally lead to more effective clientelism, not better public policies.’ [ouch]
Instead ‘governance challenges are not fundamentally about one set of people getting another set of people to behave better. They are about both sets of people finding ways of being able to act collectively in their own best interests. They are about collective problem-solving in fragmented societies hampered by low levels of trust.’
How? First engage with states, but not all of them: learn how to spot more developmentalist bits, and where you find them, reject the ‘dominant view for the last 25 years that African governments cannot be trusted with interventionist policies.’
I’ve written before about David’s apparent love affair with Rwanda’s Paul Kagame (left), but here he accepts that just wishing all African leaders were benevolent autocrats is not really good enough, not least because such ‘developmental patrimonialist’ regimes tend to emerge from major wars and national liberation struggles and/or major threats to national survival like the Rwandan genocide, which are unlikely to be repeated. Instead, he acknowledges ‘the most urgent policy questions relate to options for the modal type of contemporary African regime, where clientelism is competitive and operating under a formally democratic political constitution.’ Still, there is a lingering fondness for what the synthesis report terms ‘strong, visionary leaders’, combined with a rather old school notion of development as economic transformation first, and we’ll worry about all that fuzzy human rights, well-being and agency stuff later.
What of more specific so whats? There are tantalising glimpses here and there, never fleshed out fully. These include:
- New forms of power-sharing to deal with ethnic conflict
- Ring-fencing long term development priorities (eg infrastructure, smallholder agriculture) from party politics
- Pursue what APPP dubs ‘practical hybrids’, the result of ‘conscious efforts by elements of the modern state to adapt to local preferences and ways of doing things.’
- Learn from successful governance turnarounds in Latin America (Brazil, Bogotá), which ‘worked less by changing the formal rules of the political game, and more by bringing informal social norms and moral sentiments into line with the high ideals articulated in national constitutions, making creative use of mass media and the power of example.’
- ‘Official agencies should do more things ‘at arm’s length’, delegating assistance to organisations that have demonstrated an ability to work in the ways that are required to make a positive difference.’ Would that include ODI by any chance?
Stepping back, the underlying challenge identified by APPP seems to be how both governments and citizens can move to a less short-termist mindset and agree on the kind of institutional development that underpins long term development, finding ways to overcome the paralysis of collective action problems: ‘Where positive outcomes are achieved, the reasons are almost always that circumstances have permitted a collective action log-jam to be overcome, usually at several levels simultaneously and interactively.’
I think this analysis fits with some thinking we’re doing in Oxfam around the topic of ‘convening and brokering’. In certain circumstances, the best role for an outside player like us is not to build stuff, or dispense large amounts of cash, but to get disparate local players into a room and encourage them to find their own solutions. In Oxfam the iconic programme story is in Tajikistan, where we convened a bunch of ministries, private companies and civil society organizations to discuss water and sanitation. We don’t lobby for a particular agenda or institutional template, we just keep them talking – an afternoon every two months. Already the process has yielded an inter-ministerial coordinating committee on water, a new water law, and specific projects are now starting to emerge. The secret to success in this is often the human skills of the facilitator (in this case a rather charismatic water engineer who is now the Tajikistan country director) and acceptance by all parties of the credibility and independence of the convenor.
It also reminds me of Dani Rodrik’s work on growth diagnostics and bottlenecks: ‘development progress is about overcoming institutional blockages, usually underpinned by collective action problems. It is not, for the most part, about resource shortages or funding gaps.’
This seems to be heading towards some kind of ‘participatory institutional appraisal’ approach, where development actors specialize in convening discussions of local players to get over these logjams in ways that reflect and adapt local traditions and values. This runs up against the way aid agencies currently work: high staff turnover, massive pressure to dole out funds in large amounts, demands to show ‘value for money’ via an increasingly demanding and imposed system of governance, monitoring, evaluation etc etc
A suggestion: APPP should present this work to a group of practitioners (bilateral, NGOs etc), then brainstorm on examples where they are successfully pursuing this kind of approach. They should then write them up in plain English and use them to illustrate their arguments – I think I can guarantee a significant improvement in research take up and impact. Any takers?
This week is Earth Summit week on the blog, making my small contribution to the wonk feeding frenzy already in full flow in advance of next week’s Rio+20 event. Every organization is spewing out bulletins, position statements and curtain-raisers as if their lives depended on it (which I guess they do, in a way). I’m doubtful how many people actually read these – the press rooms are often carpeted with them, and I’ve always argued that NGOs can have more impact by keeping their powder dry and churning out immediate post mortems after the summit. That way they can help to write the history, while the competition is usually too sleep-deprived to produce anything. Here’s an example from the London G20 summit at the height of the global financial crisis.
But just in case you are hungry for more, there’s a South Centre bulletin on the ‘key issues’, a piece from Lawrence Haddad and the World Bank’s list of essential reading (several weeks’ worth) on sustainable development.
I’ll also review a couple here on the blog, starting with ‘Separated at Birth, reunited in Rio?’, an excellent 8 page paper from Claire Melamed, Andrew Scott and Tom Mitchell at the Overseas Development Institute, looking at whether the summit can ‘bring environment and development back together’. Some highlights:
“2015 will be a defining year for international policy on development and the environment. The negotiation of both new goals and a new agreement on climate change offer an opportunity to finally reunite the twin tracks of development and environmental policy, which have remained stubbornly separate since the first Rio conference in 1992. Rio+20 will set the stage for the approach to 2015.
However, the history of trying to link development and environmental objectives through actual policy initiatives is not encouraging. ‘Sustainable development’, a concept originating in the Brundtland Report of 1987, has become the mantra in global policy circles since the first Rio conference in 1992, but it has had remarkably little impact on actual policy. Despite much academic work and many innovative ideas in this area, the two have remained stubbornly separate on the terrain of politics and implementation.”
“[Despite caveats on climate change, food prices and the financial crisis] Current trends in development are remarkably positive. Thanks to both economic growth and effective policies, income levels and social outcomes are improving everywhere. For the environmental sector the news is almost unrelievedly gloomy. The challenge at the heart of bringing together environment and development – the reason why it is so essential and yet so difficult – is the apparent fundamental contradiction in these trends. More resources are needed as economies grow, the population (in some countries) increases, and living standards rise… These pressures will push the world further towards – or over – the planetary boundaries, and the consequences, in terms of climate change and resource depletion will, in turn, make progress against poverty harder, and may even send it into reverse.”
“Most of the increase in resource consumption will take place amongst middle and high income groups. Reducing extreme poverty in Africa or Asia will have little immediate impact on the scale of global resource use or on carbon emissions: numerous studies have highlighted that the effect may be marginal. So policies to tackle residual poverty and avoid critical environmental thresholds need to focus on quite different parts of the global demographic in the short term.”
The authors then delve into the different world views underlying the development and environment debates – one speaks the language of morality, the other of science:
“The problems of poverty and development are mainly normative – the basis for the international effort towards poverty eradication is that, worldwide, governments and people have decided that it is morally unacceptable for people to live below a certain minimum standard in a world where the alternative is possible. By contrast, the problem in the environmental sphere is defined less on the basis of moral norms (at least for the mainstream environmental movement), and more on the basis of the science and scientific knowledge about how changes are likely to impact on the global climate or other systems.”
And they operate on different planes of experience: “For the development sector, the unit of analysis of the measurement of progress is almost always the individual level, and norms relate to what individual people have, or what services they can access, or how they feel. The unit of analysis for environmental problems is generally a whole system.”
A gulf also separates the two camps on time frames: for the environmentalists “much of the action called for now is based on the impact of inaction on future generations…. On the development side, progress is called for on the basis of the needs of current generations.”
These fundamental differences produce very different political environments for change:
“In the absence of rapid technological change, the environmental agenda implies the rationing of resource use, both through the operation of the market and through policy instruments. This makes the politics quite toxic. At a global level, there is a deep suspicion among some low and middle income countries that environmentalism is simply a cover for old-fashioned mercantilism, and that calls to develop differently are nothing more than disguised calls to develop less.
By contrast, the focus on growth and improving living standards in the development field means that many of the decisions made in the name of development in both developing and developed countries are politically popular, at least with some groups. The issues are less around direct trade-offs and more around how to distribute a rapidly expanding pie. In recent years, perhaps reflecting the general mood of optimism about positive trends, the focus within international development policy-making has been on technical issues: how to design appropriate programmes or how to roll out large scale vaccine campaigns.”
Inevitably, the diagnosis of the problems is a lot more detailed and convincing than the proposals for overcoming them. These include starting with agreement on a ‘best 2050 world’ and working backwards; agreeing new global goals; new financial and market regulation and new institutional architecture. At Rio, it thinks the most promising discussions are on green growth and ‘sustainable development goals.’ These proposals risk banging up against the political and economic setting for Rio (more on that to follow).
“Recognising the importance of ‘security’ in development (in a broad sense and with a focus on freedom from violence for poor people) has been a progressive and important change in the way that we work. Analytical work has convincingly shown that poverty reduction is hugely impeded by conflict and violence. And many agencies have implemented this focus seriously – with the UK, for example, establishing a programme in the Democratic Republic of Congo (where it has no obvious great strategic interest) as well as scaling up in Pakistan (where it does).
But the forward agenda also needs to take account of the other big theme of this week’s various 9/11 retrospectives. This is that the emphasis on reacting to the terrorist threat distracted western countries (particularly the US) from responding strategically to a far more significant long-term change – the shifting balance of global economic power towards large middle-income countries, particularly China and India. As of now the focus in the mainstream literature is on the economic strength of these countries. But the security and development footprint of the emerging powers of Asia, Africa and Latin America will grow. This will surely change how we see the interaction between the spheres of development and security over time and it will influence norms and agendas in both areas. And in relation to the Islamic world – the obsession with an optic based on counter-terrorism distracted many in the west from understanding the real changes taking place on the ground, which have recently found expression in the dramatic social and political changes taking place throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
For the years to come, therefore, we can expect to see an end to large ‘boots-on-the-ground’ western interventions. Hopefully crude, over-ambitious and poorly informed ‘post-invasion’ stabilisation initiatives are unlikely to be repeated. We should also expect to see the practice of development in a state of rapid transformation as it comes to terms with new realities – emerging world powers which contain much of the world’s poorest people, changing patterns of influence globally, and a declining emphasis on public resource flows from rich to poor countries as the central driver of development progress. Conceptually, our concern with uncertainty and risk is increasingly finding expression through the notion of building ‘resilience’ as a goal of development action. The literature on resilience emerges from different traditions (encompassing concerns with disaster risk reduction, conflict, humanitarian action, climate change, social protection, market volatility etc.) and gives us the opportunity to make useful links between these different issues.
In the midst of all of this change we should retain a key lesson from the last decade – that freedom from violence matters enormously for poor people, and that realising basic human security for all should remain a key goal for development action.”
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?
It’s a while since I’ve been as excited, intrigued and alarmed by a four page briefing as I was by the first policy brief of ODI’s Africa Power and Politics Programme (APPP). If you’re interested in the politics of development, drop everything and read it, and the accompanying (but gated, although the introductory overview is here) IDS Bulletin, entitled Working with the Grain? Rethinking African Governance.
First, the APPP reckons (building on the work of lots of others like Mushtaq Khan and Merilee Grindle) that the development industry has gone seriously wrong (what follows are direct quotes from the paper, apart from comments by me in square brackets):
‘In 20 years of ‘good governance’, millions of dollars have been spent on programmes to make private enterprise work in Africa as it does in the US, elections work as they do in Sweden, audit authorities as in Germany and civil society campaigns as in the Netherlands – with results that have been mixed at best. In its present form, ‘good governance’ is not evidence-based.
From ‘best practice’ to ‘best fit’
The ‘universal best practice’ approach to governance for development is bankrupt. There are no institutional templates that are valid everywhere and for all stages in a country’s development. Best fit implies
a) ‘working with the grain’, meaning building on existing institutional arrangements that have recognisable benefits: institutional innovations work when they build constructively on what already exists, borrowing institutional understandings from local society to build ‘practical hybrids’, marrying up modern professional standards or scientific principles (e.g. about what constitutes good health care) with the moral economy and previous practices of the area. [couldn’t agree more]
b) shift from direct support to facilitating local problem-solving: This has a clear implication for donor-financed and NGO-delivered support to self-help at the local level. Direct funding of groups and organisations inevitably means specifying institutional templates, for control and accountability purposes if nothing else. This can have very negative effects on capacities for genuine self-help. More attention should be given to the enabling environment. [such as?]
Adopting a ‘best fit’ approach also implies relying less on the congenial assumption that all good things go together. There is a widespread assumption that the solution to chronic development problems is more political democracy and greater citizen participation so that governments are more often ‘called to account’. This is an attractive idea, but it is more ideological than evidence-based. APPP is adding to the evidence that, in poor developing countries:
- democracy is a desirable long-term goal but not a reliable route to better public policies in the short and medium term
- citizen pressure is at best a weak factor and at worst a distraction from dealing with the main drivers of bad governance. [don’t worry, I’ll respond to this stuff at the end]
Voting and public goods
Democracy is definitely a desirable goal and an effective way of improving public policies in all societies in the long run. However, the formal arrangements of liberal democracy have radically different effects in different kinds of social and economic contexts. Many young democracies are not particularly developmental. In many settings, clientelism (vote-buying in its various forms) is cheaper and more reliable for power-hungry politicians than promises to improve policies and the delivery of public goods. [yep, as set out in back in 2005 in Matthew Lockwood’s great book, The State They’re In]
Refocusing on development leadership
What poor developing countries really need are leaders who, as well as constructing sufficiently inclusive coalitions of support, are able to show that they can ‘get things done’. In Africa, the most relevant dimension of variation among regimes is between more and less developmental forms of neopatrimonialism. [alarm bells – see below]
Implications for aid?
- External actors should base their decisions and their policy dialogue on a thorough understanding of the prevailing institutional arrangements. [definitely, but try doing that when the typical DFID staffer moves on every two years. In any case, as Sue Unsworth pointed out at the APPP launch, DFID and others have been doing this stuff for years, f - or example in the ‘Drivers of Change’ programme, now rechristened the ‘political economy approach’ – the problem is that it doesn’t have much impact on how donors actually behave - the way aid organizations are structured seems to make it very difficult to put this 'political economy approach' into practice.]
- linking ‘ownership’ more explicitly to political leadership, and ‘alignment’ to this concept of ownership
- working with parliaments and the public in the North to create the conditions in which more aid can work in a ‘best fit’ way. [ah yes, getting tabloids to say that corruption isn’t that big a deal really…..]
- Whether development efforts are country-owned or not depends on the orientation of the country’s political leadership. However desirable democratisation and civil society mobilisation may be, they are not relevant criteria of ownership.”
So what do I think of all this (in addition to the comments in square brackets)?
I love the challenge to the hubris and arrogance of the tired old northern-centric good governance discourse on development which basically argues that ‘they’ have to be more like ‘us’ (or at least an idealized version of us): elections are invariably good, all corruption is bad etc. This completely ignores both our own history and the reality of the existing institutions that hold the key to development. I also like the distinction between pro and anti-developmental forms of patrimonialism (personalistic systems of power, often but not always based on the distribution of cash and favours to buy loyalty) – that seems much more useful and historically grounded than the ‘all corruption is bad for development’ mindset. The practical hybrids idea sounds intriguing, but I’d need to see some more examples to be convinced (there are a few in the IDS bulletin, which is a start). Overall, we definitely have to move towards this kind of politically literate, contextual and humble approach to understanding development. Brilliant.
What alarms me?
The APPP is right to stress the importance of leadership, but how to prevent that degenerating in the minds of donors into traditional diplomatic ‘decent chap-ism’ – Kagame’s a decent chap, so let’s bung him lots of aid. As we know, decent chaps don’t always stay that way (the curse of the donor darling). How can a country graduate from an individual decent chap to an institutionalised, effective state? Within Sub-Saharan Africa, only Botswana seems to have managed it so far – at the launch one speaker held up the Ivory Coast of the 1980s as a good example of developmental patrimonialism, hardly reassuring. And the ringing quote at the end of the briefing: ‘it is time to abandon the polite fiction that the politicians in charge of most poor developing countries are really committed to development’ rather seems to undermine their argument (or at least highlights the shortage of decent chaps).
The risk is a slide into ‘Asian values’ type arguments that the non-monetary aspects of development will just have to wait. As Sam Hickey asked at the ODI launch ‘at what point is ‘good enough governance’ selling Africa short?’ The danger of an Asian values type focus on benign but undemocratic leaders is that you may get the autocracy without the developmental payoff at the end - lots of autocrats really mess up their countries.
The underlying vision of development seems to focus on structure with little space for agency (apart from decent chaps of course). Not much room for Amartya Sen’s ‘Development as Freedom’ or for universal human rights. An example from my colleague Caroline Sweetman comes to mind – some while ago when she was working as a gender adviser in Ethiopia, a women’s group asked her for ‘education and sharper knives’ to make female genital mutilation less dangerous. Others were urging donors to support such procedures in hospitals, to reduce risks to women. Would these be acceptable examples of ‘practical hybrids’?
And as you’d expect, I was quite upset by the dismissal of the role of civil society. While I have some sympathy with
the idea that donors unloading millions of dollars on unsuspecting CSOs may not be a great idea, writing off the influence of civil society per se does not seem (dare I say it) particularly evidence based. Do they not think the huge output of the Citizenship Development Research Centre on the role of civil society in long term political change (for example the iconic example of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign) worthy of consideration? How would they explain what’s happening in North Africa and the Middle East – hardly decent chap-driven processes, surely? Or are they saying that none of this work applies even slightly to the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa because of some unique aspect of its culture or politics?
My conclusion both from the briefing and the discussion at the ODI launch recently, is that the logical (though presumably unintended) conclusion from the APPP’s findings is that there is simply no role (apart from funding more research of course) for donors in governance work – it’s just too complex, too context specific, too likely to go wrong. And what the APPP is suggesting as alternatives are probably just too incompatible with the political and organizational realities of northern donorship. Speakers from aid agencies kept asking for ‘takeaways’ (policies, not Chinese meals) and didn’t get a convincing reply, except for yet more things they shouldn’t be doing. A reasonable answer, based on this paper, might be, ‘forget all that complicated political stuff – it’s beyond you. Go back to funding vaccines and textbooks, and concentrate on a ‘do no harm’ agenda at home – tax havens, climate change etc.’
These are just some initial reflections on a fascinating piece of work. Be prepared for me to do U turns on all sorts of things as I try and get to grips with it….. Next up, some highlights from the IDS bulletin.
Nice pieces from agricultural economist Steve Wiggins on the ODI and Guardian blogs, which I quote at length, because I think it’s an important correction to the discussion on the current food price spike.
‘In 2008 developing countries, and poor people within them, were hit hard by the price spike in the international cereals market. Once again food prices are moving up, not that far short of the levels seen three years ago, so does this mean another bout of hardship? Not quite: there’s a difference this time.
Why? It is not just cereals prices, nor just food prices, that are rising, but almost all agricultural prices – including those of the main tropical exports: cocoa, coffee and tea; cotton; palm oil; sugar; and rubber. Most low income countries, leaving aside the few with minerals and oil, depend heavily on these for their export earnings. Often, much of the production comes from small farmers. Higher prices mean windfall gains for them, gains that are likely to be spent on local goods and services, with strong multipliers in additional jobs and incomes for others on low incomes.
On the other hand, most of these countries are net importers of cereals and will suffer from higher prices on these items.
So where will the balance between extra costs and windfall gains fall? Let’s consider five countries: Burkina Faso; Ghana; Indonesia; Kenya; and Nicaragua; then see the likely impact through changes in the value of their trade in 10 of the most commonly traded items – maize, rice, wheat; palm oil; tea, coffee, cocoa; sugar; cotton, and rubber.
Look at the data and it is clear that all five countries get a large boost to their export revenues – by around 20% in two cases, by 40% in another two, and by more than 100% in Burkina Faso – the latter thanks to it being so heavily dependent on cotton, the price of which has risen dramatically over the past six months.
None of this will provide much solace to those who are feeling the brunt of price increases. We should focus efforts to ease the consequences of another price spike on those we know are most prone to shocks. By identifying those countries with the highest existing levels of hunger who are also major consumers of cereals and dependent on cereal imports we can pinpoint the areas where need is likely to be greatest. Overseas Development Institute studies show these countries are clustered in West Africa, the Horn of Africa and South Central Asia.
When may prices come down from current levels? Provided that the harvests of 2011 are not hit by bad weather, then prices of cereals should come down substantially by the late summer: from experience in 2008, farmers can be expected to produce large harvests in response to higher prices.”
Conclusion? An obvious point, but one that often gets lost – we need to consider the net impact of price changes on both producers and consumers and on the economy as a whole (eg are commodity exports properly taxed and the proceeds spent progressively? To what extent do high prices reach small farmers and landless labourers?). Reality is, as researchers and wonks love to stress, complicated.
The ivory tower fights back. Over on the Overseas Development Institute blog, Enrique Mendizabal is having a moment of self doubt. As head of the ODI’s excellent Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme, Enrique usually tells researchers that if they want to have any influence on policy makers they need to KISS (Keep it Short and Simple – my acronym not his). As a result we have seen a ‘surge in briefing papers, opinion pieces, blogs and other multimedia communications’. But now he’s worried that he’s been too successful – is satisfying policy-makers’ preference for mental snacks rather than square meals making them flabbier?
“By always giving policy-makers what they want – shorter, simpler and easier things to read – are we implicitly accepting that they should not be held up to the same standards as other professionals? In short, are we unintentionally ‘dumbing down’ the audience? Somehow, we have come to accept that policy-makers in the development sector (and I include policy-makers of developing and developed countries in this group) don’t need to engage with the complexity of the problems they face and that it is enough for them to know what to do.”
But if policy makers are to do their job, they need to work out in the brain gym, and that’s partly researchers’ responsibility:
“Think tanks and other research organisations don’t exist only to do research and directly seek policy changes: they are also responsible, whether they like it or not, for the development of future generations of policy-makers and promoting the debate of new ideas and supporting the environment where these happen. If communicating in ever simpler and flashier terms goes as far as removing all engagement with the research itself (the definition of the problem, methods, models, frameworks, etc.), then we are no different from any other interest groups that influence policy based on their beliefs or allegiances.”
Interesting, although Enrique risks overstating how much influence researchers have, anyway. I’d make two additional points. Firstly, there’s an inherent conservatism about KISS: because tried, tested (and tired) ideas have been endlessly chewed over and communicated, they are much easier to boil down into bullet points than new ideas that are initially more confused and ill defined. A bullet point culture slows up the speed with which new ideas can enter the mainstream.
Secondly, the audience for research is not a simple polar “decision-makers and researchers”. There’s a crucial intermediate tier of special advisers and government officials sufficiently junior to still have time to read stuff. They’re the ones we should be insisting take the time to consider longer, more complex analysis.
All this of course assumes the research is worth communicating in the first place. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education casts serious doubt on that, lamenting the “avalanche of low-quality research” and pointing out that “Only 45 percent of the articles published in the 4,500 top scientific journals [two decades ago] were cited within the first five years after publication. In recent years, the figure seems to have dropped further…”
The problem lies with an academic incentive system that rewards quantity, not quality, ensuring that “Aspiring researchers are turned into publish-or-perish entrepreneurs.” True that – I was recently talking to one such “aspiring researcher” at the local university who’s been told by his head of department not to write books, as papers can be turned around quicker and get more points in the reward system. Depressing. Still, Chris Blattman is relaxed.