Can aid donors really ‘think and work politically’? Plus the dangers of ‘big man’ thinking, and the horrors of political science-speak

January 30, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Spent an enjoyable  couple of days last week with the ‘thinking and working politically’ (TWP) crew, first at a follow up to the Delhi

Adrian Leftwich 1940-2013

Adrian Leftwich 1940-2013

meeting (nothing earth shattering to report, but a research agenda is on the way – I’ll keep you posted), and then at a very moving memorial conference for the late Adrian Leftwich (right), who is something of a founding father to this current of thought.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m a big fan of this line of thinking: understanding and engaging with the underlying issues of power and politics should be the heart of any serious work on development.

But based on last weeks exchanges, I’ve got some concerns too – here are some reflections:

First some choice quotes:

‘Governance people are in retreat at the moment. It’s quite shocking – the transformation agenda has been scrapped in favour of ‘let’s buy some results’

‘The one thing we learn from history is that we never learn from history’. Best not to think about that too hard.

As in Delhi, one very clear message was the very real institutional constraints on how far aid agencies, especially official ones (governments and multilaterals) can go on this agenda. TWP means taking risks, jumping at opportunities, finding and backing maverick ‘development entrepreneurs’ and accepting failure as the price of occasional success. Is that an institutional possibility for large agencies? Compare with this rather jaundiced (and Chatham House) description of how an aid donor works:

“There are three power centres in any aid organization: policy, risk control, spending. At the policy level, the underlying assumption is that country teams will not do the right thing unless you make it mandatory, so the role is to lobby for my bit in programme implementation. As a result, the organization builds up a labyrinth of mandatory controls, frameworks, strategies etc.

The risk and control power centre focuses on eliminating corruption; they feel that spending teams cannot be trusted to follow value for money, or do sufficient due diligence in avoiding corruption, when they also have to avoid any underspend (the ultimate crime). So the risk and control people add more controls and mandatory guidelines.

So where does that leave people trying to spend the money (and achieve change) at a country level? They generally react to the ever-proliferating controls in two ways – they either become completely immobilised and push every decision up to their bosses, or they work under the radar and hide a lot of what they actually do.”

We need to understand much better how donors actually function (or fail to) if we are to convince them to adopt the TWP approach, and at least some of the researchers present are planning to do a full political economy analysis of a donor – that will be interesting (if it’s ever published). DLP logo

The conference was organized by the Developmental Leadership Program, a research initiative founded by Leftwich to explore a much neglected topic,  ‘the critical role played by leaders, elites and coalitions in the politics of development’. It’s doing some great work, some of it reviewed on this blog, including some fantastic case studies on the origins of leaders in countries such as Somaliland and Ghana (more on that to follow).

But I’m torn over this increasing recognition of the importance of individuals in driving change. There’s no doubt (as I’m currently finding in my conversations in Tajikistan – more of that next week) that ‘development entrepreneurs’ who can think, act, seize opportunities, sell ideas and inspire (all at the same time) are not exactly growing on trees, and we need to understand how they emerge, and have impact.

But are we also falling into the trap of some kind of micro Big Man syndrome? – as Lant Pritchett so eloquently explains, we all prefer to think in terms of agents, rather than complex systems. How change happens is really complex, so let’s give our aching brains a rest and say it’s all about leaders. Think Paul Kagame and the tendency for politicians to see the world in terms of ‘decent chaps’. That sounds awfully like those British technocrats who admired Mussolini for making the trains run on time. To be fair, the DLP has a much more nuanced understanding of the word leadership, as this paper explains, but the issue still nags away.

Linked to this, there is a worrying tendency among the TWP crowd to take a perverse pleasure in jettisoning the accumulated ‘best practice’ of the development business, claiming it is both counter-productive (inhibits innovation and stops the emergence of hybrid institutions that function and last, even if they are second best from, say, a rights perspective) and an irritating outbreak of political correctness.

But however irritating the more unthinking outbreaks of tokenism and political correctness may be, the underlying ideas are substantial and important. Things like accountability, inclusion, gender rights, and participation are not political correctness, they are the stuff of development (Sen’s ‘freedoms to be and to do’). It may well be that we have to depart from them at times to achieve specific ends (e.g. if you’re negotiating a difficult peace settlement in Northern Ireland, publishing the minutes of every meeting is probably not going to help). But that departure should be temporary, for a clear purpose, and should eventually return us to a better place from which to recommence the struggle for all those good things like rights and transparency.

And finally, there’s the jargon problem, which seems particularly acute with this epistemic community. Oops, now I’m doing it. How

Jacob Zuma's new house, or a political settlement?

Jacob Zuma’s new house, or a political settlement?

would normal people translate these over-used phrases (my suggestions in brackets)

  • political settlements (= villages with lots of politicians living in them, or maybe just one – see right)
  • developmental regimes (= my perfect abs routine at the gym)
  • emergent change (= butterflies hatching in the spring, awww)

We really have to find better ways to communicate our ideas if we are to convince the non-wonk world.