Should aid support patronage politics?

December 2, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

In this month’s Prospect, Alex de Waal wrestles with the problems posed by Alex de Waalstate-building in countries where patronage trumps politics. This kind of ‘what do we do about fragile states’ discussion is one of the most intractable issues in development, so don’t expect simple solutions, but Alex (who is one of the most original thinkers on this kind of thing) seems to be arguing for an ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, fund ’em’ strategy of supporting patronage politicians with the rather ill-defined aim of eventually turning them into the kernel of an effective state (pro-poor patronage?).

‘When Nato concedes a draw in Afghanistan, it will be because of its failure to understand the country’s politics. But a deeper failure will lurk in the background. In the past decade the west has launched a huge experiment to build capable states in the world’s most difficult countries. Troops, technical advisers and aid budgets are the tools of choice. The experiment is said to have worked in East Timor, Kosovo and Sierra Leone; now Afghanistan, Congo and Sudan are top of the target list. All are failed or fragile states where patronage is paramount and where the political arena is a marketplace, not a debating chamber.

How did we get here? According to the conventional story, countries like Afghanistan are in trouble because they can’t sustain order, manage a budget, or deliver services. So we provide funds to kick-start development, charities to provide services, experts to run departments, and troops to enforce the law. A helpful cocoon emerges in which the state grows stronger. And when this state looks enough like the Czech Republic, we hand over the keys.’

But Alex is sceptical about the whole project:

‘Even in tiny countries such hopes are fatally optimistic. Take East Timor, heralded as one of the UN’s successes. Its 1m people received $565m in support from 2002-05, backed up by Australian troops. But the country was soon back in crisis; in 2008 there was a coup attempt. The model is more unsustainable for larger countries: it would take tens of billions of dollars to similarly support Congo’s 66m people.

Look at statebuilding from another point of view: that of an embattled ruler. To him, all those dollars and foreign troops are a huge boon. The money can buy off some opponents, while foreign soldiers fight the rest. Strong, autonomous government departments, however, are a genuine threat. A chief of staff might launch a sudden coup, or a finance minister may put rival warlords on his payroll. Secret ballots are a problem too: it’s hard to pay off local powerbrokers under the eyes of election monitors. The ruler might speak the language of the rule of law. But the real game is buying loyalty. A well-managed, inclusive patronage system is often the only way of running such countries.’

His conclusion?

‘Today, it would be more cost-effective to ditch the extra troops and revert to funding patronage. This would mean different priorities, like taking control of the drugs market to deny the Taliban its best source of funds. A new patronage system could eventually be made fairer and more inclusive, perhaps allowing institutions to grow around it slowly. But this means thinking like an Afghan politician, not an international peacebuilder. If the west cannot follow this path, it will join the other superpowers humbled in the Hindu Kush. The war in Afghanistan will become more about salvaging Nato than about building a central Asian Denmark. And should Nato withdraw, others—perhaps China—will set the more modest goal of political stability, and pay hard cash to get it.’

What I like about this is Alex’s insistence on looking at politics as it really is, and on understanding the incentive systems and motivations that guide real-life politicians in fragile states (reminiscent of my friend Matthew Lockwood’s great book, ‘The State They’re In’). But his solution rather sticks in the throat.

Firstly, there’s every likelihood that this kind of ‘trickle down politics’ will never become much ‘fairer and more inclusive’. Why should it? Political stability will be bought by sacrificing political and social progress and ordinary people in Afghanistan, DRC or wherever will be left waiting indefinitely for jobs and services (see Oxfam’s recent survey of what 700 ordinary Afghans think are the real causes of their country’s malaise).

Moreover, I fear there has in practice been a lot more buying off of leaders by donors than Alex allows for, partly by turning a blind eye to graft, and willingness to let patronage-style politicians play significant roles. If true, he can’t say that his strategy has not been tried (and found wanting).

What other ideas might help? One might be to focus more on the local state, either at municipal or provincial level. That might mean accepting some patronage politics, but it might also increase the chances of delivering real benefits to local people in terms of services and accountability. Another would be to invest much more in civil society strengthening, rather than just state building, enabling local organizations – social movements, NGO watchdogs, faith groups etc – better to hold the state to account. Any other bright ideas?

If fragile states are your bag, have a look at the inaugural European Report on Development, entitled ‘Overcoming Fragility in Africa’ . The ERD is a long overdue attempt to provide a European counterweight to the avalanche of Washington-based analysis, opinion and proposition, and will be an annual.

December 2, 2009
Duncan Green