Why donors ignore the evidence on what works, and transparency and accountability projects are a dead end. David Booth’s Non-Farewell Lecture.

April 27, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

ODI is always innovating, and earlier this week organized a non-farewell lecture for one of its big thinkers, David Booth. As far as I could work out, this was a celebration of them stopping paying him (aka ‘retirement’), while he continues to work for them for free as a visiting fellow. Interesting business model.

Anyway, for those that don’t know David’s work, he is an iconoclastic sociologist who, through big research projects like the Africa Power and Politics Programme, has spent decades pouring cold water on the half-baked buzzwords and unthinking fashions that flourish in the aid biz. We learned in the intro that he started on this course when he abandoned Trotskyism in the mid 80s – has anyone mapped the number and proclivities of lapsed trots in the aid sector? If not, why not?

David has been an influential voice in the critique of the failings of aid’s attempts in recent decades to implant Western style institutions in non-Western contexts. Phrases like ‘best practice’ and ‘good governance’ are useful alarm bells on this. Here he is (abbreviated) on what we have learned:

‘If there is a single message that emerges from the best governance scholarship and research since the 1980s, it is that we know much less than we thought we did about the institutional arrangements that developing countries need….. We need a robust agnosticism about the forms of governance likely to contribute well to building economies and improving conditions of life in poor countries. The following things are clear:

  • The formal institutional arrangements that work reasonably well in OECD countries today are not exportable.
  • The institutional arrangements (formal and informal) that have helped countries break through into fast development are very diverse.
  • Historical path dependencies are really important, but, contra Acemoglu and Robinson, history contains more than just two typical long-term trajectories. There is much more to the global story than the persistence of ‘extractive institutions’ versus the spread of ‘inclusive institutions’.
  • Countries can and do make rapid and economic and social progress with institutions that, in overall terms, are seriously dysfunctional.

If there is a single takeaway from all of this, it is that ‘good’ institutions are neither easy to prescribe nor a precondition for successful developmental catch-up. Developmental catch-up invariably involves some borrowing ideas and technologies from abroad, but is never successfully led by borrowing. It is led by problem solving.’

If every serious scholar thinks this apart from Acemoglu and Robinson, (who he euphemistically categorized as ‘outliers’), have the donors done the decent, evidence-based thing? Ermm, not exactly.

‘That the immediate post-Cold War era should have featured a certain amount of liberal-democratic hubris is understandable. More striking is how durable much of the associated thinking has proven to be in the face of obvious disappointments and the build-up of the scholarly consensus against it.’

The discomfort zone for me and, probably, quite a few FP2P readers, is that David characterizes efforts to promote transparency and accountability as a prime example of imposing irrelevant and inappropriate solutions. ‘Much of what lies behind the social accountability theme, like the content of most public sector capacity building, is a projection of solutions derived from experience in OECD countries onto the very different realities of developing countries. In other words, social accountability falls to the critique developed [that] it is profoundly solution-driven.’

I suspect he feels a bit that way (or at least ambivalent) about human rights too – we’ve crossed swords in the past about his apparent infatuation with Rwanda’s Paul Kagame. At least this time he moderated his usual dismissal of civil society organizations, acknowledging their role but adding ‘Civil Society Organizations are contributing to their own marginalization by doing these kinds of things that don’t lead anywhere (eg Transparency & Accountability – sorry about that, IBP).’

The way to fix aid is to really adopt ‘problem-driven iterative adaptation’ (PDIA), which means taking each letter in that clunky acronym seriously. In his view, donors have made more progress on the IA bit (Adaptive Management is all about iteration and adaptation), but have still not bought into problem-driven. The fudge has been ‘issue based’ programmes that say ‘we will use adaptive management techniques to fix governance/health/education’ – DFID’s vaunted SAVI governance programme in Nigeria would fit that bill. David thinks this falls short – what if you want to tackle poor quality education and find out that the real problem is bad roads, failing electricity or a low tax base? You need to be able to follow where the problem leads you.

Well fine, but then he’s basically saying aid donors should behave like governments, working across sectors and ministries, making trade-offs etc, which seems pretty impractical. Ironically, his weakest section was about why donors fail to act on this understanding – he puts it down to domestic donor politics and self-serving governance advisers who advocate institutional reform because that’s what they do. He even, true to his iconoclastic streak, advocated scrapping the unfortunately named GOSAC, the DFID governance team that funds lots of his work! But he didn’t really get into the broader realm of ideas and institutions, and in Q&A accepted that some of the most influential drivers of ‘best practice’ reforms are westernised leaders within developing country governments.

Conclusion? David makes people feel uncomfortable, sometimes goes too far, but who cares? In a sector full of groupthink, we need more iconoclasts like him, so I’m very glad he isn’t actually retiring.