Making Politics Practical: Development Politics and the Changing Aid Environment

On Friday, I had the opportunity to attend a workshop entitled “Making Politics Practical: Development Politics and the Changing Aid Environment” (see program here).  The event was hosted by the University of Birmingham’s International Development Department, Political Studies Association’s Development Politics Group, and the Developmental Leadership Programme  (a very interesting initiative putting forward some very good ideas).  The presenters and attendees were predominantly academics, but there were representatives from DFID, World Bank, and others, as well.

There was a clear consensus about the need for external actors working in developing countries to both think and act politically to support interventions around structural poverty, democratic deficits and other development obstacles.  Now, although there was some agreement about what is meant by political in this context, there were also a number of different strands of thought, such as:

  • Politics as rational choice institutionalism: politics as a barrier to best technocratic solution
  • Political as governance: analysis and interventions around good/democratic governance, including elections, civil society, rule of law, etc.
  • Political as political economy analysis (PEA): using PEA to diagnose development challenges and suggest leverage points
  • Politics as political mobilization of the poor: understand development as contested political terrain and actively support organizing efforts of the poor

Among these understandings of politically informed development, PEA was tool/approach most discussed throughout the day. For one thing, development agencies (DFID and the World Bank, among others) have been carrying out PEA for about a decade, and there are clear lessons to be learned.  PEA is an increasingly popular tool (even USAID, rather late in the game, has decided to utilize PEA, as demonstrated in the agency’s most recent Democracy and Governance Strategy), and has grown in sophistication and utility.  While early PEA’s were most often carried out at the country level and had few clear policy implication (except “what your doing is all wrong”), more recent PEA’s look at specific sectors or problems and seek to provide some guidance to decision makers.

However, those attending the workshop spent most of the day highlighting the shortcomings of PEA and of development organizations’ efforts to think and work politically more generally.  Critically, even when PEA’s and other political analyses are being carried out, there remain serious barriers to working politically in almost all major aid agencies. Even DFID, which has pioneered PEA over the past decade, faces numerous challenges, such as:

  • DFID has advanced in understanding the politics of development and created analytical tools, but overall, this vision has not permeated the agency and remains rather siloed in the cadre of governance advisors
  • Limited application of PEA in the field (study of Ghana found few interventions had been informed by PEA)
  • Bureaucratic systems (such as the procurement process), incentives (need to move money) and institutional discourses (value for money), run counter to thinking and, especially, working politically
  • Ongoing need to produce evidence that thinking/working politically leads to more significant development impacts (potential clash with ‘evidence agenda’)

And that is from the agency that is a clear trailblazer in the field; other donors lag even farther behind.  My limited experience with USAID has shown that there are very significant (insurmountable?) institutional obstacles to thinking and working politically, that the agency’s recent adoption of PEA is unlikely to challenge.  A recent book by Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont laid out the nature of the obstacles to integrating politics into development thinking and practice very clearly (see my review here).

Other issues raised that need to be addressed were:

  • Need to distinguish governance interventions from working politically, as many of the efforts to promote good and/or democratic governance are apolitical and technocratic.  Governance work needs to be done in a much more politically informed manner.
  • Political analysis still much better at diagnosing failures than guiding future interventions, thus PEA and other tools, even when they are carried out, often have limited programmatic impact.
  • PEA is often only performed periodically and needs to be complemented by continuous reflection on political dynamics in order to identify windows of opportunity, emerging obstacles, etc.
  • PEA has been focused on elite politics, and not on the politics of poor people’s movements, thus the prescriptions, such as there have been, tend not to emphasize the need to support the political mobilization of the poor, even though this is likely necessary for any institutional reforms or policies to have a significant pro-poor impact.  Studies, such as comparing Uttar Pradesh and Kerala in India, emphasize the effect of the combination of political mobilization and a functioning political market.
  • Political analysis has often been focused on country (or sub-national) case studies.  There is a strong need to go beyond “context matters” to do comparative work across cases to develop typologies/categories and identify patters.  The World Bank has done 250 individual PEAs, there is a need to draw on these and other data for mata-analysis.  In this way we could begin to develop principles, such like “intervention A is often more successful in the presence of factors B and C”.

Despite this long list of challenges and limitations, the overall tone of the workshop was cautiously optimistic.  The aid community has come a long way in the past decade, and there is momentum behind the push to think and work politically.  Even if there are significant institutional barriers in many organizations, there is also significant room to maneuver by decision makers who ‘get it’, especially those in the field.   

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2 thoughts on “Making Politics Practical: Development Politics and the Changing Aid Environment

  1. Pingback: Competing views on democracy promotion efforts | Politics, Governance and Development

  2. Pingback: Thinking Politically about Social Accountability | Politics, Governance and Development

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