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political economy

Can a Political Economy Approach Explain Aid Donors’ Reluctance to Think and Work Politically? Guest Post from Neil McCulloch

Duncan Green's picture

The more enlightened (in my view) aid types have been wagging their fingers for decades, telling their colleagues to adopt more politically literate approaches to their work. Why isn’t everyone convinced? Neil McCulloch applies a bit of political economy analysis to the aid business.

Over the last fifteen years or more, a new approach to development assistance has been gaining ground in policy circles. Broadly entitled the “political economy” approach, it attempts to apply a more political approach to understanding development problems and, importantly, development “solutions”. In particular, a central tenet of the approach is that many development problems are fundamentally political rather than technical and that therefore solutions to these problems are most likely to come from inside a country’s polity than from outside. Perhaps the most famous recent example of this line of thinking is Acemoglu and Robinson’s 2012 book Why Nations Fail.

Acemoglu and Robinson conclude that if each nation’s fate depends primarily on its domestic political struggles, the role for external development assistance is minimal. However, the response of practitioners to this field is to turn this argument on its head i.e. that is, if indeed each nation’s fate depends primarily on its domestic political struggles, development assistance should be trying to influence these struggles in ways that make pro-development outcomes more likely. Yet despite more than a decade analysis, the political economy “approach” is still rarely used by donors in the field. Why? I think there are four reasons:

Understanding the relevance of political settlements for the Bank’s work

Sakuntala Akmeemana's picture

Man and boy on grazing landThe post-conflict literature amongst practitioners (including the Bank’s WDR 2011 and the OECD’s INCAF) has increasingly focussed on the role of ‘inclusive enough’ political settlements as a precondition for political stability and economic growth.  What does this mean? Can an understanding of political settlements help mould the Bank’s responses to moments of crisis in our client countries or inform our “business as usual” operations in countries where the seeds of future violence are apparent or looming?  How do we recognize tenuous settlements, where grievances are likely to lead to an outbreak of, or return to, widespread conflict? 

Can Businesses Help Create Political Stability?

Zahid Hussain's picture

 © Simone D. McCourtie/World BankBusinesses generally stand little chance of doing well when politics is not stable. Political stability is a necessary condition for an enabling business environment. What can the business community do to help achieve sustained political stability? Experience shows more often than not they fail to do so. What keeps the private sector divided even when both their collective and personal interests are directly at stake? Such an apparent puzzle can be explained by the soft budget constraint syndrome interacting with cronyism.
 
The term “soft budget constraint” (SBC) was originally conceived by the economist, Janos Kornai. The concept has since been regularly invoked in the literature on economic transition from socialism to capitalism. Now the concept is increasingly acknowledged to be pertinent well beyond the realm of socialist and transition economies. A host of capitalist phenomena, ranging from the collapse of the banking sector of East Asian economies in the 1990s and the business rescue packages seen in the midst of the recent global financial crises can be usefully analyzed in SBC terms.
 
The syndrome is at work only when organizations can expect to be rescued from trouble, and those expectations in turn affect their behavior. The more frequently financial problems elicit support in any part of the economy, the more organizations will count on getting support themselves. The government may from time to time announce they will break with past practice and refrain henceforth from bailouts. But such announcements have little effect unless combined with some institutional change that lends credibility to their claims.
 
SBC syndrome alone cannot explain why business groups do not react collectively to political adversities. The divisive force in this process comes from cronyism.
 
Cronyism normally means some of those close to political authorities receive large economic favors. The most visible ones usually entail ownership of a business or its operation, such as the privatization of state-owned enterprises (SOEs). More frequently, however, economic entitlements are provided through privileged access to governmental favors. The most valuable are the provision of monopoly or quasi-monopoly positions and the extension of domestic credit at highly subsidized terms. Favoritism in awarding government contracts is also important and may be as significant as the others. 

Getting to The 'So Whats': How Can Donors Use Political Economy Analysis to Sort Out Bad Governance?

Duncan Green's picture


Close but no cigar. Just been reading an ODI paper from a few months ago, Making sense of the politics of delivery: our findings so far, by Marta Foresti, Tam O’Neil and Leni Wild. It’s part of the ODI’s excellent stream of work on governance and accountability (see my review of David Booth and Diana Cammack’s book) and repays close study.

The starting point is the widespread disillusionment in DFID and elsewhere with ‘political economy analysis’ (PEA), memorably summed up by Alex Duncan’s definition of a political economist as ‘someone who comes and explains why your programme hasn’t worked’:

‘There is no doubt that PEA has helped answer some of these questions [why stuff doesn’t work]. Yet many would say that researchers have not found a middle ground between generality and specificity. On the one hand, the use of catch-all concepts, such as political will or unspecified incentives, fail to provide enough analytical purchase on which to hang entry points for reform. On the other, if we view every context and problem as sui generis, experience cannot be used to construct theories of change that in­clude learning across programmes and contexts.’

Economic growth and elections in Bangladesh

Zahid Hussain's picture

Bangladesh has turned the political business cycle phenomenon upside down.
 
Political business cycles are cycles in macroeconomic variables – output, unemployment, inflation – induced by the electoral cycle. This type of business cycle results primarily from the manipulation of policy tools by incumbent politicians hoping to stimulate the economy just prior to an election and thereby improve their reelection chances. 
 
Expansionary monetary and fiscal policies have politically palatable consequences in the short run. When pursued to excess, these very policies can also have very unpleasant consequences in the longer term in the form of accelerating inflation, decreasing savings, worsening foreign trade balance, and long-term expansion of government's share of the GDP at the expense of private consumption and investment. So immediately after the election, politicians tend to “bite the bullet” and reverse course by raising taxes, cutting spending, slowing the growth of the money supply, and allowing interest rates to rise. As a result, the regular holding of elections tends to produce a boom-and-bust pattern in the economy because of the on-again-off-again pattern of government stimulus and restraint to induce an artificial boom at every election time.
 
Bangladesh’s experience also shows the existence of a political business cycle in GDP growth, albeit with exactly the opposite pattern of boom and bust. GDP growth has consistently declined in each of the last five election years. It happened in 1991, 1996, 2002, 2007 (an election year without election) and 2009 (Figure 1). From the perspective of Western political business cycle theory these growth tendencies appear suicidal for the incumbent. Instead of expanding the economy faster to gain votes, the incumbents appear to be shooting themselves in the foot by allowing the pace of expansion to slow in the election year!
 
Is this another case of the Bangladesh paradox?

Realizing the Potential of Right to Information

Anupama Dokeniya's picture

Right to Information (RTI) laws can be a useful instrument for improving transparency – if the political will for implementation is sustained, and if the broader governance environment provides the enabling conditions for the exercise of the law. A research project that studied the implementation of RTI laws in a number of countries showed that implementation has been very uneven across countries. In some countries, RTI laws had been leveraged effectively for extracting information in a number of important areas, ranging from public expenditures, to performance and procurement, and exposing instances of corruption. In other countries, the existence of an RTI law had little impact in any of these areas, and oversight and capacity building mechanisms had either not been set up, or not functioned effectively.

The findings of the study are not surprising. The implementation gap between de jure and de facto reforms in countries faced with capacity constraints and political economy challenges is well-known. Yet, international agencies have pushed policy reforms without adequate attention to the constraints and challenges of implementation. The pressure to win support and legitimacy with international aid agencies has been an important driver of the adoption of RTI laws. The right has also been recognized in international human rights conventions, and more recently has gained increasing international attention (for instance, the existence of a law is one of the considerations for membership in the Open Government Partnership). Further, pressure from domestic constituencies has also propelled political actors to champion the law. But, once passed, capacity limitations, the erosion of political will, and active resistance have been important impediments to realizing the potential of RTI.

To end poverty, we need to get better at improving institutions

Verena Fritz's picture

Good institutions matter for development. Institutions enable societies to address challenges – from managing irrigation and schools systems, to raising and spending revenues. In the terms of Nobel Prize laureate Elinor Ostrom, the right institutions enable effective collective action, while poor or missing institutions hinder problem-solving.

Avoiding political potholes on the road to development

Joe Wales's picture

A while back I was working for a small education foundation in Bangalore. Every day I took the bus to the office along a road that had so many pot holes it felt like the driver had decided to take a short cut across the surface of the moon. About a month before I left the whole stretch was covered by a smooth layer of gleaming tarmac and a series of huge posters appeared – announcing the hard work and successful lobbying conducted by our local city councillor.

Book Review: Knowledge, Policy and Power in International Development: A Practical Guide

Duncan Green's picture

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.

Civil Society, Public Action and Accountability in Africa

Duncan Green's picture

An important new paper from some big development names – Shanta Devarajan and Stuti Khemani from the World Bank, and Michael Walton (ex Bank, now at Harvard Kennedy School) – directs a slightly fierce (but welcome) political economy gaze at donor efforts to strengthen civil society (one of the more recent developmental fads). As with most such papers, after a monumental literature review, one of the striking conclusions is how little we really know, but it gropes gamely through the fog of ignorance and confusion and arrives at some interesting conclusions.

First, the authors find that something significant is going on among Africa’s citizens: “a large shift in Africa in organization among citizens. Village-level group formation in Africa increased dramatically over the 1990s when participatory approaches were emphasized in international development paradigms, promoted through aid, and adopted deliberately by country governments to deliver projects to communities.” Interestingly, that increased participation applies to both democratic and less democratic systems. The question is in what situations that upsurge in civil society has impact, and how (if at all) aid agencies can help.

The paper adds its support to the growing demand that aid interventions abandon futile searches for ‘best practice’ in favour of understanding what are the ‘best fits’ for any given context:


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