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#10 from 2015: Has the governance agenda lost its mojo globally?

Sina Odugbemi's picture
Our Top Ten blog posts by readership in 2015. This post was originally posted on October 29, 2015. 
 

Romanian RevolutionWhen I started work in international development in London in the late 1990s, a more experienced colleague gave me the following insight. At some point, she said, I would either catch the bug and stay in the field or I would not and leave it to go and do something else. And it is usually some agenda within the broad field that would get you hooked, she added. She was right. I caught the bug and stayed in the field, and the agenda that excited my passion was and remains governance: efforts to improve governance systems in developing countries in order to do real and permanent good. The reason was obvious. I had moved to London from Lagos, Nigeria, having participated actively in the public affairs of the country; and I had left thoroughly convinced that unless governance improved in Nigeria there was no way that the abundance in the country would lead to improved welfare for the vast majority of its citizens. That remains my conviction.

In those days working on governance issues was exciting; for, it was like joining an army on the march, one that appeared ready to sweep everything before it. There was definite intellectual energy in the field. Practitioners had poise and confidence. Initiatives were being dreamt up by different donor agencies. Funds were pouring into the field. And we began to see a new breed of development professional: the so-called ‘governance advisers’. But behind it all, I suppose, was a powerful zeitgeist: the Berlin Wall was down, communism was on the ropes, and liberal constitutional democracy appeared to have triumphed with resounding finality.

But now, in late 2015, it all feels very different globally. In the words of the B.B. King classic: ‘The thrill is gone’. Or so it seems. And I pen these reflections because in the last month or two I have had conversations with practitioners in the field of governance from around the world in the normal course of an intellectual engagement with the issues, and the news seems uniformly depressing. I have been asked again and again: What do you think is happening to the agenda these days? First, there is a feeling that the intellectual energy behind the field is not what it used to be. Second, the commitment of leaders in international development seems to have waned. Units are being closed, initiatives wound down, budgets cut and so on. And practitioners do not seem like a powerful army on the march any longer. The old swagger appears to have vanished. In other words, the field is no longer seen as ‘hot’. Young recruits are not queuing to be a part of the field by any means necessary. They are targeting the current set of ‘hot’ issues in development.

So, what went wrong? From the conversations I have had here is a partial list of challenges:

Quote of the Week: Michael Ignatieff

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Michael Ignatieff​"One of the essential skills of democratic politics is to know the difference between an enemy and an adversary. An adversary wants to defeat you. An enemy wants to destroy you. If you treat your opponents as the enemy, you conduct politics as if it was war and all means become fair. If you regard your opponent as an adversary, all means are not fair: you are hoping to turn an adversary today into a friend or an ally tomorrow.”

- Michael IgnatieffCanadian author, academic, and former politician. In addition to leading the Liberal Party and the Official Opposition of Canada from 2008 until 2011, he has held senior academic posts at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Harvard and Toronto.
 

Rethinking research: Systemic approaches to the ethics and politics of knowledge production in fragile states

Humanity Journal's picture

Classroom in MaliRecently, Humanity, a peer-reviewed academic journal from the University of Pennsylvania, has been hosting an online symposium on the changing nature of knowledge production in fragile states. In light of the intensification of evidence-based policymaking and the “data revolution” in development, the symposium asked what the ethical and political implications are for qualitative research as a tool of governance.

We are presenting their articles in the coming days to share the authors' thoughts with the People, Spaces, Deliberation community and generate further discussion.

The symposium will begin tomorrow with a short paper from Deval Desai and Rebecca Tapscott, followed by responses during the coming weeks from Lisa Denney and Pilar Domingo (ODI); Michael Woolcock (World Bank); Morten Jerven (Norwegian University of Life Sciences and Simon Fraser University); Alex de Waal (World Peace Foundation); and Holly Porter (LSE). We hope that you enjoy the symposium and participate in the debate!

Now Accepting Applications! Summer Institute 2016 - Reform Communication: Leadership, Strategy and Stakeholder Alignment

Roxanne Bauer's picture

WB-Annenberg Summer Institute group exerciseInstituting reforms can be tricky business. The push and pull of politics, the power of vested interests, varying degrees of institutional capacity for implementation, and contrary public opinion can all make the success of a reform agenda tenuous. 
 
So how can leaders and strategists increase the likelihood they will be successful at achieving sustainable reforms? The 2016 Summer Institute in Reform Communication: Leadership, Strategy and Stakeholder Alignment was developed on the premise that successful implementation of policy reforms depends significantly on non-technical, real-world issues that relate to people and politics; and communication, when done right, may be the key to converting reform objectives into achievements.
 
During the 10-day program, held at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, May 23- June 3, 2016, participants will learn the most recent advances in communication and proven techniques in reform implementation. Participants will develop the skills required to bring about real change, leading to development results.

A nice example of how government-to-government peer pressure can lead to innovation

Duncan Green's picture

John HammockGuest post from John Hammock of the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative

In Duncan Green's thought-provoking blog ‘Hello SDGs, what’s your theory of change?’ he rightly identifies peer pressure as a potentially very effective means of governments coming to internalise the SDGs in their domestic processes and influencing others to follow suit. Let me give an instructive case study based on our experience at OPHI.

I think there is common ground that effective change must be owned by the implementers of change, not by donors or academics, not by consultants or think-tanks, not by well-wishers (or even bloggers).  Change happens in government when the change is owned and this happens when the policy maker sees how the policy will help both deal with the problem in real time and help the government in power.

Let’s take the case of multidimensional poverty and its measurement.  OPHI—an academic centre—developed at the end of 2008 the Alkire Foster method to measure multidimensional poverty, giving the world a practical tool to measure many deprivations that poor people face at the same time. Four years later, three ‘vanguard’ governments [to borrow Dunanc's phrase!], Mexico, Colombia and Bhutan, had adopted the measure but take-up elsewhere was painfully slow. Statisticians and geeks loved it, but governments were not following the starting three.

Quote of the Week: David Brooks

Sina Odugbemi's picture

David Brooks"Politics is the process of making decisions amid diverse opinions. It involves conversation, calm deliberation, self-discipline, the capacity to listen to other points of view and balance valid but competing ideas and interests."

- David Brooks, a New York Times Op-Ed columnist, who writes about politics, culture and the social sciences. He has also written several books, including The Road to Character, The Social Animal, and Bobos in Paradise.

How do developing country decision makers rate aid donors? Great new data (shame about the comms)

Duncan Green's picture

A small business owner, GhanaBrilliant. Someone’s finally done it. For years I’ve been moaning on about how no-one ever asks developing country governments to assess aid donors (rather than the other way around), and then publishes a league table of the good, the bad and the seriously ugly. Now AidData has released ‘Listening To Leaders: Which Development Partners Do They Prefer And Why?’ based on an online survey of 6,750 development policymakers and practitioners in 126 low and middle income countries. To my untutored eye, the methodology looks pretty rigorous, but geeks can see for themselves here.

Unfortunately it hides its light under a very large bushel: the executive summary is 29 pages long, and the interesting stuff is sometimes lost in the welter of data. Perhaps they should have read Oxfam’s new guide to writing good exec sums, which went up last week.

So here’s my exec sum of the exec sum.

The political economy of welfare schemes

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture
Medical checkups for children in India.Social welfare schemes the world over are going through interesting times. Egged on by fiscal management targets, welfare cuts are routinely passed off as “reforms”. Subsequently, there is usually pressure on governments to target welfare to the most deserving. Determining who the deserving beneficiaries are and the appropriate value of these transfers is critical.
 
In a recent edition of the Pathways’ Perspectives, social policy specialist Stephen Kidd bats for universal social security schemes. His central argument is built around the political economy of targeting, suggesting that “inclusive social security schemes build political alliances between those living in poverty, those on middle incomes and the affluent”. Governments that are interested in scaling up social security schemes prefer universal coverage. The argument goes that this way, they build a wide coalition of interests that support their scheme and hope that this support translates into electoral endorsement. On the other hand, governments that are interested in scaling back social security schemes do so by first withdrawing from universal schemes and then introduce an element of targeting. Soon, those that do not benefit from the scheme are more likely to see it as wasteful public spending and therefore, support a move to cut back.
 

Why those promoting growth need to take politics seriously, and vice versa

Duncan Green's picture

Nicholas Waddell, a DFID Governance Adviser working on ‘Governance for Economic Development’ (G4ED) explores the links between governance and economic growth. 

Should I play it safe and join a governance team or risk being a lone voice in a sea of economists and private sector staff? This was my dilemma as a DFID Governance Adviser returning to the UK after a stint in East Africa. I gambled and joined the growth specialists in DFID’s newly created Economic Development arm.  A year in, I now think differently about the relationship between growth and governance.

Man working inside a large reinforced steel tube, PhilippinesEradicating poverty will not be possible without high and sustained growth that generates productive jobs and brings benefits across society. Historically, this has included boosting productivity within existing sectors as well as rebalancing economies towards more productive sectors (e.g. from agriculture to manufacturing). Such structural change or economic transformation has lifted millions from poverty.

Economic transformation can have a strong disruptive effect on political governance – giving rise, for example, to interest groups that push for accountable leaders and effective institutions. As countries get richer, more effective institutions also become more affordable. Over time, economic transformation can therefore advance core governance objectives.

But this is easier said than done. Economic development is an inherently political process that challenges vested interests. Often the surest ways for elites to hold onto power and profit aren’t in step with measures to spur investment, create jobs and foster growth. Shrewd power politics can be bad economics.

Blog Post of the Month: Bill Easterly and the denial of inconvenient truths

Brian Levy's picture

Each month People, Spaces, Deliberation shares the blog post that generated the most interest and discussion. In October 2015, the featured blog post is "Bill Easterly and the denial of inconvenient truths" by Brian Levy.

The Tyranny of Experts book coverIn his 2014 book, The Tyranny of Experts, Bill Easterly uses his rhetorical gifts to make the case for ‘free development’. In so doing, he takes his trademark blend of insight and relentlessness to a new level. But in this moment of history that has been described by democracy champion, Larry Diamond as a “democracy recession”[i], is it helpful to argue by taking no prisoners and not letting inconvenient truths get in the way?

Easterly, to be sure, communicates powerfully two big and important ideas. The first is that, as per his title, behind a seemingly technocratic approach to development are some inconvenient political realities. As he puts it:

The implicit vision in development today is that of well-intentioned autocrats advised by technical experts…. The word technocracy itself is an early twentieth century coinage that means ‘rule by experts’” (p.6)

In surfacing the implausible assumptions which underlie a world view of ‘rule by experts’, Easterly does us a service. One cannot engage effectively with today’s difficult realities on the basis of a vision of decision-making which ignores the inconvenient truths of self-seeking ambition, of contestation over ends among competing factions, and of imbalances of power which marginalize the interests of large segments of society. (Of course, as this essay will explore, many of these difficult realities arise – in different ways – in both predatory authoritarian and messily democratic settings.)

The second powerful idea is The Tyranny of Experts paean to freedom – “a system of political and economic rights in which many political and economic actors will find the right actions to promote their own development”.  (pp. 215-216). With eloquent libertarian rhetoric of a kind which Ayn Rand would no doubt have applauded, Easterly argues that:

we must not let caring about material suffering of the poor change the subject from caring about the rights of the poor”. (p.339)

Yes, but we also must not fall into a trap which parallels that of the technocratic fallacy – and let our high-minded advocacy of the rights of the poor blind us to the challenges of how to translate our rhetoric into reality. And it is here that Easterly’s Tyranny falls way, way short.


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