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Campaigning and Complexity: How Do We Campaign on a Problem When We Don't Know the Solution?

Duncan Green's picture

Had a thought-provoking discussion on ‘influencing’ with Exfamer (ex Oxfam Australia turned consultant) James Ensor a few days ago. The starting point was an apparent tension between the reading I’ve been doing on complex systems, and Oxfam’s traditional model of campaigning.

In my first days at Oxfam, I was told that the recipe for a successful campaign was ‘problem, villain, solution’ (heroes are apparently optional). And sure enough, if you look at good/bad campaigns, the presence or absence of all three ingredients seems pretty key.

But one of the characteristics of complex systems is that solutions are seldom obvious and often only emerge from trial and error. Elsewhere I’ve translated the offputting language of complexity theory into ‘how do you plan when you don’t know what’s going to happen?’ But in the case of advocacy and campaigns aimed at influencing government or international organizations’ policies, a better formulation would be ‘how do you campaign when you don’t have a solution?’

The first option is of course to pretend that you do anyway. Echoes of Yes Minister’s ‘we must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do it!’. Not that Oxfam would ever stoop to such a thing, obviously.

Alternatively, stick to problems that are less complex, at least at first sight. Campaign to give people money, or bednets, or vaccines, or food (although any of these efforts in practice are unlikely to stay neat and linear for long).

But there are a number of other options:

Politically Smart Aid? Of Course! Political Aid? Not So Sure. Guest Post by Tom Carothers and Diane de Gramont

Duncan Green's picture

Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont summarize the arguments of their new book on aid and politics

How political is development assistance? How political should it be? These questions provoke divergent reactions within the aid community. For some, being political means using aid to advance geopolitical interests aside from development. Others emphasize the far-reaching political consequences aid can have on recipient countries, from bolstering dubious strongmen to undermining systems of domestic accountability. These two perspectives highlight how aid’s political motivations or side effects can limit its effectiveness in advancing developmental change.

Yet in recent years many development practitioners and scholars have been arguing that aid should become more, not less, political. What do they mean by this? They are not talking about political side effects or prioritizing geostrategic motives. Rather they are referring to efforts by development aid actors intentionally and openly to think and act politically for the purpose of making aid more effective in fostering development.

As we chronicle in our new book, Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution, donors have increasingly incorporated politics into their work in two major ways. First, they now pursue explicit political goals in developing countries, whether expressed as advancing democracy, democratic governance, or effective governance. Second, they are trying to adopt politically smart methods, moving away from the idea of aid as a narrowly technical input to considering it a facilitating agent of local processes of change, which requires aid providers to conduct political analyses, adapt programs to local political contexts, and reach a diverse range of socio-political actors within developing countries.

When/How Does Aid Help Africa’s Public Services Work Better?

Duncan Green's picture

I seem to be spending most of my life at the ODI at the moment, largely because it is producing an apparently endless stream of really useful research papers and seminars. Yesterday saw a combo of the two, as it launched Unblocking Results: using aid to address governance constraints in public service delivery (OK, maybe it still has a thing or two to learn about snappy titles…..).

The starting point for the work is that while there is a vast amount of research on the role of institutions in delivering (or failing to deliver) health, education, water etc, there is very little on the role of aid agencies when things go well. So ODI carried out a positive deviance exercise, identifying 4 success stories out of 60 initial candidates, and then delving into the reasons behind the success.

Will the Post-2015 Report Make a Difference? Depends What Happens Next

Duncan Green's picture

An edited version of this piece, written with Stephen Hale, appeared on the Guardian Poverty Matters site on Friday

Reading the report of the High Level Panel induces a sense of giddy optimism. It is a manifesto for a (much) better world, taking the best of the Millennium Development Goals, and adding what we have learned in the intervening years – the importance of social protection, sustainability, ending conflict, tackling the deepest pockets of poverty, even obesity (rapidly rising in many poor countries). It has a big idea (consigning absolute poverty to the history books) and is on occasion brave (in the Sir Humphrey sense) for example in its commitment to women’s rights, including ending child marriage and violence against women, and guaranteeing universal sexual and reproductive health rights.

The ambition and optimism is all the more welcome for its contrast with the daily grind of austerity, recession and international paralysis (Syria, Climate Change, the torments of the European Union). In response, the report is clearly designed for a no/low cost environment, downplaying the importance of aid, talking up access to data, and revenue raisers like cracking down on tax evasion.

Aid and Complex Systems cont’d: Timelines, Incubation Periods and Results

Duncan Green's picture

I’m at one of those moments where all conversations seem to link to each other, I see complex systems everywhere, and I’m wondering whether I’m starting to lose my marbles. Happily, lots of other people seem to be suffering from the same condition, and a bunch of us met up earlier this week with Matt Andrews, who was in the UK to promote his fab new book Limits to Institutional Reform in Development (I  rave reviewed it here). The conversation was held under Chatham House rules, so no names, no institutions etc.

Whether you work on complex systems or governance reform or fragile states, the emerging common ground seems to be around what not to do and to a lesser extent, the ‘so whats’. What can outsiders do to contribute to change in complex, unpredictable situations where, whether due to domestic opposition or sheer irrelevance to actual context, imported blueprints and ‘best practice guidelines’ are unlikely to get anywhere?

In his book Matt boils down his considerable experience at the World Bank and Harvard into a proposal for ‘PDIA’ – Problem Driven iterative adaptation, which I described pretty fully in my review. The conversation this week fleshed out that approach and added some interesting new angles.

Quote of the Week: Adam Posen

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"Some would like to turn the debunking of the fiscal event horizon claim into a cautionary tale about macroeconomic policy advice in general. They would throw up their hands, saying macroeconomic analyses either inherently depend upon too little data to have reliable results, or inevitably will be selectively picked up by ideologues and opportunistic politicians to suit their purposes.

Perhaps both: there will always be some willing economist who can play with the data to provide credible-seeming study to support any given politically influential point of view. This, however, is far too defeatist, if not craven, a conclusion to draw."

Adam Posen – President of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Reinhart & Rogoff: Paradigm Battles, Reputation Hits, and the Public Intellectual

Sina Odugbemi's picture

You can almost feel the intensifying and clangorous clash of two economic policy paradigms. The question is: what is the best policy response to high indebtedness by countries especially after the global financial crash of 2008? Some economists say stimulate the economy now even if it means taking on more debt, pursue growth and then deal with deficits once the economy is robust. Others say you have to deal with deficits now by imposing serious, often crippling austerity programs. The bloodless phrase for this: fiscal consolidation.  Who is right and who is wrong? Unfortunately for many citizens, this is not an argument that can be settled in a science lab, perhaps by testing the theories on some unfortunate rats or monkeys. Entire countries are the laboratories for the testing of these rival policy paradigms.

I use the phrase ‘policy paradigms’ advisedly because I have been reading the notable political scientist  Peter A. Hall who wrote the classic piece ‘Policy Paradigms, Social Learning, and the State: The Case of Economic Policymaking in Britain’ for the journal of Comparative Politics in 1993. I went back to the piece after reading the April 2013 special issue of the journal, Governance, which is entirely about the politics of policy paradigms. In that compelling issue, a salute to Hall’s classic essay, he himself has an op-ed titled ‘Brother, Can You Paradigm?’ Hall restates the view that policy paradigms shift, for example from Keynesian policies to monetarist ones, but in order for this to happen ‘each of these transitions required a motivation, means, and motor’.  

How to Plan When You Don’t Know What is Going to Happen? Redesigning Aid for Complex Systems

Duncan Green's picture

They’re funny things, speaker tours. On the face of it, you go from venue to venue, churning out the same presentation – more wonk-n-roll than rock-n-roll. But you are also testing your arguments, adding slides where there are holes, deleting ones that don’t work. Before long the talk has morphed into something very different.

So where did I end up after my most recent attempt to promote FP2P in the US and Canada? The basic talk is still ‘What’s Hot and What’s Not in Development’ – the title I’ve used in UK, India, South Africa etc. But the content has evolved. In particular, the question of complex systems provoked by far the most discussion.

Building the “Iraqi Media” – A Book Review

Caroline Jaine's picture

Ten years after Iraq was declared as liberated, many are reflecting on how Iraq presents itself to the world today.  Our mediatised view of the country is one rife with renewed sectarian divide, and as previously written, any economic good news is overshadowed by the rise violence.  One aspect given much attention in the efforts to build a new Iraq was the media sector.  A decade later the Iraqi government announced their decision to ban Al-Jazeera and nine Iraqi television channels, eight of which are Sunni. They claim the channels were fuelling sectarian divide.

On the same day as the media ban and the anniversary of “liberation”, Dr Al-Safi quietly launched his academic study of Iraqi media. His research for “Iraqi Media” lasted three years and earned him a PhD from City University, London. The book offers a fascinating chronological juxtaposition of dictatorship and occupation and this thorough, academic study of Iraqi media pre and post Saddam also has its “shock and awe” moments.   Saddam Hussein’s persecution of the journalist tallies with the popular narrative on his reign, but the fact that Uday Hussein’s paranoid actions may have been perversely good for Iraqi journalists is a new story.  Through his interviews with hundreds, Al Safi also reveals complexities and challenges in a frank and detailed account of the post Saddam attempt to build a “free” media. He claims, the largest media-building project ever attempted. 

The Limits of Institutional Reform in Development: A Big New Book by Matt Andrews

Duncan Green's picture

There’s nothing like an impending meeting with the author to make you dig out your scrounged review copy of his book. So I spent my flight to Boston last week reading Limits (sorry the full title is just too clunky).  And luckily for the dinner conversation, I loved it.

Limits is about why change doesn’t happen, and how it could. It synthesizes the ‘groundswell’ of disquiet about the failure of the governance and institutional reforms that have been promoted for many years now by aid agencies like the World Bank. And it’s not just a whinge – there are plenty of ideas for how aid agencies can do better. The book is particularly useful for those working on fragile states – lots of the positive examples (as well as some failures) come from Afghanistan, Ivory Coast and elsewhere, although there is a bit of ‘why can’t everywhere be more like Rwanda?’ in there too.

Overall, the approach reminded me of Dani Rodrik’s great book, In Search of Prosperity, and Matt says Rodrik (a fellow Harvard prof) was influential in pushing him to nail down the always-elusive ‘so whats’.

Limits summarizes research and thinking from disparate disciplines, with lots of fascinating case studies (he’s put in the legwork to build a serious empirical basis for his conclusions). His big idea is captured in a new acronym, PDIA (Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation), which, as he pointed out, is similar to the Participatory Institutional Appraisal idea I raised in a recent blog. I’m not sure if PDIA will catch on – it could have done with a snappier title, as could the book – but the content is really important if you are interested in aid, institutions or governance.

So what does it say? Firstly, that we have a big failure on our hands. The spate of projects and programmes around institutional reform has at best a mixed record of success; in many countries institutions have actually deteriorated in terms of effectiveness, corruption etc.


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