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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.

When the People Say Yes and the Leaders Say No

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Does the state of public opinion on a public policy issue create obligations for political leaders, obligations they ignore at their peril? This is an issue being debated in the United States right now about a specific public policy controversy – gun control – but the core issue applies everywhere. In the specific case of the United States, many readers will know that there was an attempt to pass legislation requiring background checks before you can buy guns online or at gun shows. The legislation was blocked in the US Senate in spite of the fact that opinion polls say again and again that 90 per cent of Americans polled support the measure. So, the question is being asked and debated: how can 90% of the people support a measure and it does not become law? Very often the question is asked with real heat. Now, we are not going to get into the Byzantine complexities of American politics. What I am interested in is bringing to your attention what professional political scientists who blog have been saying about the core, universally relevant issue: does the state of public opinion create unavoidable obligations for political leaders?

In a couple of blog posts Jonathan Bernstein (he writes the excellent A Plain Blog about Politics) offers the following insights:

Post-2015 Wonkwar Continued: Claire Melamed on Why It’s a Good Thing + Your Chance to Vote

Duncan Green's picture
​​Claire Melamed responds to my ‘bah humbug’ opener on post-2015

I spend most of my working life thinking about post-2015 so this is a slightly nerve-racking experience.  What if Duncan convinces me?  Let me first respond to his arguments, then set out what I think is to be gained from the post-2015 circus… and then we’ll see if I’m still working on post-2015 at the end of it.

I’ll start with the magical thinking.  Yes a lot of what’s being said in the name of post-2015 is a bit ‘if everything was nice everything would be nice’.  But think of it this way: people everywhere, not just wonks like us – are getting involved in serious debates at national, regional and global level, about poverty, about politics, about economics and about the environment.  We don’t know where it will lead yet.  Some of it will lead nowhere.  But don’t write off all that energy and commitment because it’s a bit unfocused, rather celebrate the fact that so many people want to get involved in political debate and action (even be, um, active citizens….).

In any case, that is about the campaign and the public debate, not the goals, and the two shouldn’t be confused.   If the outcome is important, being annoyed at the tone and strategy adopted by campaigners has to be a reason to get in there and change that, not to walk away.

Anyone Fancy a Post-2015 Wonkwar? Me v Claire Melamed on the Biggest Development Circus in Town

Duncan Green's picture

I’ve been good friends with Claire Melamed for ages, but recently we’ve found ourselves on opposite sides of the post-2015 debate. As ODI’s growth and inequality supremo, Claire is deeply immersed in the ever-proliferating discussions, whereas I decided early on that I had massive reservations about the whole process. So for your amusement (and who knows, perhaps enlightenment), we’ve decided to air our differences in public. I’ll kick off,

Claire responds, and we hope that will produce a load of comments and a life and death struggle for the last word (which I shall of course win, because it’s my blog).

What’s my beef? The post-2015 discussion typifies the kind of ‘magical thinking’ that abounds in aid circles, in which well-intentioned developmentistas debate how the world should be improved. These discussions and the mountains of policy papers, blogs etc that accompany them, are often based on what I call ‘If I ruled the World’ (IRW) thinking. IRW, then I would do X, Y, Z – Rights for (disenfranchised group of your choice)! More Infrastructure! Better Data! Jobs!

What is Social and Solidarity Economy and Why Does It Matter?

Duncan Green's picture

UNRISD Deputy Director Peter Utting introduces the theme of his organization’s big conference in May.

Having had my professional and political interests shaped during the somewhat heady days of the 1980s in Sandinista Nicaragua, I’ve long been interested in the potential and limits of collective action—of people organizing and mobilizing through associations, unions, cooperatives, community organizations, fairtrade networks and so on. The Sandinista “revolution” soon gave way to the “neoliberal” 1990s. As in much of the world, collective action went on the backburner or assumed new forms via NGO networks and identity politics. Fast forward two decades and we are witnessing a significant rebound in collective action associated with workers, producers and consumers. Whether in response to global crises (finance and food), the structural conditions of precarious employment or new opportunities for cultural expression and social interaction afforded by the internet age, old and new forms are on the rise.

The term social and solidarity economy (SSE) is increasingly being used to refer to a broad range of organizations that are distinguished from conventional for-profit enterprise, entrepreneurship and informal economy by two core features. First, they have explicit economic AND social (and often environmental) objectives. Second, they involve varying forms of co-operative, associative and solidarity relations.  They include, for example, cooperatives, mutual associations, NGOs engaged in income generating activities, women’s self-help groups, community forestry and other organizations, associations of informal sector workers, social enterprise and fair trade organizations and networks.

Is It Time for a New Paradigm for "Citizen Engagement"? The Role of Context and What the Evidence Tells Us

Simon O'Meally's picture

The meteoric rise of "citizen engagement"

Almost all development agencies promote some form of citizen engagement and accountability, often framed as 'voice', 'demand-side governance', 'demand for good governance' or 'social accountability'.   The current World Bank president, Jim Yong Kim, recently put it that, "citizen voice can be pivotal in providing the demand-side pressure on government, service providers, and organizations such as the World Bank that is needed to encourage full and swift response to citizen needs".  There has, in turn, been a mushrooming of useful operational guidance on different "tools" for social accountability - i.e. steps, inputs and methodologies - that guide discrete interventions, ranging from citizen score cards to participatory expenditure tracking.

One might, however, be forgiven for thinking that some of the debates on citizen engagement need an injection of realism; especially as contextual factors can make or break a "tool's" implementation.  A review of experience to date would be one good place to start.

Quote of the Week: Jose Manuel Barroso

Sina Odugbemi's picture

“I know that there are some technocratic advisers who tell us what the perfect model to respond to a situation is, but when we ask how we implement it, they say: ‘That is not my business.’  We need to have a policy that is right. At the same time we need to have…acceptance, political and social.”

-- José Manuel Barroso. President of the European Commission.

As quoted in the Financial Times, April 25, 2013. Global Insight: Politics draws out accidental truth on becalmed Europe, by Peter Speigel.

Make Inequality History? What Would Change if We Focused on Inequality Rather than Poverty?

Duncan Green's picture

Last week I spoke at a Brussels conference on inequality, organized by the Belgian NGO coalition 11.11.11. Inequality is flavour of the month right now, showing surprising staying power within the post-2015 process and elsewhere. Inequality gabfests usually involve violent agreement that inequality is indeed a Bad Thing, lots of evidence for why this is the case, and polite disagreements on what inequality we should target first – often along the lines of ‘because inequality is really important, we should all work on X’, where X just happens to be the thing that person works on anyway. A more retro variant involves ritual combat between supporters of equality of opportunity (aka American Dream) v equality of outcome (Socialist Paradise). Cynical, moi?

But in Brussels, I had a more difficult, but interesting job: what, if anything, should we do differently if our focus is on inequality rather than, say ‘getting to zero’ on poverty? So let’s imagine. It’s 2015, the UN has signed off on a shift in focus from poverty (MDGs) to inequality (post-2015). True, the commitment is a little vague (hey, this is the UN we’re talking about), but now NGOs and official donors are charged with the task of turning this into a viable campaign and lobbying exercise. What might a Make Inequality History campaign look like?

Is Working on Governance Reform Like the Sport of Curling?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

A few weeks ago, I attended an internal seminar here at the World Bank. Topic: the governance challenges in a big, complex, not -aid -dependent, and deeply corrupt country.  The team working on governance in the country wanted to present ideas to the broader community in the Bank and receive feedback. It was a good and lively discussion, and you will forgive me for not going into the details.  But something happened that I wanted to bring to broader attention. After the country team had presented the work they were doing, one of those asked to lead the comments was my esteemed colleague, Nick Manning, one of the most experienced public sector governance advisers anywhere.

Nick opened his remarks with this arresting image. I paraphrase him thus: Some of you I’m sure are aware of the Olympic sport of curling. You see these people with a broom sweeping the ice in front of a ball. Those who do this swear that sweeping the ice makes a difference. So, maybe what we do in these situations is like sweeping the ice to shape the path of the ball that is rolling down, and we hope it makes a difference.


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