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September 2009

Is Sue Unsworth Right about Donors and Politics?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

For anybody who thinks about governance as an issue in development, Sue Unsworth needs no introduction. She used to be the main intellectual force behind DFID's 'drivers of change analysis', an approach to political economy analysis. She is now with the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, in the United Kingdom. She has just published an  article in the Journal of International Development  titled 'What's Politics Got to do with It?: Why Donors Find It So Hard to Come to Terms with Politics, and Why it Matters' (a free version can be found here).

The article deserves wide attention. In it, Unsworth points out that donors are paying more attention to politics these days than they used to, and some are even applying political analysis to aspects of development practice, but huge barriers remain that ensure that all this is having little influence on  mainstream debates about how to do development . Mainstream approaches remain apolitical and the 'implicit assumption is still that the obstacles to better governance and development performance are primarily financial, technical and managerial...'

Turning Failures into Teachable Moments

Darshana Patel's picture

Everyone likes a happy ending and this applies in development work too.  Quite often, we have the tendency to showcase our successes through best practices that are upheld as evidence that a particular approach works. But what about those instances when we may have made some mistakes along the way or failed outright? Humans have a tendency to focus on successes rather than failures.

"This [handling of failure] is difficult for us to do well because we have strong human bias to value successes more than we value failures. In most organizations failure is stigmatized and nobody wants to be associated with it…..Unfortunately this produces some dangerous side-effects. Since improbable failures have high information content, it is important to communicate information about failure quickly and widely throughout the organization. To the extent that we hinder the flow of this information, we will force people to reinvent failures that we have already experienced, and that generates no useful new information."

Quote of the Week

Sina Odugbemi's picture

“Our definition of propaganda focuses on the communication process – most specifically, on the purpose of the process: Propaganda is the deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behavior to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist.”

“To identify a message as propaganda is to suggest something negative and dishonest. Words frequently used as synonyms for propaganda are lies, distortion, deceit, manipulation, mind control psychological warfare, brainwashing, and palaver. A term implying propaganda that has recently gained popularity is spin, referring to a coordinated strategy to minimize negative information and present in a favorable light a story that could be damaging.”

Garth S. Jowett Victoria O’Donnell in Propaganda and Persuasion, 1999, p. 3 and p. 6.

Shouting Heads

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

In his latest post, Tony Lambino makes an interesting argument about pundits and social norms. He says that pundits' comments, for example on statements of public figures, are a manifestation of the social norms of a society. Punditry is a fascinating phenomenon and a recent development in the mass media - and might have changed the media landscape quite significantly.

Pundits discuss current affairs from their own point of view, often together with or in contrast to other pundits. Pundits can be experts, such as academics, but often journalists stylize themselves to be experts on political and other issues. It seems debatable to me whether punditry it is indeed part of the media's role in democracy.

You Can't Say That. It Doesn't Matter Who You Are.

Antonio Lambino's picture

The media have recently been going ga-ga over what many consider to be appalling public statements made by prominent figures in various fields --music, sports, domestic politics, and just today, international diplomacy.  From the U.S. Open to the U.S. Congress, to the august halls of the United Nations, public figures have said some terribly inappropriate things and, come the very next news cycle, have suffered sharp rebuke by pundits in the mainstream media.  Some have even claimed that these events portend the end of civilized society.  I think they exaggerate.

'I'll Be Gone and You'll Be Gone'

Sina Odugbemi's picture

There was an article in the New York Times recently with the title 'What's Really Wrong With Wall Street Pay?'  In the article, the writer discusses a problem world leaders want to do something about but are not sure how. How do you stop compensation packages for bankers and traders in global markets from encouraging them to take the kinds of wild risks that have done so much damage to the global economy?  I wish the leaders the very best of luck in dealing with that one. Success in the endeavor is far from certain...to put it gently.

What caught my eye as I was reading the piece is what the writer says bankers call the "I.B.G-Y.B.G." problem, as in 'I'll be gone and you will be gone'. It is the moral hazard problem. Traders in global markets take incredible risks and recklessly, they collect their bonuses and move on. The firm takes all the risk. Well, it turns out that taxpayers take risks as well, since governments have had to bail out so many banks deemed too big to fail.

"Finance isn't a game"

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

The financial crisis has prompted some discussion about the role of the media in this particular recession. From the perspective of accountability that's an interesting question: What if the media become cheerleaders for those they are supposed to hold accountable? According to some reports in the Financial Times earlier this year this has indeed happened this year and last, or, at least, the media has failed it's mandate as watchdog during and leading up to the current financial crisis.

Web Snobbery 2.0

Caroline Jaine's picture

Up until very recently I was very sniffy about corporate and government engagement online.  I always figured that the real strength in new media lay in the credibility born from broadcasting the voices of the unheard.  I associated digital engagers using blogs and micro-blogs, social networks and chat forums to be identified with the individual, with community journalists wishing to distance themselves from mainstream media, and with speaking free from constraints of institution or authority.

Until last week in fact, any official blogging from the likes of government ministers would make me shudder and I assumed it was with ignorance that organisations and authorities around the world stumbled into this new digital playground. I sniggered at local authority Tweets and hollow-laughed as government Facebook groups requested my membership.  Then a friend reminded me that my own words (these in fact) appear branded on the website of a rather large organisation – no less than the World Bank.  Ah. Right. And I have to confess I have never been censored and rarely edited by the bank (save for my typos).  I decided to have a conversation with a Digital Diplomacy expert in the hope it would resolve my issues for me.  It did.

Quote of the Week

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Photo credit: Wolfram Huke"Only across the system as a whole can deliberation be expected to operate as a cleansing mechanism that filters out the ‘‘muddy’’ elements from a discursively structured legitimation process. As an essential element of the democratic process, deliberation is expected to fulfill three functions: to mobilize and pool relevant issues and required information, and to specify interpretations; to process such contributions discursively by means of proper arguments for and against; and to generate rationally motivated yes and no attitudes that are expected to determine the outcome of procedurally correct decisions."

Jürgen Habermas

Ladies Specials: Gender and the Public Space

Darshana Patel's picture

The “Ladies Specials”  are women-only commuter train recently launched in four Indian cities (New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta).  While not a new practice, public transport exclusively for women is becoming popular.  (Mexico City introduced women-only buses in January 2008 and commuters on Japanese trains know a thing or two about this too.)

Harassment on the train or bus is not just an annoying nuisance for women.  It influences a whether or not a woman chooses to enter the workforce in the first place. (Or maybe whether her family or husband will allow her.)

Just Because It's Legal Doesn't Make It (a) Right: Citizen Access to Information in Latin America - PART 2

Antonio Lambino's picture

A follow-up to an earlier post on Toby Mendel’s new book The Right to Information in Latin America: A Comparative Legal Survey.  11 country cases and a comparative analysis chapter are organized around the following categories: definition of access to information (“The Right of Access”); rules for processing of information requests (“Procedural Guarantees” ); public authorities responsible for disclosure (“Duty to Publish”); grounds for refusal to disclose (“Exceptions”); complaint mechanisms for refusal of access (“Appeals”); punishment for obstructing access (“Sanctions and Protections”); and public engagement and education (“Promotional Measures”).  

The systematic manner in which Mendel breaks down each country analysis gives the reader a comparative sense of the 11 Latin American countries covered.  As I continued going through the country chapters, I gained an appreciation for the various dimensions of how the “right to information” has been institutionalized to varying degrees in different countries in the region.  It became clear to me that all these categories are important in getting a sense of whether the “right to information” is indeed a right since, as we know, when it comes to law, the devil lurks in the details.

The Uncontained Outbreak of Deal Anxiety

Sina Odugbemi's picture

An instructor in Law School was the first to explain to me the nature of  'deal anxiety' as a problem for business; now I know that  it is a problem for governance reform as well. For a lawyer 'deal anxiety' manifests when a client - usually a business executive - is so anxious to close a business deal she ignores the need for her attorney to exercise due diligence over the contract. For instance, what happens if there is a dispute? What dispute resolution mechanisms might be needed? What about conflict of laws if it is an international contract? Are we going to use the laws of the domicile of Party A or Party B? And so on. You'd be amazed how many business leaders just want to shake hands on the deal, and get on with 'the real business of making money', until something goes wrong and both sides reach for their lawyers ...as cowboys reach for  guns. Then you have a shoot out.

In international development, 'deal anxiety' manifests as the pell-mell rush to get a (reform?)  project going. Whether in grant making donor agencies or in multilateral lending institutions there is a tendency to rush to close the deal, get the partner government to sign the relevant documents, get the internal approving authorities to say Yes. The attitude is: Let's keep this moving folks!

Just Because It's Legal Doesn't Make It (a) Right: Citizen Access to Information in Latin America - PART 1

Antonio Lambino's picture

UNESCO recently published Toby Mendel’s The Right to Information in Latin America: A Comparative Legal Survey.  The book is organized around the following sections: international standards and trends; features of a Right to Information Regime; 11 Latin American country chapters; and a comparative analysis on the legal and regulatory aspects of the issue.  While Mendel’s new volume is a significant and substantial addition to the policy scholarship on this topic, what struck me initially is the boldness of the book’s title.

The title audaciously starts with “The Right to Information…”, in stark contrast with an earlier major publication on the same topic by the same author entitled Freedom of Information: A Comparative Legal Survey, first published by UNESCO in 2003 with a revised edition released in 2008.  As I started reading the chapter on international standards, I found that Mendel explicitly states the reason for this:

Quote of the Week

Antonio Lambino's picture

"Constellations of Change

Media structures, laws, and policies are scarcely ever modified to find a more beautiful form, or even to develop a more efficient way to achieve commonly agreed-upon goals.  Changes in structure, including changes in law, occur because of pressure from within industry, the society, and the government, from within or without the state... Because (the global communications system's) contours are important for the fundamentals of national identity, for trade, and the world political order, the shaping of it is a matter not only of domestic preference but also of international debate and foreign policy."

Monroe E. Price (2002, pp. 12-13)                             
Media and Sovereignty: The Global Information Revolution and Its Challenge to State Power

Putting Ideals to the Test: Health Councils in Brazil

Darshana Patel's picture

My last post on this blog discussed public deliberation as a political ideal and what happens when that ideal is tested in an actual decision-making space.   In a paper about municipal health councils in Brazil, Andrea Cornwall gives a blow-by-blow description of what happens when deliberative spaces stop being polite and start getting real.  

Health councils were established in Brazil’s 1988 ‘Citizens’ Constitution’ and empowered citizens with the right to review and approve executive-level budgets, accounts and spending plans on health programs. Although overshadowed by the participatory budgeting process, Brazilian health councils can also provide some important lessons on how to deepen citizen engagement and decision-making.   Through the example of these health councils, Cornwall argues that three elements in particular are often “under-theorized” by deliberative democratic theorists.  First, understanding political culture is important. Second, how do party politics infiltrate and impact these spaces?  And last, how is power challenged in these spaces?  (She describes discussions in this deliberative space more as confrontational rather than reasonable.)

Financial Management Reforms and the Realities of Politics

Sina Odugbemi's picture

There is probably no area of 'governance reform' work that is as technocratic and as ubiquitous as public financial management reform. It is where experts of different kinds - economists, accountants, auditors or all the above - work on improving the plumbing of governments, how revenues are collected and managed with efficiency and a minimum of leakage. Because the technical skills involved are deep and carefully honed over years of specialist training it is also an area where experts often seek to work in a politics- free zone by trying to ignore taking on the realities of each political context and just work on the plumbing. There is no doubt that a lot of good work is going on here, but there is also no doubt that a lot of the work is less effective than it might have been because interventions don't seek to work the politics of the initiative.

Stairway to Mobilization

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

The ultimate goal for working on the demand side from a political communication perspective is the mobilization of the public. We want to drive citizens who lack information and efficacy to being an active public, participating as relevant actors in the public sphere and in thereby in political decision making processes. Here at CommGAP, we base our approach on a range of literature from the study of public opinion and social movements and came up with what we call the "Stairway to Mobilization." In the coming days and weeks we will try to illustrate this concept with practical examples and case studies, but for now lets discuss the theoretical background.

Quote of the Week

Sina Odugbemi's picture

"For I know that, despite the huge constitutional difference between a hereditary monarchy and an elected government, in reality the gulf is not so wide. They are complementary institutions, each with its own role to play. And each, in its different way, exists only with the support and consent of the people. That consent, or the lack of it, is expressed for you, Prime Minister, through the ballot box. It is a tough, even brutal, system, but at least the message is a clear one for all to read. For us, a Royal Family, however, the message is often harder to read, obscured as it can be by deference, rhetoric or the conflicting currents of public opinion. But read it we must."

HM the Queen, Golden Wedding. In The Best After-Dinner Stories, Tim Heald. The Folio Society, 2003.

The Public and Its Pundits

Antonio Lambino's picture

The public needs its pundits.  Those with expertise on various topics, ranging from financial derivates to pop psychology, serve as “opinion leaders” on the important and not-so-important issues of the day.  From personal experience -- talking to family, friends, and colleagues -- I notice that we tend to repeat what we hear from them on various topics, whether consciously or not. 

We know from applied communication research that, over time, people tend to retain bits and pieces of information while forgetting their sources.  How many times have we made authoritative statements and when asked where we got the information, say something like “I don’t remember from where exactly but I’m pretty sure that… “  This is normal because we can’t be expected to keep track of each and every information source.  And we can’t be expected to come up with our own erudite analysis of each and every public issue either.  Hence, we need pundits.  But we should also keep in mind that not all of these experts on all things public are created equal.  We could very well be mouthing off as hard fact something a pundit shared as her or his own misinformed opinion. 

Media Literacy: a Pre-Condition for Active Citizenship - CommGAP Releases Paper on Media Literacy

Johanna Martinsson's picture

In today’s fast-paced digital environment, new forms of literacy are quickly emerging. It is not only a challenge to keep up with new tools and skills needed to stay informed and engaged in the world around us, but also to find the time and resources.  While media literacy is not a new issue, it has quickly become an eminent one due to the fast speed and wide spread of information via new media technologies.  As a matter of urgency, the European Commission has issued a new recommendation, pushing its member countries to make media education available to all citizens and include it as mandatory in the school curricula, as well as adopt media literacy as a key pre-requisite for active citizenship. While internet penetration is high in Europe, there is an evident skill gap between citizens of different age-groups and socio-economic backgrounds in using the internet and new technologies. The European Commission believes that this skill gap and media illiteracy can lead to missed opportunities and social exclusion, and therefore, it’s important to instill media literacy skills in all sections of society. One could possibly also argue that citizens would also be excluded from realizing their political rights. The Commission further suggests that media literacy would be “a stimulus and a pre-condition for pluralism and independence in the media”, leading to multiple perspectives and diverse opinions that will enrich public discussions and specifically, lead to “a positive impact on the values of diversity, tolerance, transparency, equity and dialogue.”

Are Policy Networks Insiders or Outsiders?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

As readers of this blog will have realized, we have been watching with keen interest the effort to reform the health care system in the United States in order to pull out generalizable lessons for reform efforts elsewhere. As you must also know, over the month of August that reform effort ran into some turbulence, with lively town-hall meetings, and the rise of a blocking coalition. The outcome remains in the balance as I write.

Now, other students of the process have offered one explanation of the current challenges faced by this particular reform effort. They say that much of the effort concentrated for a long time on the Inside Game, that is getting the United States Congress to act, and keeping the discussion within authoritative state institutions. According to these observers, reformers ignored the Outside Game...building a reform coalition within the broader society, and shaping public opinion. That supposedly gave opponents of reform the chance to build what they hope will be a  blocking coalition, frame the reform effort negatively and so on. These observers believe that the Outside Game is now on, but some damage was done.