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Are We Ready to Go Political?

Nicholas Menzies's picture

Citizens are in the streets and squares clamoring for change with questions of leadership and politics squarely in their minds, but how well placed are development agencies to think about – and act on – such issues?

The Developmental Leadership Program, originally housed at the World Bank, is a coalition of bilateral agencies and NGOs catalyzed by the oft reported failure of donor governance work to effect meaningful change. The Program’s hypothesis is that in any given context there’s a lot more going on to propel (or stymie) reform than a focus on institution building will uncover. This is not to say that institutions don’t matter, but that the conduct of individuals, coalitions and especially elites within any context is a key factor in determining whether broad-based and sustainable development comes about. The Program has commissioned a number of country and sector-level studies to understand the factors that contribute to developmental leadership (as well as the less positive kind), exploring the “room to maneuver” actors have in institutional contexts, and what determines the ways they act.

What might this mean for development professionals?

Talk of leadership and politics will no doubt make some nervous, yet political analysis already drives much of what we do - look no further than the proliferation of 'political economy' and ‘drivers of change’ work.

If we accept the importance of politics and leadership in developmental outcomes then it behooves us to ask how well we understand these dynamics and our role in fostering developmental agents as opposed to predatory - or even just desultory – ones. These were central themes of a workshop I recently attended, from which a number of interesting threads emerged that development professionals could consider, including:

- Turning the political analysis on ourselves. What are our agencies’ internal structures and incentives that impact whether we can facilitate developmental leadership? Perhaps there’s a need to look at the way staffing and career tracks are set up. Greater emphasis on 'area specialists' with a deep understanding of a country or region may allow us to understand political dynamics and the incentives for developmental leadership better - as opposed to sector specialists (or even, as it sometimes seems, HR policies which encourage specialists in the internal workings of agencies themselves!).

- Re-conceptualizing the way we think about development problems; away from fixing ‘things’ (eg. the lack of access to education and health) toward facilitating processes to establish coalitions with a developmental outlook (that can then build, and work within, institutions for the public good). Such a rethinking would have consequences for 'log-frame' development, where clear outcomes are predicted in advance, neat steps to those outcomes plotted and success measured by adherence to ‘the plan’.

- Tertiary education. In response to the Millennium Development Goals (amongst other factors) there has been a shift in development funding towards primary education. Whilst this is backed by sound equity arguments, there is some evidence of a correlation between an increased rate of tertiary education and improved governance. Is a re-focusing of development assistance on higher education needed to facilitate the emergence of a coterie of citizens from which developmental elites be drawn?

- Trigger events. As current events clearly show, the ability of developmental agents to capitalize on ‘trigger events’ is critical in making change. These trigger events are invariably not of development actors own making, which makes them difficult to plan for (log frames!). What development agencies can do is support the presence of prepared, educated, organized and funded networks so they when opportunities arise, positive change can come about. (See the example of a women’s rights coalition in South Africa which used the rape trial of Jacob Zuma to push, successfully, for reforms to sexual offences legislation).

- Translate better analysis into improved programming. With project teams regularly squeezed for time and resources - and with many administrative hoops to jump through - how much space is there to understand context?  In this regard the words of a seasoned anthropologist at the recent workshop may bring comfort to those who fear that 'understanding context' means action slows to a crawl. The anthropologist commented that the cry for more research and 'evidence-based policy making' should not prevent us from acting - as no matter how much research one does, we‘ll never completely understand the context - and in any event, the context changes, not least as a result of implementing the intervention. What this may mean is a process of continual research, evaluation, feedback and project modification designed into the life of an intervention. An approach which the World Bank’s Justice for the Poor program, amongst others, is pursuing - working through country-based teams and local institutions to conduct in-depth analytical work, create processes for inclusive evidenced-based policy dialogue, assist project teams across the sectors in design and continually evaluate the impacts.

As citizens across the Arab world are rightly demanding - political decisions must be driven by the governed. But there is no doubt that development agencies’ work is part of this political context and whether we are comfortable engaging or not, politics impacts the development outcomes we seek. We should be ready.

Photo Credit: © Simone D. McCourtie /World Bank

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Submitted by A Student of Development on
My congratulations on your blog post, which I very much enjoyed reading. I do think the title was a bit provocative (perhaps that was your intention). You could be asked whether we are violating the strindent prohibition in the Bank's Articles on political interference if we "go political." I don't think you were arguing that the Bank should engage in politics or make political decisions. Rather, I think you were arguing that we should take note of political factors and dynamics in designing development interventions. If my understanding of your post is correct, there is considerable scope to engage in such analysis under the Bank's prevailing jurisprudence. In his landmark opinion on the political prohibition, Ibrahim Shihata, the Bank's longest-serving general counsel and a great law-and-development scholar in his own right, identifies several circumstances under which the Bank may legitimately take into account politics and political developments. At the same time, as Shihata cautioned, the Articles' restrictions on the Bank’s interference in the political affairs of its members cannot be interpreted away or treated as if they did not exist. These are real legal limitations that have been reasonably and flexibly applied and have served the Bank well through the years. The Articles' limitations on the Bank and politics have not prevented the institution from pursuing new frontiers of development such as in the areas of law and justice, governance, anti-corruption, and transparency. But completely ignoring those limitations could lead to questions about whether the Bank itself believes in the rule of law (a value that it relentlessly champions throughout the world) and could unnnecessarily drag it into the political thicket.

Submitted by Nick Menzies on
Thanks for your very well informed well as for picking up on my slightly provocative intentions (that is, after all the beauty of a blog, no?). One thing that surprised me in putting the blog together, was to learn that the Bank's prohibition on political interference was not as 'stringent' as I had been led to believe. As I understand it, at least since 1990, the 'prohibition' has been interpreted as preventing involvement in partisan or party politics. This official interpretation seems to me to be much narrower than is commonly understood by those within the institution. That said, the legitimacy and efficacy of development decisions lies in them being directed by the populations to which they will apply (perhaps this is what the articles understood all along?!)...and in that, international development professionals should invariably play a supporting or advisory role. In practice such a distinction is by no means clear and where the thicket starts and stops won't always be easy to determine.

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