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political economy

Can a Political Economy Approach Explain Aid Donors’ Reluctance to Think and Work Politically? Guest Post from Neil McCulloch

Duncan Green's picture

The more enlightened (in my view) aid types have been wagging their fingers for decades, telling their colleagues to adopt more politically literate approaches to their work. Why isn’t everyone convinced? Neil McCulloch applies a bit of political economy analysis to the aid business.

Over the last fifteen years or more, a new approach to development assistance has been gaining ground in policy circles. Broadly entitled the “political economy” approach, it attempts to apply a more political approach to understanding development problems and, importantly, development “solutions”. In particular, a central tenet of the approach is that many development problems are fundamentally political rather than technical and that therefore solutions to these problems are most likely to come from inside a country’s polity than from outside. Perhaps the most famous recent example of this line of thinking is Acemoglu and Robinson’s 2012 book Why Nations Fail.

Acemoglu and Robinson conclude that if each nation’s fate depends primarily on its domestic political struggles, the role for external development assistance is minimal. However, the response of practitioners to this field is to turn this argument on its head i.e. that is, if indeed each nation’s fate depends primarily on its domestic political struggles, development assistance should be trying to influence these struggles in ways that make pro-development outcomes more likely. Yet despite more than a decade analysis, the political economy “approach” is still rarely used by donors in the field. Why? I think there are four reasons:

Getting to The 'So Whats': How Can Donors Use Political Economy Analysis to Sort Out Bad Governance?

Duncan Green's picture


Close but no cigar. Just been reading an ODI paper from a few months ago, Making sense of the politics of delivery: our findings so far, by Marta Foresti, Tam O’Neil and Leni Wild. It’s part of the ODI’s excellent stream of work on governance and accountability (see my review of David Booth and Diana Cammack’s book) and repays close study.

The starting point is the widespread disillusionment in DFID and elsewhere with ‘political economy analysis’ (PEA), memorably summed up by Alex Duncan’s definition of a political economist as ‘someone who comes and explains why your programme hasn’t worked’:

‘There is no doubt that PEA has helped answer some of these questions [why stuff doesn’t work]. Yet many would say that researchers have not found a middle ground between generality and specificity. On the one hand, the use of catch-all concepts, such as political will or unspecified incentives, fail to provide enough analytical purchase on which to hang entry points for reform. On the other, if we view every context and problem as sui generis, experience cannot be used to construct theories of change that in­clude learning across programmes and contexts.’

Realizing the Potential of Right to Information

Anupama Dokeniya's picture

Right to Information (RTI) laws can be a useful instrument for improving transparency – if the political will for implementation is sustained, and if the broader governance environment provides the enabling conditions for the exercise of the law. A research project that studied the implementation of RTI laws in a number of countries showed that implementation has been very uneven across countries. In some countries, RTI laws had been leveraged effectively for extracting information in a number of important areas, ranging from public expenditures, to performance and procurement, and exposing instances of corruption. In other countries, the existence of an RTI law had little impact in any of these areas, and oversight and capacity building mechanisms had either not been set up, or not functioned effectively.

The findings of the study are not surprising. The implementation gap between de jure and de facto reforms in countries faced with capacity constraints and political economy challenges is well-known. Yet, international agencies have pushed policy reforms without adequate attention to the constraints and challenges of implementation. The pressure to win support and legitimacy with international aid agencies has been an important driver of the adoption of RTI laws. The right has also been recognized in international human rights conventions, and more recently has gained increasing international attention (for instance, the existence of a law is one of the considerations for membership in the Open Government Partnership). Further, pressure from domestic constituencies has also propelled political actors to champion the law. But, once passed, capacity limitations, the erosion of political will, and active resistance have been important impediments to realizing the potential of RTI.

Book Review: Knowledge, Policy and Power in International Development: A Practical Guide

Duncan Green's picture

This review appears in the Evidence and Policy journal, where it is now available free online (after I protested about the scandalous, rip-off $30 they were charging). Or you can just read it here. Note to self: in future, I will not write anything for journals that are not open access (thanks to Owen Barder for that suggestion).

In recent years, the public and policy debate over climate change, ‘climategate’, and the debacle of the Copenhagen Summit (and seemingly the wider UN negotiations) has brought home the tenuousness of the links between knowledge and public policy-making. ‘Do the research and they will come’ is clearly not a credible doctrine. Knowledge, Policy and Power, written by a group of researchers from the Overseas Development Institute, tackles some important aspects of these links, building on ODI’s strong track record on the interface between research and policy-making.

The book has good instincts – sceptical of all things linear, of researchers claiming to know more than they do, stressing the importance of values, beliefs, assumptions, taboos and other group pressures, hidden power  and in/exclusion in what are often portrayed as neutral processes of research and debate. There is ample discussion of the relative strengths and weakneses of different kinds of knowledge, whether derived from practice, ‘pure’ research or the people themselves.

Civil Society, Public Action and Accountability in Africa

Duncan Green's picture

An important new paper from some big development names – Shanta Devarajan and Stuti Khemani from the World Bank, and Michael Walton (ex Bank, now at Harvard Kennedy School) – directs a slightly fierce (but welcome) political economy gaze at donor efforts to strengthen civil society (one of the more recent developmental fads). As with most such papers, after a monumental literature review, one of the striking conclusions is how little we really know, but it gropes gamely through the fog of ignorance and confusion and arrives at some interesting conclusions.

First, the authors find that something significant is going on among Africa’s citizens: “a large shift in Africa in organization among citizens. Village-level group formation in Africa increased dramatically over the 1990s when participatory approaches were emphasized in international development paradigms, promoted through aid, and adopted deliberately by country governments to deliver projects to communities.” Interestingly, that increased participation applies to both democratic and less democratic systems. The question is in what situations that upsurge in civil society has impact, and how (if at all) aid agencies can help.

The paper adds its support to the growing demand that aid interventions abandon futile searches for ‘best practice’ in favour of understanding what are the ‘best fits’ for any given context:

Implementing Governance Reform for Development Results: the 2013 Summer Institute is Now Accepting Applications

Johanna Martinsson's picture

The World Bank Institute's Leadership and Governance Practice, the World Bank's External Affairs Operational Communications Department, the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California are pleased to announce the 2013 Summer Institute in Communication and Governance Reform

The course is primarily designed for strategists and advisers in the public sector and civil society, senior development professionals, and seasoned communication specialists who want to strengthen critical competencies in providing implementation support to change agents and reform leaders in developing countries.

The 9.5-day course will be held at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, May 28 - June 7, 2013. It will equip participants with knowledge about the most recent advances in communication and proven techniques in reform implementation. Participants will develop core competencies essential to bringing about real change, leading to development results in a wide range of sectors. 

Participants will acquire critical skills in five key areas:

#9 from 2012: 'Why Nations Fail': The Constitutionalists Were Right All Along

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2012

Originally published on May 1, 2012

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson have produced a magisterial book: ‘Why Nations Fail’. If you are interested in governance, nay, if you are interested in development, you should read it. I picked it up the week it was published and I could not put it down until it was done. That is how powerful and well-written it is. Yet it is over 500 pages long. In what follows, I am going to focus on what I liked about it and the thoughts it provoked in me as I read it.

First, I admire the simplicity and power of the thesis: what the historical evidence suggests is that nations with inclusive political and economic institutions are capable of sustained growth. Nations with extractive political and economic institutions are not. End of story. Even when an authoritarian state/regime appears to engineer economic growth for a while, it will hit a limit soon enough. Why? Human creativity, human inventiveness and necessary creative destruction of old ways of doing things cannot happen in authoritarian environments. Vested interests are able all too easily to block threatening entrants to the economy; property rights are not secure and so on. Those who control political institutions use their power to extract surpluses in often brutal ways. Key quote:

How Can a Post-2015 Agreement Drive Real Change? Please Read and Comment on this Draft Paper

Duncan Green's picture

The post-2015 discussion on what should succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) is picking up steam, with barely a day going by without some new paper, consultation or high level meeting. So I, along with Stephen Hale and Matthew Lockwood, have decided to add to the growing slush-pile with a new discussion paper. We want you to read the draft (see right) and help us improve it. Contributions by 5 November please, either as comments on the blog, or emailed to research[at]oxfam.org.uk.

The paper argues that there’s an urgent need to bring power and politics into the centre of the post-2015 discussion. To have impact, any post-2015 arrangement has to take into account the lessons of over a decade of implementing the existing MDGs, and be shaped by the profound global change since the MDGs were debated over the course of the 1990s and early noughties.  We’re hoping that this will be at the centre of this week’s discussions in London linked to the High Level Panel and in Berlin at the Berlin Civil Society Center on Development post 2015.

What Can Political Economists Tell Us about Africa, Aid and Development?

Duncan Green's picture

There’s a clutch of different research initiatives trying to understand Africa’s political economy and its impact on development and aid. Often, the tone of the political economists can be quite discouraging – Alex Duncan gives a tongue-in-cheek definition of a political economist as ‘someone coming to explain why your aid programme doesn’t work’. There are few practical ‘take aways’ either for large bilateral aid agencies, or NGOs other than ‘give up and become a researcher’.

And that’s pretty much the tone of a logotastic ‘joint statement’ from 5 research programmes based (loosely) in the UK, Denmark, and the Netherlands (The Africa Power and Politics Programme, Developmental Leadership Programme, Elites, Production and Poverty: A Comparative Analysis, Political Economy of Agricultural Policy in Africa, Tracking Development). Here’s some highlights:

How Can Aid Agencies Promote Local Governance and Accountability? Lessons from Oxfam’s Work in Five Countries

Duncan Green's picture

Community discussion class participants in Bardiya village talk about their plans for building a community clinic.Oxfam is publishing a fascinating new series of case studies today, describing its programme work on local governance and community action. There are case studies from Nepal (women's rights, see photo), Malawi (access to medicines), Kenya (tracking public spending), Viet Nam (community participation) and Tanzania (the ubiquitous Chukua Hatua project), and a very wise (and mercifully brief) overview paper from power and governance guru Jo Rowlands. Here are some highlights:

“Governance is about the formal or informal rules, systems and structures under which human societies are organised, and how they are (or are not) implemented. It affects all aspects of human society – politics, economics and business, culture, social interaction, religion, and security - at all levels, from the most global to the very local."

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