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The Political Implications of Evidence-Based Approaches (aka Start of This Week’s Wonkwar on the Results Agenda)

Duncan Green's picture

The debate on evidence and results continues to rage. Rosalind Eyben (left) and Chris Roche (right, dressed for battle), two of the organisers of April’s Big Push Forward conference on the Politics of  Evidence, kick off a discussion. Tomorrow Chris Whitty, DFID’s Director of Research and Evidence and Chief Scientific Adviser, and Stefan Dercon, its Chief Economist, respond.

Distinct from its more general usage of what is observed or experienced, ‘evidence’ has acquired a particular meaning relating to proof about ‘what works’, particularly through robust evidence from rigorous experimental trials. But no-one really believes that it is feasible for external development assistance to consist purely of ‘technical’ interventions. Most development workers do not see themselves as scientists in a laboratory, but more as reflective practitioners seeking to learn how to support locally generated transformative processes for greater equity and social justice. Where have these experimental approaches come from and what is at stake?

Why Don’t People in Power Do the Right Thing - Supply, Demand or Collective Action Problem? And What Do We Do about It?

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My last few days have been dominated by conversations around ‘convening and brokering’, including an exchange between assorted ODI wonks and a bunch of NGOs on the findings of the Africa Power and Politics Programme, and a ‘webinar’ (ugh), with our Latin American staff on the nature of ‘leverage’ (a closely associated development fuzzword). Last week, I set out the best example of this approach that I’ve found to date, the Tajikistan water and sanitation network. Today it’s some overall conclusions from the various discussions.

David Booth from ODI described the question he is trying to answer as ‘why don’t people in power do the right thing?’ He thinks aid agencies (both official and NGOs) have moved from thinking that the answer is building capacity in government (supply side) to strengthening the voice of citizens to demand better services (demand side), but argues that both approaches are wrong.

The mistake, he argues is seeing power as a zero sum game, whereas often the barrier to progress is better seen as a collective action problem: ‘doing the right thing involves cooperating with others and people aren’t prepared to take risks and bear the costs of working with others, unless they believe that everyone else will do so too.’

That requires a different approach, getting everyone into a room to build trust and find joint solutions to a common problem.

'Convening and Brokering' in Practice: Sorting out Tajikistan’s Water Problem

Duncan Green's picture

In the corridors of Oxfam and beyond, ‘convening and brokering’ has become a new development fuzzword. I talked about it in my recent review of the Africa Power and Politics Programme, and APPP promptly got back to me and suggested a discussion on how convening and brokering is the same/different to the APPP’s proposals that aid agencies should abandon misguided attempts to impose ‘best practice’ solutions and instead seek ‘best fit’ approaches that ‘go with the grain’ of existing institutions in Africa. That discussion took place yesterday, and it was excellent, but that’s the subject of next week's blog. First I wanted to summarize the case study I took to the meeting.

The best example I’ve found in Oxfam’s work is actually from Tajikistan, rather than Africa, but it’s so interesting that I wrote it up anyway. Here’s a summary of a four page case study. Text in italics is from an interview with Ghazi Kelani, a charismatic ex-government water engineer who led Oxfam’s initial work on water and is undoubtedly an important factor in the programme’s success to date. Ghazi is currently Oxfam’s Tajikistan country director.

Development Optimism from Justin Lin: Review of 'The Quest for Prosperity'

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‘Every developing country has the opportunity to grow at over 8% a year for 20-40 years, and to get rid of poverty within a generation.’ There’s something very refreshing about listening to East Asian development economists, in this case the prolific Justin Lin, a former World Bank chief economist, launching his new book The Quest for Prosperity, at ODI just before Christmas. The contrast between his can-do optimism and the dark clouds of Eurogloom and Afropessimism could not have been greater. But is he right?

While others in development wonkland are increasingly scathing about blueprints and best practice guidelines, Justin is unabashedly a man with a plan. The book takes his paper on ‘Growth identification and facilitation’, (see my earlier review, and Justin’s reply), and boils his thinking down into what he calls a ‘six point recipe’ for developing country governments.

Sierra Leone’s Cold Spot? Young People, Elections and Accountability in Kono

Jessica Sinclair Taylor's picture

Ibrahim Fanday, Chairman of Kono Youth Commission smiled proudly as he says ‘Kono is known as a trouble hot-spot – but at the end of the day, the elections were peaceful.’ Martha Lewis, a member of the local women’s network, agreed, saying ‘Hot spot? Cold spot!’ 

When Sierra Leone went to the polls in November last year, it followed months of speculation and fears that the hotly contested elections would be a flash-point for violence.  And Kono, the state which saw the worst of the ten year civil war, and remains notorious chiefly for its diamond miles and its instability, was predicted to be at the centre of any trouble.

The elections passed without major disturbances and were pronounced free and fair by the EU observers following them.  Ibrahim believes that the youth of Kono played a role in keeping the polling peaceful, by acting as ‘peace ambassadors’ in their communities.  His pride is echoed by everyone I speak to - Sierra Leone seems to have passed some kind of test, in both national and international eyes, by holding an election where 87.3% of the population turned out to vote, and the peace held.

Civil Society, Public Action and Accountability in Africa

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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:

#5 from 2012: What have We Learned from 5 Years of Research on African Power and Politics?

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Our Top Ten Blog Posts by Readership in 2012

Originally published on November 13, 2012

The Africa Power and Politics Programme (APPP) is winding down as its five year funding from DFID comes to an end, and I’ve been wading through the 120 page synthesis report as well as the strictly-for-wimps Policy Brief. Both are entitled ‘Development as a collective action problem: Addressing the real challenges of African governance’.

Like previous APPP work, the papers are intriguing and frustrating in equal measure. David Booth from the ODI, the principal author, appears torn: his comfort zone is the abstruse conceptual landscape and language of political science. But his paymasters are practical men and women who insist on their ‘so whats’. ‘Researchers have a duty to provide more than negative messages and evidence of complexity. There needs to be a meeting point between researchers’ recognition of complexity and practitioners’ hunger for guidance.’ He does his best, and promises much, but it doesn’t come easy, with conclusions that often stop just as they get interesting (at least to prosaic practitioner types like me).

Milanovic on Inequality (Continued): Implications for Politics, Alliances and Migration

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In which, following on yesterday’s post,  Ricardo Fuentes and I decide to carry on chatting about the new Milanovic paper on inequality.

Duncan: Great intro to the Milanovic paper, Ricardo, but there’s plenty more juice to be had, I think. First let’s take a closer look at the graph you put up of change in global real income 1988-2008 (below). As well as the spike of the top 1% (and do we know whether the financial crisis has moderated or amplified the spike?), the bit that jumps out at me is the stagnation of incomes above the 75th percentile. For that portion of the world’s population in the top quarter of the income bracket, but below the super-rich 1%, the last 20 years have been pretty terrible.

Inequality and the Rise of the Global 1%: Great New Paper by Branko Milanovic

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Ricardo Fuentes on an important new paper. Tomorrow, Ricardo and I continue the conversation.

The rich in the West are getting richer. Many countries have experienced a sharp concentration of incomes over the last three decades. The top 1% of Americans have doubled their share of national income (from 8 to 17%) since Ronald Reagan was inaugurated 32 years ago – see graph, source here. The elite in other advanced economies, including, Australia, the UK, Japan and Sweden, have also gotten a larger share of the pie. We have been able to understand the concentration of incomes at the national level thanks to the study of tax records by enterprising scholars such as Emmanuel Saez, Thomas Picketty and Sir Anthony Atkinson. But until recently, we didn’t know much about the global concentration of incomes (there’s no global tax collector with a similar database).

How We Saved Agriculture, Fed the World and Ended Rural Poverty: Looking Back from 2050

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As Oxfam’s two week online debate on the future of agriculture gets under way, John Ambler of Oxfam America imagines how it could all turn out right in the end.

It is now 2050.  Globally, we are 9 billion strong.  Only 20% of us are directly involved in agriculture, and poor country economies have diversified.  Yet we all have enough food.  Technological innovation has played its part, but increased production has been largely driven by institutional reform.  For example, industrialized countries have eliminated the subsidies that once undercut poor country agricultural production and exports.  Land reform has spread in Latin America.  Water reform has proceeded in Asia.  Irrigation, which once constituted 70% of freshwater use, now consumes less than 50%.  New agronomic practices are taking hold worldwide. The world is eating more healthily and locally.  The sustainability of our agricultural systems is taken as non-negotiable by the world’s politicians.

The key?  Institutional reform.  And the key to institutional reform has been placing citizens and primary producers in more central oversight and ownership positions, with governments stepping back and taking more responsibility for managing at watershed and ecosystem levels.

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