In good governance circles, we love to champion accountability tools: citizen score cards, civil society-local government linkages, participatory budgeting, etc. They sound wonderful on paper, and frequently work well off paper, but one can sometimes detect a certain weariness on the part of the supposed recipients/beneficiaries of these tools. These initiatives may be effective at times, but they simply don't address the underlying power structure, development practitioners often hear. What is one supposed to do about the shadowy but real network of frequently unaccountable elite, particularly in the context of a developing country that features a culture of impunity and lacks deeply rooted institutions of accountability?
In a media landscape saturated with images of tweeting revolutionaries and blogging dissidents, it's easier than ever to assume a causal relationship between the spread of technology and political revolution. But take a closer look, and the issue begins to look a lot more complex.
An informative and timely new essay by Marc Lynch, an associate professor at George Washington University and prolific commentator on Arab media and political issues, deftly sums up the main arguments, contradictions and knowledge gaps surrounding the impact of information and communication technologies (ICT) on the phenomena collectively referred to as "the Arab Spring." Entitled "After Egypt: The Limits and Promise of Online Challenges to the Authoritarian Arab State," (subscription may be required), the piece implicitly argues for abandoning the usual "optimist/pessimist" trope that plagues such discussions, favoring instead a more nuanced and complex perspective on the impact of ICT in authoritarian states. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, I agree - see this previous post.)
When I first met Mark Malloch-Brown several years ago, he was a newly ennobled peer and part of the Gordon Brown lead British Government, serving as a Foreign Minister. Wearing the ermine of a Lord together with his Make Poverty History wrist-band, Malloch-Brown was a figure of both rebellion and conformity. Given his outspoken stance on the war in Iraq and his uneasy relationship with America’s neo-cons, I wondered then whether he would be forced to compromise on his principles.
His latest offering to the world is certainly no compromise. In The Unfinished Global Revolution, as the title suggests is all to aware that it is written at a time of immense change, less at the cusp of revolution – more in the thick of it.
This is a book about Malloch-Brown’s personal journey, and whilst the writer candidly shares remarkable anecdotes, he also offers unique insight into some of the world’s most challenging conflicts and commentary from inside both government and international organisations. Ultimately, however, true to character, this reads as a call to action. As he writes: We need to get on with it!
This post on development vs aid effectiveness got me thinking a bit about the concept of making oneself redundant, to paraphrase blog author Paul McAdams. "Is everyone involved in development 'working their way out of a job'? Or are some NGOs, CSOs, or donors comfortable in their roles, entrenched in their positions and unwilling to change, even at the risk of eliminating their own work? I suspect the answer is not a simple matter of saying yes or no, but far more nuanced," he writes.
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.
"Only fools, pure theorists, or apprentices fail to take public opinion into account."
Jacques Necker (1792) finance minister to King Louis XVI of France.
Recent events confirm, once again, that public opinion is the basis of power, and the very definition of legitimacy. If it comes to pass that the preponderance of the citizens of a country come to despise or hate their rulers...an event that occurs over a period of time and is the outcome of experiences, debate and discussion ... that crystallization of public opinion is a serious development, one capable of leading to momentous consequences. The regime in question becomes a hollow leviathan. One can only hope that autocratic leaders as well as the cynical technocrats who advise them are paying attention to the lessons of both recent and ongoing struggles between citizens and a variety of autocracies.
Recently I read yet another paper advancing the idea that governance reforms should take a back seat to economic development. To which, as I watch the ongoing footage from the Middle East, I must respond: really?
If there is nothing else that recent events in Egypt have taught us, it is that people, everywhere, demand a voice. Not all democracy templates are universally applicable. But citizens of any country surely desire the freedom to express themselves, and count themselves heard. It's not merely a human right; it's a human fact.
Many development agencies have been caught off balance by recent developments in the Middle East, and are scrambling to adjust. Why? Because we, the collective development community, still have no real way to think about issues of voice, accountability, representation, politics, and power. Our assessment templates only marginally, if at all, take into account such crucial issues; operationally, we have no established methods of building such issues into our work. Even now, governance remains a road hesitantly trod, skirting the outside of the development mainstream. And yet I challenge anyone who has watched recent global events unfold to argue that governance and politics do not matter in people's everyday lives.
This article on the cons of the "Giving Pledge" approach to philanthropy is thought-provoking, particularly for those interested in non-technocratic - or rather, not-solely-technocratic - approaches to governance and development issues. The author argues, among other things, that the current trend of billionaire philanthropy tends to emphasize technocratic fixes, derived partly from the business approach to problem-solving. "Thorny social problems require investments in civil society and social justice, not technocratic business-driven solutions," he writes.
Demonstrations this week in Cote d’Ivoire prompt a number of troubling questions, including what it means to be a “state broadcaster” when who heads the state is in dispute. The influence of state-run broadcasters may be diminishing across much of sub-Saharan Africa, but their potential impact on fragile democratic institutions has been highlighted this week in west Africa. Who controls the airwaves may turn out to be instrumental in who shapes public perceptions, and through them, political reality – the protestors in Cote d’Ivoire know this, choosing of all institutions as the focus of their protest, the state-run television station.
"If pressed, I’d probably say: get the politics right, and you’ll get the policy right. But I’m sure of one thing: get the politics wrong, and it doesn’t matter what policy you want, because it ain’t gonna happen anyway. Probably not now, and certainly not in the long run."
-- Jonathan Bernstein, Get the Politics Right, October 21, 2010