Yesterday I idly tweeted a request for the Monty Python sketches most relevant to development. Great response, uncovering some forgotten gems – turns out Python fans are everywhere, (and they’re not even all men, well not 100% anyway). Too many for one post, so today we’ll do politics. Here are my favourites (with credits where due):
Good governance and accountability (aka anarcho sindicalist v monarchist discourses) [via Emily Barker and others]
Colonial legacy and institutions [aka what have the Romans ever done for us?, via Matt Collin]
Had a thought-provoking discussion on ‘influencing’ with Exfamer (ex Oxfam Australia turned consultant) James Ensor a few days ago. The starting point was an apparent tension between the reading I’ve been doing on complex systems, and Oxfam’s traditional model of campaigning.
In my first days at Oxfam, I was told that the recipe for a successful campaign was ‘problem, villain, solution’ (heroes are apparently optional). And sure enough, if you look at good/bad campaigns, the presence or absence of all three ingredients seems pretty key.
But one of the characteristics of complex systems is that solutions are seldom obvious and often only emerge from trial and error. Elsewhere I’ve translated the offputting language of complexity theory into ‘how do you plan when you don’t know what’s going to happen?’ But in the case of advocacy and campaigns aimed at influencing government or international organizations’ policies, a better formulation would be ‘how do you campaign when you don’t have a solution?’
The first option is of course to pretend that you do anyway. Echoes of Yes Minister’s ‘we must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do it!’. Not that Oxfam would ever stoop to such a thing, obviously.
Alternatively, stick to problems that are less complex, at least at first sight. Campaign to give people money, or bednets, or vaccines, or food (although any of these efforts in practice are unlikely to stay neat and linear for long).
But there are a number of other options:
How political is development assistance? How political should it be? These questions provoke divergent reactions within the aid community. For some, being political means using aid to advance geopolitical interests aside from development. Others emphasize the far-reaching political consequences aid can have on recipient countries, from bolstering dubious strongmen to undermining systems of domestic accountability. These two perspectives highlight how aid’s political motivations or side effects can limit its effectiveness in advancing developmental change.
Yet in recent years many development practitioners and scholars have been arguing that aid should become more, not less, political. What do they mean by this? They are not talking about political side effects or prioritizing geostrategic motives. Rather they are referring to efforts by development aid actors intentionally and openly to think and act politically for the purpose of making aid more effective in fostering development.
As we chronicle in our new book, Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution, donors have increasingly incorporated politics into their work in two major ways. First, they now pursue explicit political goals in developing countries, whether expressed as advancing democracy, democratic governance, or effective governance. Second, they are trying to adopt politically smart methods, moving away from the idea of aid as a narrowly technical input to considering it a facilitating agent of local processes of change, which requires aid providers to conduct political analyses, adapt programs to local political contexts, and reach a diverse range of socio-political actors within developing countries.
I seem to be spending most of my life at the ODI at the moment, largely because it is producing an apparently endless stream of really useful research papers and seminars. Yesterday saw a combo of the two, as it launched Unblocking Results: using aid to address governance constraints in public service delivery (OK, maybe it still has a thing or two to learn about snappy titles…..).
The starting point for the work is that while there is a vast amount of research on the role of institutions in delivering (or failing to deliver) health, education, water etc, there is very little on the role of aid agencies when things go well. So ODI carried out a positive deviance exercise, identifying 4 success stories out of 60 initial candidates, and then delving into the reasons behind the success.
Reading the report of the High Level Panel induces a sense of giddy optimism. It is a manifesto for a (much) better world, taking the best of the Millennium Development Goals, and adding what we have learned in the intervening years – the importance of social protection, sustainability, ending conflict, tackling the deepest pockets of poverty, even obesity (rapidly rising in many poor countries). It has a big idea (consigning absolute poverty to the history books) and is on occasion brave (in the Sir Humphrey sense) for example in its commitment to women’s rights, including ending child marriage and violence against women, and guaranteeing universal sexual and reproductive health rights.
The ambition and optimism is all the more welcome for its contrast with the daily grind of austerity, recession and international paralysis (Syria, Climate Change, the torments of the European Union). In response, the report is clearly designed for a no/low cost environment, downplaying the importance of aid, talking up access to data, and revenue raisers like cracking down on tax evasion.
I’m at one of those moments where all conversations seem to link to each other, I see complex systems everywhere, and I’m wondering whether I’m starting to lose my marbles. Happily, lots of other people seem to be suffering from the same condition, and a bunch of us met up earlier this week with Matt Andrews, who was in the UK to promote his fab new book Limits to Institutional Reform in Development (I rave reviewed it here). The conversation was held under Chatham House rules, so no names, no institutions etc.
Whether you work on complex systems or governance reform or fragile states, the emerging common ground seems to be around what not to do and to a lesser extent, the ‘so whats’. What can outsiders do to contribute to change in complex, unpredictable situations where, whether due to domestic opposition or sheer irrelevance to actual context, imported blueprints and ‘best practice guidelines’ are unlikely to get anywhere?
In his book Matt boils down his considerable experience at the World Bank and Harvard into a proposal for ‘PDIA’ – Problem Driven iterative adaptation, which I described pretty fully in my review. The conversation this week fleshed out that approach and added some interesting new angles.
"Some would like to turn the debunking of the fiscal event horizon claim into a cautionary tale about macroeconomic policy advice in general. They would throw up their hands, saying macroeconomic analyses either inherently depend upon too little data to have reliable results, or inevitably will be selectively picked up by ideologues and opportunistic politicians to suit their purposes.
Perhaps both: there will always be some willing economist who can play with the data to provide credible-seeming study to support any given politically influential point of view. This, however, is far too defeatist, if not craven, a conclusion to draw."
Adam Posen – President of the Peterson Institute for International Economics.
You can almost feel the intensifying and clangorous clash of two economic policy paradigms. The question is: what is the best policy response to high indebtedness by countries especially after the global financial crash of 2008? Some economists say stimulate the economy now even if it means taking on more debt, pursue growth and then deal with deficits once the economy is robust. Others say you have to deal with deficits now by imposing serious, often crippling austerity programs. The bloodless phrase for this: fiscal consolidation. Who is right and who is wrong? Unfortunately for many citizens, this is not an argument that can be settled in a science lab, perhaps by testing the theories on some unfortunate rats or monkeys. Entire countries are the laboratories for the testing of these rival policy paradigms.
I use the phrase ‘policy paradigms’ advisedly because I have been reading the notable political scientist Peter A. Hall who wrote the classic piece ‘Policy Paradigms, Social Learning, and the State: The Case of Economic Policymaking in Britain’ for the journal of Comparative Politics in 1993. I went back to the piece after reading the April 2013 special issue of the journal, Governance, which is entirely about the politics of policy paradigms. In that compelling issue, a salute to Hall’s classic essay, he himself has an op-ed titled ‘Brother, Can You Paradigm?’ Hall restates the view that policy paradigms shift, for example from Keynesian policies to monetarist ones, but in order for this to happen ‘each of these transitions required a motivation, means, and motor’.