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

Duncan Green's picture

 

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).

First comes the standard take-down: a comprehensive and persuasive rubbishing of mistaken approaches. Yes, the development world may have moved on from ‘magic bullet’ approaches, accepting the APPP’s core argument in favour of adopting ‘best fit’ approaches, ‘going with the grain’ of existing histories and institutions in any given place. But in practice ‘even the most reflective country activists and the best governance advisers have trouble imagining what to do differently.’

On current aid practices, the synthesis report is far more damning than the Policy Brief (perhaps in deference to DFID’s sensitivities). Booth lambasts the ‘per diem culture’ (or as my colleague Ben Phillips puts it, ‘carpe per diem’) that undermines genuine attempts to resolve local collective action problems, as well as:

  • ‘the distortions caused by the availability of donor money and organisational templates, now delivered to the remotest rural areas by local governments and NGOs, and
  • mechanical application of donor-inspired policy guidelines by sector ministries in ways that not only contribute to policy incoherence but prevent local actors from coming together to provide their own solutions.

He’s particularly critical of direct funding to grassroots organizations, arguing that ‘in Pakistan and elsewhere, civic groups that get funding from development assistance end up with no members.’ But he then acknowledges that in Malawi ‘in fact, some of the promising experiences do involve NGOs as actors, and some involve the use of project funds’ although frustratingly, there are no further details.

APPP reckons a more profound conceptual shift is required, ditching the ‘straitjacket of principal-agent thinking’ on governance. It pours equal scorn on supply side governance (governments are keen to run the place better, they just need training) and the more recent switch to demand side (just help citizens’ groups who are dying to hold governments to account, and that will lead to development). ‘The conventional idea of supporting a pent-up ‘demand for good governance’ must be put aside.’ ‘Citizen pressure will normally lead to more effective clientelism, not better public policies.’ [ouch]

Instead ‘governance challenges are not fundamentally about one set of people getting another set of people to behave better. They are about both sets of people finding ways of being able to act collectively in their own best interests. They are about collective problem-solving in fragmented societies hampered by low levels of trust.’

How? First engage with states, but not all of them: learn how to spot more developmentalist bits, and where you find them, reject the ‘dominant view for the last 25 years that African governments cannot be trusted with interventionist policies.’

I’ve written before about David’s apparent love affair with Rwanda’s Paul Kagame (left), but here he accepts that just wishing all African leaders were benevolent autocrats is not really good enough, not least because such ‘developmental patrimonialist’ regimes tend to emerge from major wars and national liberation struggles and/or major threats to national survival like the Rwandan genocide, which are unlikely to be repeated. Instead, he acknowledges ‘the most urgent policy questions relate to options for the modal type of contemporary African regime, where clientelism is competitive and operating under a formally democratic political constitution.’ Still, there is a lingering fondness for what the synthesis report terms ‘strong, visionary leaders’, combined with a rather old school notion of development as economic transformation first, and we’ll worry about all that fuzzy human rights, well-being and agency stuff later.

What of more specific so whats? There are tantalising glimpses here and there, never fleshed out fully. These include:

  • New forms of power-sharing to deal with ethnic conflict
  • Ring-fencing long term development priorities (eg infrastructure, smallholder agriculture) from party politics
  • Pursue what APPP dubs ‘practical hybrids’, the result of ‘conscious efforts by elements of the modern state to adapt to local preferences and ways of doing things.’
  • Learn from successful governance turnarounds in Latin America (Brazil, Bogotá), which ‘worked less by changing the formal rules of the political game, and more by bringing informal social norms and moral sentiments into line with the high ideals articulated in national constitutions, making creative use of mass media and the power of example.’
  • ‘Official agencies should do more things ‘at arm’s length’, delegating assistance to organisations that have demonstrated an ability to work in the ways that are required to make a positive difference.’ Would that include ODI by any chance?

Stepping back, the underlying challenge identified by APPP seems to be how both governments and citizens can move to a less short-termist mindset and agree on the kind of institutional development that underpins long term development, finding ways to overcome the paralysis of collective action problems: ‘Where positive outcomes are achieved, the reasons are almost always that circumstances have permitted a collective action log-jam to be overcome, usually at several levels simultaneously and interactively.’

I think this analysis fits with some thinking we’re doing in Oxfam around the topic of ‘convening and brokering’. In certain circumstances, the best role for an outside player like us is not to build stuff, or dispense large amounts of cash, but to get disparate local players into a room and encourage them to find their own solutions. In Oxfam the iconic programme story is in Tajikistan, where we convened a bunch of ministries, private companies and civil society organizations to discuss water and sanitation. We don’t lobby for a particular agenda or institutional template, we just keep them talking – an afternoon every two months. Already the process has yielded an inter-ministerial coordinating committee on water, a new water law, and specific projects are now starting to emerge. The secret to success in this is often the human skills of the facilitator (in this case a rather charismatic water engineer who is now the Tajikistan country director) and acceptance by all parties of the credibility and independence of the convenor.

It also reminds me of Dani Rodrik’s work on growth diagnostics and bottlenecks: ‘development progress is about overcoming institutional blockages, usually underpinned by collective action problems. It is not, for the most part, about resource shortages or funding gaps.’

This seems to be heading towards some kind of ‘participatory institutional appraisal’ approach, where development actors specialize in convening discussions of local players to get over these logjams in ways that reflect and adapt local traditions and values. This runs up against the way aid agencies currently work: high staff turnover, massive pressure to dole out funds in large amounts, demands to show ‘value for money’ via an increasingly demanding and imposed system of governance, monitoring, evaluation etc etc.

A suggestion: APPP should present this work to a group of practitioners (bilateral, NGOs etc), then brainstorm on examples where they are successfully pursuing this kind of approach. They should then write them up in plain English and use them to illustrate their arguments – I think I can guarantee a significant improvement in research take up and impact. Any takers?

Photo Credit: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development

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