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#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).

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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Submitted by Sue Unsworth on
I hope that Duncan Green's comments don't discourage other practitioners from reading this report ("Development as a Collective Action Problem: Addressing the real challenges of African governance") – because it is a very good read. It is true that it doesn't compromise on academic rigour, but that is all to the good, given – as the report itself puts it – the propensity of donors to derive upbeat messages from a selective reading of key bits of evidence. While the report's argument is complex and nuanced, it is clearly and carefully developed, and weaves detailed empirical findings drawn from extensive fieldwork into a compelling bigger narrative. It presents the APPP research in the context of wider relevant research findings, with the result that it serves as a very useful survey of current evidence on governance and development. The paper does rehearse now familiar arguments against "best practice" approaches, but it goes on to ask a fundamentally important question: what does the alternative of a more context specific, "good fit" approach look like? Or, to put it another way, which institutional patterns and governance arrangements work well, and which badly, in supporting the provision of public goods that matter for successful development? Inevitably the answers offered are partial, and are more compelling at a local than a national level. The paper offers some actionable findings and ideas about practical next steps: but its more important contribution is to challenge (sometimes quite brutally) the half-baked assumptions on which much current development activity is based, and to offer clear alternative ways of thinking about core development challenges. The paper contains some crucial messages that make it essential reading for researchers and policymakers. To select a few: - We need a more nuanced approach to thinking about neo-patrimonialism. The paper identifies some key factors explaining variations in development performance under neo-patrimonial regimes, including how political competition shapes the way elites use rents. - It is important to focus on economic transformation, not just growth – not least because this is needed to support effective democratic governance; and without such transformation, multi-party competition risks reinforcing damaging "competitive clientelism". - Perhaps most importantly, the paper argues that it is unhelpful to think about development and governance challenges from a principal-agent perspective: as the author memorably puts it: "governance challenges are not fundamentally about one set of people getting another set of people to behave better". Employing a principal-agent framework to analyse governance problems results in simplistic "supply" and "demand" side approaches, and deters policymakers from investigating the real underlying constraints to effective collective action by both public and private actors. This is a really powerful message for policymakers, with some uncomfortable implications for many current demand-side interventions designed to strengthen citizen voice and empowerment, and demands for better government accountability. - The report emphasises the need for stark realism about the huge challenge of getting effective collective action in poor countries without capitalist economies, with fragmented elites, and with multi-party political competition that reinforces short termism. It makes a brave – but tentative – attempt at suggesting some "big picture" solutions, including an element of power-sharing to reduce the negative impact of "winner takes all" political systems. - There are more compelling policy messages about problem solving at a local level, including the identification of some potentially actionable obstacles to collective action. These include policy and institutional incoherence, exacerbated by inconsistent and fragmented donor interventions, and populist initiatives by governments. The report has good, detailed evidence from fieldwork of effective local problem-solving that is locally anchored in prevailing social values and institutions, but which also draws on specialist skills of public agencies: a nuanced version of "working with the grain". - There is some very hard-hitting (and mostly well-deserved) criticism of the actual and potential damage caused by ill-conceived aid interventions: these can add to policy incoherence, promote approaches (for example democratic decentralisation) that worsen problems of public goods provision, and often employ associational models and funding that undermine local collective action. While the paper identifies the primary challenge as being to convince ministers, parliaments and the voting public in the North of its key messages, I agree with Duncan Green that, as currently written, it is unlikely to do that. It would be well worthwhile preparing a version specifically for this audience, and Duncan's suggestion of brainstorming the research findings and recommendations with a wider group of practitioners would almost certainly make for a more compelling final section.

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