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Why is it so much Harder to Talk about Politics than about Policies?

Duncan Green's picture

I’ve been running into some resistance recently in writing about politics, and some interesting patterns are starting to emerge.

Firstly, when I sent round a draft piece on the politics and policies of national redistribution (i.e. when you look at the countries who have reduced inequality, what did they do and what were the politics that led to them doing it?) the subtext from a number of commentators in the countries concerned was ‘love the policies, but could you not talk about the politics please?’

They felt that talking about politics and political players (whether leaders or movements), especially in a positive way (Government of X has done brilliantly on Y), could be politically compromising or just felt anxious about being seen as naive, or being denounced by the radicals. Oppositionalism (all politicians are venal, all leaders betray, any progress is purely a grudging response to overwhelming public pressure from below) seems much easier (see right). If politics is mentioned at all, it’s just through the cop-out of lamenting the lack of political will (which all too often means telling politicians to do things that will get them chucked out of power or shot, and then condemning them when they refuse).

Then I sent the outline for my book on How Change Happens to my friend Ha-Joon Chang. Ha-Joon says Koreans make a point of telling it like it is, with no frills or flattery (like the Dutch, only more so), and he certainly sets an example. Isn’t writing a book about how change happens that is largely aimed at activists incredibly elitist? What would it say to the much greater number of people who are not activist? Ouch.

Ha Joon is an economist who writes for a mass audience, brilliantly and with a fantastic knack for making subtle economic arguments accessible. And he hardly ever writes about politics – in the sense of what were the political alignments that allowed countries like his native Korea to introduce industrial policy, move up the value chain, avoid being captured by vested interests etc. I’ve asked him about this, and he says he prefers to leave that to others.

Because when you write about politics, you face some pretty awkward choices. Sure you can write populist stuff about protest movements being the key to change (think Paul Mason and ‘Why it’s all kicking off everywhere’). Trouble is, that is often not the whole story. Look at the Arab Spring in Egypt and its aftermath – lots of political analysis of the initial surge in popular movements, then radio silence, before a completely separate group of writers came with an analysis of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and army takeover. Very little that tries to give a unified overall picture of what has actually happened (I would love to read something if you have suggestions). One fascinating exception is this recent piece by Chris Hill, a former US Ambassador to Iraq, foreseeing the ‘end of the Arab state’, destroyed by a combination of external intervention, and upheaval from below. What do you think?

Don’t get me wrong: active citizens are, of course, a key player, as From Poverty to Power argued, but lots of decisions are taken without their involvement, and not all of those decisions are obviously bad. But as soon as you start writing about them, and especially trying to influence them through lobbying, advocacy etc, you a) risk ‘giving away your secrets’ (another criticism I get within Oxfam sometimes) and b) come across as endorsing some kind of elitist power play.

A final obstacle is the language. Somehow the people who write about politics and development seem intent on doing even more violence to the language than the econs or policy wonks. I’m not sure why, but all that jargon (political settlements, elite bargains, neopatrimonialism, clientilism, etc) definitely helps confine the subject to aficionados only. Maybe that’s the point.

Which is why, as a reflex contrarian, I will in the future be thinking and writing more about politics (e.g. the politics of redistribution, or how change happens). Sorry.

This post first appeared on From Poverty to Power

Photograph of "Vote for Nobody" by jaygoldman, via Flickr

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Submitted by Peter-Alberto Behrens on

Excellent article! I am afraid I will be condemned anyway by all sort of "oppositionalists" as you call them: But in my view this close to fundamentalistic view on politics stems from a deeply rooted annti-democratic attitude. Of course, politicians are not "perfect" - they should not! Expecting moral perfection from our representatives is a hidden desire of being ruled by an "enlightened despot"...

Submitted by Pierre Landell-Mills on

Duncan, you are right on the nail. Politics explains 95% of what governments do, or do not do. But I am not sure you are right that political analysis is shunned. The Policy Practice, started some 10 years ago to explore that political (or political economy) dimensions of development, has argued for years for better political analysis befor new development programmes are initiated or policy reforms promoted and over the years has been invited to train development agency staff in how to do such analysis. Even the IMF has recently hired The Policy Practice to run a course on the subject for their staff.

One offshoot of this interest in political obstacles to development was a 2001 World Bank study of governance and related institutional issues in Bangladesh ("A Governance and Institutional Review")which explore the role of Champions of Change and problems associated with "deep social structures". This led DFID to launch a series of country studies of the political economy constraints to development and the need for governance reform called the "Drivers of Change" studies. The sad outcome has been that aid managers have been frightened off by the serious queries these studies raised for many ongoing aid supported programmes. Instead of facing up to these design problems, the issues were quickly buried to enable business as usual to continue. These 'sensitive' issues, of course, related most prominently to corruption and the lack of accountability of very many government agencies that were donor supported. They also identified issues of the exclusion or mistreatment of minorities and other tricky ethnic or tribal issues. Few aid officials are willing to face up to these issues and those who do risk being dispatched home for 'rocking the boat'. This cowardice is not going to lead to more effective development.

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