"Cynics who say power is all that counts in politics forget that power without ideas is just improvisation."
- Michael Ignatieff, Canadian author, academic, and former politician
"Cynics who say power is all that counts in politics forget that power without ideas is just improvisation."
Around the end December of every year, the pundits start coming out with their forecasts for 2014. This past December, the World Bank pundits predicted everything from girls outperforming boys in developing countries (girl power!) to the staggering idea that for Europe, 2014 will be a better year.
This year though, the World Bank’s Future Development Forecasts blog, included a prediction that caught these two political scientists by surprise— “as more and more economists point to the primary [sic] of politics in development, political scientists will wake up and wonder why they have been left out of the discussion.”
The recently-concluded state-level elections in India’s capital city-state, Delhi, yielded a remarkable outcome. The country’s newest political party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), literally “Common Man” Party, formed only a year ago by civil society activists affiliated to the landmark 2010 anti-corruption movement, routed the country’s oldest political party, the Congress, which has governed the country through most of its post-Independence years. The fledgling party’s performance and subsequent formation of the state government (ironically with the backing in the state legislature of the same party it had demolished), is being hailed as the beginning of something like a peaceful democratic revolution. It has galvanized political participation in a fairly unprecedented way as hundreds of thousands of “common people” across the country have rushed to join the ranks of a political force they hope will deliver better governance. And it had sowed the seeds of fresh optimism in the possibility of an ethical and accountable governance system.
This euphoria might be somewhat premature in the absence of any track record of AAP’s performance in government. But the party’s ascent undoubtedly represents a distinct break from traditional politics and suggests a new paradigm in at least two ways. First, AAP transcends the politics of identity and sectarian interests and practices instead what has been called the “politics of citizenship.” While other political parties have emerged from the grassroots in post-independence India and gone on to become potent regional forces, they have typically had their moorings in identity politics of one sort or another – caste, religion, ethnicity – that gave them dedicated support bases. In contrast, the AAP’s primary plank is good governance. Although it has been criticized for espousing untenable populist economic policies – such as subsidized water and electricity, its economic ideology and policies are very much at a formative stage. Its largest selling point has been its promise to fight corruption and bring probity to governance. Its success has catapulted the problem of corruption center-stage as the defining issue in the upcoming national elections.
In the next few weeks, we will be running our Top Ten Blog Posts by readership in 2013
Originally published on May 22, 2013
I attended a panel + booklaunch on the theme of ‘Citizens Against Corruption’ at the ODI last week. After all the recent agonizing and self-doubt of the results debate (‘really, do we know anything about the impact of our work? How can we be sure?’), it was refreshing to be carried away on a wave of conviction and passion. The author of the book, Pierre Landell-Mills is in no doubt – citizen action can have a massive impact in countering corruption and improving the lives of poor people, almost irrespective of the political context.
The book captures the experience of the Partnership for Transparency Fund, set up by Pierre in 2000. It summarizes experiences from 200 case studies in 53 countries. This has included everything from using boy scouts to stop the ‘disappearance’ of textbooks in the Philippines to introducing a new code of ethics for Mongolia’s judiciary. The PTF’s model of change is really interesting. In terms of the project itself:
- Entirely demand led: it waits for civil society organizations (CSOs) to come up with proposals, and funds about one in five
- $25k + an expert: the typical project consists of a small grant, and a volunteer expert, usually a retiree from aid agencies or governments, North and South. According to Pierre ‘the clue to PTF’s success has been marrying high quality expertise with the energy and guts of young activists’. (I’ve now added ‘Grey Wonks’ to my ‘Grey Panthers’ rant on why the aid world is so bad at making the most of older people).
- The PTF is tapping into a zeitgeist of shifting global norms on corruption, epitomised by the UN Convention Against Corruption (2003). The idea that ‘they work for us’ seems to be gaining ground.
- The PTF prefers cooperation to conflict – better to work with champions within the state (and there nearly always are some, if you can find them), than just to lob rocks from the sidelines (although some rock-lobbing may also be required).
- It also prefers action and avoids funding ‘awareness-raising’, ‘capacity building’ and other ‘conference-building measures.’
So what works? On the basis of the case studies (chapters on India, Mongolia, Uganda and the Philippines), and his vast experience of governance and corruption work, Pierre sets out a ‘stylized programme’ for the kinds of CSO-led initiatives that deliver the goods:
Gosh I love my job. Last week I attended a workshop in Delhi to discuss ‘thinking and working politically’. A bunch of donors, academics, NGOs and others (Chatham House rules, alas, so no names or institutions) taking stock on how they can move from talk to walk in applying more politically informed thinking to their work.
That means both trying to do the normal stuff better (eg understanding the politics that determines whether your water or education programme gets anywhere) and in more transformational work trying to shift power from haves to have nots.
The meeting was convened by some very practical (‘what do I do on Monday Morning’) aid people keen to move on from what they see as the overly academic (‘needs more research’) character of discussions on governance, institutions, state-building and all its obfuscatory language (‘What we don’t need is lots of people talking about isomorphic mimicry, rules of the game and political settlements’).
The purpose of this discussion was to take the growing body of research from the Development Leadership Programme, Tom Carothers, ODI, Matt Andrews, ESID etc and turn it into programme ideas that can be tested on the ground. A giant ‘do tank’ exercise, in fact. Alarmingly, I can’t think of other examples of such an explicit research →hypothesis→test process on governance (unlike drugs research, say).
'Strong leaders do not just "read" opportunities; they make them – by moulding public opinion, bringing new blood with new ideas and initiative into government, reaching beyond safe and traditional constituencies to build coalitions in support of change and by taking political and managerial risks that broaden the possibility of change.'
Taxation is zipping up the development agenda, but the discussion is often focussed on international aspects such as tax havens or the Robin Hood Tax. Both very important, but arguably, even more important is what happens domestically – are developing country tax systems regressive or progressive? Are they raising enough cash to fund state services? Are they efficient and free of corruption? This absolutely magisterial overview of the state of tax systems in Africa comes from Mick Moore (right), who runs the International Centre for Tax and Development (ICTD). It was first published by the Africa Research Institute.
Anglophone countries have led the way in reforming tax administration in Africa, considerably more so than their francophone peers. The reasons for this are numerous. Networks of international tax specialists are based mainly in English-speaking countries. Many of the modern systems that promote best practice within tax authorities were developed in anglophone countries, especially Australia. International donors, and particularly the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), have directly and indirectly promoted a lot of reform of national tax authorities. In fact, this has been one of the success stories of British aid.
A package of reforms has been pursued in anglophone Africa. The most profound change is the amalgamation of revenue collection under a single agency, often referred to as a semi-autonomous revenue authority (SARA). Previously, it was common for tax collection to be dispersed among a number of departments within the Ministry of Finance. For example, different people would be in charge of collecting income tax, VAT and excise taxes. Multiple lines of tax collectors existed, usually not co-operating with one another and each trying to strike private deals with taxpayers. This structure – and practice – still occurs in much of francophone Africa.
Happily, improving the lot of fragile states (no matter how they are defined) is an item that keeps racing up the agenda of international development. Sadly, however, when there is so much to repair to be done it is not always clear where to start. Donors bring their own priorities; experts have their own preferences. A new policy brief published by BBC Media Action, the international development arm of the BBC that focuses on improving media systems in developing countries, makes the case for fixing broken media systems in fragile states. Entitled Fragile States: the role of media and communication, the report is the work of James Deane, a well-known expert in the field. The report can be downloaded here.
I believe that the work is an important contribution to the policy debate. In what follows, I offer a quick sense of the argument.
It’s smart, well-written and provides a deeper intellectual foundation for much of the most interesting thinking going on in the aid business right now. Ben Ramalingam (right)’s Aid on the Edge of Chaos should rapidly become a standard fixture on any development reading list.
The book argues for a major overhaul of aid in recognition that the world is made up of numerous interlocking complex systems, far removed from the assumed linear world of cause → attributable effect that underpins a lot of aid programmes. That fits pretty perfectly with a lot of the stuff on governance, institutional reform etc from ODI, Matt Andrews, and Oxfam’s own work, all covered on this blog. But it adds to it in important ways.
- It deepens our understanding of complexity and systems thinking, drawing on a range of other disciplines
- Much of the current aid thinking about complexity is happening in work on governance and (to a lesser extent) advocacy. The book widens the scope to just about every corner of the aid business – management, humanitarian, health etc
- Its 25 great case studies will spark ideas in people’s heads about how they can apply the thinking in their own work
The argument is divided into three sections: a thorough critique of the current aid system; an introduction to complexity and systems thinking; and a final ‘so what’ section on the reform of aid.
Whether in the back of a 4×4 in Tanzania, or in seminar rooms in Oxfam house, I seem to spend an increasing amount of my time discussing theories of change. Oxfamers seem both intrigued and puzzled – what are they? What are they for? The answers aren’t simple and, as social scientists like to say, they are contested. But here’s what I currently think.
What is a theory of change? A way of working and thinking, and a set of questions. Aerobics for the imagination – not a form to fill in (and most definitely not logframes on steroids). Nor is it a typology or (a personal bête noire) an insanely complicated diagram that no-one coming after you can understand (see example, right). More here.
How does (or should) a good theory of change improve our work (or ‘add value’ as the marketing wannabes insist on saying)?