Monday, October 19, 2015

Development is inescapably political, by Sue Unsworth

We know much less than we would like to about how development happens: how social, economic and political forces for change interact, and how effective, legitimate political authority can be organised to contain violence, nurture productive investment, and create institutions to support public services. Staff of donor agencies can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed when confronted by urgent human needs and conflicting priorities in contexts where there is little obvious interest or capacity to address them, and few clues about feasible entry points.

 What is not excusable, however, is for donors to retreat from this uncertainty and complexity back into an oversimplified, apolitical narrative about how progressive change happens, and to ignore the evidence that does exist, fragmentary and inconclusive as it often is.

There are several fundamental, well established propositions that donors ignore at their peril:

  • Firstly, development is an inescapably political process in the sense defined by Adrian Leftwich: all the activities of conflict, co-operation and negotiation involved in the use, production and distribution of resources. This should come as no surprise, given that public policymaking in donors’ own countries is also clearly political. The real challenge comes in recognising how profoundly political context and political processes in aid receiving countries – especially in fragile and conflict affected states – differ from those in OECD countries, and how hard it is for outsiders to influence events when crucial decision making is conducted through informal, personalised networks, when public institutions are weak, and when systems of political competition fail to incentivise the creation of public goods.

  • Political processes are largely endogenous, so (as donors have long acknowledged) “ownership” is crucial to successful outcomes. But ownership cannot be achieved through formal intergovernmental agreements or project memoranda: and donors need to confront the tricky questions about whose ownership matters, especially when people with power to influence events may have limited interest in poverty reduction, good governance or basic human rights.

  • Finally, development challenges are complex, and processes of change unpredictable, so policymakers need to adopt more flexible, iterative approaches that support active learning.  

The good news is that the level of awareness and quality of internal debate about these propositions within the major aid agencies has increased enormously over the last decade. The depressing reality, however, is how little heightened awareness has affected mainstream practice.
Part of this is explained by the political economy of the aid business: the pressure to spend allocated funds, and to tell an optimistic story to taxpayers. But it is also the case that research and practice have hitherto provided only limited guidance about how to move from broad propositions about how development happens to ideas about effective action.   

Research is however starting to provide some more practical insights, both from case studies of what seems to have worked in a particular context and why, and from comparative research that offers more generalizable conclusions about policy priorities in different contexts, including small steps that could be taken in the short run that might contribute to a stronger platform for development in the medium term. These include direct action by aid donors (for example, support for small but strategically important economic policy reforms), but also the indirect impact of the wider global environment on elite incentives in poor countries, the so-called “international drivers” of development. 

This evidence is still fragmentary, but a stronger consensus is emerging about the kind of changes in donor behaviour and approaches that might increase their ability to understand political context, cope with uncertainty and complexity, and contribute to effective problem solving by local actors. Different initiatives attract their own labels – problem driven iterative adaptation, politically smart, locally led development – but they share some core insights. These suggest that donor agencies need to:

  • Invest in high quality, ongoing political economy analysis and make it integral to decision making across all sectors. This is an essential professional starting point, not an optional extra.

  • Think first about how processes of developmental change are playing out in a particular context and only subsequently about whether aid has a part to play. Too much donor behaviour and language is still aid centric.

  • Get serious about local ownership, prioritising local capacity to solve problems identified by local actors. This means being less normative, less prescriptive, more open to unorthodox approaches, and sometimes to uncomfortable compromises. 

  • Pay attention to the timescales needed for different kinds of change, and be prepared to make longer term commitments.

  • Invest time and effort in building relationships with a broad range of stakeholders to spot opportunities and negotiate around common interests.

  • Remove bureaucratic obstacles to iterative, adaptive ways of working, including revising procedural guidance and facilitating multi-disciplinary approaches. 
  •  Invest in monitoring, evaluation and learning mechanisms that capture intermediate processes of change and work with adaptive, iterative approaches to programming.
  •  Recruit high quality staff, trust them, and leave them in post longer. 
  •  Connect development policy with broader donor government policy on security, diplomacy and the regulation of global trade, business and finance.  
  • Initiate a more honest public debate about the challenge of development and the contribution that aid donors can realistically make.

None of this reduces the huge challenge of supporting developmental change, but it could increase the chances of donors responding effectively. Moreover all these actions are eminently do-able if leaders of aid agencies believed they really mattered.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone and should not be reported as representing the official views of the OECD or of its member countries.

(Sue Unsworth Is a contributing author to The Governance Practitioner’s Handbook: Alternative Ideas and Approaches)
Sue Unsworth was DFID’s Chief Governance Adviser from 2003 to 2004 and led their early work on Drivers of Change. She has subsequently supported a range of donor agencies in implementing more politically informed approaches to development assistance.