Monday, February 1, 2016

The Limits of the ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ Agenda, by Seth Kaplan

There is an assumption in international aid just now that if only we can build a better donor, every sustainable development goal will be achievable and every program transformational.
Ideas such as ‘thinking and working politically,’ problem driven iterative adaptation, and ‘doing development differently’ in particular have received a lot of attention. These are all immensely useful concepts for people working on development issues, but they come with two significant limitations that are not sufficiently recognized.

First, they often assume that real change in fragile states can be externally driven. There maybe some places where outsiders can play an important role, but in the great majority of countries only insiders really have the power to change the dynamics that shape their societies. Foreign aid can do good things in specific sectors such as healthcare, but it is unlikely to change how power is exercised in the short term – and perhaps even in the long term either. And given the growing role of factors such as private capital and non-Western donors, our aid influence is likely to shrink in the future.

Second, the ‘politically smart programming’ movement assumes that international development agencies really can change how they operate. Yet there is substantial  evidence to suggest that current aid policies are a product of a political economy that is, if anything, pushing in the opposite direction. Ever more insistent calls for compliance, value for money, and better monitoring and evaluation suggest that most large aid organizations, and especially large multilateral and bilateral donors, will not have the maneuvering room to substantially shift their work methods.

There is a long tradition of foreign development actors placing themselves center stage, as if their work was the most important driver of change, but development is an inside-out, not an outside-in, process. The build-a-better-donor agenda distracts us from the role that must be played by indigenous civil society and by a country’s economic and political leaders. The best outsiders can do is catalyze or help empower insiders.

The real need is to give societies the capacity to solve their own problems. A better approach would focus on long-term investments in human capital and institutions, both national and regional, that can empower local actors to manage conflict better, build more unified elites, create greater wealth, and so on. The emphasis on growing more effective foreign actors should shift to planting enough seeds within society so that a country can grow its own.

The development of a large number of local and regional knowledge-producing institutions would help cultivate a much larger number of inclusion-minded leaders capable of leading change from within.

For instance, if the least developed countries had many more universities, governance academies, and business schools than they do now, they would have far better qualified administrators and managers in major institutions than they do now. If student selection policies ensured these schools’ graduates were representative of populations (taking in people from across ethnic, religious, regional, and income divides) and curricula ensured that they had been trained in a way that promoted unity, inclusiveness, and public service, they would help bridge differences. They would be able to build elites capable of radically changing the political and economic dynamics that hold back so many countries.

Similarly, if the least developed countries had many more teachers’ colleges than they do now, their education ministries, school systems, and classrooms would be much better equipped to improve learning outcomes. This is now the priority for actors in the education sector since attendance has already been significantly increased.

Building more accounting schools, vocational schools, agricultural schools, and law schools would have a similar effect over time. Investing in a critical mass of international scholarships for future leaders (generally aged 25 to 40 years old) would build upon such efforts nicely. Targeting government officials and civil society leaders would maximize their impact. Some, even many, of these graduates might try to emigrate, but some would stay to develop their countries. Those who left would still play a constructive role as influencers or investors abroad; and education contracts could be designed to persuade graduates of the best programs to stay rather than pay substantial fines.

None of this is new, of course. Such long-term investment in human capital development schemes used to be much more common, but the focus on results has completely changed the dynamic. USAID, for instance, once granted far more scholarships than it does now and there was universal admiration for what they accomplished. Former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios, describing these scholarships as the “most powerful and transformational program run by USAID in its history,” said that they had been sharply reduced simply because “the counter-bureaucracy has demanded more controls, more oversight, and more outcome measurements.”

The difficulty is that this approach takes years to bear fruit and is less defensible at home than programs targeting poverty, healthcare, and livelihoods. And, of course, it relegates the international development community to a somewhat subsidiary position. Persuading them to acknowledge that better aid may not be the prerequisite for progress is possibly the biggest hurdle of all. The fact remains that only better local leadership can bring change, and our efforts – and money – should be focused on building the institutions that can develop such leadership

Seth D. Kaplan, a Professorial Lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, has written two books on fragile states, Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development and Betrayed: Promoting Inclusive Development in Fragile States, and runs the website

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