How can media inspire accountability and political participation? Findings from massive BBC programme.

March 2, 2017

The Economist profiles Gender Budgeting ahead of International Women’s Day

March 2, 2017

WDR 2017 on Governance and Law: great content, terrible comms, and a big moral dilemma on rights and democracy

March 2, 2017
empty image
empty image

Spoke yesterday at the London launch of the 2017 World Development Report on Governance and The Law. WDR coverAlthough Stefan Kossoff did a great job in summarizing the report on this blog a few weeks ago, I thought I’d add a few thoughts from the discussion.

The current debates on governance, of which the WDR is part, bear some of the hallmarks of a paradigm shift: widespread dissatisfaction with the existing approach (engineering institutional reforms in accordance with some notion of ‘best practice’, which hardly ever works); a growing body of evidence that another approach (broadly, that set out in the WDR) corresponds better to reality. The contribution of the WDR is in systematizing what we know so far, legitimizing the views of people who until a few years ago were seen as heretics, and providing the endorsement of a big and prestigious institution (the World Bank). That all feels like a significant moment.

But there are a couple of big challenges:

How do advocates of this way of ‘Doing Development Differently’ deal with the ‘well, duh’ factor? If you go up to a policy wonk, a decision maker, or an aid worker and say ‘hey, it’s all about politics and power’, they are likely to look at you with contempt and say, ‘well, duh. Tell me something I don’t know’. Unless you have a very specific comeback that shows them what they need to do differently because of that observation, they will stop reading/listening. The WDR only gets part way there.

WDR17 fig 4Comms: the report is full of brilliant content, but there is no denying it is a tough read. If you ask a bunch of economists and political scientists to collaborate, don’t expect a page turner. There is no memorable meme or diagram (this is the best there is), just lots of lists of three things, which I can’t for the life of me remember. I think the best thing that the Bank could now do is hand over the report to some comms people who take it away and turn it into something more accessible.

What’s the Theory of Change? More generally, applying the WDR’s own thinking to influencing decision makers, its supporters need to think through their theory of change. A few thoughts:

Getting this discussion out of the ghetto of governance and aid needs new stories and new champions. Maybe try and persuade a couple of governments to be ‘labs’ for the WDR approach, finding champions in other sectors (health, education, infrastructure, economy) and recruiting diplomats (who get this) as well as technocrats (who often don’t)?

Critical Junctures: what are the windows of opportunity provided by shocks and crises? In normal times, it’s probably unwise to tell politicians that this is a way of achieving more impact with less money, because the  likely response is ‘great, here’s less money then’. But if they have already made that decision, eg possibly in the case of the US aid programme right now, maybe this is the moment to sell the ideas in the WDR to decision makers faced with a ‘burning platform’?

And one real dilemma. British aid minister Rory Stewart (who definitely gets this stuff – he spoke without notes, listened intently to the presentations, stayed for the whole meeting. V impressive) opened the meeting by asking whether the report should have talked more about human rights and democracy – depending on who you believe, these kind of ‘inclusive institutions’ are either instrumental in achieving other benefits like stability and growth, or an intrinsic aspect of development, or both.

Great question.  The WDR argues that people interested in governance and public policy should stop fixating on WDR17 fig 3‘form’ and think about function. As Deng Xiao Ping put it – it doesn’t matter if the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice. In some ways this is liberating – it means that rather than assuming that development means everywhere ‘looking like us’, or at least like our idealized version of ‘us’, we should try harder to understand the huge variety of institutions and how they can deliver (or not) stability, justice, services. That sounds right – more attuned to complexity, less imperialist and arrogant.

But what if the ‘form’ we are abandoning in search of function is democracy or human rights? Some people in the governance debate seem positively gleeful about jettisoning these and focussing instead on what institutions produce stability, growth etc etc. They often get quite dewy eyed about autocracy in countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia or China.

I disagree with that, not least because I buy into Amartya Sen’s timeless definition of development as the progressive expansion of the freedoms to be and to do, so what is happening in those countries is clearly not development in its fullest sense, even if economies are growing and people are eating and living longer.

But the human rights and democracy crowd are equally unconvincing when they try and argue that good governance, rights, inclusive institutions etc are essential to development. They come up against the China Question – if that’s true, what about China? At worst, authors like Acemoglu and Robinson in Why Nations Fail make themselves look a bit ridiculous by arguing that China is a blip, destined to collapse because it doesn’t have inclusive institutions. It’s not China that looks like collapsing right now….

So after publicly agonising in the meeting, I ended up replying to the Minister that this was indeed a dilemma, since most of the writing about governance errs towards the latter position, I welcomed the WDR rebalancing the debate a bit (and its sections on China are some of its best). Not really adequate, I know.

Overall, I think it will take months (if not years) for people to digest this report, and for its impact to become clear, but I would urge everyone to get started right away.

Here’s the video of the event, in case you missed it. I start ranting at minute 40.

Update: David Booth has a much better answer to Rory Stewart’s question in the comments below – check it out


  1. Hi Duncan
    Nice writeup. I’m not sure I see how the wdr really embraces complexity. It’s welcomed indeed and huge advance to the good governance debate that it adds factors to the equation and recognises that there’re many roads to Rome(s) but it would’ve had to consider emergence to be considered serious about complexity in my book.

  2. Thanks for this piece. Seems topical given David Cameron’s Guardian article also pushing the governance route. Is this really a paradigm shift? Or is this more of a rebound, a reaction to the previous paradigm shift where development work (and aid more broadly) hived itself off from politically sensitive topics like governance, corruption or human rights? There is more than just a ‘duh’ factor here. We didn’t miss it, we left it behind. And in part, I suspect, because of the compatibility issue you mention. Foreigners trying to engineer more good stuff — schools, vaccinations, jobs — have enough trouble (vicious circularity alert: because development won’t work without governance, political institutions etc). But trying to engineer better government, less corruption or rule of law are awfully hard to distinguish from self-interested political interference, the politics and psychology of superiority, double-standardized implementation (the old blind eye…), etc. There is also a risk of helping entrench those in power as they brandish the discourse of neo-colonialism, Western imposition, etc to their advantage (was Uhuru Kenyatta elected in part because of his defiance of the West’s ICC indictment?). Trends in that direction — states not accepting to be lectured to on governance — work against rebirthing this paradigm, no? Even more perversely, in the past working on governance and corruption got in the way of the aid establishment’s ability to do the other aid, the engineering of more good stuff. Check out Michela Wrong’s “Our Turn to Eat”, where the British High Commissioner to Kenya wants to cut development aid because of the rampant corruption, but the UK govt needed Kenya to meet Gleneagles disbursement targets and must watch the rise of China’s influence, due in part because China won’t harp on about human rights, democracy and corruption.

    Don’t get me wrong. I think it is vital to place governance and rule of law at the center of aidndiscussions. But I think we need to probe more deeply the relatively recent shift away from these touchy issues. I also think we need to ask ourselves how aid might have played a role in solidifying poor governance. South Sudan? Aid is certainly a response to the famine. Given that famine is political, can we ask ourselves — without it becoming an exercise in self-flagellation — how decades of major aid programming contributed to producing it?

  3. Hi Duncan at the Australasian Aid conference a few weeks ago listening to presentations by Lisa Denney, Doug Porter and David Craig about specific examples of institutional shifts in PNG, Solomon Islans and Myanamar, what was striking to me was the way the diagram at the centre of the report came to life.

    A bit like a moving infinity sign

    What I found useful about that was this brought the discussion of ‘changing the rules of the game’, and Adrian Leftwich’s notion of ‘games within the rules’ together in a more dynamic way than is often done as it describes how one might also ‘play the game to change the rules’.

  4. Duncan: Thanks for the blog post. As you know, I’m not usually defensive when you criticize the World Bank, but there is one thing I would like to push back on. You complain that there is no memorable meme or diagram in the diagram, and that the best thing the Bank can do now with the report is to hand it over to some comms people. Yet you mention earlier that the WDR bears the hallmarks of a paradigm shift. How many paradigm shifts have had a meme or diagram behind them? A paradigm shift is a change in the way of thinking, and that change cannot–and perhaps should not–be captured in a simple diagram. For the diagram then becomes a substitute for thinking hard about what the change represents. I’ve often felt that the simple triangle we introduced in the 2004 WDR, Making Services Work for Poor People, and the meme of the “short and long routes of accountability” have led to the paradigm shift we were trying to achieve being misunderstood and misinterpreted in several instances (see: So with WDR2017, instead of handing the report over to some comms people, I would rather give it to more economists and political scientists to scrutinize the ideas further, modify them where necessary, so that we can eventually achieve that paradigm shift.

    1. Thanks Shanta, interesting point – when is a paradigm shift better served by simplification (memorable diagram, killer facts etc) to reach more people, and when is actually damaged by it? No hard and fast rule, I’m sure, and depends on the ripeness of the paradigm shift. Also depends on the audience of course – how much is this aimed at policy professionals who are entirely familiar with the language and concepts? But tbh, I think the WDR would have had more impact if it had been written in plainer, crisper English, stopping well short of funky infographics. When I was reading it, it felt like the ideas had to be camouflaged in the language of economics in order to be accepted by the Bank, but that comes at a serious cost in terms of reduced accessibility for us non-econs!

  5. Duncan,
    There is an answer to the Minister’s question about human rights and democracy that ought to be obvious, but somehow isn’t — namely that the argument about form and function applies also, and perhaps above all, to those things. If you follow A. Sen, the political part of freedom is about outcomes in which people are not oppressed by others and have some degree of control over their lives. This is the relevant “function”. In line with the rest of the argument of this WDR, the problem is that many of the forms on which we place our hopes for achieving these outcomes, do so very poorly, and that includes both the formalities of electoral democracy and much of the human rights “industry” (rights-based approach as method of work). In this area as in all others, what we need is institutional arrangements that work in context to allow people to realise their rights, not imports that just provide a façade of international respectability.
    I wish I had had the presence of mind to say this in the meeting!

    1. Beautifully put David, that really helps. But it does beg a further question: if you move to considering rights as an outcome (function), rather than a precondition (form), you effectively abandon the standard approach to rights as being universal and indivisible. With that you rapidly get into trade offs – are you prepared to sacrifice one kind of right, if that helps achieve another? Which is a slippery slope to saying some rights are more important than others. How do you navigate that?

  6. Thanks. Definitely a slippery slope towards questioning of the UN view, but that’s all to the good in my view. I never understood how anyone who lives in the real world could sign up to the “indivisibility” principle. In the real world, we make trade-offs all the time and it would be utterly unethical not to.

    1. Thanks David. I’m listening to Kevin Watkins discussing importance of international humanitarian law as way to exert a small amount of traction to restrain bad guys. The point about IHL is surely not that it describes reality, but that it helps a bit. I asked him, and Kevin reckons jettisoning rights frameworks in favour of purely locally led approaches is v dangerous, esp in a political downturn. Views?

      1. International norms as a strategic investment to set certain standards or mitigate certain bad behaviors makes sense from a functional framework. There is an argument to be made that supporting international humanitarian law and human rights law is a useful effort within a broader array of approaches (in the same way that presenting health equity outcomes as a “medical WHO consensus” rather than a political issue is itself a politically savvy choice).

        Supporting locally-led approaches also includes working on global enabling context in helpful ways. Rights-based approaches, e.g., can be useful so long as we don’t confuse explaining that something is a right with actually securing people the relevant freedoms. The key, per David Booth’s point above, is not to confuse the forms we promote with the function they (ostensibly) secure, and to care more about function than form as ultimate outcome. Don’t believe your own hype – but don’t give up hyping where it helps.

      2. I don’t think that contextualizing human rights analysis to ensure that the rights of affected people are protected creates a slippery slope at all. The UN High Commissioner recently described human rights and IHRL as the “distillation” of “human experience.” Human experience isn’t static or universal, but rather highly contextualized. Human rights, he said “are not, as some would have you believe, the outcome of post-war bureaucratic doodling. They were woven together from the screams of millions who died violently or suffered horribly over many centuries.” When you employ human rights frameworks to distill human experience and prevent the repetition of past agonies, you don’t need to worry nearly as much about indivisibility, but rather about comprehensiveness and non-linear thinking about risks to people.

        As a result, a rights-based approach to World Bank cotton investments in Uzbekistan would inevitably prioritize a different set of rights than energy infrastructure investments in Myanmar. Both would require consideration of the full suite of rights, but labor rights (even the right to holidays with pay) would take on far greater significance in the forced labor conditions of Uzbek cotton fields. Conversely, nondiscrimination rights might take on greater significance in a conflict-affected region of Myanmar where energy infrastructure is developed for the benefit of crony businesses and is considered to be part of a government strategy of ethnic oppression.

Leave a comment

Translate »