Africa Power and Politics – a great new research programme, with lots to argue with

April 15, 2011 5 By admin

It’s a while since I’ve been as excited, intrigued and alarmed by a four page briefing as I was by the first policy brief of ODI’s Africa Power and Politics Programme (APPP). If you’re interested in the politics of development, drop everything and read it, and the accompanying (but gated, although the introductory overview is here) IDS Bulletin, entitled Working with the Grain? Rethinking African Governance.  

appp taxiFirst, the APPP reckons (building on the work of lots of others like Mushtaq Khan and Merilee Grindle) that the development industry has gone seriously wrong (what follows are direct quotes from the paper, apart from comments by me in square brackets): 

‘In 20 years of ‘good governance’, millions of dollars have been spent on programmes to make private enterprise work in Africa as it does in the US, elections work as they do in Sweden, audit authorities as in Germany and civil society campaigns as in the Netherlands – with results that have been mixed at best. In its present form, ‘good governance’ is not evidence-based.

From ‘best practice’ to ‘best fit’

The ‘universal best practice’ approach to governance for development is bankrupt. There are no institutional templates that are valid everywhere and for all stages in a country’s development. Best fit implies

a) ‘working with the grain’, meaning building on existing institutional arrange­ments that have recognisable benefits: institutional innovations work when they build constructively on what already exists, borrowing institutional understandings from local society to build ‘practical hybrids’, marrying up modern professional standards or scientific principles (e.g. about what constitutes good health care) with the moral economy and previous practices of the area. [couldn’t agree more]

b) shift from direct support to facilitating local problem-solving: This has a clear implication for donor-financed and NGO-delivered support to self-help at the local level. Direct funding of groups and organisations inevitably means specifying institutional templates, for control and accountability purposes if nothing else. This can have very negative effects on capacities for genuine self-help. More attention should be given to the enabling environment. [such as?]

Adopting a ‘best fit’ approach also implies relying less on the congenial assumption that all good things go together. There is a widespread assumption that the solution to chronic development problems is more political democracy and greater citizen participation so that governments are more often ‘called to account’. This is an attractive idea, but it is more ideological than evidence-based. APPP is adding to the evidence that, in poor developing countries:

  • democracy is a desirable long-term goal but not a reliable route to better public policies in the short and medium term
  • citizen pressure is at best a weak factor and at worst a distraction from dealing with the main drivers of bad governance. [don’t worry, I’ll respond to this stuff at the end]

Voting and public goods

Democracy is definitely a desirable goal and an effective way of improving public policies in all societies in the long run. However, the formal arrangements of liberal democracy have radically different effects in different kinds of social and economic contexts. Many young democracies are not particularly developmental. In many settings, clientelism (vote-buying in its various forms) is cheaper and more reliable for power-hungry politicians than promises to improve policies and the delivery of public goods. [yep, as set out in back in 2005 in Matthew Lockwood’s great book, The State They’re In]

Refocusing on development leadership

aPPP2What poor developing countries really need are leaders who, as well as constructing sufficiently inclusive coalitions of support, are able to show that they can ‘get things done’. In Africa, the most relevant dimension of variation among regimes is between more and less developmental forms of neopatrimonialism. [alarm bells – see below]

Implications for aid?

  • External actors should base their decisions and their policy dialogue on a thorough understanding of the prevailing institutional arrangements. [definitely, but try doing that when the typical DFID staffer moves on every two years. In any case, as Sue Unsworth pointed out at the APPP launch, DFID and others have been doing this stuff for years, f – or example in the ‘Drivers of Change’ programme, now rechristened the ‘political economy approach’ – the problem is that it doesn’t have much impact on how donors actually behave – the way aid organizations are structured seems to make it very difficult to put this ‘political economy approach’ into practice.]
  • linking ‘ownership’ more explicitly to political leadership, and ‘alignment’ to this concept of ownership
  • working with parliaments and the public in the North to create the conditions in which more aid can work in a ‘best fit’ way. [ah yes, getting tabloids to say that corruption isn’t that big a deal really…..]
  • Whether development efforts are country-owned or not depends on the orientation of the country’s political leadership. However desirable democratisation and civil society mobilisation may be, they are not relevant criteria of ownership.”

So what do I think of all this (in addition to the comments in square brackets)?

I love the challenge to the hubris and arrogance of the tired old northern-centric good governance discourse on development which basically argues that ‘they’ have to be more like ‘us’ (or at least an idealized version of us): elections are invariably good, all corruption is bad etc. This completely ignores both our own history and the reality of the existing institutions that hold the key to development. I also like the distinction between pro and anti-developmental forms of patrimonialism (personalistic systems of power, often but not always based on the distribution of cash and favours to buy loyalty) – that seems much more useful and historically grounded than the ‘all corruption is bad for development’ mindset. The practical hybrids idea sounds intriguing, but I’d need to see some more examples to be convinced (there are a few in the IDS bulletin, which is a start). Overall, we definitely have to move towards this kind of politically literate, contextual and humble approach to understanding development. Brilliant.

What alarms me?

The APPP is right to stress the importance of leadership, but how to prevent that degenerating in the minds of donors into traditional diplomatic ‘decent chap-ism’ – Kagame’s a decent chap, so let’s bung him lots of aid. As we know, decent chaps don’t always stay that way (the curse of the donor darling). How can a country graduate from an individual decent chap to an institutionalised, effective state? Within Sub-Saharan Africa, only Botswana seems to have managed it so far – at the launch one speaker held up the Ivory Coast of the 1980s as a good example of developmental patrimonialism, hardly reassuring. And the ringing quote at the end of the briefing: ‘it is time to abandon the polite fiction that the politicians in charge of most poor developing countries are really committed to development’ rather seems to undermine their argument (or at least highlights the shortage of decent chaps).

The risk is a slide into ‘Asian values’ type arguments that the non-monetary aspects of development will just have to wait. As Sam Hickey asked at the ODI launch ‘at what point is ‘good enough governance’ selling Africa short?’ The danger of an Asian values type focus on benign but undemocratic leaders is that you may get the autocracy without the developmental payoff at the end – lots of autocrats really mess up their countries.

The underlying vision of development seems to focus on structure with little space for agency (apart from decent chaps of course). Not much room for Amartya Sen’s ‘Development as Freedom’ or for universal human rights. An example from my colleague Caroline Sweetman comes to mind – some while ago when she was working as a gender adviser in Ethiopia, a women’s group asked her for ‘education and sharper knives’ to make female genital mutilation less dangerous. Others were urging donors to support such procedures in hospitals, to reduce risks to women. Would these be acceptable examples of ‘practical hybrids’?

And as you’d expect, I was quite upset by the dismissal of the role of civil society. While I have some sympathy with

sorry guys, you're just a 'distraction'

sorry guys, you're just a 'distraction'

the idea that donors unloading millions of dollars on unsuspecting CSOs may not be a great idea, writing off the influence of civil society per se does not seem (dare I say it) particularly evidence based. Do they not think the huge output of the Citizenship Development Research Centre on the role of civil society in long term political change (for example the iconic example of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign) worthy of consideration? How would they explain what’s happening in North Africa and the Middle East – hardly decent chap-driven processes, surely? Or are they saying that none of this work applies even slightly to the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa because of some unique aspect of its culture or politics?

My conclusion both from the briefing and the discussion at the ODI launch recently, is that the logical (though presumably unintended) conclusion from the APPP’s findings is that there is simply no role (apart from funding more research of course) for donors in governance work – it’s just too complex, too context specific, too likely to go wrong. And what the APPP is suggesting as alternatives are probably just too incompatible with the political and organizational realities of northern donorship. Speakers from aid agencies kept asking for ‘takeaways’ (policies, not Chinese meals) and didn’t get a convincing reply, except for yet more things they shouldn’t be doing. A reasonable answer, based on this paper, might be, ‘forget all that complicated political stuff – it’s beyond you. Go back to funding vaccines and textbooks, and concentrate on a ‘do no harm’ agenda at home – tax havens, climate change etc.’

These are just some initial reflections on a fascinating piece of work. Be prepared for me to do U turns on all sorts of things as I try and get to grips with it….. Next up, some highlights from the IDS bulletin.