Politics, economists and the dangers of pragmatism: reflections on DFID’s governance and conflict conference

November 14, 2014 9 By Duncan Green

keeper-of-the-flame-linda-harris-iorioDFID really is an extraordinary institution. I spent Monday and Tuesday at the annual get together one of its tribes professional cadres – about 200 Lonesome-George-001
advisers on governance and conflict. They were bombarded with powerpoints from outside speakers (including me), but still found time for plenty of ‘social loafing’, aka networking with their mates. Some impressions:

They are hugely bright and committed, wrestling to get stuff done in some of the most difficult places on the planet, familiar with all the dilemmas of ‘doing aid’ in complex environments that I talk about endlessly on this blog. A visitor muttered about the quality and nuance of discussion compared to the uncritical can-do hubris of much of what they hear in Washington.

In fact, since the Australians and Canadians wound up their development departments, DFID looks pretty well unique in the international scene – heroic keeper of the flame or aid’s Lonesome George heading for species extinction? We’ll find out over the next few years.

What’s interesting is the degree to which DFID’s dominant tribe – the economists – have now ‘got’ the politics and governance discussion. ‘Don’t just do politics at night over beer and pizza’ urged Chief Economist Stefan Dercon. ‘Do it in the daytime – you are the cadre of the long run’. ‘Economists are coming your way – after decades and decades, we’ve decided it’s all really politics’ said Harvard’s Lant Pritchett.

The exchange between econs and poliscis showed a fine sense of mutual parody (Lant: ‘Let me just show some graphs that won’t make any sense to you, because that’s what economists do’; David Harland: ‘I’m sure much regression has been regressed’) but had important underlying areas of consensus: whatever the MDGs say, poor countries can’t ‘leapfrog to Sweden’ – institutional change is slow, cumulative, incremental; rules that stick emerge from actual practice and struggle in a given context, not out of some best practice guideline – echoes of Hernando de Soto’s brilliant history of property rights in ‘The Mystery of Capital’, and a big challenge to universalism.

Great that the economists get it, but it is, needless to say, also a mixed blessing. Stefan is impatient with all that talk of complexity, which he sees as a

Good luck with your diagnostics

Good luck with your diagnostics

recipe for paralysis and navel gazing – ‘are you just the problem cadre?’ he asked. I think that shows he doesn’t fully grasp the implications of systems thinking for how we should work differently. His deputy, Nick Lea set out DFID’s current approach, which it calls ‘Inclusive Growth Diagnostics’. Every country team is to try and answer 5 questions:

  1. What accounts for the pattern and recent history of growth (why we are where we are)?
  2. What are the opportunities for inclusive growth (what would success look like in next 5 years?)
  3. What are the factors that constrain inclusive growth?
  4. What political and institutional factors enable those constraints to persist?
  5. What can DFID do to unlock them?

There’s much to celebrate in that approach (Lant, who always gives top sound bite: ‘most of what is happening on development economics is just stupid. This is smart’) – the acknowledgement that history matters, the lack of a single blueprint for generating growth. But it is still far too linear and ignores some essential aspects of systems thinking – you can’t identify all the factors in advance, you have to make it up as you go along, the importance of shocks as critical junctures etc.

But the arrival of the economists also strengthens an aspect of the governance and institutions debate which worried me in Harvard a couple of weeks ago  – when does empiricism and pragmatism cross the line to the amoral, abandoning any sense of rights or norms, beyond the basic commitment to rising income levels? When does an approach to politics become an instrumental effort to boost growth and incomes, rather than the broader set of rights of citizens?

This is reflected in the poster children of this approach – Rwanda and Ethiopia. Stefan Dercon warned against the ‘Latinamericanisation’ of Africa (he wants it to go the East Asian route), but as a Latin Americanist myself, I think there is a lot to be learned from the region, not least on social inclusion, fighting inequality and supporting the care economy.

I talked to Tony Burdon, an exfamer who now runs DFID’s Growth and Resilience team – why are NGOs not doing more on job creation, he asked? You’re completely hung up on decent work, but what people need is jobs, we can worry about upgrading quality later. He has a point – I think NGOs are pretty rubbish on the central role of jobs in poverty reduction. But it sticks in the throat to abandon any commitment to rights – surely we can do a better job in arguing for both?

A Kenyan DFID staffer struck a chord with me when he worried that the elite political settlements that donors promote in search of growth and stability could actually be less inclusive than those desired by both citizens and other actors – when does ‘pragmatism‘ actually end up blocking progressive change?

So I left, mired in confusion – sure sign of a good conference.