The banality of certainty (Book excerpt)

Value for Money (VfM) sounds eminently reasonable. It represents the kind of due diligence we expect from modern liberal states: accountability to taxpayers’ demands that governments keep an eye on how public funds are spent, assurance that these funds are, in fact, employed for their stated purposes, and transparent management of public funds are all necessary for avoiding corruption and waste. In that light, VfM is not only reasonable but perhaps even morally desirable.

However, not all areas of public policy are equally amenable to the same calculations and standards of proof. When procuring bricks to build a school, for instance, we can easily compare the costs and estimates of different providers in order to choose the most economic, efficient, effective, and cost-effective option. As we move to less tangible goals, however, the simple logic of VfM begins to unravel, and at a certain point the demand for hard evidence does not necessarily lead to accountability. And, as we know, many development assistance goals are of the less tangible variety. Continue reading The banality of certainty (Book excerpt)

A dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants

While writing Why We Lie About Aid I enjoyed the singular advantage of standing on the shoulders of pretty gigantic intellects. If you check out the back cover you will find endorsements by four big names in development debates: David Booth, Brian Levy, Nic van de Walle, and Tom Carothers. Instead of copying here their praises for me, I though that the right thing to do would be recognize the efforts that made my book possible. Continue reading A dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants

Gesture politics and foreign aid: evidence vs spin

[Reposted from The Conversation]

Secretary of State for International Development Penny Mordaunt has warned recipient governments that they face cuts in UK aid if they don’t “put their hands in their pockets”. Her warning is grounded on a claim of public concern: “Nagging doubts persist for many people, about what we are doing, why we are doing it … especially when there are domestic needs and a national debt to address.” It is a compelling point but, as it turns out, one for which there is actually very little evidence.

The most recent YouGov/Times survey poll asked Britons what issues they considered most important among those facing the country: Brexit, health and the economy topped the list. The potential misuse of foreign aid funds, as one would expect, did not even register.

Surveys on public opinion about aid are scarce and often contradictory. While a Telegraph poll in April 2016 found that 57% of people opposed the commitment to spending 0.7% of national income on foreign aid, a Eurobarometer survey later that year found that 55% of respondents in the UK thought aid commitments should be kept and 14% believed that they should be increased. “Nagging doubts”, it would seem, are in the eye of the beholder. Continue reading Gesture politics and foreign aid: evidence vs spin

New briefing: Public sector reform in Africa

Hot off the ESID press: “Public sector reform in Africa: Understanding the paths and politics of change”, ESID Briefing 28, Deceber 2017.

This briefing explores why some states in Africa seem to be stuck in a spiral of corruption and institutional weakness, while others build effective bureaucracies that are able and willing to tackle the challenges of development. Drawing on research from ESID’s PSR project, it compares the public sector reforms of Ghana, Uganda and Rwanda during the period 2000-15. The three countries exhibit different kinds of political settlement, which makes for a useful comparison of how national-level politics filters the diffusion of transnational norms. This helps to build a more nuanced understanding of the varieties of state-building in Africa, and provides some policy implications for reformers.

Key implications

Purely institutionalist explanations cannot explain variations in African state-building in the 21st century.

There are different paths to change, like Ghana’s fragmented reform under competitive clientelism, Uganda’s cosmetic reform under a decaying dominant party, and Rwanda’s directed reform under a dominant political settlement.

Understanding these paths requires a theoretical framework that highlights the contested nature of the PSR policy domain, the effect of political settlements on elite time horizons, and the ideational fit between transnational policy ideas and elite ideologies.

Lessons for reformers and donors:

  • Reform spaces are fluid, but contested;
  • The ‘black box’ of political will is no longer enough;
  • Strategic framing of policy ideas is key;
  • Sustained change requires sustainable coalitions

Download link.

Adaptive anti-corruption: Best-fit methods for best-practice goals

These days I am writing a paper on how the STAAC programme that I work on in Ghana has managed to chart a bespoke adaptive programming course to anti-corruption. There’s a lot in there about embedding PEA into everyday practice, about being smart and adaptive, about doing things differently. And you would expect as much from a DFID programme designed with TWP/PDIA buzzwords in mind. But the exercise of reflecting on two years of experimentation with the approach and evolving relations with partners has also made me ask questions about the broader dilemmas of anti-corruption programming.

The challenges of combatting corruption are well known: informal institutions, social norms, principal-agent and collective-action poblems (I have written about some of these in my book). In fact, corruption tends to be one of the most difficult components of the broader public sector agenda. Naturally the anti-corruption community – such as it is – appears to be developing a new consensus that challenges conventional approaches to anti-corruption, compiling evidence of what works, and asking for a smarter way of tackling an intrinsically difficult problem: we need to “move away from thinking of anti-corruption as a blueprint”, finding solutions that are “localised and adapted to individual country contexts”.

All of this sounds great, and is very much in line with DFID’s own approach to chain-link, politically-smart, adaptive approaches to anti-corruption. There is just one minor glitch: local partners do not necessarily share this view. Continue reading Adaptive anti-corruption: Best-fit methods for best-practice goals