Yesterday we had the pleasure of having ODI‘s David Booth speak at the ESID Seminar Series here in Manchester, discussing the findings of his multi-year, DfID– and IrishAid-funded Africa Power and Politics Programme (APPP). Before his presentation I took the time to read the Synthesis Report that he drafted last fall, which is available for everyone to download. And I must confess that I was left equally dissatisfied by both report and presentation.

The main creative engine behind the APPP is a justified and well-articulated critique of what Booth and his collaborators call the “principal-agent approach” to aid policy, in which both recipient governments and populations are assumed to want development but lack the capacity to pursue it. This approach focuses on the demand side as well as the supply side of development, with foreign aid targeting public sector capacity building and -increasingly- social accountability. Instead, APPP argues that the main problem in development is not for one of these groups to be able to get the other to do something, but for both sets of actors to agree and coordinate on what to do. The challenges of development stem largely from coordination and collective action problems, which -Booth argues- can be resolved in principle by abandoning the imposition of foreign institutions and ideas and pursuing instead “hybrid practices” that reconcile development objectives with pre-existing local values and norms. Successful aid policy understand local contexts, and it refuses to micromanage local development in order to let such hybrid practices flourish.

That’s a lot to process, but at first sight it looks like a compelling and intuitive framework. Until we probe it a bit further, that is.

On the one hand, the basic criticism of current aid policies seems sound: the use of collective action logic highlights in a stylized and intuitive way how development problems are basically political problems in which collective incentives (what is socially optimal) clash with individual incentives (what is individually optimal). This is a feature of policy reform not only in developing countries, but also in industrialized democracies: sometimes it is really hard to get individual actors to consider the greater good, which is why things like trade unions were created in the first place.

On the other hand, the implications of the APPP findings, and in particular its prescriptions, seem to be less than sound. There are three main criticism that I put forward.

First, the logic of collective action is a great diagnostic tool for comparative statics, that is, for ascertaining why the same policies don’t yield the same results in different environments. But the analytical power of collective action decreases as we move into the realm of prescription and actionable policies. Although Mancur Olson devoted a large part of his The Logic of Collective Action (1965) to exploring precisely such prescriptions, his solutions hinged on factors that were all exogenous to the collective action dynamic itself: different actor preferences (e.g. altruism), different group configurations (e.g. smaller), or the creation of institutions for rewarding compliance and sanctioning non-compliance (what is sometimes called a second-order collective action problem: How can actors agree on creating collective sanctioning rules when they cannot agree on pursuing beneficial collective goods?).  For a development framework such as APPP this raises a fundamental problem: How to change local actors’ preferences? How to change the size and configuration of the group that needs coordination? How to create institutions to ensure collective action?

Second, APPP’s provisional answer to this problem seems to invoke local culture as a way to overcome these problems. By re-deploying pre-existing ideas and norms in new contexts, “hybrid practices” can emerge that solve collective action problems by altering the actors’ preferences. This is a compelling idea, one which stresses the need for development actors to understand the cultural nuances of the contexts in which they operate. But APPP relies on a crucial assumption: the availability of local cultural frames amenable to -or reconcilable with-  developmental aims. What if such frames are simply absent? Moreover, what if pre-existing frames are actually antithetical to developmental aims? We are all too familiar with instances in which local culture stands in the way of reform: from gun control in the United States to girl education in Taliban Afghanistan, some locally-held beliefs are just too strong for policy reforms to succeed. The Synthesis Report is not at all clear in this regard: APPP encourages aid actors to target on the basis of the local context, but it is silent on what to do when local contexts are actually harmful.

Third -and finally-, even when development actors can graft developmental initiatives onto pre-existing values and norms for the purposes of improving local governance and service provision, it is not evident how these piecemeal reforms aggregate into higher levels of public administration, from regional governments all the way up to the government. A government that adopts APPP’s agenda can easily find itself trying to reconcile very diverse -and at times incompatible- local traditions: in such cases it is forced to choose between ad hoc policy-making, which may entail different rights and service provision for different regions, and the centralization of hybrid practices, which inevitably violates the basic principles of localized knowledge and nuance. Moreover, what happens when an agent of the government -such as a magistrate or tax collector- fails or refuses to comply with hybrid practices? Who is going to discipline non-compliance by state actors if not the central administrative bureaucracy?

These three concerns ultimately boil down to one basic criticism: APPP prescriptions depend on best-case scenarios, and are unable to contend with the worst-case scenarios that we often find in developing countries. In that sense the APPP collective action approach could even be construed as just another justification for aid selectivity: rewarding good performers while hoping that bad ones will wise up and somehow choose to perform better. But if the reason some recipients underperform is a collective action problem, then it is unclear how they can solve it without some magical exogenous factor.

At the end of the day, the APPP synthesis report reads like the introduction to a book (despite being 116 pages long!): I buy the premise, I am willing to accept the general approach, but I am left wanting for specific applications that illustrate how the approach would work in practice.