The Journal of International Development has accepted for publication the final version of my article “The role and responsibility of foreign aid in recipient political settlements”. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:
How do aid donors interact with the political settlements of the countries in which they operate? Do they have any kind of moral obligation to act in certain ways but not others? If so, what logic of assistance should guide their choice of behaviour? The question of moral responsibility in foreign aid and poverty reduction is often approached through the lens of the ‘duty of assistance’: whether the existence of wealthy and poor individuals and states implies an obligation of the former to aid the latter, despite their distant location or the fact that they may be total strangers (Chatterjee, 2004). Notwithstanding its many contributions and interesting debates, the ethics of assistance as a field is far too abstract for the question of moral responsibility of aid in political settlements. Those scholars usually address ‘why’ questions – why assist the distant needy – whereas the real question emerging from this article is ‘how’ – once donors are already supplying aid to a given developing country, how should they design their interventions. As opposed to the first-principle ethics outlined by John Rawls or Peter Singer, what we need is a framework for analysing specific decisions on the basis of concrete moral scenarios: an applied ethics of assistance.
Political settlement analysis – like much of the political economy of development – highlights the political underpinnings of policy and institutional choices. Understood as a critique of the ‘good governance’ agenda, political settlements theory reveals that the underlying distribution of power in society will be compatible with some sorts of policy reform but not others: hence the logical implication for reformers to seek changes that are politically feasible instead of the overall reform of the political settlement itself. The discourse on ‘good enough governance’ (Grindle, 2004, 2007), ‘square peg reforms in round hole governments’ (Andrews, 2012, 2013), and ‘good fit, not best practice’ all seem to support what Brian Levy calls ‘working with the grain’ (Levy, 2014). However, the jump from analysis to policy implication masks a difficult choice: whether to support governments and regimes in pursuit of immediate results, or whether to work with fringe or subordinate actors who may best represent the needs of the poor and thereby invest in their long-term empowerment. Political settlements theorists – like much of the development industry – appear to believe that this is a calculated risk, and in this belief they are espousing (knowingly or unknowingly) a utilitarian theory of ethics. However, contexts for operations are hardly ever calculable: uncertainty about actor preferences and available courses of action is more likely to be the norm. This undermines calculability and forces aid actors to make choices on the bases of values and judgment. Would they then reach the same policy implications?