Pablo Yanguas

Political Analysis & Aid Effectiveness

Author: Pablo (page 1 of 21)

The politics of change

In the literature that spans political science, political economy, and policy science, a large number of questions about processes of change remain unanswered, particularly about how agenda setting, decision making, and implementation occur. Thus, there is little theory to explain how issues of reform come to the attention of government decision makers or how reform of policies and institutional arrangements becomes part of their agenda. Even less is known about how policy elites weigh the often urgent and well-articulated advice they receive about policy and institutional changes, their own intellectual [p4] and political views about such changes, and economic and political pressure to alter policies, against equally pressing concerns about the impact of their decisions on existing political and bureaucratic relationships. The factors that affect whether policies will be pursued, altered, revised, or sustained after they have been decided upon are also generally left unexplored because implementation and sustainability are often considered to be matters of effective administration, not political processes.

Merilee Grindle and John W. Thomas (1991), Public Choices and Policy Change: The Political Economy of Reform in Developing Countries, p. 3-4.

Article accepted: Aid ethics & political settlements

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?

The two faces of development studies

This year’s Development Studies Association meeting was the biggest that I have attended: a 2.5 day affair chock full of panels, events, and conversations which displayed a level of maturity that our community sorely needed. While there is still a lot to do when it comes to making panels more interactive and presentations more engaging, we appear to be on the right course. However, what I found most interesting about this year’s meeting was the attempt by the organizers to reconcile – or at least, represent – the two faces of our little academic community. DSA 2016 had two keynote lectures by well-regarded scholars, and the two of them could not have been more different. Continue reading

APSA2016: Building bridges between ESID and PoliSci

In two weeks I will be storming Philly’s city center as part of the ESID contingent attending the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. We are finally taking our framework and findings across the pond to have a proper conversation with leading lights of American political science, and in particular comparative politics. Our panel session includes such heavyweights as Atul Kohli, Jennifer Widner, and my own PhD advisor Nicolas van de Walle (the links are for those poor souls who don’t know these scholars already). On our side we will have Kunal Sen, Sohela Nazneen, and Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai.

The topic for the day is “Beyond the ‘new’ new institutionalism: debating the politics of development”, which fits quite nicely under APSA’s theme for this year of “Great Transformations: Political Science and the Big Questions of Our Time”. ESID is definitely fond of big questions, and it does not get any bigger than that.

I have been asked to serve as a translator or pontifex of sorts for that panel, albeit briefly. Because of my fixation with blurred disciplinary boundaries and academic amnesia, I have the task of briefly articulating the potential bridges between ESID’s core framework of “adapted political settlements” and more mainstream debates within American polisci. Seeing as I have already thought about this a couple times already, it seemed like a natural fit.

Spoiler alert, I will focus on the following 3 linkages:

  • The politics of public goods
  • Regimes and their effects
  • Determinants of state capacity

Whoever wants to learn what I actually mean by that will have to join us in Philly on September 1st at 4pm.

DSA2016: The Politics of Public Sector Transformations

DSA2016 is upon us, and if you are around Oxford on 12 September you might want to drop by our afternoon panel (2-5:30pm) on The Politics of Public Sector Transformations, which includes 7 papers from senior and junior scholars on both big theory and detailed cases, all with the goal of answering the following question “What is the next frontier in the analysis of public sector transformations?”

Here is the list of papers, authors and short abstracts:

Continue reading

Social science with a purpose

Here’s some beautiful writing from Max Weber on how the validity of social science is rooted in the values and meaning that we attach to it.

The objective validity of all empirical knowledge rests exclusively upon the ordering of the given reality according to categories which are subjective in a specific sense, namely, in that they present the presuppositions of our knowledge and are based on the presupposition of the value of those truths which empirical knowledge alone is able to give us.
These value-ideas are for their part empirically discoverable and analyzable as elements of meaningful human conduct, but their validity can not be deduced from empirical data as such. The “objectivity” of the social sciences depends rather on the fact that the empirical data are always related to those value-ideas which alone make them worth knowing and the significance of the empirical data is derived from these value-ideas.

And while you puzzle over what makes empirical data “worth knowing” I leave you with Weber’s own celebration of a complex reality that social science can only order if it has a clear purpose.

Life with its irrational reality and its store of possible meanings is inexhaustible. The
concrete form in which value-relationship occurs remains perpetually in flux, ever subject to change in the dimly seen future of human culture. The light which emanates from those highest value-ideas always falls on an ever changing finite segment of the vast chaotic stream of events, which flows away through time.

Against paradigms


Albert O. Hirschman, “The Search for Paradigms as a Hindrance to Understanding”, World Politics 22, 3 (April 1970).

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