The fact that I have written a grand total of 7 posts for my own blog in the entirety of 2017 is a testament to the madness that this year has been. Good madness, I must say. None of that Lovecraftian “things-man-was-never-meant-to-see” stuff. But madness anyway. And as I emerge from a cocoon fashioned out of draft chapters and reports, taking up blogging again seems like the perfect New Year’s Resolution for the month of December.
So I will start with my main takeaway from 2017: writing about the politics of development for different audiences is not an easy thing to do. I have always prided myself in being able to talk politics with almost anyone, anywhere. But writing semi-cogently is a different challenge altogether, as this year has shown me with the clarify of a punch to the face. Here are four translation tasks that I have had to deal with, and the realization that has come out of the experience. Continue reading
ESID has just released my new working paper on comparative PSR in Ghana, Uganda, and Rwanda: “Varieties of state-building in Africa: Elites, ideas and the politics of public sector reform“.
Here’s the abstract, followed by the download link:
Why do some states in Africa seem to be stuck in a spiral of corruption and institutional weakness? Why do others somehow build effective bureaucracies that are able and willing to tackle the challenges of development? The public sector remains the inescapable anchor of development, whether for good or ill, but our understanding of the politics of public sector reform remains shackled by concepts that do not allow for variation or change over time. This paper presents a theoretical framework for understanding variations in public sector reform (PSR): centring the analysis on the intersection of power relations and ideas, the paper shows how the stability of a country’s elite settlement and the coherence of its developmental ideology interact with reform ideas in the PSR policy domain. This framework is explored through a structured-focused comparison of reform experiences in three Sub-Saharan African countries with different elite settlements: competitive Ghana; weakly dominant Uganda; and dominant Rwanda. In Ghana, where successive regimes have focused on political control for partisan purposes, it has been quick reforms compatible with top-down control that have achieved political traction. In Uganda, high-visibility reforms were introduced to secure donor funding, as long as they did not threaten the ruling coalition’s power. In Rwanda, lastly, the regime has fostered and protected various public sector reforms because it envisioned them as instruments for domestic legitimation as constituent elements of an impartial developmental state. In combination, policy domain, elite time horizons, and ideational fit allow us to move beyond blanket statements about isomorphic mimicry or neopatrimonialism, and towards a more nuanced understanding of the varieties of state-building in Africa.
You can now listen to my rants, while you commute or exercise, for free!
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?
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
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.