Going rogue

I first joined the Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre (ESID) in January 2013. Since then, David Hulme, Sam Hickey and Kunal Sen have empowered and encouraged me to pursue policy-oriented research and ask sweeping theoretical questions about development politics. They also introduced me to fascinating and generous scholars, like Merilee Grindle, Brian Levy, or David Booth. Above all, they allowed me to find my own identity in a tiny corner of the UK-based development studies community. So it is with a heavy heart that I have decided to leave ESID this summer. Continue reading Going rogue

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.

Development politics lacks a shared language

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 Development politics lacks a shared language

“Varieties of state-building in Africa”: New comparative paper on public sector reform

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.

PDF download.

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?