[Original post from 19/3/2914. Reposted for the fun factor]
It has been more than a year and a half since I received my Ph.D. after writing and defending a lengthy dissertation that I liked to think of as “policy-relevant social science”. Thirteen months into my current job, researching and networking with the same aid organizations and actors that populated my dissertation, I have come to realize that social science and development policy are two entirely different beasts, and that reconciling them in any meaningful way is a challenge far beyond the skills of even the most imaginative Ph.D. candidate. Continue reading What development research can learn from Asimov’s psychohistory
To be surprised, to wonder, is to begin to understand. This is the sport, the luxury, special to the intellectual man. The gesture characteristic of his tribe consists in looking at the world with eyes wide open in wonder. Everything in the world is strange and marvellous to well-open eyes. This faculty of wonder is the delight refused to your football ‘‘fan,” and, on the other hand, is the one which leads the intellectual man through life in the perpetual ecstasy of the visionary. His special attribute is the wonder of the eyes. Hence it was that the ancients gave Minerva her owl, the bird with ever-dazzled eyes.
José Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (1932 )
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.
(And The Messy Truth About Promoting Development)
It is now official: I am writing a book under contract with a publisher. Until the end of the year I will be posting updates and excerpts as I write it. But I can start today with the initial pitch:
Donor publics have been misled about the nature of development: for decades they have been told that it is about charity and technical fixes, when in fact it is as much about fights as our own policy-making is at home. Aid practitioners work in a world of struggles for reform, but they are forced to misrepresent and obfuscate the reality of development in order to comply with very restrictive and selective interpretations of principles like accountability, transparency, ownership or harmonisation. That is the dysfunctional aid system that we in donor countries have built, and then shackled with a discourse that mistakes short-term results for long-term transformation. A different approach is possible, and indeed has been quietly applied by innovative development practitioners around the world who provide political coverage for reformers or build coalitions that open up spaces for change. With real stories from aid practitioners in Britain, the US, Spain, Uganda, Honduras, Nigeria, Liberia, Rwanda and Ghana, this book explains what lies behind the much-criticized pathologies of aid, and challenges us to have a more honest conversation about development assistance.
Scholars of comparative politics have spent decades arguing over how to classify regimes around the world. To begin with, despite what the media and political rhetoric would have us believe, there are many shades of democracy and autocracy: presidential, parliamentarian or plebiscitarian democracies; strong-man, military, or single-party autocracies, and so on. But what Huntington termed the “third wave” of democratization led to a panoply of countries worldwide that moved away from dictatorship but did not quite reach the standards of democracy. Scholars in American political science wrote about “hybrid regimes”, using such labels as”competitive authoritarianism”, “electoral authoritarianism”, “illiberal democracy” – a veritable cottage industry of typologies which some authors called “democracy with adjectives”.
A core feature with this endless typological debate is its focus on the regimes of the last 50 years or so since decolonization. If you want to learn about regimes in a historical, comparative way you have to look elsewhere, and there are hardly better elsewheres than Samuel Finer‘s massive The History of Government from the Earliest Times (1997). Continue reading Palace, Forum, Church, Nobility (Finer on Government)
The man who is traveling and does not yet know the city awaiting him along his route wonders what the palace will be like, the barracks, the mill, the theater, the bazaar. In every city of the empire every building is different and set in a different order: but as soon as the stranger arrives at the unknown city and his eye penetrates the pine cone of pagodas and garrets and haymows, following the scrawl of canals, gardens, rubbish heaps, he immediately distinguishes which are the princes’ palaces, the high priests’ temples, the tavern, the prison, the slum. This – some say – confirms the hypothesis that each man bears in his mind a city made only of differences, a city without figures and without form, and the individual cities fill it up.
Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (1972)
Outside Navrongo stands a huge white empty hospital, flanked by bungalows, erected at some fantastic cost, unfortunately in such a position that flood-water drains into, instead of away from, the building. The designs were drawn in Accra by persons who never visited the site until the hospital was too substantially in existence to be moved to a drier spot a little farther up the hill. Bare, bleak and out of scale with its surroundings, it stands there like some temple of the future, lacking gods or priests.
Elspeth Huxley, Four Guineas (1954)