The irony of inequality policy? A small elite diagnosing the plight of millions

Inequality is at the core of our work at the Effective States and Inclusive Development Research Centre (ESID): our entire analytical framework rests on the idea that there are powerful groups and individuals – elites – who influence or make policy with the intended or unintended effect of perpetuating privilege. We ask why these actors behave the way they do, what kind of institutions they support, and what policies – if any – would encourage them to build less unequal societies. Our intent is certainly noble, and our focus on inequality aims to produce research that leads to a better world. But the profound irony in our work is that we ourselves belong to a small intellectual and policy elite, and I wonder whether we should match our fight against global inequality with a more intimate reaction against the unequal nature of our voice in this conversation. Continue reading The irony of inequality policy? A small elite diagnosing the plight of millions

You say potato, I say political settlement

Last week I had a chance to cath up with some friends from gradschool in the US, all of them trained as political scientists. And as I expected, none of them had ever heard the term “political settlement”, which features so prominently in development debates this side of the Atlantic (to be honest, I myself first heard the term when applying for my current position in ESID). Why is the central concept in British development politics absent from American academia? And, is there a way to bridge the gap so that we stop talking past each other?

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Levels of analysis in foreign aid advocacy and research

It’s been over 5 years since I started working on issues of development assistance, and yet I still get incensed when I see the polemics that periodically surface in public debate: “aid is dead!”, “no, we need more aid!”, “but aid experts are deluded planners!”, “even so, you should give at least 0.7%!”, and so on. It has taken me a while to come to the realization that this kind of crossfire annoys me because I tend to work on much more specific issues: what kind of aid can promote institutional reform? Or, what kind of donor can exact reform from a patrimonial government? This has led me to realize that aid debates take place on at least three different levels of analysis, each of them based on a different conception of what aid is: a macro resource, a meso strategy, or a micro tactic. And the peculiarities of each level have implications both for research and advocacy. Continue reading Levels of analysis in foreign aid advocacy and research

Politics in the trenches of development: Mainstreaming political economy analysis in aid agencies

“Politics matters for development”. From project officers all the way up to the heads of multilateral development agencies, from lowest-rung civil servants to cabinet ministers, everyone who has ever worked trying to enact social, economic or political change knows this basic fact. But that does not mean that they can talk openly about it, let alone plan for the eventualities of politics or set aside budgetary items for dealing with it. Aid agencies in particular seem to be trapped in a nether realm where everyone discusses the politics of development in private, but few dare to risk their careers by engaging with it in public. That is why the rise of political economy analysis (PEA) poses an interesting dilemma. The basic principle is intuitive and almost elegant in its simplicity: many projects flounder due to limited understanding of local politics, so the answer is to build more analysis into projects to ensure greater effectiveness. And yet turning this principle into practice has proven to be less than simple. Continue reading Politics in the trenches of development: Mainstreaming political economy analysis in aid agencies

Cape Town post mortem: 6 things I learned about ESID

[Originally posted on the ESID blog]

I have been working as part of ESID for a little over 15 months now, but last week was the first time that I actually saw the faces of many of our partners and realised their passion for what they do. The Cape Town workshop was a whirlwind tour of the latest work on a panoply of policy issues (growth, education, oil, health…) across India, Bangladesh, Ghana, Uganda, Malawi, South Africa, Rwanda, Peru, Bolivia… By the end of it I felt a bit overwhelmed, but also satisfied that I finally had a good grasp of what ESID has achieved so far, and what interesting challenges lie ahead for us over the next three years. Here are some of the things I learned.

The Cape of Good Hope viewed from Table Mountain
The Cape of Good Hope viewed from Table Mountain

Continue reading Cape Town post mortem: 6 things I learned about ESID