A while back New Internationalist asked me to participate in a written debate opposing the motion “The West should stop giving aid to Africa”. In front of me was Firoze Manji, a veteran Kenyan activist, communicator and intellectual. It was a tricky setup, because Firoze was maybe forced into a position that he may not fully identify with. Perhaps because of that, instead of a trite debate on the merits of aid, our exchanges veered into a bigger, more important question of revolutionary vs evolutionary change. I have always been a pragmatist and incrementalist, but Firoze really drove home the frustration that the gospel of small bets engenders in those concerned with social justice and transformation.
Here’s a couple of illustrative excerpts:
Firoze: Aid uses public funds to subsidize and encourage the implementation of neoliberal policies that have resulted in growing impoverishment of the majority, and the obscene accumulation of wealth by national elites who are among its main beneficiaries.
Pablo: Foreign aid is a very flawed tool, but one that is suited to the grey areas of development challenges. It works incrementally: testing, searching, making plenty of mistakes along the way, but also building unexpected coalitions, and planting the seeds of change.
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.
The disappointing performance of conventional public sector reforms in developing countries has led to the rise of ‘new’ approaches seeking to overcome traditional bureaucratic barriers to change: leadership-focused interventions like the Africa Governance Initiative (AGI); accountability-focused initiatives like the Open Government Partnership (OGP); and adaptation-focused models like those of Africa Power and Politics (APP). While these approaches are appealing to aid donors in their promise to move beyond the limitations of purely formal institution building, they fail to provide new answers to the ‘old’ analytical and practical challenges of public sector reform, in particular administrative patrimonialism, public corruption and political capture. The evidence is yet inchoate, but all points to the need for these approaches to work together with conventional ones. Beyond novel implementation tactics, however, there is a need for new strategies of sustained political support for embattled reformers who face powerful incentives against institutional change.