Last year the German Institute of Development and Sustainability published my most recent research piece:
The politics of “what works”: evidence incentives and entrepreneurship in development organisations
Abstract: Over the last two decades, national development agencies have committed to results-based approaches and to putting evidence at the centre of their decision-making. For evidence “optimists”, this is a much-needed corrective to past practice; in contrast, “pessimists” worry about ideology masquerading as science, and results-based approaches contributing to the further depoliticisation of development. This paper argues that reality falls somewhere in between these two extreme interpretations, and that the experiences of development organisations are varied enough to warrant further interrogation, not into whether evidence shapes policymaking, but into how it does so, and whose evidence matters most. The paper seeks to address these questions through an analytical framework that highlights the process of contestation between evidence agendas against a backdrop of policy complexity, professional barriers, and organisational incentives. A brief review of evidence from development cooperation agencies – with spotlight cases from Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom – reveals that institutionalisation and entrepreneurship play a critical role in enabling and shaping evidence-based policymaking. This leads to clear implications for practitioners, whose focus should be not only on getting the right kind of evidence, but on getting the politics of evidence right.
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.
On 29 November I was honored to join a panel discussion organized by UCL’s Department of Political Science under the title “Can We Do Aid Better?” This was an all-star event, by far the most engaging, critical and provocative debate by insiders (take that term as you may) that I have participated in. Well attended, too, with plenty of great questions and audience engagement.
Incoming ICAI Chief Commissioner Tamsyn Barton opened with the need for a better response to current political hostility to aid, and for a greater emphasis on learning. Dan Honig from SAIS summarized the themes of his fantastic book, and dared us to take that one step that could put us on the path to learning from failure and empowering field-level actors. David Hudson from DLP presented some key findings from the fascinating Aid Attitudes Tracker project, including the crucial insight that communication affects attitudes and therefore we may be shooting ourselves in the foot. And Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi from Power of Nutrition reminded us to take people seriously: both the poor who should be at the centre of foreign aid, and the sceptics whom we’ve patronized for far too long.
I was last to speak and, with little substantive to add, I decided to go for two provocative statements: (1) Aid does not really matter, what we need is more internationalism; (2) Aid really does matter, but the people in charge of it don’t get it.
Have a listen: https://soundcloud.com/user-916865595/can-we-do-aid-better-29th-november
Duncan Green’s FP2P blog recently featured a self-described rant about the disconnect between academic debates on aid and actual aid practice. Judging by the number of comments and twitter responses, by practitioners but mostly by academics, you could say he has hit a nerve in our little development studies community. Many of my academic colleagues and friends were disappointed with Duncan’s apparent simplification and stereotyping of development scholarship. I have a slightly different take, based on my personal experience. Why does my personal experience matter at all? Well, I did get a PhD in an American political science department (as academic as it gets), then for five years I worked at a DFID-funded research centre in a UK development studies department (meant to influence policy), and then over the last two years I have been working as an aid practitioner. And my sense is that while Duncan’s rant is justified, the apportioning of blame needs to be much more nuanced. Continue reading Duncan Green’s rant is not wrong. But the blame does not lie only in academia
[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
Whenever I am in writing mode my mind makes strange leaps to justify a connection between work and fun. Take these two things: my fondness for DC Comics superheroes, and my work in international development. And here’s the leap: in this (recycled) post I argue – in a totally unscientific manner – that the international development community can reflect on its own potential and shortcomings through the lens of super-powered humans. Let me tell you how it works. Continue reading Is foreign aid more like Superman or Batman?