Maybe donors should not settle for Mr Right-Now

I am off to New Orleans in a few days for the International Studies Association, armed with a fun little paper which – as usual –  I uploaded past the official deadline (it would not be a proper conference experience otherwise): “The influence and responsibility of aid in transnational political settlements”, part of a panel on “Fostering inclusive political settlements” which will convene at the ungodly hour of 8:15am on Saturday (expected N: audience < panelists). Forget the cumbersome title: the paper could easily be titled “What works ain’t necesarily what’s right”, or “Why donors should not settle for Mr Right-Now”. Here’s the gist of it.

DFID and its ecosystem (in which I myself belong as some kind of protozoon) has been hard at work trying to decipher the politics of development, and the result has been a more-or-less compelling framework called political settlements. The central conceit is that institutions derive from an underlying balance of power between powerful social actors or classes – it is an interesting blend of old pluralist and marxist concepts, and it will be fun to see it enter mainstream political science. My beef with lies in its potential for applied research, and in particular the somewhat conservative implications that it can come to legitimate: in essence, the most simplistic reading of political settlement theory would conclude that different balances of power allow for different kinds of reform – which is all fine, except when we are talking about the poor and disenfranchised who do not get to weigh in on such balance or why they end up with the short straw.

Enter my new paper, which is heavily theoretical (and probably heavily flawed, too): I first introduce a set of ideal types for donor influence over a political settlement, and use them to formulate a folk “Aid Interference Principle”: a donor cannot enter a political settlement without altering it. This leads to a certain moral responsibility, and therefore a question of which kinds of ethics should guide aid practice, the chief distinction being between consequentialist ones (focusing on results and the greater good) and non-consequentialist ones (focusing on such values as pro-poor empowerment). You will need to read the paper itself – or at least skim it – to see where I am going with this, but here’s a preview: some of the central agendas in development right now – results, effectiveness, working with the grain… – appear as morally suspect the moment we stop to interrogate the implied ethics that lurk underneath.

*Drops the mike and walks off stage*

I may very well be wrong: I am no philosopher, and frankly some of these questions escape me. But it has been fascinating to delve into them, and I hope to take them forward after this Saturday’s panel. I could use some feedback, though, so please go to my profile and check out the paper.