“Can We Do Aid Better?” Debate at UCL

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 rant is not wrong. But the blame does not lie only in academia

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

What development research can learn from Asimov’s psychohistory

[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

Is foreign aid more like Superman or Batman?

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?

PEA Confessions, part II: Report rapport

I have written things you wouldn’t believe. Country assessment frameworks for social accountability organizations. I watched donors try to coordinate in a small Central American country. All those reports will be lost in time, like tears in rain.

It’s Part Deux of PEA confessions! This time I want to discuss one of my favourite pet peeves: PEA reports. In this case I will refer back to some of the themes covered in Why We Lie About Aid, and in particular to a 2015 ESID briefing that I wrote: “Making political analysis useful: Adjusting and scaling”. Again, the goal here is to see if prior insights hold true in light of more practical experience as a PEA consultant. Continue reading PEA Confessions, part II: Report rapport

PEA Confessions, part I: Mainstreaming woes

Four years ago I published a research paper and policy briefing at ESID that focused on the barriers to political-economy analysis (PEA) in donor agencies. I thought our research gave me a pretty good grasp of the promises and pitfalls of PEA in the aid community. After two-and-a-half years of working as a PEA consultant, the time has come for some self-imposed accountability. This is part I of a new series of posts dramatically called “PEA Confessions”.

I want to begin with ESID Briefing Paper 5: “Mainstreaming political economy analysis (PEA) in donor agencies”. It is not my most inspired writing, but at the time it felt like a very clever contribution. Having found – with David Hulme – how organizational dynamics made the use of political analysis by DFID and the World Bank very inconsistent, I thought I needed to devote some thinking to the “so what” question and come up with some semi-coherent recommendations. Continue reading PEA Confessions, part I: Mainstreaming woes