The Journal of International Development has accepted for publication the final version of my article “The role and responsibility of foreign aid in recipient political settlements”. Here’s an excerpt from the introduction:
How do aid donors interact with the political settlements of the countries in which they operate? Do they have any kind of moral obligation to act in certain ways but not others? If so, what logic of assistance should guide their choice of behaviour? The question of moral responsibility in foreign aid and poverty reduction is often approached through the lens of the ‘duty of assistance’: whether the existence of wealthy and poor individuals and states implies an obligation of the former to aid the latter, despite their distant location or the fact that they may be total strangers (Chatterjee, 2004). Notwithstanding its many contributions and interesting debates, the ethics of assistance as a field is far too abstract for the question of moral responsibility of aid in political settlements. Those scholars usually address ‘why’ questions – why assist the distant needy – whereas the real question emerging from this article is ‘how’ – once donors are already supplying aid to a given developing country, how should they design their interventions. As opposed to the first-principle ethics outlined by John Rawls or Peter Singer, what we need is a framework for analysing specific decisions on the basis of concrete moral scenarios: an applied ethics of assistance.
Political settlement analysis – like much of the political economy of development – highlights the political underpinnings of policy and institutional choices. Understood as a critique of the ‘good governance’ agenda, political settlements theory reveals that the underlying distribution of power in society will be compatible with some sorts of policy reform but not others: hence the logical implication for reformers to seek changes that are politically feasible instead of the overall reform of the political settlement itself. The discourse on ‘good enough governance’ (Grindle, 2004, 2007), ‘square peg reforms in round hole governments’ (Andrews, 2012, 2013), and ‘good fit, not best practice’ all seem to support what Brian Levy calls ‘working with the grain’ (Levy, 2014). However, the jump from analysis to policy implication masks a difficult choice: whether to support governments and regimes in pursuit of immediate results, or whether to work with fringe or subordinate actors who may best represent the needs of the poor and thereby invest in their long-term empowerment. Political settlements theorists – like much of the development industry – appear to believe that this is a calculated risk, and in this belief they are espousing (knowingly or unknowingly) a utilitarian theory of ethics. However, contexts for operations are hardly ever calculable: uncertainty about actor preferences and available courses of action is more likely to be the norm. This undermines calculability and forces aid actors to make choices on the bases of values and judgment. Would they then reach the same policy implications?
In two weeks I will be storming Philly’s city center as part of the ESID contingent attending the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association. We are finally taking our framework and findings across the pond to have a proper conversation with leading lights of American political science, and in particular comparative politics. Our panel session includes such heavyweights as Atul Kohli, Jennifer Widner, and my own PhD advisor Nicolas van de Walle (the links are for those poor souls who don’t know these scholars already). On our side we will have Kunal Sen, Sohela Nazneen, and Abdul-Gafaru Abdulai.
The topic for the day is “Beyond the ‘new’ new institutionalism: debating the politics of development”, which fits quite nicely under APSA’s theme for this year of “Great Transformations: Political Science and the Big Questions of Our Time”. ESID is definitely fond of big questions, and it does not get any bigger than that.
I have been asked to serve as a translator or pontifex of sorts for that panel, albeit briefly. Because of my fixation with blurred disciplinary boundaries and academic amnesia, I have the task of briefly articulating the potential bridges between ESID’s core framework of “adapted political settlements” and more mainstream debates within American polisci. Seeing as I have already thought about this a couple times already, it seemed like a natural fit.
Spoiler alert, I will focus on the following 3 linkages:
- The politics of public goods
- Regimes and their effects
- Determinants of state capacity
Whoever wants to learn what I actually mean by that will have to join us in Philly on September 1st at 4pm.
New paper! “The role and responsibility of foreign aid in recipient political settlements“.
Political settlements analysis has highlighted the role of powerful political and economic actors in shaping institutional outcomes across countries. Its focus on national elites, however, risks biasing this type of theorising towards local factors, when in fact many policy domains in developing countries have become transnationalised: much like private finance or transnational activism, foreign aid can play a significant role in shaping political settlements, for instance those underlying public finance management or basic service delivery. This paper has four aims. First, it revises the basic concept of political settlement with a combination of field theory and contentious politics that emphasises contestation between incumbents and challengers and the mechanisms through which they are affected by transnational forces. Second, based on this conceptual framework, it outlines six ideal types of aid influence over a developing-country political settlement, illustrating donor tendencies to support continuity or change. Third, it investigates the ethical implications of donor influence over political settlements, identifying the types of intervention favoured by consequentialist and non-consequentialist calculations. Finally, the paper presents the kernel for a practical ethic of assistance, which asks whether current debates in the aid community have fully come to terms with the responsibility that derives from agency in the contentious politics of inclusive development.
Download it here.
How do aid donors interact with the political settlements of the countries in which they operate? Do they have any kind of moral obligation to act in certain ways but not others? If so, what logic of assistance should guide their choice of behaviour? This paper aims to establish a basic conceptual framework for answering these questions. It is inspired by the strange irony that political settlements theory has been financially promoted by donors – in particular the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID) – and yet the researchers who work on refining and testing the theory tend to use it as a national-level analytical tool which does not adequately address the influence of such transnational forces as aid donors themselves. This is not a new critique of political settlements, but in this paper I hope to contribute the seeds of a new analytical map for developing some preliminary responses to the original sin of donor-funded political settlements research. In addition, I question whether the conventional practical implications drawn from this kind of work withstand ethical scrutiny. This is not to say that the proponents and users of the theory are morally suspect; only that a bit more attention may need to be paid to the ethics of assistance which arise from settlements research.
From my upcoming ESID working paper “The role and responsibility of foreign aid in recipient political settlements”.
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. Continue reading Maybe donors should not settle for Mr Right-Now
What is a “political settlement”? Or rather: what is political settlements “thinking”? And is there such a thing as political settlements “hypothesis”? After many private conversations on this question, I have decided to take the central term of much of the politics of development in the DFID ecosystem (including ESID) and I try to match it against the fundamental building blocks of political science as I learned it in a mainstream American polisci department. In turn, I examine political settlements as variable, hypothesis, mechanism, or paradigm. Continue reading Political settlements: An American polisci perspective
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?
Continue reading You say potato, I say political settlement