Aid ethics and political settlements research

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”.

Book project: Why We Lie About Aid

(And The Messy Truth About Promoting Development)

It is now official: I am writing a book under contract with a publisher. Until the end of the year I will be posting updates and excerpts as I write it. But I can start today with the initial pitch:

Donor publics have been misled about the nature of development: for decades they have been told that it is about charity and technical fixes, when in fact it is as much about fights as our own policy-making is at home. Aid practitioners work in a world of struggles for reform, but they are forced to misrepresent and obfuscate the reality of development in order to comply with very restrictive and selective interpretations of principles like accountability, transparency, ownership or harmonisation. That is the dysfunctional aid system that we in donor countries have built, and then shackled with a discourse that mistakes short-term results for long-term transformation. A different approach is possible, and indeed has been quietly applied by innovative development practitioners around the world who provide political coverage for reformers or build coalitions that open up spaces for change. With real stories from aid practitioners in Britain, the US, Spain, Uganda, Honduras, Nigeria, Liberia, Rwanda and Ghana, this book explains what lies behind the much-criticized pathologies of aid, and challenges us to have a more honest conversation about development assistance.

Article on public sector reform now available

Taylor & Francis has finally released online my Third World Quarterly piece with Badru Bukenya: ‘New’ approaches confront ‘old’ challenges in African public sector reform. It has been a lengthy process between TWQ and T&F, but we are finally there. Here’s the abstract:

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.

Politics in the trenches of development: Mainstreaming political economy analysis in aid agencies

“Politics matters for development”. From project officers all the way up to the heads of multilateral development agencies, from lowest-rung civil servants to cabinet ministers, everyone who has ever worked trying to enact social, economic or political change knows this basic fact. But that does not mean that they can talk openly about it, let alone plan for the eventualities of politics or set aside budgetary items for dealing with it. Aid agencies in particular seem to be trapped in a nether realm where everyone discusses the politics of development in private, but few dare to risk their careers by engaging with it in public. That is why the rise of political economy analysis (PEA) poses an interesting dilemma. The basic principle is intuitive and almost elegant in its simplicity: many projects flounder due to limited understanding of local politics, so the answer is to build more analysis into projects to ensure greater effectiveness. And yet turning this principle into practice has proven to be less than simple. Continue reading Politics in the trenches of development: Mainstreaming political economy analysis in aid agencies