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. Continue reading Maybe donors should not settle for Mr Right-Now

Can games teach us about development theory?

I have been thinking about games a lot recently. Games as in game-theoretical models and generally any sort of spelled-out analytical model; but also games as in real-world, fun-not-work games, whether tabletop or digital. And I am particularly intrigued by the potential of mixing the two together and seeing what comes up; asking if there is anything that we analysts can derive from games (other than fun!). Continue reading Can games teach us about development theory?

You say potato, I say political settlement

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

Levels of analysis in foreign aid advocacy and research

It’s been over 5 years since I started working on issues of development assistance, and yet I still get incensed when I see the polemics that periodically surface in public debate: “aid is dead!”, “no, we need more aid!”, “but aid experts are deluded planners!”, “even so, you should give at least 0.7%!”, and so on. It has taken me a while to come to the realization that this kind of crossfire annoys me because I tend to work on much more specific issues: what kind of aid can promote institutional reform? Or, what kind of donor can exact reform from a patrimonial government? This has led me to realize that aid debates take place on at least three different levels of analysis, each of them based on a different conception of what aid is: a macro resource, a meso strategy, or a micro tactic. And the peculiarities of each level have implications both for research and advocacy. Continue reading Levels of analysis in foreign aid advocacy and research

Weber on Star Wars: Or Why the Empire Should Win in the End

Now that Disney is turning Star Wars into a Marvel-like cottage industry and Harrison Ford has broken a leg while playing an older Han Solo, the time is ripe for asking the real question about what happened a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away: Was the Galactic Empire such a bad thing after all? And what would Max Weber think about Jedis?

Continue reading Weber on Star Wars: Or Why the Empire Should Win in the End

The agency paradox

Or: Why development researchers cannot tell policy-makers what to do, only how to think about what they do

The promise of policy-relevant research is the ability to influence policy-making through the supply of evidence for or against specific interventions. Development studies as an academic community is a perfect illustration of this aspiration: a significant part of its research is directly or indirectly funded by government, many of its researchers have also worked in policy as consultants or civil servants, and the field itself is organized around policy issues and not intellectual boundaries, attracting scholars from economics, political science, or sociology who are more interested in practical problems that disciplinary agendas.

But there is a fundamental conceptual obstacle between what policy researchers can offer and what policy-makers often demand: agency, understood as the ability of purposeful actors to change the world that they live in. Social science research –of the kind that development studies pursue- does not deal very well with purpose. For the most part it does not know what to do with change, either. No matter what the ontological, epistemological or methodological school a researcher may adhere to, the vagaries of social research are likely to push her towards trend, not exception, and towards stasis, not change. Continue reading The agency paradox