What comes after all the shouting about politics and aid?

[Re-posted from the ESID blog]

Last week DFID’s research team hosted representatives from four research programme consortia on development, including ESID, for a debate and set of presentations on what we have found so far and what – if anything – DFID can do about it. Without going into details – there were surveys, concepts, migrants, onions, and even vampires – it was yet another interesting opportunity to witness that uncomfortable interface between academic and practitioner frustrations. In a very polite and reasoned way, researchers shouted to DFID staff that “context matters, reality is complex, and you’d better take politics into account!”, while DFID staff in turn shouted back that “we too are subject to a political context, and you’d better show us how what you are suggesting would work in practice!” Of course, this being a professional event in the UK, there wasn’t any actual shouting; but one could sense the deep-seated frustration, misunderstanding, even recrimination underlying the entire event. Eventually, we ended up where all these meetings seem to end: with the realization that everyone needs to do more to facilitate stronger researcher-practitioner linkages. Which is not a bad message at all. But it still makes me wonder what comes next.

There are many people in the UK and elsewhere working very hard to define the next big step in this conversation. There are the Thinking and Working Politically community of practice and the incipient Doing Development Differently movement. We are seeing some significant attempts to change the status quo within DFID, such as the new Smart Rules for Better Programme Delivery. And some practitioners and consultant are trying to compile relevant evidence pointing to the success of politically smart, locally led development interventions. ODI released just today a summary report, “Adapting Development“, which aims to integrate many of these ideas. But perhaps it would be useful to organize such whirlwind of activity into some sort of heuristic framework, moving from the nitty gritty of practice all the way to the most maximalist of agendas.

1 – Practice

At the level of practice – with greatest potential for success but also subject to probably the strongest constraints – is the DDD agenda: in essence, this movement seeks to transform how development programmes are designed and implemented. To some extent it calls for a change in agency policies and regulations, making programming more flexible, responsive and adaptive; but many of its proponents excel at working through the cracks and gray areas of bureaucracy, bending and pushing here and there without ever truly breaking systems or calling for their overhaul. This is a practical agenda that virtually every development organization can adopt.

2 – Management

At the level of management – with lower expectations of success but potentially huge impact – are initiatives like DFID’s Smart Rules: new approaches to policy, evaluation and human resources that allow professionals to be development agents instead of aid accountants, limiting their submission to the counter-bureaucracy in the name of empowered and risk-taking accountability. This is exactly the kind of institutional change that ESID has called for through our PEA research: changing the corporate and professional incentives for practitioners so that they can devote themselves to developmental success, not just ostensible aid success through self-censorship and a lowering of expectations. This is a political-administrative agenda that not all development organizations can easily pursue, but which most bilaterals should probably explore.

3 – Principle

At the level of principles – with great potential for persuasion but unclear impact on practice – are messages like “politically smart, locally led”: efforts to redefine what development assistance means so that donors stop behaving like irritable investors and become instead politically-savvy enablers of local reform processes. This entails throwing out the window some of the most deep-seated assumptions of the development community, such as the technocratic fiction and the reluctance to incur any kind of diplomatic risk. This is an epistemic agenda that every practitioner can assume as her own, but which will be really hard to swallow for multilateral development organizations and those bilaterals agencies without a strong political identity of their own.

4 – Message

Finally, we get to the level of messages, which to me seems the obvious next frontier: efforts to take back the words “effectiveness”, “efficiency”, and “results” to mean potentially transformative change and not just value-for-money. At this level – which neither practitioners nor researchers are usually good at – the challenge is one of metaphor and public imagination. It is about redefining what “aid effectiveness” means, dispelling the self-defeating illusion that developing-country policy-making is somehow less contested and dirty than policy-making at home. This is an advocacy agenda which can supply political coverage for all the others, changing the incentives of political principals so that any kind of innovation and evolution at a lower level – principle, management, practice – enjoys a mantle of public legitimacy.

A call to moral action?

At the end of the day, perhaps what should come after all the shouting is a process of moral rediscovery. Western electorates as much as aid practitioners seem to have become jaded about the prospects of development assistance after decades of money flowing in with uncertain results. But there are at least two reasons why such disillusionment is ill-advised. First, in the scale of political development a few decades are barely enough to create – let alone sustain –  any kind of significant change; if it was so in the West, then why not in developing countries, too? Second, even when results are beyond out control and the context of reform is uncertain, do we not have a moral obligation to help those who are fighting for development and dignity? Would it not be morally irresponsible to abandon them solely because their goals are incompatible with our unquenchable thirst for short-term, quantifiable results?

I consider myself lucky to have joined the politics and aid conversation at a very interesting time – scary, too, as are all times of uncertainty and change. But very smart people tell us that in such contexts it is often the most powerful ideas that get to shape the path of institutional evolution.

Which ideas will emerge on politics and aid after all the shouting is done? It really is up to us.