When the Levee Breaks

While I was away, a couple of questions were playing on my mind. The first related to the desirability of a season of revolution in the southern part of Africa, as witnessed in North Africa and parts of the Arab world recently. Three readers gave their initial thoughts. One suggested that my thoughts might be premature in any case, as the Ugandan example was rather deceptive and not actually indicative of a really fundamental democratizing force in that country. This may well be true (I would be the first to admit that I am no specialist on the politics of Uganda). However, the theoretical question of whether a series of political upheavals would be a positive thing remains.

Another ventured that as long as the upheavals are genuinely democratic, they must be good things. There’s an obvious logic to this position: representative government is a good in it’s own right, regardless of its developmental impact. Plenty of others have discussed whether democracy or a kind of benevolent dictatorship is the ideal developmental form of Government (we’re all pretty much agreed that purely predatory dictatorship is a bad thing all round), and I don’t mean to rehash this argument here, except to say that the state that is most developmental in any given circumstance depends on the polity it governs, and there are probably multiple equilibria of varying stability that can be achieved.

Rather, I wonder if the principle reasons that there have been so few movements towards revolution or inquilab in any form in southern Africa has been that there is almost no gain from such action – that in some cases there is no alternative that is significantly more representative as opposed to differently representative. This is the point that MJ raised in his comment. Relatedly, it is also possible that how representative the Government is may actually have little impact on how well it responds to its citizenry.

Take the first possibility: that in few countries are there significantly better leaders waiting in the wings. One characteristic of contemporary commentators on upheavals is that they often put too much stock on the act of change, without spending enough time thinking about the content of change (I myself have often been guilty of this). There is some intrinsic value in upheaval and violent or forced change, namely that it creates the credible threat that bad governance will be punished even where political process leaves no space to legally generate punishment. However, we tend to get excited when a ‘bad’ leader is deposed even before we start considering how much better the new one will or can be. It is quite possible that changes, even those that depose leaders showing signs of authoritarianism, may simply usher in a worse or equally bad leadership.

Malawi is an example where this may be true. I’m not fully up to speed on Malawi’s contemporary political scene, but unless a new generation of political leadership has sprung up in the last three years, it’s difficult to see that any other politician placed in the same position as Bingu wa Mutharika will be any more democratic of progressive. His predecessor, Bakili Muluzi, was not a particularly progressive leader, and indeed Malawi had a significant improvement in the terms of its governance (particularly economic) under Mutharika. There has been some backsliding, but it’s clear that Malawi in 2011 is in a better place than it was in 2003. If Bingu were to leave power tomorrow, who are the alternatives with sterling democratic credentials? It’s not clear that any other leading politician would be travelling a significantly different path to Bingu.

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More on Transparency

Both Owen Barder and Matt have posted about aid transparency recently. It’s a field I know well, as I work on aid management and transparency for recipient country Governments, and have spent a lot of time creating access to data, working on how best to categorize and store it in different places and how to use all of this information usefully. Owen and Matt have both made a number of good points about why transparency can be important, and why it needs to be approached from a perspective that builds upwards from the recipient country’s information needs. These posts and the discussions therein are high quality, and mean I’m going to limit my observations to a few points which I think have escaped the discussion somewhat.

I’m resolutely in favour of increased transparency of aid operations from beginning to end of each aid process: commitments made by donors, disbursements and predictability thereof, expenditures made by project implementers and physical implementation. All of this is great. However, it is subject to a few conditions.

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The missing question

Last night Sky News hosted the second UK Prime Minister’s debate, this time with an intended focus on “global issues.” The pre-selected questions presented by the audience to Brown, Cameron and Clegg covered Britain’s participation in the EU, security policy, immigration, climate change, the Pope’s impending visit, and the economy.

I was a little irritated that there wasn’t a question about aid or their general views on international development. This might be the moderator’s fault for selecting questions that leaned more towards domestic issues (for example immigration policy had already been discussed in the previous debate).

But maybe the real reason is less palatable – maybe there weren’t very many questions on development in the first place? Maybe Sky – and the candidates – prefer questions that offer them the largest possible gains in terms of votes.

Development/aid bloggers, advocates and practitioners are frequently concerned with making aid organisations accountable to the taxpayers, but we’ve little evidence that the electorate considers development policy a critical issue. These questions are demand-driven to a certain extent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the average Briton doesn’t read the Tory green paper before considering their choice of party. There was an equivalent dearth of development discussion in the 2008 US presidential election – not a single question during the debates and little mention on the campaign trail. This doesn’t mean that voters don’t care about how public money is spent overseas, but that it takes a firm backseat to a large range of domestic and international issues.

The real question we need to be asking ourselves: if we do live in a world where development is on the electoral backburner, how does this affect the way we frame the aid effectiveness and accountability debate. Do we turn inward and try and create more ‘awareness,’ or do we turn outward and try and make aid more accountable to those that receive it? Are these two goals mutually exclusive?

Waiting for growth

godot

Is there nothing to be done?

A few days ago, over a dinner at the AidData conference, a colleague made an interesting comment over how the aid effectiveness debate is framed. While aid critics and proponents constantly argue over the industry’s ability to generate large, transformational changes in recipient countries (such as through economic growth), he suggested that if we assessed aid by a more modest metric – how well it alleviates suffering in societies that are awaiting these big changes – we might be more optimistic about aid’s effectiveness. Because development is partially random (in the sense that we, as outsiders, cannot easily predict or explain it), he argued that we should perhaps just focus on the smaller problem of improving welfare, while we wait for countries to feel their own way to growth.

The idea that foreign assistance might not be very useful for fostering development would be a difficult, troubling thought for many in the aid industry. While (I think) those working in the NGO and charity sector believe more in aid-as-relief than in aid-as-change, there are many top-down practitioners in the official aid business who ultimately see it as being transformational. Projects such as the UN’s Millennium Villages are a natural extension of this belief that recipient countries cannot achieve development without significant external assistance.

I think I would feel more comfortable in a world where aid only exists to avert suffering and death while recipient countries strive for major change. That would drastically simplify the discussion on aid effectiveness: gone would be the grand ambitions of  revamping societies, to be replaced by worrying over tracking resources and evaluating interventions. We would be unconcerned about long term impacts and macro concepts like growth – they would be outside of our mandate.

This is a vision of aid that we should consider, but not one without pitfalls. Those that have spent time working in heavily aid-dependent countries are privy to signs that large amounts of foreign assistance might actually hurt a country’s chances of making the big adjustments needed for development. Several years ago I worked as a civil servant for the Malawian government, which has a budget financed nearly half by foreign donors. Aside from the usual political absurdities which haunt any civil service, I saw a government forever obsessed with aid. This is rational – whether or not you are concerned about delivering public resources or rent-seeking, foreign aid is too tempting to pass up. The result is that governments spend a very, very large amount of time trying to please donors, sometimes more so than their own populations.

We really should be more worried about how much foreign aid might be crowding out domestic accountability process, which itself might be necessary for long-term development. Sometimes this trade-off is obvious: As it was revealed in Michela Wrong’s excellent book, It’s Our Turn to Eat, donors in Kenya were more concerned with protecting their aid projects than supporting John Githongo’s crusade to improve accountability in the Kimbaki’s government.

There are other factors that may also violate the unspoken creed of ‘do no harm’. If aid is to be forever focused on the small picture, should we not be worried when donors and NGOs routinely steal smart, capable people from government and the private sector, those that are the most likely to lead their countries towards big changes? Even when those people remain in government, the foreign aid sector has dominated the policy discourse for so long that many governments have had little experience developing and debating policies on their own. When, after years of being chained to the IMF PRSP framework,  Malawi finally got the chance to write their own national development strategy, the resulting document looked and read like a distillation of every donor strategy ever produced.

Dambisa Moyo’s infamous and poorly-argued Dead Aid revealed a growing dissent in sub-Saharan Africa over decades and decades of foreign aid that hasn’t delivered massive change for the better. Perhaps a major (downward) revision of expectations are in order. However, while we sit around waiting for growth, we should be careful not be the biggest impediment  to it.