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Why Angus Deaton is (mostly) wrong to attack aid for undermining politics and accountability

15 April, 2014 - 07:30

Continuing aid week here on FP2P, here’s my response to Angus Deaton’s recent broadside against aid, and his claim that I agree with him. Tomorrow, Angus responds. Nervous, moi?

I’m both flattered and alarmed that Angus Deaton has been citing From Poverty to Power (the book, not this blog) in defence of his attack on aid in his

and aid can help

book The Great Escape (previously reviewed here). Flattered because Deaton is a development superstar. Alarmed because he comes down strongly against spending money on aid, and his critique is being picked up by aid critics, a position which I most definitely do not share. So I’ve gone back and reread Deaton’s book, and some of the other research on the impact of aid. Let’s try and make sense of it.

In his recent LSE lecture (from minute 47 onwards here) and in an excellent cross-examination by Owen Barder on Development Drums, Deaton’s most substantive criticism was on the link between aid and domestic politics:

‘Economic development cannot take place without some sort of contract between those who govern and those who are governed…. It is the need to raise taxes, and the difficulty of doing so without the participation of those who are taxed, that places constraints on the government and to some extent protects the interests of taxpayers…. One of the strongest arguments against large aid flows is that they undermine these constraints, removing the need to raise money with consent.’

In other words, bunging aid money to governments means they no longer have to listen to their citizens and opens the door to all kinds of bad practices.

What do other researchers say? When I did a quick trawl of the literature, I had a familiar sensation – how is it that with all those clever people researching away, we never seem to be able to answer really important questions (unless you count ‘needs more research’ as an answer?). The aid discussion follows the classic pattern of

1)      a blizzard of cross country regressions reaching contradictory findings, eg one IMF study finds ‘aid improves revenue performance significantly’, while another asserts with equal certainty ‘tax revenue declines by 9 cents for each grant dollar.’

2)      Baffled researchers then revert to ‘priors’ and political theory, to argue that aid does indeed undermine institutions. Eg see this 2006 CGD paper.

Is that the best they can do? What about some serious country case studies (preferably post Cold War – aid has rather moved on since Mobutu) investigating whether aid has indeed undermined the social contract, as claimed? There are plenty of examples of donors using conditionality to try and over-rule sovereign governments, but none of this more subtle erosion of the social contract alleged by Deaton.

As it happens, my own priors mean that I suspect that some level of erosion does indeed take place (Deaton’s right about me on that), so I was surprised by the lack of evidence. What did I miss? Any links welcome.

Deaton accepts that ‘These harms of aid need to be balanced against the good that aid does, whether educating children or saving lives’ and is notably more positive on his area of genuine global expertise – health. But he argues that ‘Those who advocate more aid need to explain how it can be given in a way that deals with the political constraints’. I’m not convinced. In the balance of argument, we have lots of concrete, tangible benefits in the shape of nurses, teachers, vaccinations, avoided deaths etc, lined up against a rather vague and not very well evidenced claim of long-term institutional damage. Before taking an axe to the aid budget, I would say the burden of proof should be on the aid critics, and they haven’t done very well so far.

The best recent summary of the state of the evidence I could find was from veteran aid wonk Roger Riddell, who last month published an updated paper on the impact of aid. Riddell responds directly to Deaton’s attack:

‘In my view, this assessment goes too far. The conclusion drawn is based on what probably is a too partial and selective reading of the evidence. Stating that countries will always be better off without aid remains what it has always been – an unproven assertion. Donors may well have failed, at times undermined recipient-country ownership and (unintentionally) held back long-term development prospects, but they are now more aware of their shortcomings, as well as more knowledgeable about how they need to change current practices to give greater priority to transformational aid to make aid work better overall.’

Riddell believes that ‘beyond this rather sterile exchange, a far more important debate has begun to take place about the systemic effects of providing aid. Until recently, it was predominantly aid’s harshest critics who suggested that any short-term benefits that aid might achieve would be eclipsed by the indirect harm it could bring in its wake. Today, the main aid donors are ready to acknowledge that… a series of systemic problems have developed that are now seriously undermining aid’s potential impact. The gap between aid’s strongest critics and an important cluster of studies analysing aid’s wider impact has narrowed considerably.’

That recognition informs the Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (sorry for the descent into aid-speak  - see Nicola McIvor’s post yesterday for more), with its commitment to ‘country ownership’ and ‘inclusive development partnerships’.

So what might the emerging common ground look like? Deaton is not against all aid, and suggests health, humanitarian emergencies, and countries where aid remains a low percentage of overall government revenues. He also advocates aid for basic research, technical assistance to governments that want it, and support for poor countries in the innumerable international negotiations. He advocates a good ‘put your own house in order’ list of sanctions on odious regimes, transparency in corporate payments to governments (e.g. on minerals extraction) and tackling northern restrictions on trade and migration, and perverse biofuel subsidies. He misses tax havens and illicit flows, but I imagine he would support their inclusion.

To that I would add the whole ‘thinking and working politically’ approach, including taking seriously bad aid’s potential for institutional damage. That means acknowledging and tackling any negative impacts/ strengthening the positives (eg by supporting better tax collection and other institutional strengthening, where it is demand-led; channelling a percentage of government-to-government aid to citizen or parliamentary watchdogs to keep them honest; maybe cash on delivery type contracts).

So yes, lots needs to be done to ensure aid strengthens poor people’s ‘freedoms to do and to be’. But no (sorry Angus) we shouldn’t be taking a hatchet to aid budgets.

Got a feeling Angus isn’t going to agree with this. Come back tomorrow to find out.

Will this week’s aid and development gabfest in Mexico be just another boring conference or a milestone in ensuring development works for the poor?

14 April, 2014 - 07:30

It’s aid week here on the blog. To kick off, Oxfam policy adviser Nicola McIvor sets the scene for a big international conference in Mexico. Tomorrow and Wednesday, Angus Deaton and I have an argument about whether aid helps or harms development. Who knows, you may even get to vote.

The development world is at a critical juncture as Mexico City this week hosts the first High-level Meeting (HLM) of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC).  OK, the title isn’t sexy, but government representatives and parliamentarians from both traditional donors and emerging providers of development cooperation like Indonesia, China and Mexico, as well as NGOs, trade unions; and multinational corporations will all be there. If you follow development debates, you will want to know what happens.

Mexico provides an opportunity to assess whether donors and recipient countries are living up to the commitments they made in Busan and are on track to meet their targets in 2015. But will it be one of those pointless development conferences where government officials pat each other on the back in an orgy of self-congratulation, or a genuine effort to tackle difficult issues in ensuring development cooperation is useful to people living in poverty? So far, I’m afraid it’s looking more like the former. Here’s what’s at stake:

People could lose their voice and opportunity to drive their own development: Inclusive development – the acknowledgement that development is driven by people through open dialogues between country governments and their citizens, was a key outcome of Busan. But it is being resisted by most governments in current discussions. For inclusive development to take place civil society organisations must have the space to operate and enable a people-driven approach, ensuring accountability from the bottom up.  Yet since Busan we have seen a rise in the number of governments closing this space. The indicator on an enabling environment for civil society was discredited, because of ‘technical issues’, in the monitoring report on progress since Busan. Will governments commit to reverse this shrinking space, and agree on a way to measure progress ? Or will we end up with a top down, ‘expert’-led approach that ignores the voices of the people?

Donors could get away with sidestepping their own responsibilities whilst continuing to ‘assess’ those of recipient countries: After recipient countries out performed donors in the Paris Monitoring survey, some donors sought to scale back the ambitions of new global indicators to hold all partners (whether they give aid or receive it) accountable in development cooperation.  The first progress report on the Busan monitoring framework, which provides the details of country-by-country performance of recipient countries but less detailed assessments of donor performance, suggests that donors are unwilling to be judged and ranked.  Participants at the HLM should be asking what direction the monitoring report is going in.  Do we want to see country-by-country reporting to ensure that citizens can hold donors and their governments to account?

Does the private sector deserve a seat at the table? Some refer to the private sector as the new donor darling and there is certainly a growing recognition of the important role the private sector can play in tackling poverty and stimulating economic growth. Busan even recognised the private sector as equal partners in development policy. However, to maximise the impact of development cooperation, the private sector must implement the Busan commitments to deliver real results for the poor through inclusive development and ensuring appropriate accountability.  Mexico will see a push for increased public-private partnerships (PPPs) and will launch a new ‘roadmap’ for partnerships with the private sector – could this influence how aid is delivered and development cooperation conducted in the post-2015 world?

The Global Partnership could either provide or miss its opportunity to offer a concrete way forward for the ‘how’ of post 2015: Whilst the Global Partnership has been dubbed by some as the ‘how’ of the post-2015 agenda, it is proving difficult to discuss the GPEDC at the UN and integrate it formally into post-2015 documents.

Will delegates make clear and substantive links to post-2015 in order to influence and implement the post-2015 goals? If Busan was about bringing stakeholders to the table, then Mexico is about getting results.  This means action to make progress on people-driven development.  The big question is what will be Mexico’s legacy? Will the Mexico meeting build on what was achieved in Busan with the necessary ambition and capacity to monitor development cooperation efforts in an attempt to hold all actors to account and improve development cooperation for the people they serve? So far, as delegates gather, I sense a lack of optimism around the table.

Follow the discussions on twitter: #GPHLM, @njmcivor

Can development really be delivered by investing in private banks?

11 April, 2014 - 07:30

Peter Chowla of the Bretton Woods Project introduces its new report, which asks why the World Bank is still stuck in pre-crisis thinking about finance and what civil society should do about it.

Banksters’ have become famous since the financial crisis just five years ago. Media portrayals of New York’s ‘Wall Street’ or the ‘City’ in London have frequently vilified bankers. Though Occupy Wall Street was broken up by the police, in popular consciousness distrust of the financial sector remains.

Yet somehow the development sector seems strangely immune to this. If anything, in the last half decade, development policy wonks and officials have tried to sidle up to the financial sector more than they have tried to distance themselves from the profit-obsessed and short-termist culture of finance.

At this week’s World Bank spring meetings, Bank president Dr Jim Yong Kim is presiding over a massive change in strategy for what remains one of the most influential development institutions in the world. Kim, an NGO-founding medical doctor, is a friendly face for the Bank after a succession of investment bankers and war hawks at the helm. He even once protested in front of the Bank. Yet nearly two years into the job, one of the Bank’s most important shifts under Kim has been towards bankers and not away from them. The financial sector is now the largest beneficiary of World Bank Group (WBG) investment.

Let’s put this into context. Investments by the Bank’s private sector arm (the IFC) in trade finance and other financial intermediaries were 62% of the total in the last fiscal year, amounting to $36.1 billion for the last four years. Over the same period the World Bank’s public sector arms (IBRD and IDA) committed $22.1 billion to health and $12.4 billion to education. That’s right – investments in the financial sector were about three times those in education and about 50% greater than those in health. On top of this, the IFC’s portfolio of financial sector investments shows funding was concentrated in commercial banking and upper-middle income countries, Russia being the largest single country destination, with little evidence of the claimed development impact.

There are serious questions about what kind of development you might get from investing in the financial sector. There are no examples of countries that have successfully delivered prosperity and equity by bolstering the power of the financial sector without first having a coherent national development strategy and industrial policy. Success stories, such as Korea, Taiwan and China, relied on a heavily regulated domestic financial sector that supported industry. The IFC doesn’t seem to have this in mind, but instead prioritises “financial deepening” and “financial inclusion”, as fuzzy as any concepts in the development lexicon. Oxfam’s research on inequality has clearly highlighted the risk to the public interest from powerful elites that capture institutional processes. Is turbo charging the financial sector, infamous for regulatory capture even in supposedly mature democracies, the best strategy for eliminating global poverty?

It’s not just the IFC. An increasing number of public institutions are channelling money into the financial sector. The new Green Climate Fund plans to do this. The G20 is involved too. But there are large risks to the environment, communities, and overall development efforts. Global Witness’ exposé of land grabs by Vietnamese rubber plantations in Cambodia (financed by the IFC through a private equity fund) is just one example. Other cases in India, Honduras, Guatemala, and Uganda demonstrate the negative impacts.

Having a more powerful, but short-term-profit-oriented, financial sector seems likely to heighten risks while skewing incentives away from the sort of longer-term investments needed to sustainably diversify economies and reduce poverty.

21st Century development?

While our elite international institutions seem clear where they are going, civil society organisations have not yet fully grasped the changing nature of cross-border finance, nor come up with a coherent response to financialisation. Our report lays out three possible approaches civil society could take: asking for stronger rules and transparency; investing in ‘better’ private financial institutions; or throwing it all out the window and demanding public (not private) sector finance. These approaches are not easy to reconcile and will turn on fundamental questions about the role of private finance in a fair, sustainable and prosperous economy.

Big NGOs tend to ask for stronger rules. These are amenable to campaign plans, log frames, and emails to supporters that can identify successes and claim victory. On the other hand, many believe business can be used to fight poverty but that we should seek out different kinds of businesses, such as cooperatives, social enterprises and other socially oriented institutions to deliver finance. Neither of those approaches is easily scalable, but both have their appeal.

There are still others who conclude that the hurdles to the private financial sector serving as development agents are just too great. They call for a new generation of public financial institutions, which, along with international public financial support from the likes of the IFC, could seek to mobilise domestic private wealth to invest in accordance with public interest policies.

None of the approaches is suitable for every national context, but if civil society doesn’t get cracking on a coherent strategy, we might be stuck with powerful financial interests driving the agenda at the heart of every development initiative. Surely we learned the consequences of that five years ago?

What about the 1 in 7? Important progress in getting DFID (and other donors) to get serious on disability

10 April, 2014 - 07:32

Disability campaigners Mosharraf Hossain and Julia Modern on a new report on disability and development

Back in 1988, I was denied a job in the Bangladesh civil service. This wasn’t because I didn’t have the skills to do the job – I had a Masters in Economics from the University of Dhaka – but because I am disabled. I contracted polio at the age of three, and was left with a mobility impairment, which according to the rules then in place meant I was excluded from being a civil servant.

You might think this sounds outrageous, but this kind of discrimination is still all too common around the world. Over the last few months, the UK Parliament’s Select Committee on International Development has been holding an inquiry looking at disability and development, and it has heard countless stories like mine, and worse: like the disabled woman in West Africa who reported that when she presented at a hospital in the early stages of labour, health workers laughed at her and asked how on earth she could have managed to get pregnant. The Select Committee, which is a parliamentary body set up to monitor the activities of the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID), decided to hold this inquiry because they had been told again and again by organisations like ours that the aid system was not delivering for disabled people. They found that this is true.

An inaccessible well built under the NUSAF II project in Uganda, supported by the World Bank. Image copyright Edson Ngirabakunzi and Joseph Malinga

The report that the Committee has released today tells a compelling story. DFID has a reputation for being one the most progressive donors on disability (although it’s been overtaken by Australia in recent years), but the Select Committee’s evidence shows that even at DFID only 5% of bilateral aid spending is on programmes that are designed to benefit disabled people. With 15% of the world’s population being disabled, this clearly isn’t enough.

Worse still, many development programmes are – inadvertently or not – designed in ways that exclude disabled people, such as the World Bank-funded project in Uganda that installed boreholes with steps, which people who use wheelchairs can’t access.

This kind of exclusion is a major cause of poverty, and in some cases is leading to the world’s one billion disabled people falling even further behind the rest of their communities. As Bob McMullan, one of the witnesses at the inquiry pointed out, if any country with one billion people had such low employment, education and health outcomes as the world’s disabled population, it would probably be at the top of international development priorities. However, we know how to change the situation.

In Bangladesh, disabled people came together in Disabled People’s Organisations (DPOs) and we defeated the discriminatory policy that excluded disabled people from the civil service. I could have that job if I applied now. There are also some great examples of donors working well with disabled people, including at DFID – for example the changes that were made to a social protection programme in Zimbabwe based on consultation with DPOs, which led to a dramatic increase in the number of disabled people that the programme reached.

Over the last year or so, we have been very encouraged by the actions of Lynne Featherstone MP, one of the Ministers at DFID, who has consistently championed the rights of disabled people. The Minister recently announced a commitment that from now on all new school buildings that DFID supports will be designed to accessible standards that include disabled people.

But we share the Select Committee’s concern that the current support for inclusion at DFID is carried by a few key individuals who will in all likelihood move on, and we want to see the Department being more ambitious about what they can achieve. The Committee’s report recommends that DFID put in place several key mechanisms to make sure disability gets mainstreamed across the organisation, rather than staying a niche issue that individuals work on if they have a personal interest, including the following:

  • a disability strategy with clear targets and timescales;
  • a larger team of staff working on disability, including ‘champions’ within each country team and a senior sponsor; and
  • strong reporting processes to ensure accountability.

The report also contains a welcome emphasis on the central role of disabled people in this process, calling for DFID to actively encourage and

Mosharraf Hossain with UK Minister Lynne Featherstone MP, as she signs a declaration committing the UK to including disabled people in the post-2015 negotiations

support disabled people’s leadership, and to seek their guidance on how to design, implement and monitor programmes. Our experience working with DPOs in Africa and Asia over the last 30 years demonstrates how important this element is: disabled people are the best experts on their own development, and truly empowering them to get involved in the development process is vital. With the publication of this report, a very important step has been taken towards making aid more inclusive.

Because this is an official select committee report, DFID must provide a government response setting out how it will meet the recommendations made. We look forward with much excitement to this response, and to seeing DFID take immediate action to increase education of disabled children, employment of disabled youth and investment for the health of disabled people in low and middle-income countries.

Making DFID’s aid more inclusive of disabled people will be transformative, not only for disabled people themselves, but for whole communities. In her evidence to the inquiry Lorraine Wapling described how an employment project for disabled people in Malawi has helped the whole community:

‘One community leader, completely spontaneously, said to me, “It has made a huge difference. Now that disabled people are benefiting our community, the whole community has come out of poverty. [...] Before, they were dependent; they were drawing our resources. Now they are productive, it means the whole community has a better potential.” That, for me, represents what we mean by value for money’.

Mosharraf Hossain is Director of Policy and Influencing and Julia Modern, Parliamentary Liaison Manager at UK based ADD International. which works with disability movements in 8 countries in Africa and Asia, challenging the barriers and discrimination faced by disabled people. 

What’s the future role and structure of aid and aid donors? Some options

9 April, 2014 - 07:30

If I told you, I’d have to shoot you

Yesterday saw the announcement that foreign aid has defied economic and political gravity and reached a record high of $135bn in 2013. The news came as I headed off for a fascinating discussion on reforming the aid system at the ODI. Under Chatham House rules alas, so no names or institutions (ODI gave me a pass on crediting them as hosts), but they included aid types from across Europe, researchers, and a sprinkling of NGOs and retired diplomats.

The underlying dilemma was, I think, how to respond to a world where the big challenges are less and less about shipping cash from ‘North’ to ‘South’, whether because the distinction is no longer useful (rise of the middle income countries, ever-more variable geometry of international alliances and partnerships), or because the issue is a global collective action problem (climate change, arms trade), or because money (or lack of it) is not the main problem/solution (fragile states).

Among the traditional donors (this discussion wasn’t about the new arrivals on the aid scene), the current institutional options seem to be:

  • Integrating aid with the broader foreign affairs function, and foreign affairs takes the lead (Norway, Denmark);
  • A development agency within the ministry of foreign affairs leads on policy and implementation (Australia, Canada, Ireland, Netherlands)
  • A ministry does policy and a separate executing agency, including development banks, spends the money (France, Germany, Japan, US)
  • A single separate ministry runs both policy and implementation (UK)


But which, if any, of these are best suited to the new world order? Some of the points that arose in the discussion included:

  • Reforms and new approaches typically emerge when events/’something new’ combine with a ‘felt urgency’ and political leadership – eg 9/11 or the 1970s oil shock. That generates a period of innovation and cross-departmental cooperation for 3-5 years, before institutional siloes reassert themselves and the system reverts to the status quo.
  • A single ‘ministry of everything’ has downsides – specialist ministries (defence, diplomacy, development) accumulate ‘siloes of expertise’ that are actually very important (don’t ask a social development adviser to run a war or build a bridge).
  • Governments with big aid budgets need a separate department, or else the money will distort the incentives and operations of the host ministry (‘the tail wagging the dog’).
  • Keeping aid under the ministry of foreign affairs makes sense when foreign policy is primarily driven by altruism (the Nordics), but not when the country has an active foreign policy based on national interest (US, UK). (‘development is normative; foreign affairs is functional’; ‘there is a risk of instrumentalization’).
  • Whatever structure we propose has to be highly flexible – we have no idea what will be the medium term outcome of today’s big geopolitical questions (China v Japan; Russia v Europe; the disintegration of the 20th Century settlement in the Middle East).
  • One of the side effects of the UK’s extraordinary (and very welcome) commitment to reaching 0.7 is a marked reluctance to shake things up in any way – the risks of doing so are all downside (rocking boats, babies and bathwater etc). Understandable, but at some point, the UK will have to rethink its aid arrangements, if this discussion is anything to go by.

My conclusion was that we do need a new way of thinking about the challenge of international development that goes beyond obsolete divisions of North-South, or ever-more complicated subsets of them (LDCs, LICs, MICs, fragile and conflict states, Small Island Developing States, all of which are contested and overlapping). One way to rethink would be to start with three different kinds of problem and think through the institutional arrangements best suited to each:

  1. National problems to which the answer is primarily money (some aspects of health and education, social protection, humanitarian emergencies) need a traditional aid spending ministry
  2. National problems to which the answer is something else (e.g. thinking and working politically, convening and brokering solutions, testing new approaches) need a new kind of approach that offers more expertise and less pressure to sign big cheques
  3. Collective action problems between governments (tax havens, climate change) and issues of policy coherence within governments (eg trade policy, migration) need a network approach across government departments, led from the top, rather than a separate ministry (‘global public goods are currently not represented in any line ministry’)

A further layer of complexity, and potential division of labour, is between national donors and the multilateral system. What aspects of this ever-wider spectrum of activity should DFID and its bilateral friends leave to the World Bank or UN?

If this post is a bit chaotic, that probably reflects the meeting. There was a lack of clarity/agreement on what (if anything) is broken in the current system, let alone how to fix it. But the conversation was definitely interesting enough to warrant a post.

“Parlez-vous politics?” Or why working politically is like learning a language

8 April, 2014 - 07:30

Alina Rocha Menocal of the ODI introduces her new paper

The world of development assistance has come a long way since James Ferguson published his searing critique of the aid establishment in The Anti-Politics Machine: Development,Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho in 1994. The (gradual) evolution that different international development actors have undergone to better understand the politics of development has been remarkable – what Carothers and de Gramont have described as an ‘almost revolution’. By now it is pretty widely acknowledged that the challenge of development is not only technical but also profoundly political in nature: it is not simply about what needs to be done (be it building schools or providing vaccinations), but perhaps more fundamentally, about how it is done (processes that facilitate or obstruct change). And this requires coming to grips with the institutional dynamics at work – and the politics underlying them.

So far so good.

But if today most donors buy into the principle that development has to start with the domestic context, making a jump from more technical, one one-size-fits-all models of change to more politically aware programming that is grounded in local realities has proven much more challenging. As I argue in a new ODI paper on “Getting real about politics”, what is needed is a shift not only to think politically but also to work differently – and the process may not be dissimilar to learning a new language.

How so?

Taking politics seriously” is not about an end- product (the kind of “we’ll do, or, more likely, commission, a nice piece of political economy analysis and be done with it” perspective that tends to be increasingly common among donors, who are often at a loss about the operational implications), but about process; it is not a box that you tick on Monday morning (“taken politics into account?”, “✓”), but a mind-set.

This raises the question of whether working in a more politically aware manner is something that can actually be learned or is innate. This way of working does seem to call for a particular kind of person – a ‘maverick’ of sorts, less bound by bureaucratic forms and comfortable with the uncertainty and ambiguity of political processes and the dilemmas and trade-offs they present. But the environment these individuals operate within is just as important.

When learning a different language, there is no question that natural ability or predisposition matter, but so does the learning process itself. Young children tend to be more adept at languages because they are less self-conscious and anxious about making mistakes. Rather they run with it and adapt (if not actively improvise) as they go. But they need an environment that is permissive enough to let them learn organically from their own mistakes, rather than shutting them down pre-emptively for fear they may get a word or sentence construction wrong.

The teaching method matters too. If you have a teacher who makes you do sit ups when you get the conjugation of an irregular verb wrong (as I did when I was trying to learn English in Mexico), it will probably not get you very far: the incentives are all wrong and you will simply focus on getting a particular answer right without thinking of the broader picture.

To continue with the metaphor, this is often how the aid system operates. As Elinor Ostrom and her collaborators noted in their now classic study for Sida in 2000, the incentive structures that govern the funding, commissioning, design and implementation of development assistance often militate against efforts to think politically and work differently. The most recent report of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) on DFID, released last week, is also critical of the agency for failing to learn not only from what works but also from what doesn’t, given the focus on short-term results – a situation that is in no way peculiar to DFID. And Ex-USAId chief Andrew Natsios has written about the worrisome growth of layers and layers of bureaucracy within agencies, which tends to foster a risk-averse culture and to encourage staff, as one aid veteran has put it, “to do things right rather than do the right things.”

So what can be done? Despite the challenges, over the past decade there has been on-going engagement from a variety of stakeholders, including donor representatives, policymakers, development experts and civil society actors (including NGOs, activists and academics) on how to advance the agenda of taking politics seriously in both thinking and practice. Dedicated communities of practice have emerged to refine understandings of what not only ‘thinking politically’ but also ‘working differently’ might mean and how the potential embedded in this kind of approach can be realised.  This is also an on-going and expanding area of engagement within the ODI, in collaboration with other partners.

A great deal of work remains to be done. But there have been important areas of progress, and very meaningful insights and lessons have emerged. For example, there are ongoing efforts to build up the existing body of evidence of more/less successful initiatives to work in a more politically aware manner, and identify the ingredients that have made a positive contribution (including, among other things, long-term and committed staff, flexible approaches not tied to rigid logframes identified at the start of a project, and a willingness to invest in ideas and relationships that may not pay off immediately). Some international actors are also increasingly willing to act not simply as providers of funds or implementers, but also as facilitators of change – bringing together domestic stakeholders, supporting them in identifying problems and encouraging them to work collaboratively in finding potential solutions.

However, it is also clear that what is needed to get real traction on this agenda is not only or even principally about generating the evidence or documenting examples of where a politically smart approach has made a difference. Rather, it is about altering the way international development actors engage in developing settings, in some cases quite fundamentally. A radical approach is needed – much akin to learning a new language from scratch, within a conducive environment that fosters adaptation, flexibility, ingenuity, and the ability to learn by doing.


What are the limits of transparency and technology? From three gurus of the openness movement (Eigen, Rajani, McGee)

7 April, 2014 - 07:30

After a slightly disappointing ‘wonkwar’ on migration, let’s try a less adversarial format for another big development issue: Transparency and Accountability. I have an instinctive suspicion of anything that sounds like a magic bullet, a cost-free solution, or motherhood and apple pie in general. So the current surge in interest on open data and transparency has me grumbling and sniffing the air. Are politicians just grabbing it as a cheap announcement in austere times? Does it contain some kind of implicit right wing assumptions (an individualist homo economicus maximising market efficiency through open data)? And is there any evidence that transparency actually has much impact on the lives of poor people (after all, the proponents of transparency and results-based agendas are often the same organizations, so I hope they are practicing what they preach….)

I put these fears to three transparency gurus, and here are their fascinating responses, striking in their quality and level of, well, openness. It’s a long read, but I hope you’ll agree, a worthwhile one. Think we’ll just stick with comments on this one – doesn’t feel like a vote would be useful (but let me know if you think otherwise)

What else is needed to make transparency have impact?

Prof. Dr.  Peter Eigen, Transparency international (Founder, Chairman of the Advisory Council)

Transparency is not a magic bullet but rather part of the arsenal. Transparency, when combined with accountable and responsive institutions as well as the space for civil society to get involved, is a game changer. These other factors are what make transparency meaningful and useful to build trust, fight corruption and achieve development progress. Alone, transparency may be cost-free but it also falls short on realizing all the promises that have been tied up with it.

But what does transparency really encompass or mean? Transparency can generally be defined as the “characteristic of governments, companies, organisations and individuals of being open in the clear disclosure of information, rules, plans, processes and actions”.

Take the case of public spending. Transparency can be used to follow the money to make sure that promised funds are turned into results for the poorest. In Mexico, “social witnesses” are required by law and have overseen more than $50 billion of public spending and tendering procedures. Findings from Transparency International show that in countries where there is greater openness, more checks-and-balances and better rule of law, more pregnant women have healthy births, more children and young people are educated to read, and more families have access to clean water and sanitation.

But in all of these cases, the ‘magic bullet’ of transparency is more part of a broader magic formula. Open government information is combined with governments that are willing to be held to account, official channels that allow for a government’s accountability and the rule of law, and individuals that are able and wanting to hold their government to account.

When it comes to companies, improving transparency can be used to see what businesses are paying into government coffers in terms of taxes, royalties, licenses and other payments. But again, simply putting the information out in the public domain does not equate to changes in practice or market efficiencies unless there are shareholders, governments and individuals that have the means to convert transparency into changes in policies and actions.

Transparency International (TI), the organization that I founded over 20 years ago, has seen how much increased openness can lead to real and lasting change when these other pieces of the puzzle are present. TI can be found in more than 100 countries where it has national chapters.

What TI has learned is that it is not just the quantity of information provided but the quality: is it comparable, timely, accessible, understandable and useful? It is also about matching the supply of information with the demand for certain types of information.

Information may be “cost-free”, but there may be no one interested in it unless it meets these characteristics and speaks to people’s needs.

Sorting this out for development is what will make possible a “data revolution” as has been called for by the UN and others, rather than creating a deluge of information.

We walk the fine line between just opening the information faucets in the name of “transparency” and providing what is needed to allow individuals to participate, provide oversight, prevent corruption and make informed choices.

Why transparency and technology won’t drive accountability

Rakesh Rajani, Head of Twaweza East Africa and the co-chair of the Open Government Partnership

Ideas that hold the most promise can also be the most deceptive; for their power and allure can mask the inconvenient hard thinking that come in the way of a good story. The use of technology in development, and in particular its potential to close the gap between citizen voice and state responsiveness, is one such idea.

In the past decade, many a development blogpost, newspaper article and YouTube video has gushed about the transformative power of the internet and mobile telephony – in closing information asymmetries, creating pathways for citizen expression and feedback, monitoring service delivery, visualizing data, and creating new possibilities for collective action. At Twaweza, we have claimed that the spread of communication technologies is a ‘game changer’ in East Africa, that the information space has been ‘democratized’ now that the content and methods that used to be the preserve of a few are open to the many, and because facts and ideas can travel in so many directions, so quickly and at little cost. Who cannot be moved by the memes of citizens mapping their neighborhood, or village women reporting the broken water point, or budget visuals that give you simple, color-coded bubbles to follow your money?

That technology can allow us to do interesting things is amply documented. I’ve just reviewed a useful book of several such case studies that the World Bank will launch on April 9. The trouble is that too many of us too much of the time have oversold its promise. Not so long ago grownups would talk as if all one had to do was to sprinkle mobile phones or internet and the persistent, structural imbalances and power asymmetries that had dogged us for decades would melt away. ‘Apps for Africa’ was the new Live Aid and microcredit revolution rolled into one. Thankfully, for the most part, we are past that stage.

With hindsight, it’s tempting to be snide. But it’s not so easy in practice. At Twaweza we’ve supported a number of thoughtful, caring people to roll out seemingly well-designed technology-driven initiatives (see, for example, here, here, and here), ideas that many smart people from local NGOs and media to the World Bank and prestigious universities found compelling, but that did not live up to their original promise in uptake or fostering accountability. I suspect that we have no monopoly on a particularly high rate of failure, but are simply more willing and able to talk openly about it. Even those that ‘work’ often do not last beyond their initial phases (for example on the limits of Ushahidi see here, here, and here) or transform the underlying constraints they were set up to address. Snazzier forms do not a function make; when the authorities choose to ignore the content there isn’t much difference between a wooden suggestion box and a citizen feedback website with analytics.

So how do we think sensibly about these issues?

First, just because technologies can allow us to collect, store, analyze and communicate data and ideas in unprecedented ways should not lull us to think they can address old, entrenched problems in unprecedented ways. The primary constraints for human action are non-technological in nature. Most people who do not speak up in public meetings have perfectly functioning voices, and training them on better enunciation will not help matters much. Many technology projects have been hampered by inadequate theorizing, by political economy and social movement analysis, and by the lack of reference to historical evidence. And while clear and imaginative thinking is universally valuable, by necessity this analysis needs to be contextual. In particular we need to be particularly cautious about transferring successful use of technology from one place and time to another.

Second, we need a deep understanding of human motivation; of why people – on both the ‘citizen demand’ and ‘responsive state’ sides – would choose to pay attention, take action, and persist when setbacks happen, and a more granular (than just ‘citizens’ or ‘authorities’) of who would act. Our assumptions on each of these can be ill informed and poorly thought through, leaving us perplexed on why no one showed up for the thing we built so well. A simple set of questions, such as these (see Fig 3 on page 32) developed by a team evaluating citizen action in our Uwezo initiative, can be instructive.

Third, as Twaweza Advisory Board member Lant Pritchett puts it, however smart we are or well we do our homework, we are bound to not get it right the first (or second or third) time. That being so, what matters is how we test and tweak, and retest and retweak; set up agile feedback loops in a structured manner; and establish internal incentives and external relationships that can foster a culture of iteration and learning. The point here is not to experiment all day in boutique labs with little regard to impact, but rather to integrate experimentation and adaptation at the heart of how we implement at scale.

These lessons arise here in reflecting on the limits of technology to drive accountability, but in fact apply more broadly. And that is the point. Technology and transparency don’t drive anything. People, who organize and at times use technology to do so, do.

Motherhood, apple-pie and openness

Rosemary McGee, Institute of Development Studies (UK), Research and Evidence Component Coordinator of Making All Voices Count, and Technical Advisor to Open Government Partnership

I’ll start by being a typical academic: whether transparency is necessary and important for development purposes depends on one’s definition of a number of terms.  First, development.  That might mean the extension of market economics to the furthest corners of the globe, the achievement of the MDGs, or the ability of people to imagine the world differently and realise that vision by changing the power relations that disadvantage them.

Second, transparency.  To TI, founded 20 years ago, transparency means clear disclosure of information, rules and actions, as in the definition Peter Eigen sets out above.  Since then, definition-creep has set in.  Lots of terms have come to be connected with it.  Is this a definitional issue that only bothers hair-splitters like me, or a real issue that ought to bother all of us?

There’s ‘openness’, which is anything from laissez-faire capitalism and free trade regimes (the economist’s definition), to inter-operability and the access to use and modify data and computer code in a shared environment (the techie’s definition), to a critical attitude to tradition (the open society advocate’s definition).  And several more – these are just the three most relevant to the present debate.

Then there’s ‘open government’, which according to the Open Government Partnership means greater civic participation in public affairs, and governments which are more transparent, responsive, accountable, and effective.

And then there is the usage of transparency which treats it as the harbinger of accountability.  This puts accountability as the goal, and transparency as one contributing factor, linked to it in an ‘uncertain relationship’, as Jonathan Fox warned several years ago.

‘Openness’ and ‘open government’ may have many effects that are good for people in situations of poverty and marginalization.  They may also have effects which are not, and effects which are bad for them, at least relatively speaking.  They may ease the corporate pillaging of natural resources or the monopolistic buying-up of subsistence farm land. They may demonize ‘tradition’ in ways that undermine informal institutions on which poor people or minorities depend for their livelihoods or their dignity.  Or perhaps they provide a smokescreen behind which governments hone their capacities to spy on suspect citizens.  The scope for the bad effects increases exponentially as technologies lower the costs and shorten the timeframes of ‘opening up’, reducing the pressure for careful appraisal.

Whether ‘openness’ and ‘open government’ are good for poor people depends on who is promoting them and using them, and for what.  (A recent learning study on assumptions and realities about the users of tech-based transparency and accountability initiatives suggests that, if the ‘who’ and ‘for what’ questions are asked too rarely about the promoters of tech-for-T&A, they are asked even more rarely about the people the promoters claim to be benefitting – which leads straight to the ‘whether’ question, but that’s another story.)

I believe that accountability in public and corporate governance is a universally good thing that is good for poor and marginalized people.  My belief doesn’t extend universally to all the approaches set out above.  Unlike ‘openness’ or ‘open data’, transparency for accountability means a value-based commitment to a particular kind of change, one rooted in principles of human rights and fairness.  The Open Government Partnership’s definition of its purpose is rooted in these too (although that may come as a surprise given some of the governments that have been let into the OGP).  For governance to get more accountable in any country in the world, African, Asian and Latin American countries, transparency would certainly be necessary, and openness, open data, open government might contribute.

There is not enough evidence yet that transparency does have a positive impact on poor people’s lives, because of the non-linear relationships between transparency and accountability, and between accountability and better lives.  The causal chains are long and complex, and include a lot of false starts and dead ends.  Programmes like Making All Voices Count, backed by funders who are both proponents of transparency and strongly results-based in orientation, are investing considerably in building more evidence on whether it’s so and, when so, how it happens.  But in this field marked by frenetic aid, philanthropic, entrepreneurial and surveillance activity, let’s not leapfrog over the questions of what is being pursued under the heading of ‘transparency’, who is promoting it, and why.

Now that’s what I call transformation: Latin America then and now, and Tony Benn RIP

5 April, 2014 - 07:30

For those of you yet to join the twitterati, here are two images that went viral when I tweeted them recently. First up, the presidents of Brazil, Argentina and Chile, now v 1970s (h/t @rabble). Amazing, eh? It’s actually a bit messier than that- the three military dudes are all Chilean (Messrs Leigh, Pinochet and Merino), but the generals were indeed in power in Argentina and Brazil at that point.  Second, a particularly memorable set of ‘questions to the powerful’ suggested by the late Tony Benn. Enjoy.

‘How DFID Learns’. Or doesn’t. UK aid watchdog gives it a ‘poor’ (but the rest of us would probably do worse)

4 April, 2014 - 07:30

The UK Department for International Development’s independent watchdog, the  Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI), has a report out today on ‘how DFID learns’. Or doesn’t. Because the report is critical and gives DFID an overall ‘amber-red’ assessment, defined as ‘programme performs relatively poorly overall against ICAI’s criteria for effectiveness and value for money. Significant improvements should be made’.

I’m not gloating here – in my brief time working at DFID, I was struck by its investment in staff training and the general level of curiosity and intellectual enquiry. I suspect ICAI would be even more critical of NGOs and other aid organizations, so anyone working in research and development should probably spend a few minutes skimming the report.

Here’s the overall assessment:

‘DFID has allocated at least £1.2 billion for research, evaluation and personnel development (2011-15) [see graph]. It generates considerable volumes of information, much of which, such as funded research, is publicly available. DFID itself is less good at using it and building on experience so as to turn learning into action. DFID does not clearly identify how its investment in learning links to its performance and delivering better impact. DFID has the potential to be excellent at organisational learning if its best practices become common. DFID staff learn well as individuals. They are highly motivated and DFID provides opportunities and resources for them to learn. DFID is not yet, however, managing all the elements that contribute to how it learns as a single, integrated system. DFID does not review the costs, benefits and impact of learning. Insufficient priority is placed on learning during implementation. The emphasis on results can lead to a bias to the positive. Learning from both success and failure should be systematically encouraged.’

Recognize any of that? Thought so. And here are the report’s recommendations, some of which probably also sound pretty familiar:

1: DFID needs to focus on consistent and continuous organisational learning based on the experience of DFID, its partners and contractors and the measurement of its impact, in particular during the implementation phase of its activities.

2: All DFID managers should be held accountable for conducting continuous reviews from which lessons are drawn about what works and where impact is actually being achieved for intended beneficiaries.

3: All information commissioned and collected (such as annual reviews and evaluations) should be synthesised so that the relevant lessons are accessible and readily useable across the organisation. The focus must be on practical and easy-to-use information. Know-how should be valued as much as knowledge.

4: Staff need to be given more time to acquire experience in the field and share lessons about what works and does not work on the ground.

5: DFID needs to continue to encourage a culture of free and full communication about what does and does not work. Staff should be encouraged always to base their decisions on evidence, without any bias to the positive.’

Some other interesting extracts from the main 40 page report:

Staff turnover: ‘Staff are continuously leaving and joining DFID (sometimes referred to as ‘churn’). Fragile states are particularly vulnerable to high staff turnover by UK-based staff. For instance, in Afghanistan, DFID informed us that staff turnover is at a rate of 50% per year. We are aware of one project in the Democratic Republic of Congo having had five managers in five years.

This process represents both a constant gain and loss of knowledge to DFID. When staff depart DFID, their knowledge should be retained in the organisation. Similarly, when staff join DFID, their prior knowledge should be made available to others.’

Learning by failing: ‘During 2013, DFID began to discuss failure in a more open and constructive way than it had previously done. This began substantially with the February blog of the Director General for Country Programmes. Following this, a short video was produced by DFID staff in the Democratic Republic of Congo that discussed failures in a water supply improvement project. This internal video has been catalytic in stimulating discussion about how DFID should be more honest about failure. It has resulted in the introduction of ideas, such as the need to fail fast. During 2013, DFID’s Research and Evidence Division has piloted approaches to discussing failure in ‘fail faires’, where staff come together to identify what can be improved. It is too early to say whether these will support a change of culture in DFID in its attitude to learning from failure, albeit they appear to be a positive innovation.’

(not) Listening to staff and partners: ‘Junior and (even senior) locally employed DFID staff generally ‘only give our opinion if asked’. Generalist, administrative and locally employed staff are not being listened to sufficiently by DFID’s specialists. They often have much experience of how aid is delivered: know-how….. DFID staff do not appear to prioritise how they listen to others. This applies to learning internally and from external sources…. Staff believe that DFID remains too much in a mode of trying to manage or change others rather than listen to and support them.’

All good stuff, but what is lacking is any discussion of the institutional constraints to DFID being able to implement these recommendations – after all, there must be reasons why they haven’t done so already – see Neil McCulloch’s recent piece on the political economy of donors.

Finally, props to the UK government for setting up ICAI in the first place. Really impressive example of rigour, transparency and accountability (more on that topic here next week, when some T&A gurus discuss its limitations).

The link between Income Inequality and Public Services is stronger than I realized (thanks to Emma Seery for putting me straight)

3 April, 2014 - 07:30

Oxfam has been banging on to good effect recently about extreme global inequality in income and wealth. Over many years, we have also been making the case for universal health and education. It turns out the link between the two is stronger than I’d realized, according to ‘Working for the Many: Public Services fight Inequality’, a new paper published today.

We normally discuss inequality before and after tax (eg it’s progressive taxation that really brings Europe’s inequality down). But recent work published by the OECD and World Bank has put a monetary value on the ‘virtual income’ provided by public services. This produces some startling findings on inequality.

‘Public services mitigate the impact of skewed income distribution, and redistribute by putting ‘virtual income’ into everyone’s pockets. For the poorest, those on meagre salaries, though, this ‘virtual income’ can be as much as – or even more than – their actual income. On average, in OECD countries, public services are worth the equivalent of a huge 76 per cent of the post-tax income of the poorest group, and just 14 per cent of the richest. It is in the context of huge disparities of income that we see the true equalizing power of public services.

The ‘virtual income’ provided by public services reduces income inequality in OECD countries by an average of 20 per cent, and by between 10 and 20 per cent in six Latin American countries (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico and Uruguay – see graph). Evidence from the IMF, Asia, and more than 70 developing and transition countries shows the same underlying patterns in the world’s poorest countries: public services tackle inequality the world over.

In Mexico, and even in Brazil with its award-winning Bolsa Familia cash-transfer scheme, education and healthcare make double the contribution to reducing economic inequality that tax and benefits make alone. But regressive taxation in many Latin American countries, including Brazil, is undermining the potential to combat inequality through fiscal redistribution, and preventing even greater investment in health and education.

This evidence underlines a double imperative for governments: to ensure progressive taxation that can redistribute once when collected and again when spent on inequality-busting public services.’

And seen through the eyes of inequality and redistribution, the private v public debate becomes even starker:

‘Far from being a magical solution to providing universal access to health and education services, private provision of services skews their benefit towards the richest. Amongst the poorest 60 per cent of Indian women, the majority turn to public sector facilities to give birth, whilst the majority of those in the top 40 per cent give birth in a private facility. In three of the best performing Asian countries that have met or are close to meeting Universal Health Coverage – Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Hong Kong – the private sector is serving the richest far more than the poorest. Fortunately, in these cases the public sector has compensated.

Services must be free at point of delivery to reach their inequality-busting potential. Health user fees cause 150 million people around the world to suffer financial catastrophe each year. For the poorest 20 per cent of families in Pakistan, sending all children to a private low-fee school would cost approximately 127 per cent of that household’s income. The trend is the same in Malawi and in rural India.

Whereas public services provide everyone with ‘virtual income’, fighting inequality by putting more in the pockets of the poorest; user fees and private services have the opposite effect. Fees take more away from the actual income of poor people, and private services benefit the richest first and foremost. This is the wrong medicine for the inequality epidemic.’

Smart and important work by Emma Seery and colleagues.

Are ‘serious games’ a better way to prepare for climate change than scenario planning?

2 April, 2014 - 07:30

Had a nice little lightbulb moment last week, when I spoke at a meeting to launch yet another ODI paper. This one, ‘Planning for an Uncertain Future’ summarized some work by ACCRA (the Africa Climate Change Resilience Alliance), of which Oxfam is a member.

The lightbulb in question was making a connection between two issues discussed in previous blog posts: my scepticism on scenario planning, and the ‘serious game’ that game master Pablo Suarez ran for Oxfam a couple of years back. ACCRA has adapted Pablo’s approach to ‘reflective gaming’ (playing the game, but periodically breaking off to consider the implications for real life work in adapting to climate change) and is using it in workshops with district level officials and others in Ethiopia, Uganda and Mozambique to see if it can help build capacity to adapt to the increasing variability of the climate.

Scenario planners claim it prepares you for the uncertain, unpredictable world of complex systems, epitomised by climate change. But judging by the report, and the video below, gaming seems a lot more likely to achieve that aim, across a wider range of people, being both more fun and more obviously connected to real life (‘experiential’).

The ODI found that even in fairly closed, rigid planning systems (eg Ethiopia), participants came to a better understanding of the ‘wiggle room’ available to officials seeking to improve adaptive capacity. However, the limits to wiggle room can be very narrow, unless there are ‘champions of change’ at higher levels. So a good power analysis is an essential starting point (and if it establishes that only 3 or 4 people make all the decisions, it may well be worth customising a game just for those people).

The researchers identified some other interesting outcomes from game-based reflection:

  • Imagining and considering possible (not just probable) futures over long timescales;
  • Appreciating that decisions taken in isolation are usually suboptimal;
  • Understanding that there is seldom a single ‘right’ answer;
  • Accept the inevitability of short-term shocks and long-term pressures;
  • Realising that Flexible and Forward-Looking Decision Making (FFDM) ways of working involve not only the district level but also collaboration across institutional, governance and sectoral boundaries;
  • Experiencing the benefits of doing more with less (discovering synergies);
  • Gaining confidence in exploring FFDM ways of working, that is, experimenting with different strategies over the course of the game and raising difficult issues in a safe space;
  • Appreciating that there are many ways in which success can be measured or judged.

I’d also be interested in the gender aspects of this – is women’s participation more or less compared to other kinds of capacity building? Anyway, here’s a nice 5m video showing how people react to the exercise.

Anyone else using this kind of approach?

Missing in Action: Why do NGOs Shy Away From Geopolitics?

1 April, 2014 - 07:30

Didier Jacobs, my strategic adviser equivalent at Oxfam America, wonders why this blog hasn’t mentioned some of the big geopolitical events of recent weeks, and what it says about NGO advocacy.

Last month, a significant event inflected the world order: Russia invaded Crimea. Not a word about it in these columns so far.

Whether their mission is poverty alleviation, environment protection, or human rights promotion, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have extended their advocacy agenda to every global policy issue: climate change, international trade and finance, peacekeeping, international public health, migration, and so on. NGOs are knee-deep in global public policy… and yet they shy away from geopolitics.

Geopolitics is about countries competing for power in the international community. Key geopolitical questions include:

  • the prioritization of a country’s national interests
  • the allocation of its defense budget
  • the identification of its allies and enemies
  • its policy regarding the use of force.


For several years, the US foreign policy establishment has been debating bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. We have a few months of reprieve thanks to an interim agreement. Nevertheless, the possibility of US strikes against Iran remains likely.

What consequences would such strikes have on global poverty? The oil price would shoot up, which could increase food prices. Food price hikes plunged tens of millions people into extreme poverty in 2011. The nascent global economic recovery could be nipped in the bud, with social consequences everywhere. Religious and ethnic strife might worsen in a range of places. In the worst scenario, a full-scale US invasion of Iran would generate a new major – and preventable – humanitarian crisis.

What about a war in the South China Sea? Not a month goes by without more saber-rattling in that neighborhood. The Economist magazine recently charged governments as well as businesses with complacency in the face of what could become the Third World War. It could have mentioned complacent NGOs as well.

That was before Russia intervened in Crimea last month. The phrase “cold war” has now returned to the daily news. While it has somewhat shaken complacency, economic interdependence between Russia and the West is likely to contain the crisis and Crimea may soon join the list of protracted but forgotten geopolitical headaches alongside Abkhazia or South Ossetia, Kosovo or Cyprus.

However, this latest crisis is definitely going to have long-term consequences. We are witnessing cold wars unfolding in slow motion between the West and both Russia and China. It could mean the multiplication of proxy wars among world and regional powers, worsening the overload of the international humanitarian system. It could mean a retreat of civil and political rights as security resumes its status of primary imperative. It could mean a decline in international trade and finance preventing some developing countries from “emerging”.

any of our business?

Even absent deeper enmities, NGOs should be concerned about the geopolitical chess board. The 1990s witnessed significant advances in multilateralism that augured well for development, human rights and the environment: the World Trade Organization, the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol. Economic growth in China, India or Brazil is great news for global development. However, it has also stalled multilateralism in the 2000s – from G8 to G20 to G0 – as emerging powers want more say while established ones resist giving up their privileges. Addressing the failure of multilateralism is all about geopolitics.

NGOs are involved in geopolitics, but seem hesitant to embrace it. Let’s examine how they handle the four key geopolitical questions posed above.

Prioritization of national interests: the one that NGOs address best. Environmental organizations advocate for environmental issues to top the list in every country, and they can provide specific policy advice on what it means. Likewise, every mission-driven NGO has its own priorities: human rights, women’s rights, agriculture, etc.

The problem is that when everything is important, nothing is important. Political parties and elections arbitrate between priorities at the national level. In many countries, national NGO platforms and big coalition campaigns do a decent job at influencing national priorities. At the global level, the UN General Assembly and the G20 are the closest things we have to an assembly and Senate that set global policy priorities. There is a modicum of coordination among global coalitions of NGOs to influence these priorities, but it has lost cohesion and effectiveness since the heyday of Make Poverty History.

Cohesive and effective?

Influencing defense policy: largely absent from NGOs’ agenda. Yet it is at the top of the agenda of those who really set the pecking order of national interests and define foreign policy. There are many grassroots peace networks bereft of resources (loosely coordinated by United for Peace and Justice in the US), but relatively few professional NGOs specifically dedicated to peace (such as Peace Action in the US). Even those peace NGOs are of modest size compared to their environmental or human rights counterparts. Their common agenda is disarmament, but they generally lack defense expertise.

Identifying allies and enemies: for NGOs, the very proposition seems preposterous. Leaving aside diaspora associations influencing relations between their home and host countries (like the National Iranian American Council), NGOs are part of networks that are truly transnational. They are above the geopolitics that divides countries. It is great indeed that NGOs from all over the world can work in solidarity. However, international enmity does exist out there. In the absence of a vigorous campaign embraced by NGOs of all stripes, the American foreign policy establishment has won the argument that Iran (and tomorrow China?) is an enemy of the United States.

Which leads us to the fourth geopolitical question: when should countries use force? Human rights and humanitarian NGOs defend international law. They are more interested in jus in bello (restraining the use of force to protect civilians) than jus ad bellum (justifying, or not, the use of force in the first place).

Humanitarianism is not geopolitically neutral. Aid can change the dynamics of conflicts. Humanitarian organizations are aware of that and constantly grapple with it. While seeking access to populations in need, they must be careful not to be instrumentalized by conflicting parties as well as by donors under the guise of counter-terrorism or campaigns to “win hearts and minds”.

Some humanitarian NGOs push the envelope by advocating for arms embargoes, ceasefires, and peace negotiations. But they are either ill-equipped or unwilling to influence the substance of such negotiations. Other NGOs specialize in conflict resolution and mediation, the International Crisis Group prominent among them. They provide analysis of the underlying causes of conflicts, advise governments, and sometimes participate directly in diplomacy by mediating between conflicting parties. On the other hand, they hardly engage the public through advocacy campaigns. So their influence is limited to the quality of their analysis and negotiation skills.

Pushing the envelope even further and treading on jus ad bellum, human rights and humanitarian organizations have advocated for the responsibility to protect civilians. When states fail to protect their citizens, some NGOs occasionally call for international military intervention. While the responsibility to protect is a sound principle, in practice there are not many cases where international force can do more good than harm. (On the other hand, humanitarianism is often instrumentalized for darker designs, like Russia’s protection of Russian-speaking Crimeans.)

Last but not least, the World Federalist Movement champions the criminalization of aggression and thereby addresses the question of the use of force head on. Nevertheless, by approaching the use of force from a legal and transnational perspective without regard to the international enmities that underlie aggressions, it somehow manages to remain above geopolitics, not engaged in it.

Meanwhile, the NGO community remains silent about Ukraine and other shifts of the tectonic plates of geopolitics that underpin future conflicts, like the arms race in East Asia.

NGOs should be conscious that they are geopolitical actors, and reflect on ways in which they can better mitigate the harmful aspects of nations’ competition for power.

Any suggestions for how to do this?

The World Bank tackles Mind and Culture: heads up on the next World Development Report

31 March, 2014 - 08:30

Even though annual reports by the many fragments of the multilateral system have proliferated in recent years (I can’t keep up any more), the World Bank’s World Development Report still stands head and shoulders above the rest. And the next one’s theme, WDR 2015: Mind and Culture, due out in November this year, is pretty eye catching. And welcome. There’s not much to read on the report website just yet, so it was useful to get a briefing from WDR team member Steve Commins on his way through London last week (thanks to Save the Children International for hosting the lunchtime meeting, but please don’t put the crisps next to me in future).

According to the brief blurb on the WDR website:

‘The World Development Report 2015 is based on three main ideas: bounds on rationality, which limit individuals’ ability to process information and lead them to rely on rules of thumb; social interdependence, which leads people to care about other people as well as the social norms of their communities; and culture, which provides mental models that influence what individuals pay attention to, perceive, and understand (or misunderstand).

The report has two main goals:

To change the way we think about development problems by integrating knowledge that is now scattered across many disciplines, including behavioral economics, psychology, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, and political science.

To help development practitioners use the richer understanding of the human actor that emerges from the behavioral sciences in program design, implementation, and evaluation.

The central argument of the Report is that policy design that takes into account psychological and cultural factors will achieve development goals faster.  The main tools — affecting prices through taxes, subsidies, and investments; regulating and legislating; and providing information — all remain relevant. But once considered from the perspectives of bounded rationalitysocial norms, and cultural categories, each tool becomes more complex and more nuanced.’

The conversation at Save highlighted some of the big questions that are likely to surround the report:

Maximalist v Minimalist: Is this just about being more effective at what we are already doing (the Nudge school of benevolent paternalism aimed at things like getting parents to send kids to school) or about doing different things? In economist-speak, is this just about building better utility functions? Steve cited a colleague’s interesting concept of ‘autonomy-enhancing paternalism’ – yes the uppers are trying to influence the lowers, but the intention is to encourage autonomy (literacy, organization, empowerment) rather than automata.

Paradigm shift or new toolkit?: As set out by Steve, the WDR will argue for a fundamental shift to better and more consistently take into account culture, beliefs, and the rich and exciting world beyond the arid reductionism of homo economicus (my word’s not Steve’s). However, busy policy makers always ask ‘what do I do differently on Monday morning.’ For once, I’m going to go with the paradigm shifters – I think the report should concentrate on setting out the big picture, not getting bogged down in producing a new checklist, which will inevitably drag into towards the minimalist end of the spectrum.

Diagnostics: Mind and Culture could open the door to seeing the world in very different ways from the monetary. How do we map different realities – power? Trust? Wellbeing? Faith?

What level of aid biz navel gazing? Clearly mind and culture is about ‘us’ as much as about ‘them’, how do bounded rationality, social interdependence and mental models help/hinder the typical World Bank (or Oxfam) staffer from being effective in helping people free themselves from poverty?

Who’s the Real Target Audience? Seems to me that the obvious one is yet-to-be-enlightened economists of the rational expectations school. If so, then the report’s content, tone, governance, comms etc should all be tailored accordingly.

Steve came up with a nice soundbite: ‘vinegar v honey – which one attracts the flies?’ to argue that first caricaturing, then slagging off ‘mainstream economists’ is a really terrible way to influence….. mainstream economists. Instead, why not try ‘Hey, here’s the future way of thinking about the human condition: it’s already everywhere in the broader social sciences; it’s already being used by many economists in their work and is only going to expand. We’re going to help you understand it and explain what it means for your work.’ But there will be difficult choices – how far should the report go in diluting a message to make it acceptable to recalcitrant MEs (again, my words)?

Gender: You could write the whole of a WDR on Mind and Culture simply on gender, and I kind of hope they will. Perfect illustration of the limitations of orthodox thinking and the importance of everything else.

Results: the big one. According to Steve, ‘The challenge with all this is that it never easily fits results-based management. We have absorbed this cult of results across the aid business, but many or most important ones cannot be put into a logframe. It’s one of the key aspects of the ‘so whats’ in the report – we’ve all been going in the wrong direction, here’s a better way.’

I could go on (and doubtless will, at some point). The point being that the potential is huge. But we have been here before. WDR’s regularly sound brilliant in the initial stages, then somehow the grind of writing, debate and Bank sign-off produces an all too recognizable World Bank sausage by the end of the process. I hope they can retain some of the originality through to the end product.

Some WDRs leave a lasting legacy; others think without trace. At the moment, I’m optimistic about this one.

And here’s what Robert Chambers has to say on it.

Have we just squandered a good crisis, and a golden opportunity to kick-start climate action?

28 March, 2014 - 08:30

For years I, along with others like Alex Evans, have been saying ‘the politics of global carbon reduction is stuck, it will require a major climate shock in the rich countries to unblock it’. The argument is that major scandals, crises etc are required to create a sense of urgency, undermine coalitions of blockers, and convince everyone that a new approach is needed. The classic examples often involve wars and conflicts – the consolidation of the British 

welfare state after World War Two, or the transformation of Rwandan politics after the 1994 genocide.

Well we’ve seen some pretty impressive weather shocks in the US and Europe in recent weeks – how is our prediction doing?

The floods have shifted public opinion a bit (see bar chart – before and after major floods spread across the UK, with accompanying analysis by Peter Kellner – the numbers are a bit old, anyone got anything more recent?). That tells us that more people think the floods are to do with climate change, but not whether they therefore give it greater political salience, which is what is needed for faster action. We’ll have to wait a couple of months to get the data on that.

But what struck me was the fragmented and ineffective response from the people who ought to have been ‘not letting a good crisis go to waste’ (Rahm Emmanuel). Politicians wandered around in their wellies pointing at water, or argued about dredging the rivers and spending more on flood defences. The occasional ‘we told you so’ banner was unfurled for the cameras, but nothing on a par with the US environmental campaigns around 2012’s superstorm Sandy. Where was the concerted, pre-planned (it’s not as if we didn’t know the floods would get worse) shock response that was called for? What could have been done better? And did I miss it, or has a similar opportunity gone begging with the Polar Vortex in the US? How about:

-          A climate summit/tribunal, pulling together academics, religious organizations, local governments etc etc to review the evidence

-          Parliamentary hearings, eg Select Committee enquiries into the causes of the floods

-          Putting together coalitions of unusual suspects to raise the issues’ public profile (eg bishops and reinsurers)

-          Did the various research outfits with prior work on this drop everything and repackage that work with links to the floods?

Overall, the level of response feels far weaker than that before the Copenhagen Climate Summit back in 2009 – have campaigners have got trapped in a climate diplomacy ‘land of the linear’, and lost their ability to seize opportunities like that presented by the flood?

There are other explanations of course. People rightly deplore blatant ambulance chasing and opportunism, but there must be a way to overcome that, e.g. combining climate change discussion with volunteering to help those affected. The obvious response is to wait for a decent interval, but that carries a high price in terms of a lost opportunity to grab the media spotlight for a crucial issue.

It’s more than likely that a lot of these things did actually happen, and I just missed them – I’m sure lots of discussions took place among climate change campaigners about how to respond. But if the response had been effective, I wouldn’t be writing this post. It may be about scale of response – did campaigners do a few stunts and press releases, but basically carry on as normal, or did they react to the advocacy equivalent of a major humanitarian disaster (think Asian tsunami), and drop all their other plans to focus on this? Would love to hear from those involved about the obstacles they encountered – do we need to rethink the ‘shocks as drivers of change’ hypothesis?

It’s also perhaps the case that the floods, damaging though they are, have just not been severe enough to unblock the political paralysis (I’ve had similar thoughts on the global financial crisis).

What do you think?

Can a Political Economy Approach explain aid donors’ reluctance to think and work politically? Guest post from Neil McCulloch

27 March, 2014 - 08:30

The more enlightened (in my view) aid types have been wagging their fingers for decades, telling their colleagues to adopt more politically literate approaches to their work. Why isn’t everyone convinced? Neil McCulloch applies a bit of political economy analysis to the aid business.

Over the last fifteen years or more, a new approach to development assistance has been gaining ground in policy circles.  Broadly entitled the “political economy” approach, it attempts to apply a more political approach to understanding development problems and, importantly, development “solutions”.  In particular, a central tenet of the approach is that many development problems are fundamentally political rather than technical and that therefore solutions to these problems are most likely to come from inside a country’s polity than from outside.  Perhaps the most famous recent example of this line of thinking is Acemoglu and Robinson’s 2012 book Why Nations Fail.

Acemoglu and Robinson conclude that if each nation’s fate depends primarily on its domestic political struggles, the role for external development assistance is minimal.  However, the response of practitioners to this field is to turn this argument on its head i.e. that is, if indeed each nation’s fate depends primarily on its domestic political struggles, development assistance should be trying to influence these struggles in ways that make pro-development outcomes more likely.  Yet despite more than a decade analysis, the political economy “approach” is still rarely used by donors in the field.  Why?  I think there are four reasons:

It’s too “political”.  Perhaps the main reason why political economy approaches are not widely used is the (correct) perception that they are, in some sense, meddling in the politics of the country.  Donors presence in a country is at the permission of the host government who, almost by definition, constitute the winning elite of the most recent political struggle within the country.  Most governments are generally not sympathetic to the idea of foreign governments funding “political” activities in their countries and, knowing this, most donors emphasise the benign, technical and apolitical nature of their work.  This is why the dominant form of political economy work is Political Economy Analysis.  Donors like this because it provides them with some insight into the political dynamics of the countries in which they work so that they can assess the risks of their programs failing because they go against the interests of local political actors. Indeed, if it is appears at all, political economy considerations generally only appear in the Risk Assessment section of project concepts and designs.

It spends too little money.  Although donors pursue particular development goals within the countries in which they work, they do so by spending public money.  In practice, this means that each country is allocated a certain budget and most of the practical activity of donor staff is associated with the mechanics of spending this money in an accountable fashion.  Moreover, more “important” countries are allocated larger budgets, in part because the politicians of donor countries use the size of the budget to signal to the government of the country the importance with which their country regards the bilateral relationship.  Yet the “political economy approach” to assistance generally entails building networks and facilitating discussions across a range of local actors who then, themselves, push forward reform agendas.  This requires a lot of time and effort – but it spends much less money than building schools and hospitals.  Indeed it would be almost impossible for donors to spend the sums of money at their disposal simply with a political economy approach and yet scaling back the budget to cover only the amounts necessary would result in a budget for assistance which might be seen as derisory by the host government.

It lacks an operational evidence base.  A huge amount has been written about the political economy of development.  However, the vast majority of it has been descriptive or analytical – very little of it has been operational (an exception is ODI’s work on the political economy of service delivery).  Therefore, although there are some promising examples of success (e.g. the Asia Foundation’s approach in the Philippines), there is currently little solid evidence that taking a “political economy approach” actually yields better and more sustainable outcomes than a more traditional approach.  The Developmental Leadership Program is currently coordinating a set of case studies which aim to explore precisely this issue; but until we have clear evidence, it is not surprising that many donor staff are cautious about adopting what is seen by some as a risky and unproven approach.

There is no sanction for quiet failure.  Donor projects sometimes fail.  Most donors put in place a complex architecture of processes to try to minimise the probability of failure (e.g. rigorous, and lengthy, design processes, regular monitoring and independent evaluations).  Yet despite this, it is extremely hard for most donors to determine the extent of success or failure of the portfolio of programs that they fund in a country.  In part, this is because measuring success is difficult since the situation if the assistance had not been provided is often unknown.  It is also because donor projects are often long (five years or more), whilst the tenure of donor staff in a country is generally short (three years or less), so few staff see projects through the entire cycle.  And it is also because it is not possible (and probably not desirable) to have sanctions for failure.  Unless projects “blow up”, it is perfectly possible for them to continue for years, delivering “results” by substituting for local capacity without achieving any sustainable change.  Without a general sense that projects are failing to deliver sustainable change, there is little pressure for a new approach.

It is easy to see that an approach that seeks to tackle an unrecognised failure using a new, labour intensive method with little track record that spends small amounts of money and may get the donor into political hot water is unlikely to be embraced too enthusiastically by the senior management of most donors.  Which is a shame – because it should.  Contrary to popular belief, Aid has achieved a lot of good in the last 50 years (see Roger Riddell’s nuanced account); but where it has done so, it has often been because it has engaged “politically”, changing the incentives for local actors to deliver sustainable changes in the opportunities for and services to the poor.  An approach that subordinates money to a thorough understanding of context and a desire for sustainable results will achieve more in the long-run than the current focus on “delivering” (i.e. buying) results. Sadly, the political economy of donor incentives means that it will probably remain a marginal pursuit.


Alternatives to Neoliberalism? A retro conversation with the British Left and Ha-Joon Chang

26 March, 2014 - 08:30

Had a fun and slightly retro evening last week launching ‘Critique, Influence, Change’, a new series of Zed Books (actually new editions of some of their old books), along with my friend and guru Ha-Joon Chang and Ellie Mae O’Hagan, a smart young Guardian columnist/activist in Occupy and UK Uncut. The Zed series includes a new edition of Ha-Joon’s 2004 book Reclaiming Development (with Ilene Grabel).

The topic was ‘alternatives to neoliberalism’, hence the retro – haven’t heard that phrase for a while. Back in the 1990s, I was writing books on Latin America with whole chapters devoted to the topic. Then, the debate was between alternatives within capitalism, and alternatives outside it. These days, most discussions seem to be happening within the first category (with the notable exception of the whole planetary boundaries/limits to growth debate).

Why? Because it has become increasingly clear that neoliberalism is only one variant of capitalism, and not a very successful one at that. The rise of state capitalism (China), the rediscovery of the need for an activist state (industrial policy) and the spectacular financial crashes of 1998 (Asia) and 2008 (everywhere) means that the old anglo-saxon doctrine of ‘state bad, market good and if it moves, deregulate it’ doesn’t hold much weight any more.

But as Ellie Mae said, quoting Žižek, ’these days, it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’ In Latin America, there seems to have been lots of progress over the last 20 years in constructing new kinds of politics and social movements, but economic policy ideas don’t stretch far beyond resource nationalism (Venezuela, Bolivia) and cautious, market-friendly social democracy (Brazil). In Africa, there’s been lots of progress on human development, some on governance, but most economies are even more dependent than ever on digging up and exporting everything that lies beneath African soil (and sea). Asia is pursuing various forms of capitalism, but experimenting more with social policy. There are plenty of ideas (eg the ‘social and solidarity economy’) at local level, but they have not gelled into national alternatives, as far as I can see.

As for Oxfam, we increasingly focus on promoting poor people’s ‘power in markets’, eg supporting women to enter the money economy on better terms, or strengthening producer organizations to get a better deal.

Q&A centred on people lamenting the state of the British Left (or even whether such a thing still exists). Not really my field, but hopefully the much more positive lessons from elsewhere in the world eased their pain. I was particularly struck by a discussion on culture v politics. Culture is a crucial part of building any movement – people come together partly because they find they have things in common in terms of experience (frustration, oppression) and values (faith, purpose). They should celebrate and build on those.

But problems start when that becomes a substitute for political action – politics as lifestyle statement can become hugely self defeating. John O’Farrell’s hilarious book on the British Left under Margaret Thatcher recalls (only half jokingly) a time when even smiling and eating vegetables came to be seen as somehow Tory. We need to have the confidence to talk to, understand, even empathise with people who don’t share our values, and build alliances with them. Discomfort is good, circling the wagons around a lifestyle is not. Or as Ellie put it ‘’Activism fails when it becomes a lifestyle, cloaked in jargon.’

I did my usual thing about how the role of activists is often to clarify a problem to get it on the agenda, rather than delude ourselves that we have the policy solutions to fix it – a good killer fact is worth many unread pages of recommendations, as our recent KFs on inequality demonstrate.

A trade campaigner retorted that it’s pretty weak to go into meetings or press interviews and say ‘there’s a problem, but I have no answers’. What alternatives are there? On trade, Ha-Joon Chang demonstrates one brilliant alternative – the lessons of history. When he wrote Kicking Away the Ladder, the discussion on trade and globalization was largely taking place in a  vacuum, dominated by voodoo modelling rather than learning from what successful countries actually did on trade policy. I watched Ha-Joon transform the morale of developing country delegates at the WTO simply by pointing out the extraordinary historical hypocricy of the rich countries (who pioneered industrial policy and protectionism) in telling them to liberalize.

If you want more, check out the collected tweets and pics – the new (and much more accessible) version of minutes.

Stop Press: Prospect Magazine is a World Thinkers’ poll, which includes Ha-Joon – you know what to do.

Update: Zed’s put together this rather nice 15m video of our discussion

Why the system for managing the world’s food and climate needs to be more like my car

25 March, 2014 - 08:30

Today, Oxfam is publishing a briefing on its ‘food and climate justice’ campaign. Here’s a post I wrote for the launch.

When I get into my car in London, I step into a system designed to get me safely from A to B. It has seat belts, airbags, and an increasing

Now for food and climate…..

number of electronic warning devices. The traffic system has rules – speed limits, highway codes, traffic lights, enforced by cameras and cops. In countries that have introduced such systems, the result is falling casualty rates, despite rising traffic volumes.

All this effort to ensure a safe traffic system, so you would think that much more elaborate mechanisms would be in place to ensure that the world fulfils the much more elemental task of feeding its people.

You would be wrong. Ahead of next week’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) evidence on climate change and global hunger, a new report from Oxfam analyses the state of readiness of the global food system, as it confronts a changing climate, and it arrives at some alarming conclusions.

Already this year there have been a number of record-breaking weather events around the globe, which have badly affected agriculture and the availability and affordability of food. In Brazil, the worst drought in a decade has ruined crops in the country’s breadbasket region – including the valuable coffee harvest, causing the price of coffee to shoot up by 50 per cent. In California the worst drought in over 100 years is hitting the state’s agricultural industry, which produces nearly half of all the vegetables, fruits and nuts grown in the US.

These extreme weather events are in line with what scientists have been telling us to expect from a warming climate. Leaked drafts of the IPCC report conclude that the impact of climate change on global hunger will be worse than previously reported, and severe impacts will be felt in current, not future, generations– in the next 20–30 years in the poorest countries.

According to the IPCC, net global agricultural yields are likely to decrease by up to 2% per decade due to climate change, while demand for food (driven by rising affluence and populations) will rise by 14% a decade. It doesn’t take a climate scientist to realize that these numbers don’t add up.

The Oxfam stress test for a ‘hot and hungry’ global food system rates 10 critical areas of national and global food and climate policy: funding for adaptation to climate change (a hot topic in the UK following recent floods); social protection programmes for the most vulnerable groups; humanitarian aid for food crises; food reserves; support for women farmers; public investment in agriculture and related research; crop insurance and weather monitoring.

Across all ten areas, the stress test found a serious gap between what is happening and what is needed.  These gaps in preparedness are driven by poverty, power and politics.  While many countries – both rich and poor – are inadequately prepared for the impact of climate change on food, it is the world’s poorest and most food insecure countries that are generally the least prepared for and most susceptible to harmful climate change.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Countries such as Ghana, Viet Nam and Malawi are bucking the trend, enjoying far higher levels of food security than countries such as Nigeria, Laos and Niger, which have similar levels of income and face comparable magnitudes of climate change. A key difference is that Ghana, Viet Nam and Malawi have already taken action on some of the 10 key policy and practice measures highlight in the report.

Oxfam is calling for urgent action by governments, business and individuals to stop climate change making people hungry. This includes building people’s resilience to hunger and climate change, rapidly cutting greenhouse gas emissions, international action on climate change, and political and personal action at an individual level.

It’s a tall order, but the alternative hardly bears thinking about. Unless we act now, we face a species climate crash of horrific proportions.

And here’s the inevitable infographic


What have we learned on getting public services to poor people? What’s next?

24 March, 2014 - 08:30

Ten years after the World Development Report 2004, the ODI’s Marta Foresti reflects on the past decade and implications for the future

Why do so many countries still fail to deliver adequate services to their citizens? And why does this problem persist even in countries with rapid economic growth and relatively robust institutions or policies?

This was the problem addressed by the World Bank’s ground-breaking 2004 World Development Report (WDR) Making Services Work for Poor People. At its core was the recognition that politics and accountability are vital to improve services, and that aid donors ignore this at their peril. Ten years on, these issues are still at the heart of the development agenda, as discussed at the anniversary conference organised jointly by ODI and the World Bank in late February.

As much as this was a moment to celebrate the influence of the WDR 2004 on a decade of development thinking and practice, it also highlighted just how far we have to go before every citizen around the world has access to good quality basic services such as education, health, water and electricity.

Let’s begin with what we learned from WDR 2004 and what we know better today as a result of the work of the last ten years. First off is the role of information in improving accountability for service delivery. As Leni Wild suggests in her reflections on the conference, there has been real progress in understanding not only what types of information can be used and by whom, but also in how information can foster accountability. Ten years on, there is widespread agreement that while important, information alone rarely leads to improved services, and a growing awareness that it is incentives that matter if politicians and service providers are to act on information and data. In other words, information is a necessary but not sufficient condition for change.

Related to this, Ruth Levine of the Hewlett Foundation was among those who noted the progress made in the past decade in the research and quality of evidence on service delivery. This is the result, in part, of greater interest and investment in impact evaluation and randomised control trials (RCTs) that provide vital insights on what works to improve services in different contexts and – to a lesser extent – on why. However the mood at the conference was not one of hype around RCTs and other experimental approaches: much as they provide relevant evidence, they fail to explain the complex relationship between contextual factors, institutional arrangements, programmes and their outcomes. Lant Pritchett from CGD summed this up neatly in his blog last November: ‘RCTs are one hammer in the development toolkit and previously protruding nails were ignored for lack of a hammer, but not every development problem is a nail.’

Shanta Devarajan, Director of the WDR 2004, reminded us of one of its key lessons: that money alone is not enough to fix public service delivery problems and that, by extension, aid plays only a minor role. Countries undergoing fast economic growth, such as Nigeria, still fail to provide access to education to many poor girls and even Brazil – seen as a world leader on improving services to the poor – faces trade-offs between a pro-poor tax system and improved education and health.

Despite the influence of WDR 2004 on development thinking and practice over the past ten years, thorny issues remain that still need attention and, most importantly, far more debate. This will demand open minds and a real desire to break down disciplinary barriers, a step-by-step approach, experimentation with new ideas, and a willingness to acknowledge and learn from failure.

The first thorny issue is the role of the private sector in delivering services, which was a much debated theme: the evidence may show promising results and outcomes, but can we really expect the private sector to substitute for improved public institutions? And what are the implications for the long-term sustainability of services for the poor? Most importantly, where states are weak, their markets are also often weak, casting doubt on the notion of markets as a short cut to accountability. Public and private provision is not a matter of ‘either/or’: they are inter-related and this close relationship requires more analysis.

Lant Pritchett put forward the second challenge for the next ten years: public services should be for all, the poor, of course, but also the middle classes. When service delivery is abysmal right across the social spectrum, the focus on the poor might miss important opportunities to identify a significant and powerful constituency for change amongst the ‘elites’.

The third thorny issue is human behaviour and all the assumptions that surround it. The forthcoming WDR 2015, Mind and Culture, focuses on social norms and behaviour and there is much expectation that behavioural economics (which, as Ruth Levine reminded us, used to be called psychology) will shed some light on our preconceptions about how we attempt to induce better behaviour among politicians, as well as service providers and ourselves.

But I am not convinced that this alone will get us to the root of how political incentives work, let alone broader questions about risk-taking individuals and their chances of thriving in fundamentally risk-averse bureaucracies. We need to look at the role of social and political organisation, and in particular the kind of organisation that permits collective action to unblock processes of reform and change.

Which leads me to my final – and most important – point:  the politics of it all. The conference ended with a clear indication of what the future holds: politics is not only part of the problem, but also of the solution. Working around politics rather than with it does not work: meaningful education reform cannot happen despite teachers’ unions, but in negotiation with them. Equally, efforts to stimulate the voice of citizens and their demand for services only work when they are met with equal efforts to better understand the incentives and decision-making logic of the politicians and civil servants responsible for the delivery of those services. As Alison Evans put it, via Michael Rosen’s iconic bear hunt: ‘We can’t go over it, We can’t go under it; Oh no, we have to go through it’

Above all, there is a need for a healthy dose of humility about the role of external actors in what are, fundamentally, domestically driven political processes.

Killer factcheck: ‘Women own 2% of land’ = not true. What do we really know about women and land?

21 March, 2014 - 08:30

Cheryl Doss, a feminist economist at Yale University argues that (as with ‘70% of the world’s poor are women‘ ) we need to stop using the unfounded ‘women own 2% of the world’s farmland’ stat, and start using some of the real numbers that are emerging (while also demanding much better gender data).

For advocates, nothing is better than having a powerful statistic at your disposal to use in support of a cause. In the world of women’s property rights advocacy, there’s one statistic cited by advocates more than the rest:  Women own less than 2 percent of the world’s land.  It certainly is a great rallying cry to mobilize people in support of equal land rights.

If only the statistic were true.

Don’t get me wrong – worldwide, women do not own anywhere near the amount of property that men do. But this statistic and its variations, often repeated by women’s rights advocacy groups including Oxfam and Action Aid, is actually unsubstantiated and advocates are doing a disservice to their own cause by using it.

Women’s land rights are critically important. We know that they are correlated with increased empowerment and better outcomes for women and children. When women have a secure claim to land, they are less vulnerable when their husband dies or leaves.

Yet, using unsubstantiated statistics for advocacy is counterproductive.  Advocates lose credibility by making claims that are inaccurate and slow down progress towards achieving their goals because without credible data, they also can’t measure changes.  As some countries work towards improving women’s property rights, advocates need to be using numbers that reflect these changes – and hold governments accountable where things are static or getting worse. For example, the Demographic and Health Surveys, the leading source of nationally representative data on health and population, now ask women and men (of reproductive age) in ten African countries whether or not they own land. Their data shows a far more complicated and diverse landscape than is reflected by the statistic above.

The percentage of women reporting that they own land ranges from 11% in Senegal to 54% in Rwanda and Burundi.  But these numbers must be compared with those for men: The comparable figures for men are 28% in Senegal and 55% in Rwanda and 64% in Burundi.  The largest gender gap in land ownership is in Uganda, where the share of men who own land is 21 percentage points higher than that for women. The gender gaps are much larger if we consider only land that is owned solely (individually), by a man or woman, rather than include both sole and joint land ownership.  By having a more accurate picture of where women have more or less property rights, advocates can more effectively leverage their resources to achieve their goals.

Percentage of Women and Men (of reproductive age) Who Own Land

Country (year)






% of households owning any agricultural land


% who own any land

(sole or joint)

% who own any land

(sole only)


% who own any land

(sole or joint)

% who  any land (sole only)

Burkina Faso (2010)






Burundi (2010)






Ethiopia (2011)






Lesotho (2009)






Malawi (2010)






Rwanda (2010)






Senegal (2010–11)






Tanzania (2010)






Uganda (2011)






Zimbabwe (2010–11)






Source:  DHS data compiled in Doss et al.

The good news is that data is slowly becoming available. In a recent paper that I coauthored, we use data from several new sources to examine the issue of women’s land ownership.  In addition, to the DHS data that we compiled above and that from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s women’s land rights database, we use the recent Living Standards Measurement Studies Integrated Surveys on Agriculture (LSMS-ISA).  While the DHS data tells us the percentage of women and men who own land, the LSMS-ISA surveys provide plot level data on ownership and management for six countries in Africa.  These surveys allow us to analyze what share of land is owned by women.  These are two very different perspectives on women’s land ownership, but they tell similar stories.

The plot level data allows us to consider whether land is owned by men, women, or jointly by men and women. In all six countries, women own less land than men, but the patterns differ across countries and vary depending on the definition of ownership that is used.

These new data sources point to key issues that need to be addressed, including the importance of defining whether we are interested in statistics on women (i.e. what percentage of women own land) or on land (i.e. what percentage of land is owned by women).  They also point to the importance of considering both sole and joint ownership.

As next steps, we can do two things.  First, we can stop using statistics that are unsubstantiated, even if they convey an important truth.  Women do own less land than men – and we can provide more details for some countries.  But we don’t have a global figure.

So, what can we say?  The best approach is to make a general claim and then provide numbers on a specific country or region for which data is available. Here’s some possibilities:

  • Globally, more men than women own land. On average, across 10 countries in Africa, 39% of women and 48% of men report owning land, including both individual and joint ownership.  Only 12% of women report owning land individually, while 31% of men do so. (note that these data only include men and women of reproductive age.)
  • More of the privately owned land is reported as being owned by men than by women.  In Niger, only 9% of the land is reported as owned by women, 29% jointly by men and women and 62% by men.  In Tanzania, only 16% of the land is reported as owned by women, 39% jointly by men and women and 48% by men.  In Ethiopia, 15% of the documented land ownership is reported as owned by women, 39% by men and women jointly, and 45% by men.

Second, we can advocate for better data.  In surveys that ask, “Does anyone in the household own any land?”  a follow up question that asks “Who owns the land?” would allow us to exponentially increase our understanding of the gendered patterns of land ownership.   Yes, we need to consider the local context and what is meant by ownership; but this simple first step will go a long way toward providing an accurate statistic advocates can use to strengthen women’s land rights.

Cheryl Doss is a Senior Lecturer in African Studies and Economics at Yale University and a Public Voices Fellow at The Op-Ed Project.

From Duncan: Anyone know the origins of the 2% figure? Always instructive to track down the origins of these stats. Also, here’s a nice 2 minute video for International Women’s Day with (I think) some more reliable gender inequality stats (h/t Richard King).


Is ‘Getting to Zero’ really feasible? The new Chronic Poverty Report

20 March, 2014 - 08:30

OK, I think we’ll draw a veil over the slightly disappointing migration wonkmassacre wonkfirstroundknockout wonkwar and get on with other stuff.

The latest Chronic Poverty Report (2014-15) was released last week, and I urge you to take a look. It’s a goldmine of analysis, case studies and graphics (too many for this post, I’ll have to tweet the extras).  The subtitle, ‘the road to zero extreme poverty’ is an attempt to influence the post2015 discussion, which is increasingly talking about ‘getting to zero’: eradicating extreme poverty for the first time in history, with 2030 a likely target date. For several years, the Chronic Poverty network has been thinking and writing about how to actually do that, so I hope the post2015 crowd listens.

Chronic poverty is different from general poverty: it describes the subset of poor people, (up to 500 million of them), who live permanently below the $1.25 poverty line, often for generations. They consist of a kaleidoscope of excluded groups – children, casual labourers, smallholder farmers, disabled people, indigenous minorities, downtrodden castes, widows, remote communities, the elderly, people with mental health problems, and often an intersecting combination of these.

The standard development recipe of growth + jobs may work for some of these, but not all. How do you help a disabled elderly woman escape from poverty? Microfinance or job creation aren’t going to do the trick: previous reports have stressed the importance of social protection and public services. This one adds more on ending discrimination and the social norms that justify it.

But the most striking message I took away from this report is actually not strictly about chronic poverty. Household-panel surveys in many countries now allow you to track households over a number of years. They show a strikingly high percentage of families that escape from poverty, only to fall back (see chart). The report argues that preventing people falling back in this way is a ‘low hanging fruit’ in poverty reduction, often ignored by policy makers and donors.

This picture of volatility (nicely illustrated with some very powerful life histories dotted around the report) means that in some countries, it may be more effective to concentrate on preventing escapees from falling back, while in others, helping them escape in the first place may be a better investment. The report suggests policies for different combinations of poverty and ‘impoverishment’ (risk of falling back) – see table.

The report doesn’t stop there, it also looks at how to maintain the escape from poverty of those that escape for good (after all, who would want to get to $1.26 a day and stay there?). Policies should pursue three separate but interdependent objectives – the zero poverty ‘tripod’’: tackling chronic poverty, stopping impoverishment (sliding back) and sustaining poverty escapes.

The report argues that ‘There are three policies that address all three legs of this tripod. All three are needed if the eradication of extreme poverty is to be sustained, and all three require massive global investment.  They are social assistance, education and pro-poorest economic growth. For other, more leg-specific policies, see graphic.

This is where, for me, the report loses its focus a bit, and the launch meeting in which I took part last week only confirmed these doubts. Sure, if you want to get to zero and stay there, you have to attack all 3 legs of the tripod with equal zeal. But in practice, governments and donors have only limited cash, and it seems to me entirely plausible that there are trade-offs between the three pillars of the tripod. So even if they are well intentioned, decision makers are bound to ask ‘what will give us the most poverty reduction for our buck?’ My reading of this report is that in some contexts, its answer would be that prevention (stopping people sliding back) provides a better social return on investment than cure (getting previously poor people above the poverty line). The report may have scored on own goal, inadvertently making the case for not targeting the chronically poor in some situations.

I think it was pushed in this direction both by the fascinating findings from the panel data, and the urge to hop aboard the post2015 bandwagon (you probably know what I think about that one). When I asked ODI’s Andrew Shepherd, the lead author of the report, he acknowledged ‘we strayed deliberately because of Getting to Zero’. But as far as I can see, they didn’t have to. It would have been fine to say ‘if you want to get to zero, there is a huge obstacle you have to overcome – chronic poverty. Here’s what you have to do for that elderly, disabled woman and the 500 million like her. The report could have developed some of its really interesting thinking on tackling the social norms that underpin exclusion and policy neglect, or its concept of ‘pro poorest economic growth’ (focussed on informal economy and migrant labourers).

Instead, including both the churners and the escapers has turned the report into a report about poverty and development in general. It’s actually a rather good one at that, but lots of other people cover that ground, and I regret the loss of focus on the chronically poor.

The launch debate highlighted another intriguing gap in the report. Following on from its definition of extreme poverty as less than $1.25 per head, it has a rather individualistic vision of the problem. It discusses collective action as a means to reduce poverty, but does not see association as an aspect of well being – it doesn’t seem that interested in issues of association (families, communities, social capital).

Don’t get me wrong, the report is a must read, breaking lots of new grounds, with a strong focus on government action (aid is a relatively minor presence), the need to understand the political economy of marginalization, and skilfully bridges the humanitarian and development siloes, while bringing in perspectives from economics and anthropology (when was the last time you saw witchcraft mentioned in one of these reports?).

I hope once the post2015 circus moves on, the Chronic Poverty team can get back to its core business. How about the next report being on the cultural norms and practices underpinning chronic poverty, building on whatever comes out of this year’s World Development Report (on Mind and Culture)?