Development Aid Confronts Politics: The almost revolution

Carothers and de Gramont offer a meticulous and fair-minded account of the evolution of the aid business over the last 50 years. The book’s central message is captured in the title: although donors are finally taking more account of politics, technocratic approaches to development remain remarkably resilient.

Part of the story is familiar. Apolitical approaches to aid are rooted in early assumptions that economic growth could be stimulated by injections of capital and technical assistance, and that political development would follow economic development. For years, donors responded to poor aid outcomes with new policy fixes: state-led economic take-off in the 1960s; basic needs in the 1970s; ‘getting the policies right’ and shrinking the state in the 1980s; rediscovery of the need for effective public institutions in the 1990s. The end of the Cold War brought a new focus on politics and democratic governance, albeit initially through top-down, technocratic efforts to reform formal institutions.

Less familiar, but central to the book, is another recurring pattern – of persistent pushback against apolitical approaches to aid. Starting with critiques by Hirschman and others in the 1960s, a swelling chorus repeats the same message: development is a political process; donors need an excellent understanding of political context; they should build on locally rooted institutions and processes of change; they need longer-term engagement, flexible funding, and iterative approaches that encourage experiment and learning. Failure to take account of politics undermines efforts to advance socioeconomic goals and risks negative, unintended consequences. As the authors say in a departure from their normal deadpan delivery, it is hard not to slap one’s head at the obviousness of such insights, and wonder how it can have taken 50 years to get the message.

The book argues that donors have listened – but only up to a point. Most agencies now pursue political goals alongside socioeconomic ones, and some support democratic change more directly. Many are using political economy analysis to better understand context, and working with a wider range of non-government groups. This represents a significant shift, but not a sea-change. Work on governance and politics is often still a niche activity; donors remain naive about the commitment and motivation of their developing country ‘partners’; understanding of research findings is shallow or deliberately dumbed down; and there has been insufficient effort to adjust aid delivery systems to the needs of more politically savvy approaches. Technocracy has struck back in the form of a recent preoccupation with short-term, quantifiable results.

The authors do not indulge in facile donor bashing. They recognize the complexities of the aid business, the moral and practical dilemmas faced by donors, and the fact that research still provides incomplete answers to core questions about how development happens (there is a particularly good chapter on the unresolved debate about links between democratic governance and development). But they show no sympathy for donors’ instinctive retreat into technocratic comfort zones, or their failure to confront honestly a central dilemma: what to do when there is little elite commitment to change, or when more ‘developmental’ states show scant regard for basic rights.

The bibliography is comprehensive and up to date. The arguments are nuanced and clear. A particularly useful distinction is drawn between pursuing political goals (whether for their intrinsic value or for their utility in supporting socioeconomic development) and working more politically. The book makes an unanswerable case for the latter and a strong argument for more consistent promotion of democratic values, while recognizing the mixed record of much democracy assistance. It perhaps underplays the inherent tension between pursuing normative goals and the need to engage with local processes of change, allowing local actors to take the lead.

More generally the book has little to say about the role of elites in promoting or obstructing change, and is quite narrowly focused on the core aid business. Given the reduced leverage of western aid and the growing influence of global markets, a good case could be made for donors to extend politically savvy approaches and use aid strategically in a bid to influence the business, security and financial relationships that shape incentives for development in poor countries.

Perhaps that could be the next book. Meanwhile, this one is essential reading, both for newcomers to the aid business and for old hands.

Sue Unsworth is a former Chief Governance Adviser with DFID, and a principal with The Policy Practice. Email

To order

Development Aid Confronts Politics: The almost revolution
Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont Brookings Institution Press $19.95
ISBN 9780870034008

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