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Monthly Archives: February 2011

National security is now very much on the agenda when it comes to the decisions on British aid flows. The politics of British aid has very much swung towards landing DFID in the Foreign Office in the next few years… as can be seen in these plans to link overseas aid to security

The response from British NGOs has been strong in its condemnation of this policy…here’s just one example from Jude Mackenzie, Associate Director of Christian Aid who said

Christian Aid welcomes the Secretary of State’s emphasis on the need for greater coherence across Whitehall and in particular, his recognition of the importance – and value for money – of pre-emptive efforts to stop conflicts before they begin.

‘However, we are concerned that the moral case for development should not be lost in cross-departmental decision-making. While it is clear that UK national security benefits from effective aid and development, security must not be put before poverty eradication.

‘A view of aid as driven by UK national security concerns would also be incompatible with the British public’s repeatedly demonstrated desire to reach out to those in need without regard to national security, as seen in the overwhelming response to the Haiti earthquake. Furthermore, it would be incompatible with DFID’s mandate to use all its resources on the single goal of poverty eradication.

‘A particular danger of viewing aid as a means of furthering our national security is that the government might end up in a cul-de-sac, focusing on a small number of countries of immediate security concern at the expense of DFID’s highly-regarded and effective role of supporting genuine development progress in more than a hundred countries.”

Oxfam have recently released a report “Whose aid is it anyway?” which questions how effective international aid really is when aid spending is skewed by military and security interests.

This kind of self interested aid is on the rise…which makes ones wonder – are we getting to the point where no aid would be better than such bad aid?


The word “aid” is misleading. To those outside the development sector, the word immediately invokes positive connotations, of one person coming to assist another in need. Yet after today’s session, the point has been reinforced that when it comes to aid and development, the reality is not so simple. The motives behind aid on the part of donors are frequently far from altruistic, with different political agendas being advanced through the mechanism of aid. Although I was under no illusions as to how damaging aid can be before the session, hearing again how something which is based on an inherently good principle (the principle of responding generously and assisting those in need) can be and is manipulated by powerful countries for their own gain is rather depressing. I tend to see aid as something which is used to veil the real solutions which are required to deal with the root causes of poverty – global trade inequalities, domestic structural problems, political underdevelopment and corruption… the list goes on. Yet aid is complex – to say all aid is bad and has a negative effect or that all ladies good and has a positive effect is to vastly oversimplify the situation.

It is interesting to see the changes in aid flows over the years and to examine what has influenced aid levels and donor aid targets. Looking at Hunt’s 2004 essay on “Aid and Development” we can see that aid forms and flows have evolved over time. The theory behind the Marshall plan was that investments of capital and technical expertise would bring about economic growth and development in poor countries – therefore, aid provided the necessary capital to bring about that economic growth. However, with the extreme economic crises experienced by many developing countries in the late 1970s and 1980s, aid began to be seen as a way of stabilising failing economies – as long as certain conditionalities were fulfilled by recipient countries. These forms of aid became known as Structural Adjustment Programs and in their more recent incarnation, Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. Since the 1980s, at least within the UN and amongst NGOs, there has been concern about distorted aid flows to middle-income countries rather than the Least Developed Countries and Less-Developed Countries (LLDCs) – these countries now receive 29% of global aid from DAC countries. Despite the overwhelming concern with poverty reduction over the past 20 years, though, aid expenditure on basic social services is currently than the estimated to be around 10% of all ODA.

A key question is how effective aid has been and is. Although aid has brought about a number of significant achievements, accounts of its misuse, both by donors and by recipient countries are numerous. Some argue that aid has been used as a new form of “postcolonial control and imperialism”, with the imposition of Washington consensus policies through the conditionalities of structural adjustment programs giving this argument some weight. Although the neoliberal political agenda cannot be denied in the make-up of many of the multilateral aid conditionalities, I would hesitate to condemn conditionalities completely. Trying to improve aid effectiveness is a logical tactic on behalf of donors – conditionalities in themselves are not the problem, rather, it is the politics behind those conditionalities which shape the ties which are attached to aid which merit criticism. Such kinds of aid are likely to have large implications for domestic politics in recipient countrie. Burnell (2004, The Domestic Political Impact of Foreign Aid: Recalibrating the Research Agenda) argues that economic conditionalities can affect the politics of recipient country as they allow domestic governments to blame economic policies they would have had to take anyway, on donor conditionalities, thus protecting themselves from opposition criticisms. Although aid may be technical in form, its consequences can be inherently political and therefore need to be investigated. Democracy aid although aimed at promoting democracy, may have much larger and wider domestic political consequences, with power distribution within the country being affected, sometimes indirectly.

The subject of aid is inevitably surrounded by politics as politics is a key influence in aid distribution. Hunt details how the Cold War had a massive influence on US and Soviet aid distributions, and although that area has passed, donors political agendas remain prominent in their aid policy. Egypt has been one of the top 10 recipients of US aid for long time now, a fact clearly influenced by US foreign policy in relation to Israel and the Middle East. It will be interesting to see if aid flows to Egypt remain the same now that Hosni Mubarak is no longer president as Mubarak had proved a vital US ally in the region, keeping peace with Israel. It could be argued that the politics of national self-interest very much dominates aid levels and distribution for many countries, as when aid recipients are examined, these recipients are often crucial for either their donor’s national security interests or for their trade interests. The top 10 recipients of Japanese aid are all in Asia and countries which have an impact on American national security interests, Afghanistan, Iraq and Columbia, all make the top 10 aid recipients for the US. However, it should be noted that smaller countries such as Sweden and Ireland tend to have their aid distribution shaped more by the needs of the recipient countries, than their own economic or foreign policy agendas.

Political agendas and aid are much more explicitly linked when it comes to the issue of democracy aid. Bilateral and multilateral donors give aid intended to promote democracy, however, there are different ways in which this kind of aid can be approached. Carothers (2009, Democracy Assistance: Political vs. Developmental?) compares the political and the developmental approaches to democracy aid. The political approach takes the view that democracy should be supported because it is a positive value in itself. Democracy is a political system which enshrines the importance of political and civil rights and if advanced, will bring about socio-economic development. The developmental approach has at its core, a development rationale, believing that the basic features of democratic governance can bring about social and economic development. Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses and both approaches seem to have been applied by both the EU and the US. However, according to Carothers, US democracy aid seems to have gained more political profile through the more visible work of some of its funders of US democracy aid (the NDI and the IRI) and the US’s support of the colour revolutions in the former Soviet union. The EU meanwhile, seems to have its democracy aid emphasis dominated by a more developmental approach, with a more marked pattern of support and development goals being separated from geopolitical security interests.

I would argue though that to say that Europe has a “developmental approach rooted in the philosophy of supporting development for development’s sake in poor countries” is perhaps a little too generous an assumption of European attitudes. Europe does not have a history of altruism when it comes to the developing world – the colonial project was not about developing poor countries for their own sakes, but rather for the sake of the coloniser, supporting industrialisation and funding economic and social development back home. Similarly, a number of European countries direct their largest aid flows to their former colonies, countries which they retain strong links with in terms of sourcing natural resources. Additionally, the UK government is now leaning more towards security orientation that the US government has in its aid policy, with a recent White Paper demanding that UK aid funded projects in the developing world must make the “maximum possible contribution” to British national security.

My impression is that a lot of the literature on aid and politics is based around the actions of the US and European countries. In the future I think it will be important to cast the analysis further afield – China is now the second largest economy in the world, and although it is still an aid recipient, is also likely to become a larger player in the aid market in the near future. China’s investment in Africa is significant, with concessional loans coming with much less strings attached than World Bank assistance. Some might argue, with Zimbabwe and Sudan in mind, that this will not be good for developing country politics, however, China itself benefited from Soviet Union Aid in the form of technology transfer, something which definitely did not do the country any harm. The politics which results from Chinese aid might not be US style democracy, but Chinese socio-economic development could prove much more attractive to the developing countries it is investing in.

Elite has always been a bit of a dirty word to me.  There are negative connotations there — elitism, elitist.  I immediately picture very rich, middle aged, white men — “rich toffs” as the stereotype goes!  However, I don’t think the stereotype holds, nor do I think it is helpful when considering elite roles in development.  As Tom proposed at the beginning of the lecture, clinging to those kinds of stereotypes and ideas that elites and the concept of elites is wholly bad, will not make any meaningful contribution towards development, rather, starting with an assumption that elites can be a good thing for development and taking a more positive view is perhaps more constructive.  Although elites were ignored in academic literature after the demise of modernisation theory, and have only started to receive more attention in recent years, this doesn’t mean that in the intervening years, they did not have a prevailing influence on development outcomes.  Every society has rules within which the “games” are played out — and it is the elites who have an important role to play as it is the elites who bargain amongst themselves to form a political settlement.  A state without a political settlement is not a stable state — some might argue that it would be a terrifying place to be, with Somalia being a case in point.  Therefore, the significance of the role of elites in state building, in governance, and in development cannot be underlined enough.

However, there are problems surrounding elites in developing countries in regards to one of the important outcomes of development and state building, that is, poverty reduction. The main dilemma which Hossain and Moore (2002) throw out is the problem of developing country elites being unsupportive of or even hostile to the promotion of pro-poor policies by international aid donors.  It seems that there must be some hostility, otherwise, all the policies and interventions proposed and funded by donors over the years should have had at least a little more success than they have done in terms of achieving poverty reduction. 

However, I think this elite hostility to aid donors overtures in regards to pro-poor policy needs to be unpacked a bit more.  In the rest of their article, Hossain and Moore made it clear that developing country elites’ priorities are somewhat different to the priorities of international aid donors.  Education and the creation of national wealth are considered of prime importance by developing country elites — yet donor policy priorities lie in areas such as good governance reforms or cash transfers for the poor.  It is possible that the lack of support shown for reducing poverty is a result of this divergence of priorities.  Another area for consideration would be the lack of legitimacy and credibility that donor governments have in the eyes of developing country elites, as they try to persuade them act on poverty reduction.  It could be argued that the actions of developed countries have very much contributed towards the persistence of poverty in many countries (for example, a lack of concrete action on corruption, climate change being caused by developed country emissions, dominance of the WTO in favour of developed country interests etc), therefore, when these very same developed countries try and urge developing country elites to be more concerned with poverty, it is perhaps unsurprising that these protestations fall on deaf ears.

There is no doubt do that elites need to be engaged with the concept of poverty in the processes of poverty reduction.  They have a vital role to play — and a potentially very positive role — but bringing this about this is both problematic and challenging.  However, Hossain and Moore believe there is a great deal of potential for developing persuasive narratives about poverty reduction which will be acceptable to elites for a number of reasons.  The concept of poverty itself is a malleable term — ideas and perceptions of poverty vary across contexts and time, therefore, just because elites in developing countries may have negative perceptions of the poor today, doesn’t mean that those perceptions will persist indefinitely.  They can evolve and change.  This change can be brought about through change in the way poverty is discussed — changing the language, changing the discourse so that poverty is not just a matter of figures and deprivation, it is more humanised and experiential.

One crucial thing to take into account though is the issue of self-interest.  There are different things which will encourage elites to take action on poverty — positive and negative drivers which will encourage elites to spread the benefits of economic growth amongst the population in a way which will reduce poverty.  A real positive driver exists in the form of education, as education is something which elites profess to value and believing as an opportunity for development.  The concept of development itself is something which has a high degree of consensus amongst developing country elites, as a human resource based phenomenon and a phenomenon for which education is required to give it momentum.  Hossain and Moore believe that there is an affinity between human resources conceptions of development and pro-poor policies and that education can be used as a link between the two when donors are trying to develop persuasive narratives. A note of caution should be exercised here though. Developing persuasive narratives in regards to try to engage elites on the issue of poverty reduction does not mean picking a side to back, in terms of donors choosing to “back” particular elites.  The damaging legacy of colonial policies of divide and rule is still being felt throughout former colonies — returning to such a policy, in whatever guise, is not an option that should even be put on the table.

This assertion about the value placed on education by elite seems to be borne out by their individual actions and personal choices.  The children of elites are educated in private, expensive schools at primary and secondary level, and then are often sent to European or American universities for further studies.  The choice is that elites make that their children reveal the importance placed on education, therefore, when donors are trying to engage with elites, the link between education and development could be something worth emphasising.  A more cynical viewpoint could be that education is held up as a priority development intervention by developing country elites because it is relatively easy to implement and to measure progress — unlike more complex governance or social welfare policies.

I am feeling quite tired by the cynicism which surrounds politics in developing countries though — I’m tired of the cynicism within myself, that fatalistic assumption that all development actors, including elites are selfish to the core.  It is one thing to say that self-interest is the dominant driver of elite behaviour and the dominant concern in elite bargaining — but it is taking things a whole way further to say that self-interest and self-interest alone governs elite choices. I guess one thing I have learnt from this area is that I should not be “elitist” about elites!  Elites themselves are operating under constraints, with many pressures coming from a variety of angles.  I am coming to the point of believing that taking an approach which encourages engagement and dialogue rather than outright rejection of elite positions, is a more constructive approach.  Elites will always exist whether we like it or not, therefore, improving and developing the level of engagement and the quality of dialogue and negotiation should take precedence over a more overtly oppositionist stance.  Although at this point I should put in a major qualifier to say that engaging and dialogue in with elites doesn’t mean I want my country to be run by old Etonions and millionaires who have no personal experience of what it is like to be poor, and have never lived in any kind of proximity to the working class… but the composition of elites, how they are formed and how the working classes can rise to join the ranks of the elites is a whole other area of debate!

I also think it’s worth considering that although most elite behaviour has some form of self-interest behind it, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there self-interest has to be in direct opposition to the interests of the poor and development — there can be some convergence.  The question is though, how can more convergence be brought about and how can it be capitalised upon to bring about poverty reduction?

Pro poor politics – politics that works for the poor. A lot of the political analysis that I have come across so far has been focused on the problems and obstacles created by politics in developing countries. Sometimes it can make for depressing reading – so exploring the possibilities for a different kind of politics, politics which works for the poor, is quite refreshing.

Moore and Putzel (1999, Thinking strategically about politics and poverty) come up with a typology of states with corresponding approaches to take to pro-poor politics. They also outline five strategic guidelines when considering pro poor politics; that democracy has differential outcomes for the poor; that states create and shape the political opportunities for the poor; that there is no reason to expect that decentralisation will be pro poor; that there is a wide range of possibilities for pro-poor political alliances; and that many of the policies needed to improve governance will benefit the poor.

Having watched the uprisings in Tunisia and now Egypt, it has begun to restore my faith in the power of the poor as part of popular movements to rise up and shake off oppression and social injustice. However, I need to be careful to not get carried away on a tide of emotionalism, but remember the point which came out today that pro poor politics is most successfully achieved when the poor come together with the middle classes. The poor, within a very poor country are actually a very disempowered group – it is interesting to see the parallel between the fragmentation and disorder of a weak and poorly institutionalised state and the fragmentation and disorder amongst the political and civil organisations representing the poor.

In relation to this, it seems that we’re coming back to this crucial issue of power. That power effects the nature of politics – and power effects poverty. Or rather, powerlessness is part of poverty. So for politics to be pro-poor it has to be a kind of politics which tackles the issue of powerlessness – to build what Moore and Putzel term the political capabilities of the poor… To do something to deal with the political disadvantage that they placed in due to their lack of power.

This reminds me of a Christian Aid strategy paper that I read whilst I was still working for the organisation called “Justice to Poverty.” It was the strategy which underlines the organisation’s work – that poverty was essentially powerlessness, so the organisation’s mission was to work with the poor to build their capabilities and “empower” them. At the time, it was a fresh take on poverty for me – a break from the usual grind of x number of people living on less than a dollar a day… As I was reading about disempowerment and deprivation which led to vulnerability and material poverty, it made me feel frustrated and even perhaps angry about the injustice of. It’s amazing how depersonalised poverty can become when the only way it is discussed is in statistics – and how personal it can become when it is viewed from the perspective of the capabilities that I have and take for granted, being  taken away from another person.

So when I was reading Kalebe-Nyamongo’s paper (2010, Mutual Interdependence between Elites and the Poor) on the mutual interdependence between elites and the poor, my interest was immediately perked. If the perceptions that elites have of the poor are that they are lazy and idle, it’s unsurprising that politics does not produce policies that are pro-poor. Although Kalebe-Nyamongo observed that there was a great deal of interaction between elites and the poor, as constituents asked their MPs for personal favours in the absence of the welfare state, the nature of this interaction appears to me to be significant. As the poor are perceived as always asking for things, always depending on elites for their welfare, their positive contributions to society go unnoticed or unacknowledged. The only thing they have in common is that one depends on the other, or at least is perceived to be dependent on the other. The lady who comes to ask for school fees for her child is only perceived in the burden that she brings – she may well be a primary school teacher herself and be educating many other children, but this is not what defines her in the eyes of the elites. It is her request for help which defines her. Therefore, I tend to think that the nature of interaction between elites and the poor needs to change. Interaction with and experience of a person shapes the perception of that person. This applies to the interaction with and experiences of the poor by elites. There needs to be greater variety of interaction between elites and the poor – interaction which is more than just cash or material transfers. The way elites experience the poor, and the way the poor are presented to them needs to change – if there is to be pro-poor politics, the elites themselves need to be pro-poor, and that will only happen if their perceptions change.

Politics is primary for development. This is the hymn sheet that Leftwich (2005, Politics in Command: Development Studies and the Rediscovery of Social Science) seems to be singing from – that politics is “in command”. Over the years though it seems that lots of variables have been claimed to be the “magic bullet” for development. Achieving the “modernity” of the modernisation theorists, shaking off the grip of the metropolis from the dependency school of thought, embracing free markets and neoliberal economics from the Washington consensus, promoting democracy and good governance in the post-Washington consensus… And now the rediscovery of the role of politics and institutions.

In the seminar a member of our group made a pertinent point that it’s important to remember that economics involves the activities of people – and wherever there are people, there is politics. These two processes are very much bound up together. To say that “politics is is in command” or that “politics is primary” is perhaps risking falling into the same trap that ensnared the neoliberal economists of the 1980s when the idea that the power of the markets and the supremacy of the neoliberal consensus was both in vogue and in practice? This approach to economic management and development was seen as unchallengeable by many who promoted it. Maybe by championing politics as the dominant variable in regards to development outcomes I could find myself swinging from one extreme to the other – from saying economics and markets alone are the determinants of development, to proposing politics to be “in command”.

But I do think that Leftwich has a very strong argument when it comes to the role of institutions and the importance of politics in building and shaping those institutions. Every society, every country is run according to norms and procedures which are born out of history, experience – institutional legacies which shape the countries that exist today. The distribution of power and culture amongst elites effects the kind of political settlement that is made within a country – and therefore the kinds of “rules” which determine the “game” that is played within that country. I suppose it could also be argued that if the rules of the game which precede that process of making a political settlement are not fixed, there is little chance of gaining a firm political settlement. And without a firm political settlement, the “games” being played are much less predictable because there are no firm rules to guide them. This has implications for development as a volatile political environment does not provide the kind of stability and security required for sustained economic growth.

I really like the quote from Mushtaq Khan (2004, State failure in developing countries and strategies of institutional reform) when he says “the distribution and disposition of political power in society is a key determinant of enforcement success and the emergence of high-growth states is therefore as much a task of political as it is of institutional engineering.” Maybe what is more primary when it comes to development is where the power lies or who it lies with – but is it possible to separate economic and political power? I have a tendency to agree with the famous quote that “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. So I think although democracy has become a bit of a “maligned” concept, (perhaps because of the relentless promotion of Western donors of their particular interpretation of what democracy is – the political partner for neoliberal economic development) the distribution of power amongst competing actors is a better place to start when it comes to politics and building development.