There has been a lot of deep thinking about development problems over the past decade or so. But for the most part, a better understanding about how countries progress has not translated into dramatic changes in the activities aimed at promoting it.
International development agencies now say they emphasize politics and seek to find “best fit” solutions tailored to individual country circumstances. However, as David Booth writes in a recent Africa Politics and Power Policy Brief,
Much of the newer governance programming looks much like the old kind. Even the most reflective country activists and the best governance advisers have trouble imagining what to do differently.
Improving governance in developing countries in Africa and beyond requires that international actors undertake much greater reforms in how they operate than has been contemplated up to now. Many of the assumptions about development need to be challenged and overturned.
Governance challenges are not fundamentally about one set of people getting another set of people to behave better. They are about both sets of people finding ways of being able to act collectively in their own best interests. They are about collective problem-solving in fragmented societies hampered by low levels of trust.
This conceptualization is very similar to the one I used in Fixing Fragile States:
[Development] is really a process of transforming the system of how the members of a society work together. Although education and healthcare can better prepare individuals to participate in development, a country’s ability to advance is crucially tied to its citizens’ ability to cooperate—both among themselves and in partnership with the state—in increasingly sophisticated ways. . . . The divided natures of fragile states have left them with no unifying identities, no unifying institutions, and no unifying governance systems with which to bind their peoples together. . . . The net result is societies with low levels of interpersonal trust and extraordinarily high transaction costs.
The fragmented nature of these societies mean that incentives are skewed in ways that discourage people from acting in the public interest. As David writes:
Collective action problems remain widespread and are at the heart of the challenge of development. They exist at all levels, affecting the choices of presidents, bureaucrats and business communities as well as those of civic actors and peasant households.
Elites are not irrational or evil. They simply face different incentives than do leaders of societies in more robust countries. Understanding why they act the way they do is essential to changing their behavior. But the simplistic framework that most development actors use to analyze fragile states ensure that they never delve deeply into “the ‘black-box’ of elite decision-making and examine what is inside.”
International actors rarely delve into the complex political dynamics driving how countries work (or not). Instead, they lazily promote democracy, campaigns against corruption, economic reforms, and social spending without contemplating whether any of these tools actually help countries progress.
The challenges centre upon problems of collective action among political elites that sideline the large and risky investments required for economic transformation. They also include the design of democracy in multi-ethnic societies such as Kenya and Nigeria, and the syndrome of ‘single-party thinking in a multi-party context’ observed particularly in Malawi. These variant forms of competitive clientelism threaten even current levels of well-being and social peace.
Finding solutions to these big-picture problems is not easy. Among other things, David recommends “untried variants of power-sharing,” “ring-fencing of key developmental functions,” “‘practical hybrids’ resulting from conscious efforts by elements of the modern state to adapt to local preferences and ways of doing things,” and involving “actors on both sides of the divide between ‘government’ and ‘citizens’” to enhance the provision of public goods.
There is a great need for a more sophisticated approach to the problems of development than has been tried up to now. Such an approach should emphasize the need to:
Overcome problems of coordination, credibility and collective action among sets of actors with complex interdependent interests.
Foreign actors potentially have a role to play here, but only if they are flexible enough to adapt their ways of working to local needs.
Particular care should be taken with providing donor funds and organisational templates to local self-help groups, which can easily weaken existing capacity for collective action.
These are excellent documents to read as they focus the attention on the core issues of development while discarding the hazy thinking and ideology that typically blinds key actors.
My only real critique is with how David approaches his clients — the donor community. These documents are written with an eye to convincing the international development community to act more politically and with more self-discipline when trying to help poor countries. But he should know from his long experience in the field that this is unrealistic. Development agencies are what they are. They are unlikely to change much — no matter how sensible the recommendations he and his fellow developmental political scientists produce. As he himself argues with respect to how aid should work with countries, it is better to “work with the grain” of the development field than try to reimagine it as something else.
I therefore believe that trying to convince development actors to change how they operate — as he does here and elsewhere — is not very productive.
The only sensible way forward given what we know about fragile states, development, AND the nature of aid actors is to focus on a much more indirect strategy to promote the kind of political change David argues is required from WITHIN countries. Such a strategy would start with the assumption that outside actors are limited in their ability to change how states work — and seek to establish and/or enhance the tools that increase the ability of people within societies to solve the collective actions problems he identifies on their own (or with modest outside advice and assistance).
Therefore, I think he should be writing more for the elites within countries than for the international development agencies.
And he should be seeking a way to help people in fragile states put into place his sensible ideas. Practically speaking, this means a greater effort to reach out to them and to put into place the institutions within countries that have the best chance of formulating the specific policies and political agenda that is likely to succeed.
For instance, hybrid institutions are only going to be put into place after a local rule of law institute or think tank — run by locals who best know their own societies — has conducted in-depth research about what system is most likely to work and works closely with top officials to implement such an approach. New variants of power-sharing require innovative ideas of how government ought to be structured given local context. This requires strong local actors working with highly qualified local analysts to come up with creative approaches that can best solve a country’s governance problems and gain wide backing to do so.
Instead of seeking to solve the problems of development, international development actors should be investing much more in the governance ecosystem that provides local people with the capacity to solve these collective action problems on their own.