The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 29, 2016

Putting politics into international development? It’s about time

April 29, 2016

It may be difficult in the current political season to welcome news that international development agencies are paying more attention to the politics of reform when designing their assistance programs to poor countries. But we should be relieved that agencies like the World Bank, the UK’s Department for International Development, and our own US Agency for International Development are doing just that.

For too long, aid programs operated with the convenient fiction that assistance work was purely technical. The premise of many programs was “simply transfer missing knowledge, skills, or cash to people in the foreign government or local organizations, and they could adopt policies and programs to promote growth and reduce poverty."

The “technicalization” of aid and the perils of “political will”

This “technical” approach simplified aid programs: experts worked in earnest consultation with local leaders, advising them on public finance, health care, agricultural policy, and other reforms while avoiding upsetting host country regimes and elites. The approach even extended to support for reforming political institutions, such as parliaments, courts, or elections, through automating court records, training audit bodies, or providing election technology. Critics of aid point to abundant examples of the limited outcomes of these efforts.

An oft-repeated explanation of why aid so often comes up short is, “if only the leaders of [insert country name] had more ‘political will,’ this project would have been a raging success.” Aid professionals certainly know that their partner governments are almost always implicated in policy inertia. Experts who have lived overseas for decades, working with counterpart governments, civil society groups, and the poor are deeply attuned to their adopted societies. This understanding fosters both an appreciation for the resourcefulness, endurance, and ingenuity of people in poor countries as well as cynicism about many counterpart officials with whom they must work.

How can foreign aid take account of political economy?

Since the mid-2000s, international donors have developed more systematic ways of analyzing the political economy of development problems. Starting with the United Kingdom and Sweden, followed by the Netherlands, the World Bank, and now USAID, donors are documenting how politics affect the delivery of public services such as health care and education, influence the ability to achieve financial sector and regulatory reforms, and adversely affect other development outcomes.

A growing library of these “Political Economy Assessments” (PEAs)—some public, others not—document how power relationships, together with history, culture, institutions, and interests, limit poverty-reducing policies and programs. Successful assessments identify avenues of change, steps to increase inclusiveness of both political and economic institutions. Scholars and practitioners are explaining how to integrate thinking and working politically into aid work. Academics are introducing colleagues and graduate students to this approach as well.

PEAs ask important questions to inform more creative design of aid projects: Not just how many schools are needed, but who has the power to allocate funds to schools in poor neighborhoods instead of to roads in elite neighborhoods? Who benefits when land tenure is difficult to obtain? Why are there no doctors in rural clinics? What might change that?

The proliferation of these studies suggests the gap has been large indeed. Still, there is more to do for aid to take more useful account of local politics:

  • PEAs explain many reasons why change is hard, but less frequently explain where to start. Of course, understanding a constraint is the first step toward addressing it.
  • PEAs often are mainly descriptive, with little data that could help set priorities. Unaddressed questions include the following: How many people are affected? How significant are the rents extracted by one interest or another? Which incentives explain the behavior of officials or citizens? How strongly? Many studies are beginning to fill some of this space.
  • PEAs may not be enough to break the status quo. The aid business has its own political economy with hundreds of contractors, nongovernmental organizations, experts, and officials invested in the existing ideas, ways of operating, and multimillion-dollar grants and contracts. Strategies to help these interests incorporate the lessons of PEAs are a first step toward making aid more politically attuned.
  • One PEA won’t convince aid experts to “think and work politically.” Thinking and working politically is an approach to every aspect of development, not just one analysis. Aid professionals still need to ask questions such as these: What arrangements of incentives and power drive the status quo? What forces within society can a donor identify and align with to change existing incentives? Why should we expect people to take risks to effect change, and how can aid programs compensate for these risks?

These are steps that we all have a stake in. As taxpayers and people concerned about global poverty, we need aid programs to work.  Adding political-economy thinking to the aid professionals’ mandate is an overdue start.

Charles Cadwell is director of the Urban Institute’s Center on International Development and Governance. He has conducted political economy studies for the World Bank, the Dutch Government, and USAID, and teaches about the political economy of local service delivery at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.

A World Bank/IMF spring meeting is pictured on April 17, 2016 in Washington, DC. Photo by Grant Ellis/World Bank/Flickr Creative Commons

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