Wednesday, 18 February 2015

ODI goes retro: the backlash begins

Back to the future with ODI

David Booth of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) yesterday published a think piece which essentially questions the relevance of governance to developmental progress. Positioning himself as the little boy pointing out a naked emperor he draws on recorded history and one or two other writers in support of his argument, which is basically that economic progress happens first – everything else happens afterwards. He neatly tries to take apart the consensus, momentum and progress that has been made throughout the post-2015 marathon, during which citizens have consistently and in overwhelming numbers expressed their desire to see open, transparent, accountable and responsive governments, in the form of five ‘myths’.

This, to my mind, is a retrograde argument that belies where it comes from: from where I am standing it’s part of a backlash from those who would prefer that ‘international development’ (define that how you will) remains essentially an economists playground, and should be pursued through an economists, technical approach. All that governance, power and political stuff is just too messy, you see. Wouldn't that approach have worked by now, though? 

At the heart of David’s piece, in my reading of it, is the idea that ‘development’ is essentially economic growth alone. It is clear throughout his argument that David conceives of development as being solely about economic growth rather than, for example, political institutions. In fact he specifically dismisses them. So with such a narrow definition of development it becomes possible to make the case he does. Or does it? What sort of economic growth are we talking about? 72% of the world’s poorest people live in Middle Income Countries. In other words even when you have economic growth as measured by GDP you do not necessarily achieve equitable economic growth and, thus, the majority of people remain poor. And, in situations where violence is routinely used by elites, very vulnerable. Without a politically engaged and aware population, who are able to hold their governments to account through robust political institutions, that situation will not change any time soon and the glaring inequalities it creates and perpetuates will contribute directly to the potential for violence. Which will disrupt growth. Now how much “development” have you achieved? One of the reasons the World Development Report of 2011 linked jobs, security and justice was for precisely this reason – development is political as much as economic, and to pretend otherwise is a recipe for repeating the errors the report was concerned with, which has left over 1.5 billion people in conflict affected states as poor and vulnerable as they ever were at the outset of the MDG era. 

Now I’d like to respond to each of David’s ‘myths’, as he puts them, as a contribution to the debate.

1 Good governance is important for development.

David here disputes this basic premise and states:
"The history of human progress, from 17th century England to 21st century China and Vietnam, is completely clear on this point: governance ideals are realised over time on the back of economic progress, not the other way round".
To make this case requires you to perform the not inconsiderable feat of ignoring recorded human history. The richest countries in the world achieved that status not through a focus solely on a set of economic goals, least of all goals imposed by donors, but through centuries of contested political ideas in which groups of people fought and died for rights, and elites sought to deny them. The context in which they did that might have been economic: for example the industrial revolution, but the battles themselves were about power and politics. The political happened in tandem with the economic, not in sequence. What emerged in the West were constitutional democracies, within which that economic growth and the emergence of the rule of law took place. And that is precisely the aims of those living in the states most affected by the absence either of good governance or economic progress and scarred by endemic violence, as can be seen by the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States. Far from perfect, the New Deal nevertheless for the first time redefines ‘development’ as being as much about a participatory journey towards growth, between State and citizen, as well as a partnership of equals between donor and recipient. A similar definition is made by the Open Government Partnership.

2 Governance improvement is a good entry point for developmental reform.

David’s view here is apparently that this is bunkum too. Instead of focusing on governance, which he describes with a flourish as a ‘ghetto’, he states:
“All experience tells us that institutions and social norms change slowly at best. Aid-supported institutional change has a well-documented tendency to produce either ‘capability traps’ or purely cosmetic improvements. History, especially the last half-century in Asia, shows that very significant gains in economic transformation and human well-being can be achieved within highly dysfunctional systems. Reform initiatives should surely aim to repeat those gains by whatever means are to hand”.
He goes on to cite the excellent Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation line of thinking from Andrews, Pritchett and Barder as evidence of what actually works and argues that policies, not openness, hold the key to progress.

My response to this is straightforward: not only do we know that institutions and norms change slowly (the World Development Report of 2011 talks in terms of 30 years for example), but we also know that pursuing the sort of technocratic approach to ‘development’ David seems to be proposing we continue, characterised by economic policymaking which ignores political contestation, social movements and endemic resource capture by elites will perpetuate poverty and increase the likelihood of violence. Evidence? Try the direct link between structural adjustment programmes and violent conflict in Sri Lanka. Or perhaps the fraying of social fabric in other countries, as political elites take full advantage of liberalisation. Sadly, we are not short of similar examples. And the beauty of the PDIA idea is the notion that practitioners should respond flexibly to challenges and changes as they arise, rather than ploughing on regardless because that’s what the donor logframe says. My point here is that the role of open, inclusive and legitimate political institutions are a critical enabling factor which cannot simply be ignored, as they largely have been to the detriment of the poorest by the old development paradigm David seeks to defend.

3. High levels of transparency, accountability, participation and competition sustain economic development.

David disputes this on the grounds, essentially, of a lack of evidence to prove the point in the developing world. I would gently counter that the rule of law, low corruption and participatory governance structures would seem to have rather a lot to do with the economic growth of the richer countries of the world.

4. Southeast Asian lessons about agriculture are non-transferrable because the Cold War is over.

David makes a point here that I don’t fully understand. Perhaps greater minds than mine, do.

5. African regimes can’t do problem-driven, adaptive development.

David rebuts this idea, and I agree with him. But I can’t help noticing a straw man in the room. Who is arguing this anyway? In fact, on the subject of African voices why don't we hear from Mthuli Ncube, Chief Economist and Vice President of the African Development Bank:
"Deliberate policies to reduce inequalities and promote inclusion are now needed more than ever before. It is time to focus on people’s expectations: decent work, a living wage, access to basic service, more democracy, and accountable governments...Governance is now one of the cornerstones of economic development. Good governance, in its political, social, and economic dimensions, underpins sustainable human development and the reduction of poverty, in that it defines the processes and structures that guide political and socio-economic relationships"
Rather a different take on things from an African perspective.

Lastly I take issue with David’s argument on an unashamedly moral ground. He states:
“…human well being can be achieved within highly dysfunctional systems”.
This is a pernicious argument of the sort we've seen before from the old school of development. I don’t claim it is made with malign intent but the effect is sinister. Quite apart from it being disturbing for a comfortable Western research institute to casually dismiss the hopes of the poorest to have the fundamental rights we enjoy in a cast off comment; the more dangerous implication of this argument is that we should carry on as usual, seeing ‘development’ as purely economic and people’s rights as nice-to-haves rather than must-haves. Music to the ears of strongmen and repressive governments everywhere. One of the reasons, perhaps, why citizens of developing countries have consistently, and in overwhelming numbers, placed good governance as among their highest priorities. This can be seen from the MyWorld survey, the High Level Panel process and the UN Thematic Consultations among others. That this has been reflected in the work of governments in the Open Working Group is to my mind one of the more inspiring aspects of the last few years. Citizens voices, calling for good governance, apparently being heard.

You have to wonder at the motives of those who propose to ignore them.

1 comment:

  1. Chris, thanks for the chance to continue this discussion at more length.
    First, I think you are misinterpreting where I am coming from. The research on which my blog draws, directly and indirectly, is not economics-based, and I am not an economist. It is political-science-based. And the references, which are not in the blog but are in the linked publications, are not ‘one or two other writers’ but a very large number of multi-skilled social scientists and historians at, among others, IDS, LSE, SOAS, Manchester and several research institutes in the US, Japan and Southeast Asia. Most of them would be horrified at the suggestions they are ‘technocrats’. Our joint proposition is not that governance is unimportant in development, and certainly not that politics and contestation are irrelevant; it is that the conventional ‘good governance’ agenda does not identify the qualities of governance that matter most, particularly for countries that are still very poor.
    Second, as I have said to Alan Hudson on the ODI page, the claims I make about what the evidence shows are not just about economic growth outcomes but about the whole range of human development outcomes that matter to all of us, including the realisation of basic human capabilities.
    Third, your frame of reference for contesting what I am saying about the findings from governance research seems to be the current state of opinion in the world as measured by global surveys, the leaders of the New Deal, the discussion at UN-convened forums attended by government officials, NGO delegates etc., and in particular participants in ‘the post-2015 marathon’. Without any disrespect to any of them, I would suggest that this is not a strong basis for rejecting claims based on rigorous research. You will no doubt be annoyed at the comparison, but it’s a bit like taking popular or non-specialist bureaucratic opinion as the basis for disease control. It is true that social science is different from medicine, in that ordinary people have access to some of the same evidence as the researchers. But there is also the problem of ideology – people, including researchers sometimes, filter evidence through all kinds of preconceptions – which is why it does not settle the issue to quote to me the publicly stated opinions of the Chief Economist of the African Development Bank.
    Finally, the bit you find most pernicious and morally objectionable is surely just a statement of fact: human well-being has improved at a completely unprecedented pace in China over the last 30 years, and during all of that period, China’s governance systems have fallen well short in nearly all the dimensions stressed in the global rhetoric about good governance. (At the risk of repetition, this is not to say that China’s governance and contestation within it is irrelevant to the explanation of how this has been achieved).