Researching the politics of development



Three lessons from APSA on the politics of development

By Pablo Yanguas
6 September 2016
On September 1st I was lucky to participate in a panel summarising ESID‘s core findings at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA). After a year working on synthesising key messages from all our projects, we decided to jump across the Atlantic to begin a conversation with our North American peers. ESID, like DLP and other donor-funded research centres, is very much a creature of the UK development studies community, and thus our understanding of the politics of development does not exactly fit what mainstream APSA attendees may have in mind. I have written elsewhere about such disconnects – and potential bridges! But this time around we tried to tailor the presentation of findings to this audience by focusing on the key factors of our framework: variations in state effectiveness across and within countries as the outcome to explain; and the interaction of political settlement, policy domain and ideas as the theoretical framework for explaining it. So how did APSA respond?

Lesson 1: Precision beats ambition

ESID is easily the most ambitious research programme that I have seen. We work in many countries across Africa, Asia and Latin America. We study such diverse issues as natural resource governance, girls’ education, regional inequality, or state-business relations. We have conducted and published a myriad case studies. And on top of that we aspire to develop a new theoretical approach to the politics of development.
And despite all this – or perhaps because of it – we are sometimes sloppy with the claims that we make. The fact that one of our paper titles includes the term “grand unified theory” spooked one of the attendees at our APSA session, just like claims of moving beyond new institutionalism elicited a puzzled look from another. Are we trying to do too much? And in so doing, don’t we risk ending up doing not much at all? Luckily for us, we have settled on the premise that ESID works on middle-range theory: we don’t constrain ourselves to micro-level issues and claims, but we stay away from overly ambitious generalisations about the nature of development. That being said, there is much more that we can do to build bridges with scholars who may be working on the same questions, albeit from different theoretical and disciplinary perspectives.

Lesson 2: Clarity and consistency are essential

Perhaps this false image of relentless ambition is fuelled by our use of a theoretical framework that can be applied to any domain of development. This is partly the legacy of early political settlements theorising, which explicitly sought to replace institutionalism as a lens into the political economy of development. To a certain degree, the promise of the framework is real: the balance of power between contending elite factions and social groups does seem to have a powerful impact on development outcomes. Even when mediated by the specific characteristics of policy domains and the interaction of elite ideas and policy solutions, it is tempting to attribute a central role to political settlements.
However, questions from the audience at APSA reinforced earlier concerns about the risks of applying an ostensibly shared framework in inconsistent ways. This is an argument that I have encountered in other workshops and conferences, and if true it effectively undermines how we frame and communicate our research. Someone at the panel asked whether a particular political settlement should be considered a development pathway or a key factor propelling a country along such a pathway. Another scholar asked whether we should even focus so much attention on the level of the political settlement, when in fact in some projects it is the interaction with policy domain that drives causality. However much we have attempted to clarify our findings, there is still a tension between how we speak about political settlements and how we explore them in practice.

Lesson 3: Theories live and die by the research design

A lot of ESID research hinges of the comparative study of countries with competitive political settlements, like Ghana and Bangladesh, and others with more dominant ones, like Uganda and Rwanda. Over time we have come to specialise in these countries, to the point where we can begin to make pretty solid generalisations about the nature of their development challenges and their causes. ESID research shines when we let our country experts speak, and it is our portfolio of deep qualitative work that has become one of our key strengths.
A thorny methodological challenge remains, though: can we generalise on the basis of a handful of country contexts (and thus political settlements), no matter how many domains we examine? And even as the list of countries grows, can we be certain that our comparisons are not biased by the way in which these countries were selected? Consider that, as a DFID-funded programme, we were always expected to work on DFID-priority countries. This severely curtailed the possibility of exploring our theoretical findings “out of sample”. As one of the discussants asked, would our oil findings be the same if we compared Ghana to Chad, instead of Uganda? Theory testing – not just development – will be the clear challenge for ESID research going ahead, and that requires moving outside our comfort zones.

Beyond ESID…

While these three lessons are my interpretation of how APSA responded to ESID research, I wonder if the case can be made for applying them to the broader community working on the politics of development. Let’s have a conversation.