Researching the politics of development



Deciphering the confusing new politics of international aid

12 March 2014.
Earlier this year Thomas Carothers was a guest lecturer at ESID’s “Adrian Leftwich Memorial Lecture”. During his visit to Manchester we were able to ask him about some of the key ideas included in his influential book on politics and aid with Diane de Gramont. Check out a video of one of his responses below. And scroll down for a summary of his lecture.
Listen to Thomas Carrothers on whether aid can be purely technical: 
[vimeo height=”HEIGHT” width=”WIDTH”][/vimeo] 

Lecture summary

After decades of avoiding open discussions of the political nature of aid, many parts of the international assistance community now assert that effective assistance requires thinking and acting politically. Yet considerable confusion exists about what it means for aid to be political and whether the new politics agenda for development assistance will be primarily a source of solutions or of problems.
This confusion arises due to differing conceptions of politics and its implications, including:

  • Providers of development assistance have political interests
  • Development assistance often has unintended political consequences
  • application of political goals and political methods in development assistance

Thomas Carothers, a leading authority on international support for democracy, rights, governance and comparative democratization, presented a summary of the use of political goals and methods in development. He makes the distinction between goals and methods as follows:

  • Goals: openly political programmes, for example achieving democratic governance
  • Methods: the use of aid programming to enter the process of developmental change, which is inevitably political

A brief history of development assistance:

  • 1960s:  Apolitical foundations of assistance, focused on socio-economic development. Technical solutions were offered and accepted by recipients on the conditions that donors stay out of politics and just give the assistance
  • 1970s: Basic needs, new international economic order, continued technocratic approach
  • 1980s:  Neoliberalism and market reform
  • 1990s: Major aid providers began talking about political concepts, such as governance, democracy, participation, and adopting political goals. Politics now considered to be central to socio-economic development and 10-15% of development assistance is devoted to this new sector
  • 2000s: Growing recognition of the importance of analysing and understanding local realities. The need has been identified to match top-down programming with bottom-up approaches. Integrating of political thinking and action, with aid as a political method

 Why did significant changes occur during the 1990s? 
A combination of the changing international political context, e.g. end of cold war, democratic transitions, integration of freedom in concept of development, and bringing the state back in – an instrumental view of the need for political institutions and political focus to achieve socio-economic goals.
Different lines evolved within the politics revolution, with diverging approaches:

  • Governance – focus on efficiency and effectiveness
  • Democracy – promotion of democratic processes and institutions
  • Human rights – rights-based approach

These three communities were often at odds based on mutual suspicion of each other’s concepts but have mostly reconciled, united by accepted buzzwords – transparency, accountability, inclusion, participation.
There has been a significant evolution towards political goals. Initially apolitical methods were used to achieve these goals, but growing realisation that political understanding is missing has led to a focus of attention on approaches such as DFID’s ‘drivers of change’, through political economy analysis. Political methods, such as stimulating demand for reform and coalitions for change, are now engaged but usually in tame forms – for example civil society strengthening within certain bounds.
The almost revolution… The incorporation of political thinking into development assistance programmes has evolved but is not complete.
How has it fallen short?

  • Marginalisation of the sector, there is a need for integration across programmes
  • Undermined by other interests
  • Political economy analysis is still a hesitant epistemic community – it is considered by some to be just one more kind of analysis

Why is integration still not happening in many cases?

  • The idea of making politics intrinsic to development is contested with assistance still mainly focused on socio-economic goals
  • It is challenging to prove outcomes of investment in political objectives. This is a difficult research problem, as it is hard to attribute causality
  • Institutional forms and structures are limiting due to the need for control. Public scepticism about aid budgets creates a need to produce tangible results
  • The relationship between donors and recipients is difficult – uncomfortable issues, lack of consensus
  • The aid world is changing – new actors, recipient governments have more choice

This 20 year attempted revolution has made some gains and is not just another fad. The politics agenda is difficult because it is important. Adrian Leftwich was a profoundly optimistic person and Thomas Carothers shares his relentless spirit about the potential within the difficulties of this work. The reason the development community is having trouble is because we are finally getting serious and honest about what this involves, but whether this revolution peters out or reaches fulfilment is an open question to be engaged with in the coming decades.
The Thomas Carothers lecture took place on 27 January 2014 as the second of the Adrian Leftwich Memorial Lecture series hosted by the Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) research centre.
For further information visit: