Researching the politics of development



Reinventing the gender-blind wheel?

26 May 2015
By Pablo Yanguas.
A week ago I participated in the OECD-DAC’s INCAF workshop on PSG1. Too many acronyms? OK, let us go one by one. The OECD Development Assistance Committee is the aspirational brain of the aid community, fostering the agenda of aid effectiveness, conducting peer reviews of donor practice, and developing the knowledge base for various policy areas. Many of these areas are served by more or less formalised groups of practitioners and representatives, like the DAC International Network on Conflict and Fragility, a.k.a. INCAF. Finally, PSG1 stands for “Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals One” of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, specifically: “Foster inclusive political settlements and processes, and inclusive political dialogue”.

Reinventing the wheel?

I participated in this acronyms feast as part of a panel on how the governance community has dealt with political analysis and broader Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) over the last decade and a half. The idea was to establish clear links between INCAF’s own thinking and the TWP agenda, and – for my part – highlight the stumbling blocks PEA proponents have encountered in the past, which INCAF participants should be mindful to avoid or at least mitigate.
The centrepiece of their approach to politics is in fact the political settlements approach, which is familiar to ESID, DLP and other UK-based research centres. Interestingly, there are now several distinct lines of work in political settlements, but very little cross-pollination between them: in particular, there seems to be a divide between those using the concept for development research, and those using it for fragility and conflict research. It is the mark of an inchoate research agenda that no-one has yet developed a shared formulation of what political settlements actually mean and imply, with clear concepts and methodology. Perhaps INCAF – with its intuitive focus on unsettled politics – can make the approach travel further than others have in the non-conflict world.
The links between these communities are obvious, however, and it would be a real shame – and a waste of time and resources – if everyone remained isolated from each other. There is only so much time we can spend reinventing the wheel before it starts to get embarrassing.

Our persistent gender blindness

Perhaps the most provocative session of INCAF’s workshop, however, was the one devoted to gender. It would seem that everyone is ostensibly committed to gender inclusion, but very few people and organisations take the time to ponder what inclusion actually means and how to go about studying it. Based on what I saw in Paris, it would seem that ESID’s gender team, led by Sohela Nazneen, is ahead of the curve in terms of theoretical refinement and methodological implications: they have used an adapted political settlements approach to unearth the informal, personal and even illicit dynamics that consolidate women’s empowerment, and they have done so in specific policy domains (girls’ education and domestic violence) that take us away from facile and empty generalisations about inclusion.
What is troubling, as some participants pointed out, is the fact that most frameworks for political-economy analysis within the aid community remain completely gender blind. Count me among the ones to blame: not once in our PEA project have we wondered whether gender should be a dimension of our organisational approach, even when it is probably harder to be a woman innovator in donor agencies than a man. Even progressive centres like ESID, which has “inclusive” in its very name, have struggled to incorporate a gender dimension beyond the boundaries of a gender project.

Good fences make bad policy

Will there come a time when gender stops being what “gender people” do? For that matter, will there come a time when politics stops being what “governance people” do? These are two obviously cross-cutting issues that everyone in the development community should be thinking about. And yet we keep reifying them as isolated bodies of knowledge for dedicated experts to control.
I really hope that the OECD-DAC INCAF can find a way to tear down the barriers that we in the development community have worked so far to raise.