Researching the politics of development
The role and responsibility of foreign aid in recipient political settlements
10 May 2016
Pablo Yanguas’ recent ESID working paper acknowledges that foreign aid is a major transnational influence in many developing countries, and examines the ethical issues this raises for aid practitioners.
The paper makes three contributions.
First, it reshapes the concept of political settlements into an incumbent-challenger dynamic defined not by stability, but by contestation across political and policy fields.
Second, it explores six potential forms of aid influence on a recipient political settlement based, first, on whether aid supports incumbents or challengers, and second, on the mechanism of support: the diffusion of policy ideas, the external certification of local actors, and the brokerage of policy coalitions.
Third, the paper investigates the ethical implications of these different types of influence, and asks whether political settlements thinking has the ethical tools necessary for dealing with those implications.
As opposed to the illusion of certainty provided by the implicit utilitarianism of current aid debates, uncertainty of impact calls for a deontological ethic guided by clear moral principles. This will help practitioners to decide when and why to work with or against existing incumbents, and when to choose transformation at the expense of short-term results.
Here is an excerpt:
“Emerging debates in the aid community seem at times overwhelmingly concerned with project success at the expense of long-term transformation, with the tactics of assistance over the strategies of reform. But this paper has also raised the unanswered ethical questions faced by seemingly technical propositions like results-based approaches to country ownership. A practical ethic of assistance – however inchoate or even misguided – is sorely needed in order to keep these debates grounded in the larger politics of development.
“Practitioners are acutely aware of such practical ethics, rooted as they are in the day-to-day responsibility of programming choices about resources and legitimacy in uncertain environments. Those of us in academia tend to be a bit more detached, protected as we are by distance, limited accountability, and a longer and blurred impact chain.
“But by retreating from our own values, we lose an opportunity to engage with the very politics that we like to contemplate. It is up to us to begin the effort of constructing a more informed ethics of assistance, lest our colleagues in the field fall to the hidden allure of simplification, replication, denial and plain old ideology. Political settlements can be the intellectual agenda that sustains such an ethical theory, but in order to do so it has to stop seeing itself as a purely analytical tool.”
Download the full paper: ESID Working Paper No. 56, Pablo Yanguas, ‘The role and responsibility of foreign aid in recipient political settlements‘ (pdf).
Read about the ESID research programme on Political Economy Analysis and the production of commitment to development.