Researching the politics of development



Working with the grain: Brian Levy's visit to Manchester

21 November 2014

ESID and Brooks World Poverty Institute are hosting Brian Levy, professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS and the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development, for a public lecture and a PhD masterclass (see details below). Brian exemplifies the archetype of the practitioner-scholar, earning a PhD in economics, then working at the World Bank for 23 years, and finally taking up academic teaching and mentoring. Here are three reasons why he is a particularly interesting speaker, and why anyone near Manchester should consider attending his lecture:
First, towards the tail-end of his time at the World Bank, Brian was head of the secretariat overseeing its governance and anti-corruption strategy, and was instrumental in developing its framework for problem-driven political economy analysis. He therefore has a unique perspective on the politics of development assistance.
Second, Brian has also become an important contributor to the ongoing intellectual agenda about political settlements, and in particular their impact on service delivery for the poor. His typology of political settlements (competitive clientelist/dominant party, personalised/impersonal) has been a fixture of ESID thinking from the beginning.
Third, Brian has just published a new book, Working with the Grain, in which he advocates a more pragmatic approach to development, one in which we align our expectations with the realities – sometimes messy and chaotic – of economic and institutional transformation. There is also a blog, too, very much worth checking out. Here are some extracts from the book’s preface:

Over the long-run, good governance may indeed be a destination to which, as countries develop, they converge. However, the ability to describe well-governed states does not conjure them into existence out of thin air. Best practices approaches assume that all policies and institutions are potentially move-able, and can be aligned to fit some pre-specified blueprint. But the central issues for governance reform have less to do with the end point than with the journey of getting from here to there. The principal purpose of this book is to provide for policymakers, donors, civil society activists and other development practitioners a practical, analytically-grounded guide for making this journey – as an alternative to the ‘best practices’ approach to governance reform (and development policymaking more broadly) which, in recent decades, has dominated the development discourse.
The approach to development policy laid out in Working with the Grain is anchored in recent important conceptual breakthroughs in understanding how institutions, politics and economic policy interact with one another. But those conceptual breakthroughs generally have been used to analyze governance and growth from the Olympian heights of long-term history. By contrast, the focus here is less on the very long-run than on how governance-growth interactions play out over a decade or so — a time horizon which is of more immediate practical relevance for policymakers. What types of actions might one take now that can provide a stronger platform a decade hence? What developmental gains can be achieved over the course of a decade? What actions can lead to a more attractive set of opportunities at the end of the period than at the outset? And how might the answers vary across different types of country settings?

The book lays out a ‘with-the-grain’ approach to governance reform and development policymaking. A with-the-grain approach conceives of change in evolutionary rather than engineering terms, and so directs attention away from the search for ‘optimal’ policies and towards the challenges of initiating and sustaining forward development momentum. Its point of departure is that a country’s economy, polity and society – and the institutions which underpin each of these – are embedded in a complex network of interdependencies. To be successful, reforms cannot be re-engineered from scratch but need to be aligned with these realities. They need to be compatible with the incentives of a critical mass of influential actors, so that they have a stake in the reforms, and are willing to champion them in the face of opposition from those who benefit from the pre-existing arrangements. The aim is to nudge things along, seeking gains that, though useful, often are initially likely to seem quite modest but can, sometimes, give rise to a cascading sequence of change for the better.

Here are the details on Brian Levy’s visit: