“Thinking politically” Part I: “Thinking and working politically” in development interventions Jonathan Fisher

The ‘age of austerity’ has not been kind to Western aid agencies and their staff or to those who would defend them. Though Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) has had its budget ‘ring-fenced’ since 2010 its counterparts elsewhere in Europe have not been so lucky while its equivalent in Australia – AusAID – has disappeared altogether as an independent entity, subsumed into the country’s foreign ministry only weeks ago.

Tales of costly white elephant projects and failed interventions from the likes of Dambisa Moyo (Dead Aid) coupled with stories of corruption in Uganda and space programmes in ‘more people living in poverty than the whole of Africa’ India have seriously damaged the image of the development enterprise across the world. Western publics have been particularly frustrated – or so we are told – at the sight of hospitals at home being closed while taxpayers’ funds are sent abroad seemingly – depending on which newspaper you read – into the pockets of well-fed, venal crooks. In this unforgiving context observers might be forgiven for viewing Western ‘donors’ today as incorrigible, disingenuous amateurs – singing the same tune they have sung for decades with the audience growing ever more restive and impatient; “When does this end?!”

In fact there is room for optimism – albeit not so much, perhaps, for those former AusAID staff facing redundancy. For the last decade has seen a crucial shift in the mindsets of most donors with potentially profound implications for the ways in which development actors approach and engage with the developing world. Until the early 2000s, development ‘failures’ were seen as the fault of the recipient. In the 1980s, the World Bank concluded that economic stagnation in Africa and elsewhere was the result of dirigiste economic management and that removing the state’s grip on a nation’s economy would lead to economic growth. Structural adjustment was born.

By the 1990s, with this ‘medicine’ proving ineffective, flawed political systems became the culprit for stalled development processes. Western donors therefore sought to make their aid flows conditional upon democratization in many parts of the world resulting in the abolition of one-party states in some aid-dependent countries (notably Malawi, Kenya and Zambia) but the continuation in power of numerous autocrats including Zairian dinosaur Mobutu Sese Seko.

In recent years, however, donors have started to reflect on their own role in the successes or failures of the development enterprise. Since the early 2000s, donors have begun to ask not ‘what is the recipient doing wrong?’ but ‘what are we doing wrong?’. This welcome – and overdue – introspection has led donors to several important conclusions, the most central being that successful development interventions require the donor to fully understand the political dimensions of the country or region it is intervening in. Development projects fail when external actors attempt to impose something upon a society or culture whose contours and nuances they do not understand. Development projects rely on the buy-in of local actors to work – donors now accept – and so donors need to understand who the local actors are, what they want and why. To this end, donors have enthusiastically accepted the importance of ‘thinking politically’ in their operations.

This move from ‘doing development’ to ‘thinking politically’ represents perhaps the most important sea-change in donor mentalities since the end of the Cold War. The ‘thinking politically’ project has not, however, come without its difficulties. This week’s blog entries will explore this project and its implications for those interested in ‘Saving Humans’. Many of those with such an interest – both in the academic and policy-making worlds – are gathering in Birmingham this Friday 15th November to discuss ‘Making Politics Practical’ in a joint International Development Department (IDD)-Political Studies Association (PSA) workshop. The final blog entry of the week will reflect on this workshop and its key messages – along with those of Manchester University’s Professor Sam Hickey, who will be presenting on ‘Taking Politics Seriously’ in development following the IDD-PSA workshop.

Dr Jonathan Fisher is a Lecturer in International Development at the University of Birmingham.

Further links:

Thinking politically about development

Overseas development Institute: Thnking politically

Thinking politically, IDD blog Heather Marquette

Development leadership programme

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