Making International Development Research and Assistance Work

In the spirit of discussion Tom Pepinsky has a nice pithy response to Chris Blattman’s post on the wastefulness of skills training as development assistance. Both raise interesting questions about development research and practice. Pepinsky writes:

It always strikes me how different the view of (say) the World Bank is from that of the local entrepreneur, laborer, or mother who works at home. My immediate thought when I hear that any individually-targeted development intervention has failed is “well, could it have succeeded?” In other words, does the intervention manipulate a binding constraint for an individual or household? ………….. The people who know how to learn about those everyday constraints are trained in ethnography—and I mean serious ethnography, the kind that involves languages and staying outside of a hotel.

A focus on institutions implies a different direction. Everyone agrees that institutions are important, but the cutting edge in development economics and related parts of political science focuses elsewhere. Why? Because institutions aren’t manipulable, their features bundle lots of treatments, core concepts remain tremendously fuzzy (try defining governance, for example), we don’t seem to have learned a lot from decades of studying them, and the potential for disaster from bad institutional design is just enormous.

I agree with Pepinsky. I would also add that on top of taking local contextual variables and institutions seriously, development practice and research should also take local elites (both economic and political) seriously.

The discourse on development oscillates between “institutions” and “the poor.” Governance reforms try to get institutions right. Pro-poor policies focus on alleviating suffering among the extremely poor via direct interventions at the “grassroots.” Many interventions therefore tend to be designed with a view of either constraining allegedly nefarious and/or clueless local elites via “institutions”; or completely circumventing them and going directly to the people. Needless to say, the attempts to go around local elites often result in failure.

The point here is not completely disparage pro-poor policies or governance reform programs. Rather, it is a reminder that chances of successful intervention go up when local elites are meaningfully involved. And by “involved” I mean when their interests and ideas are taken seriously. Elite capture is obviously a bad. But elite buy-in is almost always necessary for success. It is local elites that have the wherewithal to own job-generating cement plants. It is local elites who set tax rates. And it is local elites who build roads and power supply lines. Their ideas and interests therefore matter, and should be taken seriously (also just in case they do not necessarily want to, or cannot, transform their societies exactly into Denmark).

I say this because the assumption that local elites do not have much to offer except to steal state/aid resources for private benefit leads to research agendas (and interventions) that over-simplify their role in the whole process. Understanding local political dynamics, as suggested by Pepinsky, is therefore key for success. This means going beyond boilerplate “stylized facts” about ethnicity (or other sectoral interests) and patronage; and taking institutions (for example legislatures) and the coalitions of politicians who constitute them seriously. As students of the political economy of development, we ought to invest more in understanding local elite interests and ideas and how they influence state institutions and welfare outcomes at the grassroots.

Imagine for a second how different IMF or World Bank interventions would be if all their agreements with developing countries (say above a prescribed dollar amount) were subject to ratification by host-country legislatures. The process would be messy, yes (looking at you, Greece*). But I’d argue that finance ministers would get much better deals for their people — in no small part on account of greater levels of intra-elite accountability in the management of aid resources.

The irony of development research and practice is that we talk a lot about the importance of institutions, but then turn around and come up with ideas to circumvent them (and their elite membership) at every opportunity.

*Greece is a member of the OECD.

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One thought on “Making International Development Research and Assistance Work

  1. Pingback: Saturday Morning Reading #50 | A Pett Project

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