Development aid meets politics: a book review

Aid agencies have too often failed to grapple with the political complexities of the countries where they work and of the inherently political nature of processes of developmental change. (p.4)

My studies in sustainable development and natural resources management have put me in contact with both mainstream development concepts and critiques of those concepts. Yet it was only through the book Development aid confronts politics by T. Carothers and D. de Gramont, published in 2013 by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, that I realised my study books had missed out on the political aspect of development aid.

But what does it mean for development aid to be political or not? Is it a good thing? Hasn’t development work always been political by nature, through the socio-economic choices made by bilateral and multilateral aid donors?

The book addresses all these questions and invites us to explore the politicisation of development aid, decade after decade. It also a good synthesis of the main debates around political vs socio-economic aid: should aid be technical or political? Is democractic governance the most efficient type of governance?

I really enjoyed reading this book: it is informative and comprehensive, and brings new information in a nuanced and balanced view which lets the reader draw up their own conclusions about the extent to which development aid should be political.

Political means and political ends

There are two ways one can add politics into the development aid equation: by making the goals and objectives more political (e.g. taking clearly position for or against democracy as a form of governance) and by making the methods more political (e.g. by proposing development programmes on the basis of prior political economy analyses).

The book explores both avenues, from the 1960s to today. I’ve summed up the key development approaches and methods of each decade in an infographic below, together with key references and critiques. To put political aid in perspective, it still only represented 10 billion, roughly 10-15% of official development assistance (ODA) provided by the OECD donor countries, which constitute the largest group of donors worldwide.

The most interesting part of the book is when Carothers and de Gramont present and analyse the controversies around the introduction of politics into the world of development aid, and when they highlight the challenges ahead for development agencies if they want to continue on the path towards more political aid, both in its means and in its ends.

The intrinsic vs instrumental divide in development aid

Doing so, the two authors point to a fundamental divide in development aid as a conceptual framework. The proponents of development aid can indeed be divided in two groups:

  • those who think development aid is intrinsically good, focusing on the moral imperative to help others and support each other in times of hardship; and
  • those who believe development aid is instrumentally good, because a world where no one is left behind is more secure and peaceful, and offers more opportunities for businesses.

This divide also applies to political aid and even to political methods. A good example which the authors spend some time on is participation. Research papers abound on the positive outcomes of participatory development, and in particular how stakeholder participation overall increases the effectiveness of development projects (Reed, 2008). Yet, participatory development is also sought as an end in itself, because citizen participation is what you expect a modern, democratic political system to include.

The limits to political aid today

Although political approaches are not sufficient for sustainable development progress, there is good evidence that taking politics more fully into account is necessary. (p. 283)

While the book doesn’t offer a blueprint for embedding political into development aid as such, it does hint at concrete measures in order to achieve what aid providers call “governance integration“.

This includes the following recommendations:

  • development aid is a political process;
  • start from a local political context;
  • focus on function rather than form;
  • work flexibly to facilitate processes of change;
  • think of programmes within broader political systems;
  • link aid to an informed theory of change.

There is undeniably some progress on the political aid front since the book was written; after all, unlike the millenium development goals, one of the sustainable development goals adopted by the international community in New York in September 2015 is about promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies (Goal 16).

Despite increasing awareness, and despite the fact that any form or aid or absence thereof is in itself a political act, there are still too many development professionals who believe development aid is first and foremost about socio-economic progress, ie bringing clean water, soil and water conservation techniques, and other classics of development aid, to populations in dire need of help.

Carothers and de Gramont sum up the 4 main challenges to more political development policies and more politically smart development methods:

  • measuring and reporting the impact of integrated programmes;
  • thinking about politics in economic terms undermines the utility of political economy analyses;
  • relying too heavily on technology (e.g. randomized control trials)
  • putting pressure to simplify political insights and tools to be applicable more broadly.

If you don’t feel like reading the whole book – it’s quite dense – you can download my 10-page summary.

Do you think development aid should be more political in its goals and/or methods?

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