The Development Dance

The practice of development is messy. Far too often it is much more messy we tend to acknowledge. That messiness often does not appear RCTs or evaluations, but it has a significant impact on the implementation of activities. One of the layers of messiness is the negotiation between donor and recipient governments, covered in Haley J. Swedlund's "The Development Dance: How Donors and Recipients Negotiate the Delivery of Foreign Aid" (2017). The author explains: "This book wrestles with a basic problem: both agencies and governments have trouble making credible commitments. This book is about how donor agencies like USAID and recipient governments like Uganda negotiate the delivery of foreign aid. It is about how the two parties engage in aid policy bargaining, or what I refer to in his book as the "development dance." More specifically, it is about how donor agencies and recipient governments attempt to demonstrate the credibility of their promises, and how their difficulty doing so affects the sustainability of aid policy compromises over time." (p. 2)

The problem? "A common complaint among development practitioners is that new aid practices and policies are not given enough time to become effective. Why is this? Best practices regarding aid delivery are notoriously fickle. In the eighties, structural adjustment was the norm. In the nineties, project aid and support to NGOs became fashionable. At the turn of the twenty-first century, budget support was all the rage. Now donor agencies are crazy fir results-based aid. Yet we know very little about why policies and practices often fall by the wayside (sometimes only to be picked up again twenty, thirty years down the road)" (p. 5)

The challenge is that "the relentless focus measuring the effectiveness of aid often causes us to overlook how the policies of foreign aid actually come to exist in the first place and how likely it is that such practices will remain over the long term. It also means that foreign aid scholars often assume – either implicitly or explicitly – that aid programs are actually designed to be effective, and evaluate them accordingly" (p. 4).

Example: "In the midst of a brutal civil war, the Work Bank, for example, spent more than $45 million in Sierra Leone on building and maintaining roads. Thirty-three percent of the funds went toward compensating contractors for lost time and the destruction of their efforts (Easterly 2003s, 36). There is disagreement about why the World Bank continued to fund road projects in the midst of a civil war, but it is clear that it was not about effectiveness" (p. 5).

Swedlund argues that "the choices in aid delivery are neither random nor driven exclusively by aid effectiveness concerns or the strategic interests of donor countries. Rather, choices in aid delivery are the product of negotiated compromise between donor agencies and recipient governments… designing more effective ways of delivering foreign aid is not just about finding better ways of meeting recipient needs. It is also about incentivizing both donor agencies and recipient governments to keep their promises over the long term" (p. 17). This is important because if "a government is not able to accurately plan for incoming sources of revenue, whether they are higher or lower than predicted, it is unlikely to use the resources efficiently when they do arrive. As a donor official in Ghana put it, if a recipient country gets $50 million on the last day of the year, what is the country supposed to do with it? In practice, what habitually happens is that makeshift and poorly designed initiatives are quickly thrown together so that the donor agency is able to disburse the funds and the recipient government does not lose out on aid dollars" (p. 85).

Way forward? "Building aid delivery mechanisms that will last beyond an initial period of enthusiasm requires us to design institutions that incentivize both donor agencies and recipient governments to live up to their commitments" (p. 131).

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Civil Society and the Aid Industry

Civil society is said to provide "the agents of change that will cure a range of social and economic ills left by failures of government and the marketplace: autocracy, poverty, disenfranchisement, oppression, social malaise. Cornucopian expectations for social change have been heaped on this idea and, indeed, for some Northern donors in particular (both official and non-governmental), the 'discovery' of civil society has promised a solution to the enduring problems of development and democratic change" (p. 1). With the rise of 'civil society' in research and practice in the 1990s, there was a great need to critically engage the questions being raised. An important book that arose to do just that was "Civil Society and the Aid Industry" (1998), edited by Alison Van Rooy. The book "chronicles one part of the story and highlights some of the promises and dangers that the language of civil society brings with it" (p.1).

The origin of 'civil society' thinking is deep: "there are two phases in the family history of civil society theory. The first, dating from the Romans, grappled with why and how humankind should be governed and under what conditions. From the Scottish Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, however, we see a line drawn starkly between the governed and the governors: all of a sudden, there is a State that needs to be defended against, and a civil society that harbours the citizenry and trains them to keep the State at bay" (p. 7). Due to 'civil society' being commonly used but rarely defined explicitly, there is "mix-and-matching from the centuries old debate on civil society" with the authors identifying six key perspectives utilized: civil society "as values and norms, as a collective noun, as a space for action, as a historical moment, as an anti-hegemonic movement, and as an antidote to the State" (p. 11-12).

While there are challenges, the contributors view civil society positively: "civil society is a good thing: many of the groups that interest us form to compensate for the failures of the State, the market or other parts of society to fulfill their aspirations. The idea assumes that a third sector is necessary to guarantee a just society" (p. 30). But, this is not a simplistic promotion of civil society. For example, they argue that "much of the literature frequently overlooks the ways in which the larger conflicts in political society are reproduced in civil society. The orthodox belief that civil society is an arena for negotiating interests, itself a touchstone of democratic deepening, masks the point that civil society can and often does feed into and aggravate existing social and political cleavages" (p. 136). As Ndegwa (1996) wrote about the 'two faces' of NGOs, the authors also outline the multiple faces of civil society: "Civil society has to be seen as an ad hoc melting pot and battleground of diverse interests and actors. This public arena is never homogenous; constituting itself as a permanent regrouping and renegotiating process. Its complex fabric and interwoven interdependencies are built on the voluntary will of individuals taking part in social and political affairs" (p. 76).

Fortunately, the authors provide not only assessment and criticism, but also suggestions for the way forward. This includes "broadening as well as deepening knowledge of African civil society; in particular understanding what might sap or energize it" (p. 166). It also means exploring indirect engagements by donors to "resume its role as an encouragement to existing movements for change, not the strong arm that sets them rolling" (p. 207). Along these lines, the book concludes that "if any project of social and political change is to be enduring it must come from the voices of local people" (p. 217). Other recommendations include understanding enabling environments, including the right to associate, the rule of law, a free press and other basic rights (p. 215). Importantly, it is being more explicit, open, reflexive and cognizant of the political nature of engaging with civil society: "The question is not whether politics can be avoided, but whether one's particular choice of political stance and partnerships can be justified and, if so, to whom" (p. 211). 

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