I had a lot of fun writing this article, but I think some of my frustration comes through too.
In a recent guest post for Duncan Green, ODI’s Alina Rocha Menocal asks whether learning to ‘think politically’ is like learning a new language. It’s a great analogy and one that should be taken seriously. As she points out, in order to learn this new language – incentives, rules of the game, values, rents, complexity, power and so on – ‘A radical approach is needed – much akin to learning a new language from scratch, within a conducive environment that fosters adaptation, flexibility, ingenuity, and the ability to learn by doing.’
None of these are things that donor agencies are renowned for doing well, as anyone who has read Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont’s wonderful book or the recent ICAI report on DFID’s ability to learn will tell you.
But Alina’s analogy needs to be taken further to understand just how important it is and how challenging the implications are for donors, or any development organisation that employs a large number of technical staff with no specific remit to focus on politics. And it has to do with how we learn languages.
One of my younger brothers, Joe, is a linguist. He’s fluent in over 10 languages, can speak at least 10 or 15 to a high level. He doesn’t just speak Italian, he speaks several Italian dialects as well. He can speak French with a Parisian, Quebecois, Dijonnais or Breton accent. He has taught himself to speak Arabic, Hindi, Mandarin, Welsh, Afrikaans, Dutch, ancient Greek, modern Greek. Not well enough to conduct delicate trade negotiations but more than well enough to tell a joke, read the paper, talk about love and food and dreams. He rarely dreams in English anymore.
He did this growing up in rural New Hampshire in a pretty monolingual family and certainly in monolingual schools, but surrounded by older family members who still spoke the languages of their birth. While other boys read comic books, he read dictionaries. While other boys played baseball, he learned how to cook a delicate ragu and how to speak both Italian and Sicilian.
And he was a giant pain in the ass about it. He just stopped speaking English, no matter how important the conversation was. He refused to answer the phone properly, despite it being our father’s lifeline for his business, and he cost our dad terribly in terms of lost opportunities during a deep recession. He was a target for bullies, and I spent an inordinate amount of time as his big sister standing up for him. But no matter what, he kept speaking only in whichever language he was learning at the time, because he knew – even at 10 years old – that the best way to become fluent in a language is to become fully immersed in it. You don’t learn best in a few days in a classroom, and you don’t learn best from a book. You learn a language best by being thrown in the deep end. Thirty years later, he’s a much loved sibling and son, a fantastic travel companion and an exceptionally gifted linguist and teacher.
There are likely to be at least four different types of learners in development organisations that hope to get their staff ‘thinking politically’:
- ‘children’ – Those staff who are new to the organisation and are open to a new way of working and a new way of thinking and will take to training like a fish to water. They’ll still benefit from ‘immersion’, of course, but there’s likely to be less resistance to new ways of working.
- ‘adults’ who have some background in politics or who have an innately political brain – Those people who ‘get’ politics easily in whichever country, or whichever situation, they’re in and who just see the world in this way. They’ll also take well to training and will be able to internalise it and will become the ‘mavericks’ who figure out how to work around organisational systems in order to get things done. They’d probably do this, with or without training, because it’s how their brains operate.
- ‘adults’ who understand that this new language is important and will try their best but will always struggle to do more than the basics – Those people who will enjoy the training, who will leave with the training materials and will do their best for a few weeks but who’ll eventually fall back into their old ways of working once they’re no longer in class. They know it’s important but just can’t seem to figure out ‘what to do differently on a Monday morning’ without a teacher there to help. They may become cynical, because they know they’re probably not working in the best possible way but don’t know what to do faced with their everyday working realities.
- ‘adults’ who don’t get it, won’t get it, don’t want to get it – Those people who are the equivalent of tourists shouting, ‘DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?’ at people. They have their ways of working. They’ve been doing what they’ve been doing in the way they do for a long time and don’t see why they should change. They’re experts in their fields, at the cutting edge for what they do. They just don’t ‘think politically’ and don’t see why they should have to try. And trying to get them to learn a whole new technical language is never going to work.
Right now it seems like we have a one-size-fits-all approach to encouraging ‘thinking and working politically’, and it’s not based around any sort of pedagogical approach to changing adult learners’ behaviour, and it’s definitely not based around what we know about learning a new language. We have political economy analysis (PEA) training in the classroom, usually in short courses of 2-3 days at that, and with some course texts and material to take away. Or maybe an online course where they’re on their own. These may be fantastic courses – interesting, engaging, thought-provoking. And for the first two types of learners, it may be just enough to get them started.
But for actual transformational change in the way that donors and other development organisations work, all types of learners need to engaged with. And if this isn’t possible, then the goal posts need to shift.
Should organisations focus on the ‘children’, making sure that all new staff learn new ways of thinking and working (recognising that when they go back to their monolinguistic silos, they may irritate others and may even face bullies)? Should they focus on particular types of programs and certain types of staff and forget about the rest? Should they hire new people with the right skills and mind set, possibly using some psychometric testing (though what happens to existing staff)? Should they focus on finding opportunities for immersion – putting staff in a country for long enough to really learn the language of politics there (though what happens to technical staff or external experts who advise on projects in multiple countries)?
Alina is absolutely right that learning to think and work politically is like learning a language and that this is a radical approach. It changes how we think about existing training, where it isn’t about capacity building or ‘skilling up’ but rather behavioural change and so needs a radically different approach to the one we have now. But it also raises questions about the types of staff that development organisations currently have and whether or not they’ll all be able (or willing) to take on board this agenda. And if not, what do we do with them?
It’s the difference between ‘Je parle politics’ and ‘Je ne parle pas politics. Je ne suis pas desole’ and all of those staff in between. And a one-size-fits-all approach to learning won’t make them all fluent any time soon.
My colleague, Laurence Cooley, and I have just finished a book chapter on ‘Corruption and Post-Conflict Reconstruction’ for a forthcoming collection, and we wanted to compare three cases to see if any specific lessons can be drawn about what worked, what didn’t and why. We chose Bad, Worse and Rock Bottom as our cases – Liberia, Iraq and Afghanistan, partly because we thought they’d be of interest to the most readers, but also because if lessons on corruption can’t be drawn from these, well, heaven help us…
The literature on the relationship between corruption and conflict is pretty contradictory, as anyone who’s waded through it can tell you. While corruption may very often be a driver of conflict, there is evidence to suggest that, in certain circumstances, it may also have conflict-mitigating properties. Post-conflict reconstruction efforts can inadvertently present new opportunities for corrupt practices, leaving international attempts to fight corruption in the aftermath of violence in tatters. Countries suffering from political instability face the danger of a vicious cycle of corruption and conflict. Even when the violent phase of conflict is over, the deeply rooted nature of corruption and the fact that it’s been made a million times worse during the violence mean that attempts to reconstruct post-conflict societies inevitably have to try to tackle it. Put another way, post-conflict reconstruction efforts are not afforded the luxury of a ‘clean slate’. Odds are corruption was there before conflict, and it’s definitely there afterwards. The challenge is what to do about it.
You would think then that the importance of tackling corruption as a key component of post-conflict reconstruction efforts should be self-evident. Yet where corruption is used to buy the loyalty of potential spoilers, well-meaning attempts to eradicate it may risk undermining the emergent peace. It’s a mess, no two ways about it.
The challenge for reconstruction isn’t just to figure out what to do about corruption, when, in what order and in a way that ‘does no harm‘. It’s also to ensure that post-conflict reconstruction efforts themselves don’t have the perverse effect of contributing to corruption. These efforts involve substantial inflows of finance and personnel, both of which present new opportunities for corrupt practices. Iraq and Afghanistan are sad examples of this and illustrate that in post-conflict situations, the sources of corruption are not solely domestic. International intervention in both societies, backed by large amounts of economic assistance designed to support reconstruction, has failed to tackle the issue of corruption successfully and in many ways the actions of donor governments has served to undermine such attempts.
But we’re not just talking about humanitarian or development aid here, and we’re not just talking about military aid. We’re talking about big, huge, unimaginable stacks of cash. Boxes of it. Pallets of it. Crazy, mile-high, where the hell is did they find all of it, piles of cash.
An article in Vanity Fair in 2007 reported that the US Federal Reserve shipped US$12 billion in cash on pallets to Iraq between 2003 and 2004, but at least US$9 billion of this has gone missing . This is the equivalent of Zimbabwe’s GDP in 2013 or approximately one-third of the US’s entire aid budget for 2012, just vanishing in bricks of $100 bills.
I like to think of myself as a moral person, but if my department’s entire budget was loaded off the lift in pallets of cash, the temptation to ‘borrow’ just a few bills to pay for coffee, or my mountainous student loans, would be pretty big. I wouldn’t do it, of course, but not just because I’m a good person. I wouldn’t do it because odds are, I’d be caught. Remove any chance of being caught, any chance of being punished, and poof…$9 billion vanish into the ether.
In Liberia, the other case study considered in the chapter, the international community has been able to claim a greater degree of success, but the approach taken, which involved a remarkable degree of interference in the domestic affairs of the country, has proven understandably controversial. In Liberia, donors almost set up a ‘default government’ with regard to economic governance, known as ‘GEMAP’, and which was so controversial that it need the approval of the UN Security Council. Indeed, in their report for the OECD, Alina Rocha Menocal and Ken Sigrist recommend that: ‘Donors should engage cautiously in this kind of support on the basis of sound contextual analysis, and they should tread lightly to ensure their interventions don’t end up exacerbating tensions or generating (further) conflict’.
What’s particularly interesting about Liberia, in comparison with Iraq and Afghanistan, is that there is genuine evidence of change, despite some recent corruption scandals. In the most recent Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, Liberia ranks 83rd out of 177 countries, whereas Iraq ranks 171st and Afghanistan a depressing 175th.
In both the Iraq and Afghanistan cases, Western intervention contributed significantly to corruption in post-conflict reconstruction, exacerbating local tensions and prolonging conflict long after victory was officially declared. The main problem doesn’t seem to be the one debated within academic and policy circles – at what point in the reconstruction process should donors push an anti-corruption agenda – but rather governments (not to be confused with ‘donors’) not exacerbating an existing problem with big pallets of hard cash. As far as we know, Liberia didn’t receive this sort of ‘inward investment’, but both Iraq and Afghanistan did; this is perhaps the most important difference between the cases.
These aren’t going to be new arguments to corruption/state-building wonks (book chapters – ‘Handbook’ chapters in particular – aren’t where you bury lots of new arguments!), but it’s a lesson that we should keep coming back to. With humility.
With the push to spend more aid money in post-conflict states – including in Somalia, the only country that is ‘worse’ on corruption than Afghanistan – tough lessons will need to be learned from the experiences of the past decade, before the pallets again start to disappear.
My husband is an archaeologist, and so we immersed our kids in his world instead of mine (I’ve yet to discover a good anti-corruption museum but always up for suggestions…no bonus points for ‘Westminster’). We spent a rainy afternoon at the wonderful Corinium Museum in Cirencester, followed by a walk/run in Cirencester Park.
I managed to squeeze in a lesson about social justice, materialism and being a bit of a hippie (pity the children of academics…), as we walked near the polo ground on land owned by the Bathurst Estate and frequented by royals.
So they also learned the meaning of irony…
And, in the crisp mist of early spring, sated by the Cotswoldy delights of earl grey and lemon drizzle, I thought of a couple of real blog posts, one of which I’ll write tomorrow. For tomorrow is another day…
There’s been a big(ish) debate out there in the past week in response to Nicolas Kristof’s article in the New York Times on ‘Bridging the Moat Around Universities‘ (for some great follow ups see Ezra Klein over at Bloomberg or Rachel M Gisselquist at UNU-WIDER). Duncan Green over at FP2P followed it up with a post on ‘What Do White House Policy Makers want from Researchers? Important survey findings‘. In it, he looks at a new paper by Paul C Avey (MIT) and Michael C Desch (University of Notre Dame), quoting extensively and then translating what they say:
‘Another conclusion we draw from this survey is that a scholar’s broader visibility – both in government and among the public whether through previous government service or publication in broader venues –– enhances influence among policymakers more than his or her academic standing.
Translation: get blogging, people’
It reminded me of an older post of his that came out roughly around the last time I posted here, called ‘Is blogging (or commenting on blogs) a guy thing? And if so, why?’ At the time, I thought about commenting and then didn’t, probably for several of the reasons he includes in his blog. Is it cool to admit that you’d rather spend your evenings with your kids, or reading a book, or watching ‘The Bridge‘? Is it even less cool to admit that I do actually blog, but I have a private blog – known only to my closest friends – that’s just for fun, where I write (from time to time) about crime fiction, photography, baking, elusive work-life balance and other non-developmenty things?
What Duncan reminds us, though, is that blogging for work can be fun, as well as important. And it is important, particularly through institutional blogs, such as our new DLP Opinions blog. But sometimes it’s also good to just be me, an academic, without wearing an institutional hat, and that’s what this will be for.
But next week, as a weekend with the family approaches…
This is a talk I gave at the New Perspectives on Conflict and Security Second Annual Conference on ‘Civil War and the State-building Challenge‘, held at the University of Birmingham on the 17th and 18th September 2012, sponsored by the Institute for Conflict, Cooperation & Security (ICCS). My talk was in the closing roundtable on ‘Practitioner Perspectives: Government, Military and Civil Society’, and I was joined by Dr Andrew Rathmell (Coffey International Development); Steven Jermy (Royal Navy – retired); Richard Jermy (UK Government’s Stabilisation Unit and Ministry of Defence); and James Fennell (theIDLgroup). The text of the talk follows:
Many thanks to Ted for inviting me to speak on this panel. I find myself humbled, as I am not really a practitioner, and I’m in very impressive company here today. I reckon I’m probably the only person on the panel not to have been shot at at some point! I’m an academic first and foremost who engages in policy work from time to time. I am the director of the Governance & Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC), which provides rapid research and knowledge management services on governance, social development, conflict and humanitarian issues to clients such as DFID, AusAID, the OECD and so on, and I have also acted as a consultant and policy advisor to various aid agencies on corruption and anti-corruption in particular. To my mind, this does not make me a ‘practitioner’. However, I’m also a student of donor agencies in particular and how they ‘do’ statebuilding work, particularly when it comes to governance issues, and so I hope to provide some insights into the challenges here. My focus here will be on aid agencies, because that’s what I’m most interested in, but the same general principles apply to other international actors, both state and non-state. These are reflections rather than reporting on completed research, although this does touch upon where my own research is going. As a typical academic, I will be leaving us with more questions, rather than with answers, but the questions are important ones, I think.
The main point I hope to make is this: state-building requires both knowledge of and sensitivity to context. It involves, as the folks at the Africa Power & Politics Programme (APPP) have claimed, ‘going with the grain’ – working with what actually exists on the ground, rather than an idealised version of what we wish was there instead. No ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions where the starting point is an ideal Weberian state, in other words. The challenge is that this ‘context’ is often particularistic, characterised by neopatrimonialism and low levels of social and political trust, and where the lines between one’s public and private roles are blurred at best. The context also often involves the threat of renewed violence – being on a knife edge. So how do actors who are committed – by international treaty as well as by belief – to principles of universality ‘work with the grain’ in these contexts?
I’d like to illustrate the way this challenge looks on the ground by focusing on a particular study, and not one that would jump to most people’s minds as relevant one for state-building. In 2011, NORAD – the Norwegian aid agency – published a commissioned study on ‘Contextual Choices in Fighting Corruption’. It is a very long study, some of which is relevant to our discussion (and some not, of course), but one of its key contributions is that it provides compelling evidence for the need to differentiate between particularlistic and universalistic forms of governance in many developing countries and to build interventions accordingly.
Universalism is described as a system where ‘every citizen is treated equally by the state and all public resources are distributed impartially’.
Particularism is the opposite of this. Politics may be competitive (sort of), but the principle is that the state exists as the spoils and these spoils will not be distributed impartially. It is where the state, such as it is, treats ‘a person not as an indistinct individual, but according to particular ties or group affiliations’.
The report goes on to argue that the main reason why so many governance interventions fail is because the international community doesn’t recognise this simple truth: most of the institution building we try to do is based on the presumption of universalism. These institutions are then planted in particularistic contexts and fail as a result. The risk of failure, of course, increases in more unstable environments.
The report sets out a number of lessons, but 3 that are relevant here are as follows:
- Firstly, institution building that attempts to shift a state from particularism to universalism is, in fact, the equivalent of regime change. This is a highly political process, not just a technical one, and both ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ need to be supported.
- Secondly, the international community has played an ‘ambiguous and inconsistent role and has thus sabotaged its own efforts’. Failing to ‘go with the grain’ means that we often end up actually working with predators who pay lip service to principals of universalism while continuing to rape the state and its people.
- Finally, ‘sticks’, as opposed to ‘carrots’, can actually be dangerous in these sort of contexts, because some people will always be above the law and justice will often be arbitrary and highly political and highly particularistic.
I have heard more than one senior official in a number of donor organisations refer to this study as ‘unworkable’, ‘not relevant for the way in which we have to operate’, ‘fine for the “academic” world, but not for our “real” world’. The main complaint seems to be that the study recommends that donors deal with the context that they find on the ground, which is almost invariably particularlistic, despite the fact that donors must be committed to universality as an over-arching principle.
So who is operating in the “real” world here – the academics who say that we need to start with what is really happening on the ground, even if we don’t like it, or the practitioners who argue that this is just not possible for them? Is this a question of development’s idealism coming up against International Relations’ realpolitik?
The NORAD study is only one example. Others of note – beside the APPP’s ‘going with the grain’, include Mick Moore’s team at IDS calling for us to look at an ‘upside down view of governance’, Michael Johnston’s work for the 2011 World Development Report on anti-corruption in post-conflict environments, where he calls on us to ‘first, do no harm’, and so on. Essentially they are all making the same point – the reason why so many international interventions in fragile environments seem to fail is because they don’t actually work with the ‘real world’. The ‘real world’ is messy, unfair, violent, filled with ‘big men’, both grand and petty corruption, and unequal access to often very limited resources. Where it does work, it tends to be in ways in which those of us living in Weberian bureaucracies rarely recognise – through a combination of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ governance systems. I hesitate to use either of those words, and certainly not as a dichotomy, but it has to be said they’re good short-hand for my purpose.
So what is wrong with particularism anyway? Why is it so difficult for donors and other actors to operate in a particularistic way?
Firstly, this is very much a domestic political issue. Would the British public – or any other public for that matter – understand why we’re working with ‘big men’, supporting nepotistic systems, allowing some to receive the benefit of our support but not others? Would we find it acceptable to turn a blind eye to the undesirable behaviour of some of our ‘partner governments’ in the short-term with the promise of greater stability, fairness and effectiveness in the longer term? Regardless of party politics, this is unlikely to go over well with any but the most realist of voters.
Secondly, this is a high risk strategy, both for those who are the ‘state-builders’ and those who are ‘being built’. Particularlism doesn’t necessarily have to mean ‘predatory’, but the reality is that it often is. Universalism, on the other hand, is rarely predatory and is much less likely to lead to vast inequality. And inequality – more than corruption itself, more than particularlism – is what should be of a concern to state-builders. As long as a sense remains that it will be ‘our turn to eat’ at some point, most people seem to be willing to wait. When it is clear that it will never be ‘our turn to eat’, when someone else, a different group perhaps, is clearly having much more to eat than anyone else, then serious problems emerge. This is much, much more likely to happen under a particularistic way of governing than under a universalistic one. ‘Going with the grain’ may make sense in the short-term, but there is a very high risk that we could just be storing up serious problems for the future – all carrying the stamp of approval from the international community.
Finally, we simply do not know enough about the contexts in which we work to be able to make intelligent decisions about how to engage within a particularistic framework. There has been a flurry of activity in the last 5 or so years in developing analytical frameworks – around what’s called ‘political economy analysis’ or conflict analysis – in order to help our understanding. But even at their best, these are of very limited usefulness. They are often done by individuals with (hopefully) some knowledge of a country or region, over a very short period of time, with fairly limited resources, to serve a very specific purpose for the commissioning agency, and are usually secret with little opportunity for genuine peer review or evaluation or for response from the government being analysed. What they cannot even begin to replace is implicit, in-depth knowledge of a particular context over time, driven not by the needs of a funder but by the needs of the people on the ground.
Critics have accused this new breed of administrators of neo-colonialism. But in fact their approach is not that of a nineteenth-century colonial officer. Colonial administrations may have been racist and exploitative but they did at least work seriously at the business of understanding the people they were governing. They recruited people prepared to spend their entire careers in dangerous provinces of a single alien nation. They invested in teaching administrators and military officers the local language. They established effective departments of state, trained a local elite and continued the countless academic studies of their subjects through institutes and museums, royal geographic societies and royal botanical gardens. They balanced the local budget and generate fiscal revenue because if they didn’t their home governments would rarely bail them out. If they failed to govern fairly, the population would mutiny.
Post-conflict experts have got the prestige without the effort or stigma of imperialism. Their implicit denial of the difference between cultures is the new mass brand of international intervention. Their policy fails but no one notices. There are no credible monitoring bodies and there is no one to take formal responsibility. Individual officers are never in any one place and rarely in any one organisation long enough to be adequately assessed. The colonial enterprise could be judged by the security or revenue it delivered, but neo-colonialists have no such performance criteria. In fact their very uselessness benefits them. By avoiding any serious action or judgement they, unlike their colonial predecessors, are able to escape accusations of racism, exploitation and oppression.
Perhaps it is because no one requires more than a charming illusion of action in the developing world. If the policy makers know little about the Afghans, the public knows even less, and few care about policy failure when the effects are felt only in Afghanistan.
To me, this raises some really difficult questions for donors and other actors. Why do we not have people on the ground for the long-haul? Where is the in-depth knowledge of countries with which we have engaged for many, many decades? To whom are we actually accountable when we talk about particularism vs. universalism, when we talk about ‘going with the grain’? As long as we continue to see state-building interventions as discrete activities, time bound and largely led by/done by external actors with barely a footprint on the ground, this challenge will never disappear.
So I end with what I hope are 3 interesting questions that emerge from this discussion.
Firstly, why is ‘going with the grain so difficult for us? To whom does universality most matter? I suggest that it is us – the international community – in the short-term, but it is them – people in fragile environments – in the long-term. I might be wrong, though, and the evidence for this is unclear.
Secondly, when we know so little about context, relying on short – often unpublished and rarely, if ever, peer reviewed – reports to provide our in-depth knowledge, how do we ensure that we bear the brunt of failure? How do we become truly accountable for our state-building policies, as well as our actions, regardless of the context?
Finally, how do we engage with particularistic contexts in ways that don’t encourage or reward predatory behaviour? How do we help to lesson inequality in unequal systems?
Thank you, and I look forward to the discussion.
I’m in the beautiful Swedish city of Gothenberg where I gave a seminar today on ‘Religion and Attitudes Towards Corruption in India and Nigeria’ at the Quality of Government Institute. In the presentation I summarised the main findings coming out of research funded as part of the Religions and Development research programme at the University of Birmingham. The slides for the presentation can be found here – QoG presentation – Marquette.
One of the most interesting findings of the research, I think, is around the issue of consumerism. In both countries, respondents clearly blamed increased levels of corruption in recent years on ‘consumerist’ and ‘materialistic’ aspects of modernisation and globalisation. In Nigeria, this was always linked to ‘westernisation’, but in India, it was linked instead to globalisation, and several respondents made it clear that by this they did not mean westernisation. For the Indian respondents, we are all being consumed by (over) consumption.