Archive for September, 2016

International Aid, Civil Society and Politics of Development

Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution by Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont. Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2013; How to Manage an Aid Exit Strategy: The Future of Development Aid by Derek Fee. London: Zed Books, 2012.

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Debates on international development aid are not new; some have supported aid, some have opposed it. In his bestselling 2005 book, The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs urged rich nations to increase foreign aid to poor countries not just to end their ‘poverty trap’, but also to kick-start development. In contrast, William Easterly and Dambisa Moyo have strongly argued against aid and noted that it does more bad than good – ‘it prevents people from searching for their own solutions, while corrupting and undermining local institutions and creating a self-perpetuating lobby of aid agencies’ (Quoted in A. Banerjee and E. Duflo, Poor Economics, Public Affairs, 2011, pp. 3–4). The question here, however, is not about whether we should have aid or not; it is rather about what kind of aid we should have, how we should implement it and how aid can be made more effective in achieving its objectives. In Development Aid Confronts Politics, Thomas Carothers and Diane de Gramont heavily criticise the governance-oriented, technocratic and depoliticised approach to aid practised to date and insist instead on bringing politics to the centre of aid distribution and management.

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Exploring the history of politics in development aid, Carothers and de Gramont note that although aid was intimately related to Cold War politics, aid agencies in the formative years shied away from adopting explicitly political goals for they believed that socio-economic assistance would create domestic conditions conducive for political development and the spread of democracy. It was, however, observed that economic development, instead of bringing democratisation, ‘heightened political conflict, violence, and repression’, leading to authoritarianism (p. 29). The aid community did not have much choice: ‘[D]evelopmentalists on the ground stayed clear of “playing politics” in order to gain credibility with host governments and aid receiving societies’ (p. 50). Such apolitical and technocratic approaches to developmental planning, which often resulted in over-centralised power structures, were heavily criticised. As a result, aid organisations began to rethink their beliefs about the role of politics in the development process. Carothers and de Gramont seem happy that, today, most of the aid organisations have adopted and are actively pursuing political goals either directly with governments or indirectly with political parties and civil society organisations. Emphasising the indispensability of politics in understanding and crafting social change, the authors conclude that ‘aid programs should grow out of the local context and focus on feasible rather than best-practice solutions, that technical assistance should feed into indigenous processes of change, that projects should think about their place within the broader political systems, and that aid providers must focus closely on understanding how political and institutional change occurs’ (pp. 192–3).

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Although Derek Fee would agree with Carothers and de Gramont on how to make aid more effective, in How to Manage an Aid Exit Strategy he asks a different question: ‘why development aid is alive and kicking despite calls from both Africa (the continent demanding the highest level of aid) and donor country leaders to bring the business to a logical conclusion’ (p. xi). He further asks ‘why an activity that was supposed to be time-bound has expanded way beyond its initial remit’ (p. xi). Integrating academic knowledge and a practitioner’s experience, Fee addresses these questions quite innovatively. He argues that it is not just aid dependency that has had many negative effects, but that the aid business itself is now in crisis and cannot continue indefinitely. It is thus necessary for both donors and recipients to rethink the development aid model and devise clear exit strategies. Fee suggests several initiatives (e.g. domestic resource mobilisation, trade liberalisation, regional integration, microfinance, remittances and non-governmental organisations, and philanthropic institutions), which he believes could act as policy options for replacing development aid and making countries sustainable. He concludes that although an aid exit strategy is important, it ‘should not punish people’ who have suffered poverty and deprivation. It ‘must be applied with compassion or it will be ineffective. It must [also] be time-bound but the time given to each country should be related to their base line of aid dependency’ (p. 232).

While Carothers and de Gramont have successfully brought politics to the heart of the aid business, Fee has convincingly argued for a time-bound and compassionate aid exit strategy. Both books are filled with rich historical analysis and empirical examples and the authors exhibit immense awareness of and sensitivity to the political context. Though some may criticise these books for lacking theoretical rigour, they nonetheless represent excellent contributions to understanding the modern aid industry and the way it has evolved over time. Both books are lucidly written and well-argued and should be recommended not just to students of sociology and international relations, but also to aid practitioners, civil society activists and public policy officials.

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@ Reviewed by Sarbeswar Sahoo, Political Studies Review, Vol.12, No.3, Sept., 2014, pp.418-419.