Monday, August 28, 2006

“Early morning sunshine tells me all I need to know…”

When the Ramble was a student of development, way back in the day, one of the most frustrating things about study was the seemingly interminable timelag between breakthroughs in academia and their impact on policy making in the developing world. A widely deployed policy from one of the major multi-lateral organisations is proven in a number of journals, from the esoteric to the mainstream, to be a costly failure - but implementation continues for five, ten years before it is abandoned. It was the source of much gnashing of teeth and much wringing of hands. Other times, it might be that a growing body of work persuasively argues that a positive policy change, for example towards consolidating farmholdings, has beneficial effects. Yet, the policy isn’t implemented or even discussed at the level that matters, the practical level, for years.

Why this inertia? Partly, of course, it has to do with people; new ideas take time before they become wider currency. When people stake their reputations on the realisation of a policy they have been championing, they resist pressures to abandon these ideas for new ones. Even when the pressure tells, it takes time to wind up policies and implement new ones. The other major reason is quite simple: most people who have worked in a civil service can tell you that the mixture of fire-fighting and large projects tends to consume your working day, and for many of us, spills out even to those days when you really shouldn’t be working. As a result, it’s very difficult to keep abreast of the latest happenings in the Journal of Peasant Studies or Development Policy Review.

This is frustrating on a number of levels. A lot of what academia is producing in this field is immediately and directly relevant to the work we do in Government, and the more conversant we are with recent publications the more effectively we can argue our viewpoints with donors. Even if, like me, you think the best economics of transition was done in the 19th Century, you need to keep on top of things – much of the most interesting development economics these days is revisiting old ideas in new contexts.

* * *

This isn’t a completely random rant. Recently, we’ve been dealing a lot with donors who are in the process of developing their assistance strategies for Malawi. These strategies govern the spending patterns of donors for a multi-year period, and their formulation should involve significant Government input.

Looking over some of these programmes of work, you rarely feel that any individual projects are ill-advised, but you struggle to see the unifying theory, the vision that underpins these programmes of work. Of course all of these documents, like all strategies these days have ‘vision statements’ and ‘narratives’, but beyond trite sloganeering (‘eradicating poverty in a sustainable manner, through gender-sensitive policy making’ and the like) it can be difficult to spot a rigorous theoretical framework. Such frameworks are often agreed and produced by the central office of a donor, but these are not really translated to individual countries in a meaningful way. Most donors are now, rightly, taking the lead from Government when planning their activities. It thus falls to Government to provide the coherent theoretical framework underpinning development policy. And when Government tries to do this, politics is as important as evidence and logical reasoning.

Which brings us neatly back to academia – work which attempts to look at economic growth and transformation in isolation from politics and the social makeup of a country are never really going to capture the reality of development. So policy-makers really need to keep up with the latest in academic work to criticise and introduce a dose of realism to augment the good work many people are devoting significant periods of time to.

* * *

Yes, I know I’m late again. More car trouble. Will elaborate another time. In the meantime, a little patience, and please excuse my shoddy grammar and any inconsistencies until I proof read this post.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

“Ain’t got time to bleed…”

As usual, this weeks’ Ramble is tardy. Sorrow for this would be greater if I wasn’t so tired. At first, I thought it was malaria. Fortunately, I was wrong, but it still knocked the stuffing out of me – especially given that I couldn’t take any time off work…

* * *

It’s been a busy week, both in and out of work. Every year, the Ministry of Finance engages with donors to agree on a system of assessing Government on progress against major development aims, and more specifically, on whether appropriate processes to achieve these outcomes are being followed. This isn’t as intrusive as it sounds; these donors provide a significant amount of aid to us, and the least they can ask is that this aid is being put to the uses for which it was requested (or in some cases, foisted upon us).

But target setting has to be very careful. On the one hand, donors need to know that the money that is being pumped through Government systems is being used for the purposes it was provided. On the other, they have to be very careful not to take a dictatorial role. The aim of the entire international development system is a state which governs an effective, prosperous country in which people have a reasonable standard of living from its own resources in a positive and beneficial manner (there is no country in the world where no one suffers from deprivation). For this to become a reality, Government needs to take the lead in developing policies and setting the development aims it wants to achieve; if it doesn’t, as soon as donor pressure disappears so will the impetus to achieve the positive aims that have been foisted upon the Government.

Very few people would dispute this when it’s put to them. However, after working for a few years with the often inefficient and sometimes corrupt Governments that do rule over the poorest countries in the world, many people in the development agencies lose sight of this. It’s not that they stop caring about Government, but they can get very frustrated with the difficulties of translating support to a Government into real gains for the poor and deprived people the support is meant to be helping. This is made much worse when they know that their organisations could dispense the aid directly and see improvements in the standard of living of a target population much more quickly. A half-way house to this is to impose multiple conditions and attempt to dictate policy through these conditions.

It’s difficult to be too critical of these approaches; they are borne of frustration and a desire to improve the living standards of people more rapidly. Nonetheless, it’s important to stress that this is not the way forward. It will make more rapid changes in the short term. But when people feel coerced into doing something, their natural reaction once the threat that fuels the coercion is withdrawn is to stop taking that action. As a result, if we are implementing a policy only because funding is tied to its implementation, if the donors who make this condition try and withdraw it in the future, they are very likely to see Government let the policy slide into disuse. The donor then either has to maintain the conditionality or see the policy waste away. Of course, this isn’t inevitable, and I’m overstating the case somewhat, but the basic point is that if the impetus for a positive action derives from a donor without being embedded in the development plan set by the Government, it won’t be sustained beyond the involvement of that donor. Donors need to take the long view of building Government – slower progress now, but the ultimate aim of completely withdrawing will come faster.

To their credit, a number of donors now recognise this at the corporate level; at the individual level, these opinions have been held for a long time. The challenge for bilateral donors now is convince their political masters that they need to take this long view, which will prevent them parading their ‘quick wins’ to their electorate. The challenge for Government is to ensure that we stand up to remaining pressures to institute policies we don’t agree with – we need to reject conditionalities and, if need be, aid, when it doesn’t square with out own development vision. If the donor can convince us that something is worth doing using evidence and reasoning, fine – but it shouldn’t be done out of fear. It’s eventually self defeating.

For Government to keep to this, it needs a strong, competent Minister of Finance. Just like the one we’ve got now, in fact.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

“… and He’s on your tongue, every time you lie…”

This week’s Ramble has come to a cliché. The Devil is in the details.

* * *

First off, an apology. The Ramble comes late this week due to an extremely hectic work schedule.

This is why: About three weeks ago, I mentioned that plans were underway for a rather important meeting, bringing together the some of the most senior representatives of all sides of the aid relationship. This meeting suffered from delay after delay, partly due to the packed schedules of the attendees, but also because of the problems we’ve had getting the budget through parliament.

Late in the day, though, word came through that the meeting could take place on Wednesday morning, leading to a frenzy of invitation writing, presentation finalization, agenda tweaking, briefing of senior official and the like. Anyway, after a few days of rapid greying of the hair, the meeting finally kicked off, with near perfect attendance, on time. Even more miraculously, we managed to wrap everything up at just ten minutes over our self-imposed two hour time-limit. Of course, the projector didn’t work until we were well into the meeting, but these things never go entirely smoothly.

But what of the content? Well, it wasn’t the revelation I’d secretly been hoping for; no donors threw themselves to the floor and begged for our forgiveness, and none of the Government officials slammed their fists on the table and screamed ‘no! this will not do!’. Despite that, it was still a great first step, an achievement. It was, on the whole, candid and constructive. People spoke their opinions, being careful not to name the organisations they were criticising (except my boss, who rather wonderfully named and shamed two donors, both present, for particularly bad practices – with a perfectly judged tone, to avoid offending). There were, inevitably, a few exceptions – people who said one thing while you suspected they were thinking another entirely.

For most of the meeting, we discussed the strategy the Ministry has been working on in some depth, and it quickly became apparent, to me at least, that for all I think it’s an excellent document, a lot still needs to be done. We’ve set out what we expect from our donors and what they can expect from us in return, and while this is very useful, it’s not enough. We need to really dig down into the specifics, rather than talk in broad terms. If anything is going to come of this, we need firm commitments, not encouraging noises. And no-one is going to firmly commit to anything unless they can really see all the implications of making that commitment. I doubt everyone will get behind us fully, but I think with a few tweaks and a bit of work, most of them will. That’s a start.

* * *

During the meeting, I also had a dilemma. I was sitting just to the side and slightly behind the head of one major development agency, listening to events unfold and furiously scribbling down notes when I noticed something. A small spider was slowly climbing up the back of his suit. Horrified, I watched as it continued it slow ascent until it reached his collar. Then, with a little hop, it leapt into his hair. I was now faced with a choice. Do I do my best to get rid of the spider, which would have involved slapping the cranium of a man who controls millions of dollars that are potentially at the disposal of our Government? Or do I let the spider be, and wait for it to bite, causing the poor man to scream in the middle of a meeting with all of his contemporaries?

The decision was eventually taken out of my hands by the spider’s decision to hop on to one of my colleagues, from whom I happily extricated it. But I’ve been thinking – if it hadn’t jumped, what should I have done?