Review of “Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution” by Thomas Carothers and Diane De Gramont

I recently finished reading “Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution”, by Carothers and De Gramont.  I found it to be a comprehensive and insightful look at the interaction between international development practice and politics.  By politics, the authors refer to political analysis and politically-informed interventions, as well as explicitly political goals, such as promoting democratic governance.  This book is extremely relevant and timely, coming as moment when the international development industry is in a state of flux driven by budget austerity in Western nations, loud criticism and skepticism about aid from numerous sectors, and competition from investment from countries such as China and massive flows of remittances to poor countries.

The authors demonstrate that the history of incorporating political goals and methods into international development practice dates back at least five decades.  Criticism of the technocratic and apolitical nature of development has existed since the inception of the foreign aid enterprise, yet beginning in the 1990’s movement to more meaningfully address politics began to gain traction, driven by voices calling for reform both from within and outside development institutions.  The authors trace the rise of policy statements on the importance of politics and governance throughout international development work, but the very uneven progress of integrating more political analysis, methods and goals into development practice.  Indeed, although discussion of “governance” issues has spread throughout most aid institutions and across development sectors, much “governance work” is undertaken through profoundly apolitical methods, such as “technical capacity building” of state institutions and personnel while ignoring incentives and power structures that affect the way such organizations and their staff operate on the ground.

Many development organizations, including USAID, have begun to pay more attention to political economy analysis to inform goals, strategies and interventions.  Yet the authors argue that political analyses, particularly at the country level, often raise more questions than they answer and seldom have clear programmatic implications.  These analyses can often be considered “interesting, but impractical” by development professionals, and quickly find their way to the archives.  Nonetheless, the authors see the continued spread of political analysis as a potentially positive step, but note that the incorporation of politics into development practice involves sailing against strong headwinds:

“Politically informed methods thus imply a whole set of operational characteristics— such as flexibility, open-endedness, toleration of uncertainty, labor intensiveness, significant investments in preparatory analysis, and devolution of control— that cut directly against many of the central imperatives and habits of mainstream aid organizations….taken together they represent a fundamental challenge to long-established ways of operating.” p. 263

The authors believe that the conversation about politics within the international development community is a step forward, but warn that the road towards truly politically-informed development practice will be both long and challenging.

“The movement over the last two decades to incorporate political thinking and action into development aid is not a fad. It is not one more item in the seemingly ever-changing series of development fashions that capture the attention of aid providers before quickly fading away. It is, potentially at least, a fundamental advance in the aid community’s conception of the substance and process of development itself and how outside actors can play a useful role. But as we have attempted to show in this book, it remains a partially realized revolution, at best.” p. 275

Hopefully, however, the progress thus far will mean that there is no turning back now.  For as the authors state in their conclusion:

“Political methods and goals do not provide any magic bullets— developmental change is always complex and usually difficult. Although political approaches are not sufficient for sustainable development progress, there is good evidence that taking politics more fully into account is necessary.” p. 284