Politics, Political Change and International Development

The challenge of poverty reduction as a part of international development initiatives has preoccupied individuals, nonprofit organizations, and governments for more than half a century.  Addressing poverty has proved to be a difficult undertaking and one replete with a host of ideological prescriptions, good intentions gone wrong, popularized ‘best practices’ and critics damning the whole enterprise.  Making sense of the diverse efforts and arguments that fall under the umbrella of international development is a complex task.  Yet critical thinking about those initiatives and their effects on poverty is essential as aid comes under increased political pressure from critics.  The continuing global economic malaise and the increasingly desperate fiscal circumstances of many donor countries has put development budgets at risk.  Aid critics, such as Dambisa Moyo and William Easterly, have compiled evidence of the failures of international development efforts over the past decades to argue it should be discontinued.  Moreover, and as an overarching trend, growing trade volumes, foreign direct investment, and remittances now dwarf aid budgets in many developing countries.

Could it be that the time for international development as an undertaking and an industry is coming to an end?  Or are changes in order instead?  I argue for a third option, that we must rethink foreign aid in order to focus on the single most important factor driving continued poverty and underdevelopment in much of the world, politics.

Scholars have begun to recognize the political nature of chronic poverty.  David Mosse,[1] for example, has argued that sustained deprivation is a product of political, economic, and social relations and structures that have developed over time, rather than a characteristic of any single individual or group.  Hickey and Bracking[2] have suggested similarly that, “politics and political change remain the key means by which [chronic] poverty can be challenged.” Meanwhile, empirical evidence suggests that development aid has had little impact on poverty reduction and income growth in poor countries. Instead, the quality of public institutions appears to be a more decisive factor in securing positive community change than such assistance.[3]  But attaining the changes need to develop such government institutions is an intensely political process, often characterized by conflict among state and non-state actors, rather than a linear process of formal administrative and institutional reform based on “best practices.”[4]

A recent report by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) that summarized a decade of research concerning development highlighted this conclusion:

To understand development we must understand the politics that shape it. Ultimately it is political decisions that will shape whether or not the Millennium Development Goals are reached, revenues are raised to fund investment, and growth occurs. … The key message from all four research programmes has been the centrality of politics in building effective states and shaping development outcomes. It shows ‘politics’ not as an abstract concept, but as an essential determinant of the Millennium Development Goals – that is, better educated, healthier, more prosperous people. The research has delivered this message in many ways. It provides evidence of politics as the ‘driver of change’ and as the ultimate cause of people’s security and access to justice.[5]

Despite this clear message from the research community (and some development agencies), donors have struggled to reconcile a political understanding of development challenges with the predominantly technocratic approaches they have long embraced and employed. According to Sue Unsworth,[6] “While most donors readily acknowledge (when pressed) that development challenges are political, not just financial and technical, there is a disconnect between the rhetoric about politics and the mainstream operational agenda (p. 884).” Unsworth has offered three mutually reinforcing barriers that prevent the integration of political considerations into development work:

  1. Intellectual barriers: getting people to take politics seriously requires them to change their existing mental models of how development happens.
  2. Institutional incentives within aid agencies (and development NGOs) that reinforce the status quo.
  3. Political analysis highlights the stark reality that there may be very limited local ownership of a development agenda (p. 889).

She notes that political and political economy approaches do not readily offer definitive answers to the questions they raise.  Thus, development agencies, to the extent that they do so at all, tend only to incorporate political considerations at the analysis stage, with subsequent interventions reflecting familiar technocratic and “best practices” formulas, particularly those arising from the ‘good governance’ agenda.

Thomas Carothers has also addressed the ongoing challenge of attaining a more politically informed practice of development:

Taking politics seriously in development aid implies not just carrying out good political-economy assessments but actually incor­porating those insights into innovative, politically nimble programming. Learning that a country’s development is being crippled by the entrenched hold of a close circle of corrupt power holders rooted in a particular ethnic sub-community is one thing; doing something about it using external aid is another…And still further, honestly facing the underlying political constraints on reform tends to entail accepting greatly reduced expectations about what aid is capable of achieving—another difficulty for donors, especially in this era of heightened pressure to show results.[7]

These authors make clear the need to take politics into account in the design and implementation of international development initiatives.  Some aid agencies and organizations are taking tentative steps toward addressing this lacuna by making increased use of political and political-economic analyses.  Yet, to date, those efforts have not been strongly integrated into thinking concerning the design of interventions to address continuing poverty and underdevelopment.  That is, international development organizations have yet to recognize that the principal barriers and obstacles to poverty reduction are political, not technical.  Until they do, international development work will continue to miss opportunities to improve the lives of those living in chronic poverty in developing nations.

[1] Mosse, D. (2010). “A Relational Approach to Durable Poverty, Inequality and Power.” Journal of Development Studies 46(7): 1156-1178.

[2] Hickey, S. and S. Bracking (2005). “Exploring the Politics of Chronic Poverty: From Representation to a Politics of Justice.” World Development 33(6): 851-865.

[3] Booth, D. (2011). “Aid, Institutions and Governance: What Have We Learned?” Development Policy Review 29: s5-s26.

[4] Leftwich, A. and K. Sen (2010). Beyond Institutions: Institutions and Organisations in the Politics and Economics of Poverty Reduction – A Thematic Synthesis of Research Evidence, IPPG Research Consortium on Improving Institutions for Pro-Poor Growth, University of Manchester.

[5] DFID (2010). The Politics of Poverty: Elites, Citizens and States.  Findings from Ten Years of DFID-Funded Research on Governance and Fragile States 2001-2010. London, UK, DFID. p. i, 3.

[6] Unsworth, S. (2009). “What’s politics got to do with it? Why donors find it so hard to come to terms with politics, and why this matters.” Journal of International Development 21(6): 883-894.

[7] Carothers, T. (2010). “The Elusive Synthesis.” Journal of Democracy 21(4): 12-26. p. 23.


Brendan Halloran is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Planning, Governance and Globalization program at Virginia Tech.  His principal research interest is the intersection of democratic governance and international development.  Brendan is currently writing his dissertation on the socio-political dynamics of citizen participation and community development in a low-income area on the edge of Guatemala City.  He maintains a blog at http://theurbancitizensview.wordpress.com/ on citizenship, community development and urban governance.  Brendan is also a Democracy and Governance Advisor for USAID in Guatemala where he works on strategic planning and project design.  The views expressed above are Brendan’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USAID.


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