Toward Political Intelligence in Aid

The word “politics” is loaded. It conjures images of backroom deals, self-interested maneuvering, and elite manipulation. It carries a negative connotation in any context. Outside interference in political affairs is even worse: as unseemly as politics can be, it’s meant to stay within the family.

Nonetheless, there’s been an increasing discussion about politics in aid over the past year.

With aid-receiving countries pushing back on interference by donor nations, technocratic multilaterals frustrated by stymied reforms, and academics searching for the root causes of institutional failures, the political factors that both influence and result from aid have become more apparent.

It’s long been an open secret that bilateral agencies use aid to support friendly regimes. And the sector is admitting that aid has political impacts—both intentional and unintentional—within receiving countries. Though the historical and economic relationships between many aid-giving and aid-receiving countries makes this a sensitive issue, the pretense that aid should be separate from politics is crumbling in the face of the facts.

Even this is not enough. We need to go one step farther: not only is aid political, but aid also needs to be politically intelligent. Political economy analysis, though increasingly popular in the sector, only gets us halfway there. We need to get straight to political analysis.

By understanding what we mean when we say that aid is political, the path to politically intelligent aid becomes clearer.

Is aid political?

Of course. But this question actually misses the point somewhat.

Aid is political in the same way that aid is economic.

When money is transferred, there are economic impacts. When governments interact, there are political impacts. That has more to do with the definition of “politics” and “economics” than it does with the nature of aid.

The political realm is much broader than the power struggles around elections or policy decisions. Politics are how the affairs of any group of people are managed. People in any context will debate, negotiate, advocate, collaborate, and conflict over how to use their collective resources or power to pursue better lives—and even over defining what “better lives” means.

Each context’s politics are shaped by the institutions that have been established, cultural norms, and the incentives and accountabilities that various actors face. Whether in a legislature or a ministry, a university department or a corporation, politics exists in all arenas.

In the case of aid, money flowing from one country to another—whether through official public channels or through private actors—influences the contextual factors in the receiving country. Money changes the incentives faced by countless actors; technical assistance changes professional cultures and institutions; contracts change accountabilities. A seemingly simple service delivery program can shift local politics by serving one constituency more than another. National-level programs with significant resources have even more impact, as they can become focal points for power struggles.

Far from wondering whether aid is political, we’re left wondering, how could it not be?

Oxfam’s Duncan Green recently used the term of “political sterilization” to describe potential channels for aid to have benefits without disrupting politics. I’m doubtful that such channels are possible. Worse, I’m worried that the very real effect of fooling ourselves into thinking that aid can be apolitical—which happens in social service and cash transfer programs—is that we fall victim to someone else’s political priorities. Even no aid at all is a political choice.

Politics as seen by economists

New political thinking in aid is driven by the frustration felt by the economists and technocrats who have long steered aid thinking: the technical analysis is sound, yet these darn politics keep getting in the way. As the “Washington Consensus” economic policies failed in the face of institutional capacity constraints and political blowback, aid institutions broadened their view to include governance and politics. The political scientists were offered a seat at the table.

This has meant a rise in political economy analysis, as described in a recent World Bank report. Aid agencies are increasingly using these methods to better understand the political landscapes, including the interest groups and incentives that determine who will benefit from, support, or oppose particular engagements.

Unfortunately, there’s a big difference between “politics” and “political economy”. The lobbying firms and advocacy groups on K Street in DC don’t conduct political economy analysis. The underlying socioeconomic, cultural, and historical dynamics are important shapers of political contests and we do need to think systemically. But politics is ultimately about people. Political economy analysis, in contrast, intentionally avoids focusing on individual actors.

Politics is ultimately about people.

Making aid more politically intelligent

In order for aid agencies to be more politically effective, they need to understand the people involved. Their analysis has to go beyond the broad structures to the particular coalitions and individuals making decisions. At a recent event hosted by the Center for Global Development, Pablo Yanguas noted that this already happens in most aid agencies, but it’s a bit under the radar and not very systematic. Staff are navigating the contexts they face, with informal or implicit political analysis guiding their decisions.

This analysis could be strengthened if it were a program requirement (“mainstreamed”, as they say) or if political savviness was considered a management competency (though admittedly, a difficult one to evaluate in potential staff). Most importantly, it has to happen on a tighter loop than a pre-program political economy analysis. It has to be iterative throughout the course of engagement, synthesizing evidence from multiple sources, informing action steps, and willing to make calls in the face of ambiguity with less than academic levels of rigor.

That aid has political impacts is obvious. It’s high time we found ways to understand what those are, and ensure that they are more positive than negative. Making aid practices more politically intelligent will be one step in that direction.

Above Photo: Nigerians in Nasarawa talk about a donor program in their state.

Futher reading.