From democracy promotion to ‘politically smart’ governance reform in Africa

Democracy in Africa
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Rosie Pinnington provides an important critique of the ‘politically smart’ governance reform that is being adopted by increasing numbers of donors. Rosie is a DPhil researcher in Politics at the University of Oxford. Her work explores donor approaches to supporting institutional reform in Africa.


In Western donor-supported governance reform in Africa, there has been a growing shift away from the promotion of liberal democracy towards what is contextually and politically ‘feasible’. This shift has been prompted by a number of factors. First and foremost, democratic reform appears not to have fostered economic growth or deterred authoritarianism to the extent imagined during the fervour around ‘good governance’ of the 1990s. Institutional reform on the continent appears to have been marked by a persistent ‘gap’ between form and function. The ‘correct’ systems and institutions may have been put in place, but they have not functioned, at least not as they were intended to by the donors that helped instil them.

Researchers at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government have termed this as a ‘capability trap’, where aid-receiving governments engage in ‘the logics of “development” and yet fail to acquire capability’. Whilst this interpretation has been instrumental in the shift towards more contextualised and adaptive donor approaches, it is clearly problematic to assume that because institutions in Africa have not functioned in the way development partners hoped they would, that they are somehow lacking in ‘capability’ or ‘logic’. Indeed, recognition of the need for new approaches to support governance in Africa must be underpinned by a parallel recognition that the ‘logics of development’ are determined by the specificities of context and perspective.

Another factor that has contributed to the shift away from democracy promotion is the acknowledgement of examples in Southeast Asia where some countries with somewhat authoritarian governments have presided over strong economic growth. Leaders like Paul Kagame, in Rwanda, have long declared their aspiration to follow this lead. Last year, he claimed he would make Rwanda into the ‘Singapore of Africa’. In both countries, economic growth and infrastructural development have coexisted alongside heavy government impingement on civil and political rights. The conclusion of studies comparing the experiences of Southeast Asian ‘developmental regimes’ has been that whilst institutions are important, the liberal democratic model is not a necessary ingredient for ‘successful development’. A closely connected body of work has emphasised the state-building capabilities of so-called ‘illiberal states’ in Africa. Angola, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Sudan have all experienced high growth whilst firmly rejecting the liberal development paradigm. It should be noted, however, that in both the ‘developmental regimes’ of Southeast Asia and Africa, the quality of development to emerge from high growth is questionable, both in terms of its sustainability and ability to overcome the political and economic challenges posed by inequality.

Who defines ‘success’ in politically smart governance reform?

There is, then, scepticism towards the value of promoting of Western liberal democracy in Africa. Alongside this, is a concurrent sense that rather than promoting ‘best practice’ models, donors should recognise the importance of context in determining what is or is not right for development outcomes on the continent. This has led to a ‘new’ type of approach to governance reform. In the name of ‘doing development differently’, international development academics and practitioners are arguing for more adaptive and historically, politically and culturally appropriate models. On the part of donors, this involves being ‘politically smart’ by moving away from normative or ideological interpretations of ‘good governance’ – seen in programming that promotes human rights or democracy – towards a stronger emphasis on what is contextually ‘feasible’, or ‘realistic’.

A fundamental premise of ‘doing development differently’ models is that practitioners must swim with, rather than against, the tide of the prevailing political economies in developing countries. This means aligning with ‘elite incentives’ rather than destabilising, or attempting to destabilise, the status quo in terms of how power is shared and political authority is determined. In light of the historic failure of aid interventions, even in the seemingly political landscape of African governance, to grasp the centrality of politics in what they do, this seems like an important and necessary shift in donor practice. According to the logic of this ‘politically smart’ and ‘locally led’ model, technical assistance that is able to identify where power and interests align in aid-receiving countries is likely to be more successful because it has support from those with influence and authority.

But this, of course, depends on how ‘success’ is defined within such a model and, perhaps more importantly, who defines that success. Indeed, by being ‘locally led’ through aligning with the interests of elites, are technical assistance providers necessarily aligning with the interests of the wider population? This seems a particularly important question in the context of authoritarian or semi-authoritarian states like Rwanda and Uganda. Similarly, how does a development practitioner decide which ‘elite incentives’ to align with? Who decides which are are good for development and which are not? Although the ‘doing development differently’ models attempt to move away from the top-down diffusion of ideas in development partnerships, donors still appear to be the decision-makers when it comes to deciding whose interests are good for ‘successful development’. Finally, does adapting to the local context always necessitate aligning with the prevailing political economy? Can it not also involve subverting or rearranging how power is shared within it?

To align with or rearrange power?

In a recent interview, Ben Ramalingham discussed how the donor pressure for quick results in development projects impinges upon on full and systemic interpretations of development problems. This pressure restricts opportunities for learning through listening to people in aid-receiving countries whose voices are perhaps less amplified and harder to reach; those who do not have the pre-existing power to influence development policy and projects. This can result in one-dimensional ‘quick fix’ solutions that do not adequately address the problems they seek to solve.

To change this, the sector must begin to interpret its role in more socially, politically, and economically disruptive terms. In a recent interview, Duncan Green argued that ‘in any system, a development intervention is often about rearranging power’. Seeking social change is not only a process of aligning with, and adapting to, the status quo; it also involves disrupting and adjusting power dynamics. This applies as much to the aid relationship, as it does to the way that power is wielded in aid-receiving countries.

Yes, it is important to adapt to the country context when providing foreign aid and technical assistance in governance programming. But the quality and character of this adaptation requires deeper analysis than it has so far received by those developing and testing ‘doing development differently’ models, which now includes an extremely wide array of Western development agencies. It would be difficult to come across an INGO that was not, in some way or another, attempting to integrate ‘adaptive programming’ into what they are doing. The broad-based acceptance, and commitment to implement, more contextualised approaches to development assistance is an encouraging sign. But adaptation in and of itself is not intrinsically ‘good’. Just as the ‘local’ must not be romanticised or over-simplified, ‘elite incentives’ must be recognised as much for their negative, as for their politically instrumental, consequences in pushing forward reform.

Commenting on the divergence between the impressive track record Uganda established in the 1990s for its commitment to reform and relatively meager development outcomes for the majority of Ugandans, David Booth and Golooba-Mutebi have argued that ‘even in their heyday, these reforms left the fundamental drivers of politics in Uganda untouched’. These include the concentration of state power at the centre and its decentralised sustainment through informally accessing and redistributing state resources. By aligning with the prevailing political economy in such a context, would not the ‘doing development differently’ models also leave these ‘fundamental drivers’ of politics untouched?

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