Making politics work for development is all the rage

Director of Policy and Research

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Through arguing that development outcomes are less the product of specific “projects” than of enabling governance systems, two new World Bank papers help make the case for supporting independent, informative and engaging media.

We’re currently seeing a profusion of reports arguing that development organisations find it difficult to understand and respond to political realities. Most conclude that development fails to deliver impact because politics gets in the way. 

Two of the best of these papers – If politics is the problem and Making Politics Work for Development come from the World Bank and have been ably reviewed by others.  But I’d like to pick up two questions raised that speak to a lot of what BBC Media Action does: how to improve political participation and what role can the media play in that?

But, for starters, what do these reports argue? 

First, governments often fail to deliver for their citizens. No amount of technical know-how or injection of resources is going to change that if the right political incentives and conditions don’t exist. In one fell swoop, this conclusion challenges the assumptions underpinning the principal mechanism – the development “project” – that has dominated development spending and strategy for the last five decades.

Second, organisations outside a country struggle to create these incentives and conditions. “There is an inherent hubris in assuming that external actors will have the capacity to identify the appropriate entry points and engineer reforms in the right direction, simultaneously solving both the technical policy problem and that of adapting it to political constraints” says the shorter of these reports, If politics is the problem. This poses a certain challenge to initiatives like Thinking and working politically, which – though excellent – often focus more on how a better understanding of political realities can translate into more success in delivering development initiatives and less on understanding how politics shapes governance and development outcomes. There’s a lot to be said for that approach but I think these World Bank reports come closer to what I would describe as “thinking and working politically”.

Third, these reports argue that government failure to build state capacity must be solved to sustain development gains. Based on their evidence review, two elements are central to enabling that – “greater citizen engagement and increased transparency in the political process.”  

This kind of analysis is fairly radical, particularly when it’s coming from the World Bank. There will no doubt be good counter-arguments but I think there are plenty of reasons to get excited about it. 

First, I haven’t noticed much in the way of really fresh ideas and energy in governance debates recently and, given how many people around the world put poor governance towards the top of the issues that most concern them, this is clearly a concern. That’s doubly the case given Goal 16 of the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals commits UN member states to promoting more just and peaceful societies. Just when prioritising effective governance support strategies appears to be a much higher international priority, confidence in what strategies are actually likely to work in delivering on these commitments appears to be low.

Second, Making Politics Work for Development makes a compelling case that “fostering healthy political engagement rather than suppressing it is more likely to result in better development outcomes”. Quite a few development debates recently have tended to endorse an acceptance of a lack of political accountability or even authoritarianism provided it actually delivers for people. Seeing an evidence-based challenge to this position is welcome, especially at a time when authoritarianism seems to be on the rise.

Finally, I confess that both reports’ central argument – that development outcomes are less the product of specific “projects” than of enabling governance systems – is a thesis I’ve subscribed to for decades. Such systems create hospitable environments for prioritising transparency, accountability and citizen engagement. When that argument leads to its logical conclusion – that one of the most effective ways that development processes can be supported is to support the kinds of media that can make trusted information available to citizens and create platforms for public debate and voice so that they can best inform, influence and hold to account decisions ostensibly made on their behalf – then it’s no surprise that someone working for a media support organisation is a fan of reports like this.

I have a few quibbles with their recommendations here. Media markets are indeed “crucial to fostering healthy political engagement” but I think both reports underestimate the scale of what’s involved in supporting the independent, informative and engaging media we agree is required. As I’ve argued elsewhere, a combination of intensifying political capture, the lack of an economic base and the unfulfilled potential of the digital revolution, all suggest that we need a more creative focus on supporting independent media. The meagre attention – both financial and strategic – dedicated to this field of work suggests a mountain to climb. Support to independent media accounts for less than 2% of all governance support and there are a very small number of people in the development sector versed in developing effective support strategies to independent media of the kind envisaged here.

We hope to contribute quite a bit to this debate in the future. We have a research report coming out shortly on how, based on our own data, media support programmes can play an important role in improving political participation, just one of several coming out later this year. A policy report on media and corruption will be out in a few weeks, and there is already a good deal of relevant analysis relevant to these challenges on our website

For now though, hats off to a really outstanding pair of World Bank reports.  The forthcoming World Development Report on Governance and the Law has a lot to live up to.

James Deane is Director of Policy and Learning at BBC Media Action.

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