Behaving like a politician

Having let my blog lie dormant for a while, I feel the urge to start sharing my ideas about development on the blogosphere again. I’ve just started a new job as a researcher at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) which is inspiring me a lot! This blog is of course my own thoughts and not a reflection of ODI’s work.

So, this post has come from reports I’ve been reading about how aid can work politically. It’s a well-discussed topic at the moment, following lots of excitement about ideas from people like Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett, and Michael Woolcock, and the Africa Power and Politics Programme on the importance of politics to development. However, it’s one thing to talk about how politics affect the quality of public services, and another to find a way for large aid donors to support a change in politics in another country. Working politically is inevitably a sensitive and difficult task for international donors as they face scrutiny and criticism for failing to respect a country’s sovereignty or creating harmful political unrest. But, case studies are emerging of how donors have managed to engage with the politics of a country to bring about really significant improvements.

One much celebrated example is a case in the Philippines in which a team of activists, assembled and guided by Jaime Faustino of The Asia Foundation, managed to get a law on Residential Free Patents pushed through government. This legal reform directly and quickly led to a 1400% improvement in residential land titling which had really important development implications for the Philippines. But, rather than discussing the law itself, I’m going to talk about how aid money was used to support this huge legislative change.

To bring about the reform, Jaime and his team effectively worked like politicians; drawing on their connections in business and politics to form alliances, negotiating details of the reform, and finding ways around the opposition. The funding the team received was (relatively) free from the usual strict donor demands and so the team had the freedom to be inventive, changing their strategy as different opportunities arose. The team were also a mixed bunch; coming from different sectors and backgrounds, each with their own networks, and all personally driven to see the policy changed (at times even working unpaid).

The Philippines case brings up all sorts of really interesting questions but here is just one: how does a large, publically accountable, aid donor go about recruiting people to work as development activists in the murky world of politics? The team in the case study were not motivated by money (there was no ‘per diem culture’) but instead were personally motivated to see the reform passed and enjoyed having autonomy over their work. They worked nimbly, rather than following a standard workplan and, crucially, they were problem-solvers, not just problem-analysers. Recruiting the right people seems to have been a large part of the success story.

Working in a politically cunning way does not necessarily come naturally to the average development officer who is used to plans, reporting, accountability, and transparency. All those things demanded by the (now criticised) good governance agenda. Finding people who are ‘intrinsically motivated’ (essentially ‘do-gooders’) but who are also comfortable making friends with unlikely people; police chiefs, senior staff in multinationals etc. (more on this in my next post) is a challenge. For donors to recruit and fund people to work in this way, they may need to relax the way they hire, sub-contract, and manage their programmes. Donors need to trust small teams to work creatively, at a distance (and somewhat sneakily) so that they can work politically. This is because, ultimately, working politically may mean working like a politician.