Governance, Foreign Policy and Populism – All the Fun things

From Australia and Canada’s decision to integrate their development agencies, to the resurgence of nationalism in the UK and US and the flat-lining of public support for aid (see below graph from IDS) – major bilateral donors are increasingly bringing aid closer to the heart of government operations. As a result, the ‘old’ aid policy narrative is – in many quarters – giving way to a new one.IDS graph

In high policy circles, it is no longer sufficient to justify aid based on its intrinsic value (i.e. feeding the hungry, medicines to the poor). Instead, there is increasing pressure to explain aid based on its extrinsic value. What does it offer the national interest (i.e. the goals, interests of the ‘state’) – and as a corollary of this, the domestic interest (i.e. the interests of its people)? How does aid deliver on foreign policy goals? How can aid facilitate trade or reduce its unintended side effects on the most vulnerable? What’s in it for the domestic constituency: their businesses, commercial or emotional and moral interests?

This shift has implications for the aid and development community – in particular, those looking to push forward the Doing Development Differently, PDIA and Thinking and Working Politically agendas.

The ‘Old School’ Aid Paradigm

Traditionally the DDD/PDIA/TWP communities have hitched their narrative and influence points to the ‘old-school’ aid paradigm (think: the MDGs, Accra the Paris Declaration). In the aid hey-day, governance wonks would posit:

“If we want to deliver aid more effectively and contribute to better outcomes for people on the ground, in particular those benefiting from sector programs (health, education, infrastructure etc), we need to think about how we work – not just what it is we chose to work on.”

This led into an argument for justifying ‘governance’ as more than just a sector (e.g. PFM, elections preparations etc) but also as a way of thinking about development in everything we do. i.e. to deliver aid effectively, all practioners must understand and respond to the incentives, institutions and interests which drive, if not determine, how change occurs. By extension, this means finding ways to make the project frame more iterative, adaptive and politically informed.

This approach has, until now, gained significant momentum through the work of the various communities of practice (see here and here) and receptive non-governance wonks.

But increasingly, DDD/PDIA/TWP-ers must not only convince traditional aid folk about how and why they should do ‘development differently’: but also domestic public constituencies and the new aid-comers (i.e. diplomats, foreign policy experts, trade specialists etc).

The challenge for these new audiences is twofold. Not only do need to be convinced about the value of doing things differently, but also of the value of giving aid itself.

Where next?

So, as one DDD4 participant put it to me in Jakarta, “how do we remain relevant in the world where 140 characters can topple the most well-constructed and evidence-based argument for DDD”?

It seems the community has two choices (credit also Duncan Green for the inspiration on his recent trip to Australia).

First, stay the course.  Assume populism will eventually outstay its welcome, and public sentiment will swing back in favour of aid (…Geldolf, Live Aid, Bono anyone?). So we embrace purism. Protect the sanctity of the DDD approach as a way to get better outcomes for those most in need, more closely align our narrative to the Accra, Paris, SDGs and the aid effectiveness agenda, and push forward with Graham’s recent rally-call. i.e.

  • keep reflecting on, learning and sharing the experience of those currently trying to PDIA/DDD/TWP (e.g. toolkits, guidance notes, training, log-frames to search frames etc): how does it actually work in practice? What does it mean for partner governments? What about in large facilities?
  • push our comfort zone and consider how the DDD agenda applies (or doesn’t) to large-scale implementation of nationwide programs;
  • continue to build staff skills to manage these sorts of investments and continue to advocate for more ’authoring space’ from donors.

The downside? We risk becoming obsolete and too boutique for the mainstream. At least in the short term.

Second, please the masses. ‘Go with the grain’, and apply what the community has learnt about TWP to advocate a narrative more politically-savvy and resonant for the new world order.

To the foreign policy folk, the narrative might look something like this:

We (foreign policy people) care about… The (DDD/PDIA/TWP) agenda can …
…Showing how aid delivers on ‘national interest’ goals of [insert here. E.g. stability or growth] …Offer you a set of low cost, risky, but potentially high-return modalities to achieve change in areas that matter to your national interest – e.g. competition reform to open up markets or legislative changes that will lessen unintended impacts of trade deals on vulnerable populations (…noting the interesting moral questions raised by this proposition…)
…Using aid to respond to immediate requests from partner governments to build favour/ relationships …Offer you a way of working that is much more flexible and responsive than the traditional aid model. We can respond nimbly to (some? all?) requests you receive (but in a much more endogenously led way than you might otherwise)…
…Using aid to deliver ‘stuff’ on the ground that people can see and associate with our country (public diplomacy) …Offer you a way of working on tough reform issues that can – under the right circumstances, be high reward (think Development Entrepreneurship). Not all our bets will pay off, but if they do there could be lots of credit to go around….
…Using aid to understand the political economy of where we work …Offer you a way to understand not only the short-term low ‘p’ politics as the literature calls it (who’s in power now – the bread and butter of foreign policy trade-craft) but also understand the long-term nature of change, how political settlements evolve, and a sense of when critical junctures might emerge
…Using aid to communicate what we are doing to the public …Offer you a way to communicate simple, persuasive change stories. Either about poor people (how their lives changed as a result of tax-payer dollars) or the big picture (e.g. contributing to a US1.2b increase in taxes – 75% of which went to health services from tobacco and alcohol tax in the Philippines)

For a domestic constituency, the narrative is perhaps more complex.

As 2012 research from the ODI warned us “…public opinion should not be treated as homogenous, or as a fixed ‘obstacle’ to be worked around. People hold different vie
ws on these issues, and their attitudes can be shaped and changed by the ways governments, NGOs and other actors ANU graphcommunicate and debate issues”.

The ANU’s graph representing Australian sentiment on the right is a case in point: do people care about aid in the national interest as much as it has been suggested they do?

For this audience,
the narrative needs to reflect what matters most to the constituencies that influence donor budgets. E.g. the human interest stories, the hard results, and situating aid spend within people’s everyday costs (e.g. the price of education and health-care). In so doing, the tendency is to shy away from engaging the public in more complex stories about how change happens. However, at some point, the public may grow wary of another type of ‘DDD’ – ‘Dumbing Down Development’[2]. As the ODI warned in 2012: “Instead of a simple reassurance that ‘aid works’, people would like to hear about how and why it works, why it doesn’t always work and the reasons aid alone cannot achieve development targets. Process and progress stories will both be core to winning sustainable public support for aid and development in the future.”

The downside of this approach? In pursuit of finding relevance, we shackle ourselves to agendas antithetical to our own.

Wrapping up

Of course the choice need not be this binary or as dramatic as presented here (…but drama always makes for better reading, right?). In reality, it is probably a bit of both. Evolving the DDD/PDIA/TWP narratives to make them more accessible and relevant, while still maintaining what sits at the core of these approaches to development.

What do you think?


[1] Glennie, A., Straw, W., and Wild, L. “Understanding Public Attitudes to Aid and Development”. ODI/ IPPR. Accessed 7 April 2017. Available at:

[2] Quote from one particularly clever DDD4 participant

2 thoughts on “Governance, Foreign Policy and Populism – All the Fun things

  1. Two big comments.

    One. I do think the issue that “foreign aid” has become a partisan rather than non or bi partisan issue in many rich countries is a very big problem. To the extent that “foreign aid” is perceived as exclusively about “the poor” (and particularly using a low-bar “kinky development” standard of poverty) it is drifting away from what developing countries want and from what generates a broad spectrum of support. I have an article about this here–issue-no2/can-rich-countries-be-reliable-partners-for-national-development This blog is about a very important issue.

    Two. In that context though I think PDIA is completely mis-characterized. That is, PDIA is not about how donors and development organizations can do their work of delivering specific benefits better. The book we just published about PDIA is called: Building State Capability, as is the website. PDIA is about how to build capability in organizations with public purpose objectives–including and especially government organizations. Most of our direct work in applications of PDIA is working directly with governments, not with donors. One of my motivations for the book was work in Afghanistan and South Sudan, which convinced me the attempts to build state capability via the traditional methods were completely misguided and perhaps counter-productive. There is no clearer “national interest” engagement for assistance stronger than avoiding failed and flailing states as “ungoverned” spaces in the world are a source of a variety of global public bads. To my mind, PDIA is an approach to building a stronger state, which donors and development agencies can help states and government organizations to adopt, not an approach to implementing donor projects differently.


  2. Larry Garber

    Two reactions to the article and the comment. Lant’s comment highlights the disconnect between what advocates of PDIA/DDD/TWP promote and the how these orientations are often interpreted and applied.

    As to the choice posed in the original post, I fall into the pragamatic camp. In our efforts to understand host country political context, we too often neglect or down-play the realities of the donor/funder political economy. Recent events in the US, UK and elsewhere should remind the aid community that we must take into account popular and elite perceptions, including their need to justify aid expenditures in national interest terms, as we formulate smart approaches for designing and implementing projects.


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