Under the leadership of Administrator Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, UNDP is currently undergoing deep structural changes. 30 percent of the jobs at the organization’s New York Headquarters are to be cut, including positions at the Director level. A drastic reorganization of this kind was long overdue. UNDP’s core strength–its presence and, where successful, coordination of programs and responsibilities at the country level–had increasingly been stifled by a bloated and top-heavy bureaucracy in New York. Attempts to reinvigorate, restructure and, in some cases, reinvent its HQ “Bureaus” as think tanks failed miserably as senior-level expertise brought in from more effective aid agencies such as the World Bank as well as academia got suffocated by internal power politics, intellectual mediocrity and a pervasive culture of careerism and entitlement. Strategic programs were either not implemented fully or administered at a multiple of the costs commonly incurred by leading global non-governmental organizations. Evaluation findings frequently remained embargoed; those that were eventually shared with the public had usually undergone prior reformulation and redaction. It is not surprising, then, that a growing number of governments in recipient countries lost faith in UNDP’s ability to help deliver mutually agreed-upon results. Financially dependent on sustained and predictable support from bilateral donors, UNDP is now paying the price for its persistent lack of effectiveness and its worrisome reluctance to provide the transparency and accountability that, ironically, it propagates globally and also demands from its in-country partners. It remains to be seen whether its internal restructuring succeeds at retaining the organization’s sparse talent within HQ or whether it spirals out of control by turning into a race for securing individual livelihoods that will naturally favor those with the largest personal networks as opposed to those with the best ideas and visions for moving forward.

Global Public Health just published my latest article in which I provide a critique of the notions of ‘country ownership’ and ‘national ownership’ in the context of development aid and global health. Mounting concerns over aid effectiveness have rendered them central concepts in the vocabulary of development assistance for health (DAH). Based on comprehensive literature reviews, I show that there exists a multiplicity of definitions, most of which either divert from or plainly contradict the concept’s original meaning and intent. During the last ten years in particular, it appears that both public and private donors have advocated for greater ‘ownership’ by recipient governments and countries to hedge their own political risk rather than to work towards greater inclusion of the latter in agenda-setting and programming. Such politically driven semantic dynamics suggest that the concept’s prominence is not merely a discursive reflection of globally skewed power relations in DAH but a deliberate exercise in limiting donors’ accountabilities. At the same time, I also find evidence that this conceptual contortion is framing current global public health scholarship, which I argue adds further urgency to the need to critically re-evaluate the international political economy of global public health from a discursive perspective.

The year ends on a decidedly positive note: Urban Studies recently published my paper on post-2001 Kabul as a laboratory and launch pad for the liberal pipe dream of mutually reinforcing synergies between security, economic growth and democracy. In reality, post-invasion liberal “peace-building” and “state-building” orchestrated by international agencies have fundamentally altered the city’s political economy and widened the gap between politically connected economic elites and the urban masses, resulting in greater urban inequality of access, security, and other critical indicators of  human development. Another paper, co-authored with my former student Ben Williams (now a Presidential Management Fellow at the Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs), is part of the Journal of Social Policy‘s first issue in 2014. In it, we leverage NVivo’s arithmetic and visual capabilities to compare frequencies of two alternative conceptualizations of poverty and inequality in three different document categories over time: the World Bank’s World Development Reports, the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Human Development Reports and a set of white papers by bilateral donor agencies. In a second step, we visualize each document’s degree of contextual similarity in using the two conceptualizations of poverty and inequality with all documents in the same source category. Our findings suggest that the dividing line between ‘development’ and ‘clos[ing] the gap between the rich and the poor’ drawn by technocrats such as Jeffrey Sachs has been losing influence among policy-makers and that, as a result, there is reason for hope that debates on inequalities’ negative effects on human development globally are finally regaining traction among policy elites. Courtesy of Cambridge Journals, the complete article can be downloaded from my faculty website.

Emily E. VanderKamp and I just published a new article in the Journal of Peacebuilding & Development in which we argue that the current stalemate in peacebuilding evaluation is due to persistent disagreements between donor agencies, practitioners and researchers about the necessity, appropriate level and purpose of such evaluations. Our article synthesizes these three axes of disagreement in a theoretical framework, which we then apply to the case of evaluating reconciliation processes in violently divided societies. This application provides a strong methodological rationale for pursuing a metrics-driven, locally anchored approach to evaluating reconciliation instead of relying solely on interpretive methods or employing globally standardized checklists. We close by reminding readers that realizing the potential of this approach requires that donors, practitioners and researchers recast mutual expectations based on methodological rather than normative considerations. However, if development agencies and the peacebuilding community are serious about their commitments to supporting the spread of peace, both camps will need to embrace such scientific logic as a common ground.

Global Public Health just published Trish Ward’s and my new article on global aging and why international aid in support of country-level policy changes and infrastructure upgrades has been so sluggish. We argue that the lag between issue recognition (“aging is a growing challenge for global public health”) and effective resource mobilization (“addressing this challenge requires international support”), while mirroring known dynamics in global agenda-setting, has also been caused by a depiction of aging as a uniform trend across the Global South. In the article, we develop and apply a comprehensive analytical framework to assess the state of aging dynamics at the country level and uncover substantial regional and sub-regional variation. We suggest replacing complexity reduction in the interest of issue recognition with targeted support for a more nuanced research agenda and policy debate on country-specific aging dynamics in order to inform and catalyze effective international assistance.

After wrapping up a busy semester, I have finally been able to start digging into the survey data that I collected in Ciudad Juarez late last year. I presented a first cut at LASA last week; now at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center in Italy, I am beginning to get a sense of the depth, dimensions and drivers of urban resilience amid violence in Juarez. I will report in greater detail once I’ve completed the statistics; a first glance is online on American University’s blog on Latin America (AULA). Thanks again to the Social Science Research Council’s Program on Drugs, Security and Democracy for supporting this project!

In this new article in Third World Quarterly, Tobias Denskus and I analyze blog and Twitter coverage of the United Nations High-level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a three-day event held at UN Headquarters in New York in 2010. We find that topics receiving the densest coverage mirrored existing priorities as defined by the MDGs. Although most blog entries created content which, in contrast to tweets, went beyond spreading mere factual or referential information on the event and even included some critical commentary, sustained debates did not emerge. Social media content accompanying the Summit thus reproduced global aid rituals rather than catalyzing conversations about alternative priorities for and approaches to international development. The case demonstrates that social media can serve to reinforce elite structures and discursive hegemony, which calls into doubt their recent characterization as catalysts of political change.


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