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.
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.
One of my papers just got published in the current issue of the Journal of Modern African Studies (Cambridge; 8/66 in Area Studies). In “‘When we launched the government’s agenda…’: aid agencies and local politics in urban Africa” I challenge the argument that the main cause of political impasse in African cities governed by opposition parties is incomplete decentralization, whereby a devolution of responsibilities is not matched by a downward reallocation of resources. Instead, I posit that we need to look beyond the national scale to uncover drivers of institutional change. I show how this dynamic has played out in Freetown where urban politics were shaped by global aid discourses translated into local policy frameworks through interest convergence between international and national actors. At the same time, the case of Freetown case also demonstrates how local politics successfully challenged the technocratic, apolitical reinvention of urban governance perpetuated by the international aid industry.
Hurricane Isaac won, or so it seemed: this year’s meeting of the American Political Science Association was canceled last-minute, mostly because few participants were able to actually get to New Orleans. However, thanks to the organizational skills of my unweary co-author Tobias Denskus, some of the presenters scheduled for a panel on “Issues of and Responses to Internet Governance” got together virtually instead. JP Singh of George Mason University and Mikkel Flyverbom of Copenhagen Business School presented their research on “Representing Power: Participation and Deliberation in ICT4D Projects and Internet Governance,” and Tobias and I gave our paper on “Do Social Media Reproduce or Challenge Global Development Rituals? A Content Analysis of Blogs and Tweets on the 2010 MDG Summit.” Jane Fountain of UMass Amherst chaired the session, and Irene Wu, Consumer Research Advisor in the Consumer and Governmental Bureau of the Federal Communications and adjunct professor at Georgetown, provided very useful comments. Tobias posted the video of our virtual panel here. The bloggers at Duck of Minerva already shared it as part of their growing collection of virtual APSA 2012 events (#virtualAPSA2012), and so has UT Austin doctoral student Luke Perez on his blog. Who knows, maybe this way we end up mobilizing a larger audience for our work than if we had given a 1.0-style presentation in New Orleans?
Who is going to be the new World Bank President? For one man and his supporters, there is only one viable candidate for this position: he himself. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, he has laid out his unique set of experience and expertise. Those who dare to cast any doubt are either tackled head-on (see, for instance, the evolving debate in The Nation) or ignored (especially noteworthy when the critic is someone who happens to know the Bank much better than the contender). He also pitches himself against Larry Summers, which, in David Korten’s words, is “a rock bottom standard.” Besides, it also is a substantively questionable position since both candidates are actually quite similar. Both started out as academic prodigies who, unable to reflect and learn from mistakes, have since placed their bets on top-level political appointments in order to further their career and attain global fame. Both have thus been, for many years, political insiders who are utterly convinced of their intellectual superiority. Both consider the Bank a vehicle to carry out their visions of how global development should “happen.” And both are U.S. citizens. On the flipside, neither of them has a track record of respecting intellectual diversity, brokering agreements between stakeholders while staying on the sideline, or transforming a global organization in ways that would have won them the respect of those working for and those depending on it. But those are the very qualifications that the new World Bank President should bring to the table in order to lead effectively. And it times of rising regional superpowers such as Brazil, India and China, a hue of humility would probably be quite helpful, too.
On Thursday, February 23rd, a diverse crowd of over 30 professors and graduate students gathered at Bar Basso in midtown Manhattan for the 4th AAG Development Geographies Specialty Group’s Pre-Conference. Seven presenters each delivered a seven-minute policy plea on issues ranging from land use and fair trade certification “on the ground” to the management of e-waste, Vietnam’s recent growth and inequality trajectories, and the practice of development as a political process. The group then met for dinner across the street and spent the next two hours debating and networking. Click here for the complete program. The next DGSG Pre-Conference is planned for 2013 in Los Angeles, CA.