New UK development minister is an anti-development lobbyist on a mission

Governmental bureaucracies are latent zombies — they are hard to kill. And yet, new British Prime Minister Theresa May has apparently decided to try precisely that when it comes to DFID, Great Britain’s development ministry. By appointing Priti Patel, formerly a lobbying executive defending tobacco and alcohol producers against domestic and global regulation, May has effectively put the death knell into what used to be one of the Labour government’s international crown jewels. Not only does Patel have a remarkable record on fighting against public health and worker’s rights; in 2013 she also urged for DFID–the same ministry she now heads–to be, as The Independent put it, “scrapped and replaced”. True to neoliberal dogma (although she probably prefers the label “libertarian”), she argued that instead of funding programs designed to decrease vulnerabilities among the poorest, it would be possible to “bring more prosperity to the developing world and enable greater wealth transfers to be made from the UK by fostering greater trade and private sector investment opportunities.”

The decision to appoint an institutional undertaker to dismantle or at least paralyze a government’s international development architecture is not without European precedent. Back in 2009, German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked libertarian Dirk Niebel to lead Germany’s development ministry. His record at the BMZ’s helm does not bode well for those who care about DFID. Much like Patel in 2013, he endorsed a trade-focused agenda while cutting programs for the social sector, as well as scattering BMZ’s trademark advocacy on gender equality. In one instance he personally demonstrated his belief in free trade by smuggling an Afghan rug back into Germany and getting fined for evasion of customs duties. Meanwhile, Nievel developed a reputation for turning the BMZ into a nepotistic cesspool to reward old friends from the libertarian party with senior posts and pension benefits irrespective of substantive experience.

DFID’s staff are facing tough times under Patel’s leadership. The best-case scenario, it seems, could be that she quickly turns into another Niebel, realizing that leveraging her ministry’s resources for her personal network carries greater potential to serve her political career in the long run. The worst case is that Patel is still serious about abolishing DFID or–much like the conservative government in Canada–folding it into a super-ministry focusing on trade and investment instead of human development. Unlike in Germany, where Niebel was frequently put in his place by then-Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Patel is dealing with a Foreign Office led by Boris Johnson. Although the latter’s foreign policy agenda is yet unknown, his flamboyant elitism and recurrent racism suggest that helping the poor won’t receive much political attention from Whitehall during the years to come, neither in Britain nor abroad.

New article on ‘ownership’ in development aid and global health

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.

New article on aid effectiveness in the context of global aging

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.

DGSG pre-conference in New York City: successful pilot of a new interactive format

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.

Eric Carter's talk on DDT for malaria control (1)

Eric Carter's talk on DDT for malaria control (2)

Mark Graham's pitch on global inequalities of knowledge production (1)

Mark Graham's pitch on global inequalities of knowledge production (2)

New CGD working paper on health aid effectiveness ranks DFID highest, UN low

Building on the growing body of empirical literature on aid effectiveness–including two of my recent publicationsAmanda Glassman and Denizhan Duran at the Center for Global Development just published an interesting working paper that achieves two things simultaneously: it provides an excellent overview of the dramatic increase of Development Assistance in Health (DAH) globally during the past decade while also, for the first time as far as I am aware, ranking the individual performance of national as well as multilateral donor agencies in DAH. Echoing some of the findings documented in a recent paper by Bill Easterly and Claudia Williamson published in World Development, their analysis uncovers wide variation in both allocative efficiency and DAH agencies’ effectiveness as reliable, transparent and supportive partners for institutional development in recipient countries. The UK’s DFID ranks highest overall, followed by the Dutch and Danish aid agencies. GFATM is the highest-ranked multilateral agency in the sample. Conversely, selected UN agencies (clustered) rank lowest among multilateral organizations. Major bilateral donors such as Japan, Belgium and France also find themselves at the bottom of Glassman’s and Duran’s results.

About.com and Good Generation posts on Kara’s and my World Development article

A colleague (thanks, John!) just alerted me that Joanne Fritz, in a recent post on About.com, included a really neat discussion of Kara’s and my recent article in World Development as “Food For Thought“. Thien Nguyen-Trung also covered the piece and posted an excellent summary and comments on his blog, Good Generation.

Gary Gaile Development Geographies Pre-Conference in DC

The Development Geographies Specialty Group of the AAG is delighted to present the “Gary Gaile Development Geographies Pre-Conference” in Washington, DC, a one-day event in April 2010 which is themed around innovative policies and approaches emerging at the interface of research and practice.

Merging debate around cutting edge research and acute practical challenges, the format and scope facilitate lively discussion and cross currents between academia and the policy world. Our keynote speaker is Dr. Robin Mearns, Lead Social Development Specialist at the World Bank.

The conference, co-chaired by Prof. Brent McCusker (West Virginia University) and Prof. Daniel Esser (American University, DC), is dedicated to the late Gary Gaile who was very active in translating academic practice into real world action and who co-founded the specialty group.

Please access the Call for Papers here. The deadline for all abstracts is February 15, 2010.

The pre-conference will be held on Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 at the National 4-H Youth Conference Center’s suburban campus, just one mile from Washington, DC in Chevy Chase, Maryland (www.4hcenter.org; 7100 Connecticut Avenue, phone: (301) 961-2801). The Center is conveniently located near bus lines for quick transportation between the pre-conference and other AAG conference venues. Free on-site parking is available as well.

New Essay in Ethics & International Affairs

Is more money for global health always good news? No, I am arguing in this lead essay in Ethics & International Affairs (Carnegie Council). Many of the problems that plague decision-making in global health assistance lie not in the global South but in the North, where the monetary flows originate and where most policies are conceived.

If we want to avoid the same strategic backlash that hit us after pouring billions into foreign aid without knowing much, if anything, about its effectiveness, we need to ask critical questions about how financial resources for global health are being spent and whether or not these patterns are the most effective.

It turns out that common depictions of ‘limited capacities’ in developing regions are only one factor in explaining suboptimal allocation. Conversely, organizational incentives, interorganizational dynamics and the sweet talk of global partnerships account have been looked at much less. I contend that they are the key aspects in need of investigation if we seek to understand the political economy of global health today.

Afghanistan: A Victory for Women – A Defeat of Democracy?

The Afghan Ministry of Justice has presented a revised version of a new law regulating marital affairs for the country’s Shi’ite minority. Many of its previous medieval provisions have been scrapped. No longer does it prescribe the frequency of sexual activity that Shi’ite women in Afghanistan would have had to observe, thus practically legalizing domestic rape; no longer does it allow men to prevent their wives from leaving the compounds where they live.

This is great news for Afghanistan’s Shi’ite women and for women living under repression, religious or otherwise, more generally. But the process also provides reason for concern.

US-installed Afghan President Karzai had in fact quietly signed the earlier version of the law, apparently hoping that it would win him the support of Shi’ite voters in the forthcoming presidential election in September. With women formally allowed to vote, Karzai did not seem overly concerned that while some Shi’ite men might have found their extended rights to subdue their wives appealing, most Shi’ite women might have retaliated by voting for other candidates.

In fact, at least in theory one could have expected a zero effect of this political move: male votes in favor canceled out by female votes against. This, of course, presumes that Afghan women vote in accordance with their preferences. More realistically, the President’s decision points to the continuing precarity of women in Afghanistan. Most of them illiterate, we must assume that a large percentage follows the political choices of their husbands. The photos depicting Afghan women ridding themselves of their burqas following the US-led invasion may not have been staged; yet they clearly do not represent the dire existence of most women who survived almost three decades of large-scale violence.

Of equal concern is the political dimension of this legislative revision. According to the BBC, Afghan “Justice Minister Sarwar Danesh said the changes had been made following complaints by human-rights groups.” The truth is that is was the international ‘community’ that reacted with outrage to the content of the initial version. US President Obama expressed deep concerns; NATO threatened with serious consequences, and numerous European heads of state intervened personally to prevent the law’s ratification and application.

This political pressure was surely justified on human rights-grounds. At the same time, it has added momentum to the widely held perception among Afghans that democracy is a system of government that opens the door for values and rules alien to what local traditions dictate. One might argue that in times of globalization, global norms and values must inform national laws and codes. Yet the Afghan President’s initial support of the repressive law as well as the angry demonstrations of conservative Shi’ites following the international protest seem to indicate that friction is unavoidable. In this case, Afghanistan’s dependence on international aid clearly overpowered local political deliberation. Put simply, the internationally induced revision of the law is a prime example of external social reengineering against the backdrop of a shallow democracy.

A new law governing family affairs for the Afghanistan’s Sunni majority is also in the making. It will be instructive to observe whose political motives and social values will prevail this time: Afghan or foreign.