The World Bank needs a strategic arbiter, not a narcissistic insider

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.

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.

Join for the 2012 AAG Development Geographies Specialty Group Pre-Conference in New York City

Members and guests of the AAG’s Development Geographies Specialty Group (DGSG) will meet on Thursday, February 23, from 5PM until 8PM in midtown Manhattan for the 2012 DGSG Pre-Conference. Click here for the event poster. Drawing from their own research, 7 presenters will each deliver a 7-minute Policy Plea, followed by open discussion in plenary session. We are reaching out to local non-academic audiences and hope to attract a diverse crowd of scholars and practitioners. There is no conference fee and all are welcome; registered members of the Development Geographies Specialty Group will receive an on-site $10 discount toward their food bill. RSVP is requested by Monday, February 20. Please send a brief message with your name and affiliation to dgsgpreconference(at)gmail.com to confirm your attendance.

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.

DW interview on QDDR: no blueprint for other countries

DW Deutsche Welle (the “German BBC”) recently interviewed me on the State Department’s First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). Professor James Davis at St. Gallen University, Switzerland and I were asked to comment on whether the mainstreaming of development policy into diplomacy is an approach that other countries should consider as well. What a neat opportunity to share my “concern about the QDDR as a blueprint [since] ‘we know from scores of failures in development policy in the past 30 years that blueprint approaches have never really worked. What have worked are localized approaches. […] Ultimately what distinguished [many] European countries in the global development arena, namely the independence of development policy from foreign policy, is going to be washed out.'” The critical point is that this would likely hamper aid effectiveness provided that the ultimate goal really is to alleviate suffering as opposed to championing particularistic policy agendas.  Read the complete article here.

How the World Bank Institute spin-doctors urban development

In June, I attended a new event format launched by the World Bank Institute (WBI). The Innovative Cities: Global Dialogue brings together mayors, corporate interests, some fig-leaf activists and a large number of Bank staffers (and presumably academic researchers as well, though I saw very few) to discuss urban development challenges and opportunities. UN-Habitat and the Bank’s own Cities Alliance have been organizing similar gigs for years, so WBI is a little late… but better late than never.

I just finished watching the short clip on the event produced by WBI and circulated among participants earlier today. I am aghast…  the Dialogue that I went to in June produced few new substantive insights.  It did not, for instance, shed much light on concrete success factors to truly sustainable (triple bottom line?) partnerships. Nor did it raise the critical question to what extent, if at all, these can be generalized across regions.  And what about urban democracies versus corporate machine politics?

Instead, almost all of the hand-picked panelists proclaimed ubiquitous urban win-win scenarios.  Except for some of the mayors (thankfully!) and, if I recall correctly, two comments from the floor, speakers eclipsed the trade-offs inherent in urban economic growth–especially in the poorest countries that the Bank is allegedly so concerned about–by assiduously ignoring a wealth of empirical studies documenting challenges faced by urban micro initiatives that campaign for more equitable access to social services, some of which result directly from the elitist quest for “economic growth” (or is this now being used as a politically more digestible proxy for employment generation?).

During lunch break, I heard several critical voices whose concerns are echoed in my critique above. I was also approached by a fellow with a video camera who asked me for a 30-second statement on the morning session. I told him that my comments would not be too charming and that he might want to seek out more benevolent interviewees. No, he replied, critical perspectives were “exactly what [we] want to hear” in order to “produce a more balanced documentation.” Needless to say, I guess, that for some strange reason they aren’t featured in the clip.

All in all, an opportunity missed. Or maybe not: lunch was great. And economic growth, WBI-type, rules.

New OECD Report: “Do No Harm: International Support for Statebuilding”

Despite the best of intentions, donors can inadvertently undermine statebuilding processes. When the resources they deliver or the reforms they advocate weaken rather than strengthen the state’s decision- and policy-making functions, their efforts can do more harm than good. Donors can also do harm by creating a brain drain away from state organizations. When aid is delivered in a way that actually acts as a disincentive to states to consolidate their own revenue base, this can retard the development of the state’s own capacity.

How can donors ensure they do no harm? How can they be sure they intervene constructively in fragile situations? Co-authored by Professors James Putzel, Daniel Esser and a team at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Do No Harm is a new OECD report that provides practical guidance based on the results of research undertaken on behalf of the OECD DAC International Network on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF). It is based on comparative case studies of six countries (Afghanistan, Bolivia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, Rwanda and Sierra Leone) and a comprehensive literature review. It addresses how the interventions of OECD countries may risk undermining positive statebuilding processes, and makes recommendations as to how this may be avoided in the future.

Politicophobia: How the UN Fails Afghanistan

In a parliamentary democracy with a president at the executive helm, it is one of the former’s most critical prerogatives to review, approve or potentially reject the latter’s cabinet. This is the procedure followed in the U.S. and many other countries in the world. Even the otherwise weak European Parliament in Strasbourg retains the right to vote on cabinet positions. So when the same mechanism was written into the new constitution for Afghanistan, it was conceptually justifiable and indeed, international best practice.

But not if one asks the United Nations. Because the core of democracy, the peaceful settlement of conflicting interests, is way too messy a process for the well-meaning world body. “I think most of us were surprised at how many ministers were not approved by the parliament,” UN head of mission Kai Eide told journalists in Kabul after 70 percent of President Karzai’s nominees had been rejected by the 200 or so delegates. Eide considered this outcome a “setback and it’s a distraction [as it] prolongs the situation without a functioning government, which has lasted since summer. […] It’s particularly worrying in a country in conflict, where you have so many challenges and need to focus attention on urgent reform programmes.”

The UN’s preference for shallow political reforms could not be put more succinctly. “Democracy” (or whatever local politics is officially labeled in a given setting) must not interfere with the real work of “urgent reform programmes.” Development in Afghanistan is thus reinvented as an apolitical enterprise which needs to be protected from political interests expressed by elected representatives of the people. Maybe the UN is embracing a quirky kind of realism: if we cannot even organize free and fair elections, then why worry about the people who get elected? But quite possibly, its position is indicative of something else: that the organization has now completely lost its compass in the country.

In the heyday of Afghanistan’s short-lived recovery, Brynen (2005: 246) warned that it would “be ludicrous, however, if Afghanistan were held to a level of apolitical economic planning that would be alien to most donor countries or UN member states.” But already then, Heffron (2004: 65) could point to the irony of coalitions between “local recidivist forces […] with apolitical, neoliberal” outsiders creating a Central Asian outpost of Home Depots and halal McDonald’s and conveniently forgetting about centuries of tribal conflicts. It seems that the United Nations under Kai Eide’s troubled leadership is still buying into this logic.

The UN’s naive notion of a secular Afghan civil society that balances and checks the power of an internationally propped-up narco-state has completed yet another spin. Not only does politics in Afghanistan have to be free from religious influences; it also needs to be free from politicians. Politicophobia is coming full circle. Once again, we need to rely on Afghans themselves to offer sensible interpretations of the political dynamics. “This outcome was a wake-up call,” said Shukria Barakzai, a parliament member from Kabul. “It means the [parliament members] are thinking differently, and they want real change in the governance of the country.”

The challenge will be to achieve this change despite the UN’s presence.

Brynen, Rex (2005), Donor Assistance: Lessons from Palestine for Afghanistan, in: Junne, Gerd and Willemijn Verkoren (eds.), Postconflict development: meeting new challenges, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, pp. 223-248.

Heffron, John M. (2004), Between reconstruction and restoration: three historical case studies, in: Montgomery, John D. and Dennis A. Rondinelli (eds.), Beyond reconstruction in Afghanistan: lessons from development experience, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 53-74.

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.