Identifying obstacles – Strategic choices through context analysis

Development Policy20 Apr 2010The Broker

This is one background article (of originally 4) in the context of the online debate about Dutch development cooperation triggered by the report Less Pretension, More Ambition by the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR).

We need to expand our knowledge and use it in more context-specific analyses. The question is at what scale: national, regional or global?

The WRR is calling not only for a broader and more global approach to development, but also one that is more specific. In other words, there are no blueprints or ‘one size fits all’ solutions, and even best practices have limited use. Therefore, policy must be adapted to the context, keeping in mind that the context is in a constant state of flux.

We need to substantially expand our knowledge if we are to keep a finger on the pulse of change. This knowledge should be used for the context-specific analyses required to define the circumstances to which development has to adapt itself and to identify obstacles – e.g. binding constraints – and ultimately also opportunities. The WRR refers to this as diagnostics and believes that this should be country- or region-specific. It therefore advocates the establishment of country offices, to be known as NLAID, in order to develop knowledge and expertise independently of the embassies overseas and ministries in The Hague.

The response to the call for greater expertise has been overwhelmingly positive. Some contributors believe it is not so much a matter of acquiring more knowledge but of organizing, integrating and applying the available expertise more effectively. And interpretations differ about the kind of expertise required. Do we need specialists – people who know a great deal about one specific subject or sector – or strategists, who have the experience and political intuition and who can prioritize when the situation requires?

Be specific. One size does not fit all. Policies must be adapted to context. Context-specific analysis means identifying obstacles and opportunities for development, and choosing which one strategically fits best at a particular time.

Broadly speaking, there are two trends in the debate which will be referred to here as first, a more technical or specialist view, and second, a more integrated and socio-political view. The first concentrates on a more mechanical analysis of development, the key words being technical, interventionist, aid, top-down, supply-driven, social engineering, donor perspective and specialist knowledge. It argues that diagnostics is required to determine which sectors should be supported using which techniques and instruments. This view is most adamant in advocating independent NLAID offices.

The second, socio-political view regards development as a multidimensional process, the key words being a broad definition of poverty, development as change, struggle and conflict, complexity, bottom-up, strategic, aid as a catalyst for change, local knowledge production and interdisciplinary knowledge. In this case, diagnostics is regarded primarily as fuel for a political strategy. This view is less enthusiastic about detaching the embassies from NLAID because that would reduce the scope for political and diplomatic activities.

Dutch strengths

The first view is based on the belief that specialization generates considerable benefits and that Dutch development capacity is strong in some specific areas. The WRR report suggests, for example, that Dutch aid could focus on agriculture, water or civil society because of the country’s considerable experience and knowledge in these areas. The criticism that this would lead to ‘supply-driven’ aid is perhaps rather simplistic. This depends on the donor architecture, which is intended to facilitate mutual distribution and specialization. For example, this could occur in a European context. If a developing country indicates that it needs water expertise, this could be acquired from the Netherlands, whereas educational expertise would have to be ‘brought in’ from elsewhere.

Of course, there is always a risk of aid being supply-driven. Various contributors discuss Dutch specializations, often in connection with the organization or sector with which they are affiliated, or the priorities they advocate. The proposed areas include food, water, sex education/family planning, the legal order, carbon capture and storage, agriculture, urban development, civil society and cooperation with Dutch institutions, such as local authorities, hospitals, companies and universities.

Expertise can be specialist, directed at a specific subject or sector, or generalist, generated by strategists with a broad knowledge base.

A number of people question this specialization by area. Niels Röling and Paul Hassing seriously doubt whether Dutch agricultural knowledge is up to par. ‘Agricultural development is based on a lot of local knowledge and technology’, says Hassing. ‘The Netherlands does not have a great deal to offer in this field’. Röling adds that in his experience ‘agricultural experts view development too frequently in terms of techonological development, which makes them blind to the impact of global markets and trade and to institutional innovation as a condition for technological innovation.’

Palliative measures, or a vibrant civil society?

In its report, the WRR seems to have started making a diagnosis. Many of the contributors focus on specific choices made by the Council in the process. In its analysis, the WRR places considerable emphasis on the need to strengthen the productive sector in developing countries. This, together with the plea to focus more attention on the agricultural sector, is a view that is widely endorsed (Coumans, Willems).
The report also states that investments in social sectors do not generate self-reliance or economic productivity. This reasoning – and the treatment of civil society in general – has been widely criticized. Examples of these criticisms include:

Besides focusing on economic growth, the WRR report also stresses the role of the state. This has been welcomed as a way of curbing the unbridled market forces of recent decades.

  • Several contributors argue that the report could have highlighted ways to curb these forces (Dietz, Nijman). In particular, they feel that its emphasis on the state has pushed civil society off the radar (Schulpen, Voorhoeve) or presented it as a caricature.
  • They reject the WRR’s depiction of current NGO practice, which is already in line with many of the Council’s recommendations (Schulpen).
  • NGOs are not only service providers, but also play an important role in promoting democratization and accountability (Monteiro).
  • The WRR’s criticism of ‘NGO-ization’ is endorsed (Hassing, Monteiro), but despite the fact that some NGOs have already taken steps to prevent NGO-ization, the WRR does not seem to recognize this (Monteiro).
  • In the Netherlands, insufficient attention is devoted to social, cultural and religious factors (Grotenhuis), informal institutions (Verkoren), civic-driven change (Box, Gruiters) and NGOs and civil society (including consumers, citizens and migrants) in the Netherlands (Schulpen, Monteiro, Lubbers). Many applaud the WRR recommendation to reinforce the NGOs’ watchdog function vis-à-vis the Dutch government (Gruiters).

Quadruple transition

The WRR’s emphasis on economic growth and productivity has come under a great deal of criticism, as has its disregard of civil society. The question is whether the WRR really believes that economic growth and increased productivity should receive such sweeping emphasis. As the Council itself has repeatedly maintained, it has intentionally emphasized certain issues.

The emphasis on economic growth, for example, could be interpreted as an attempt to restore the balance which had shifted too far towards supporting ‘palliative’ measures and direct poverty reduction. After all, as the WRR itself makes clear, it is impossible to make such general statements about the importance of economic growth because each context requires different priorities.

The WRR seems to be advocating a concept of development with a ‘quadruple transition of economy, government, politics and society’. It also states that the ‘situation in the developing country’ has to be the starting point of the analysis. Political, economic and social diagnostics must be conducted to allow a more integrated analysis of broader processes and help determine strategy. It cites examples from other countries, such as the ‘drivers of change’ approach used by the UK Department for International Development (DFID). This is an indication that the WRR also believes in reinforcing development policy’s role as a catalyst for change.

It is worth examining this approach in more detail. Development is a dynamic and complex process of interrelated factors; analysis must lead to strategic choices that will have the greatest structural impact. Some contributors appear to agree with such a broad, comprehensive approach. This is evident, for example, in their criticism of the WRR’s limited definition of poverty.

The more generalist view regards development as a multidimensional process of change that requires strategic analysis to determine where to intervene and at which moment and level. Local knowledge production is key, as well as interdisciplinary approaches. Complex models can be used to identify catalysts or change agents.

After arguing that a broad concept of poverty is now essentially synonymous in development policy with the self-reliance advocated by the WRR, Maarten Brouwer goes on to say that ‘the WRR then defines development as an accelerated modernization of relations between economy, administration, politics and society. … All kinds of battlegrounds can be identified in this network of relations … For example, between economy and politics there is the untangling of political and economic power. Between society and administration, the struggle is about inclusiveness, and in the relationship between administration and economy the issue is the demarcation and organization of public and private spaces. Between administration and politics it is about processes of accountability and transparency, and between politics and society it is democratization. Citizens are involved in all these struggles, whether they work for government bodies or companies, or are active in political or social movements. They are the ones that try to get to grips with the processes of change.’

Tom van der Lee confirms the interactivity between the different domains. ‘The holistic thinking about development that emerges from the WRR report demonstrates that the role of civil society organizations as a factor in development has certainly not been played out. The WRR sees development as an outcome of four domains: “an economic domain, a political system, the government apparatus, and a social fabric”. These four domains interact with each other and continually affect each other. It is clear that civil society, and the organizations active in it, play a vital role in creating the social fabric of society. It therefore also has the potential to give direction to the three other domains of economy, politics and government.’

The scale: global, regional or national?

Diagnostics must facilitate more strategic operations. It must identify weak spots and binding constraints. Frits van der Wal argues that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is already using a ‘bottleneck approach’.

It is crucial to identify binding constraints. These obstacles to development are national, but also global. Therefore a conceptual and organizational link between local and global research and expertise needs to be established.

Attempts to identify binding constraints often focus purely on national analyses, and no systematic link is made with international and global influences. Corruption, for example, is a major obstacle to development, but has both national and international ramifications when elites channel their money abroad, for example, or multinationals pay bribes. And there are many more relevant policy coherence issues. Therefore diagnostics conducted primarily at a national level will miss a great deal more than it would if it were to factor in regional and global factors. The WRR distinguishes between those two scales, and links its appeal for more professionalization and expertise particularly to operations in developing countries. That is why NLAID offices and country strategies are needed.

In a separate argument, the WRR points out that global factors are becoming increasingly important. The link between those two scales – the national and regional on the one hand, and the global on the other – does not feature in the WRR’s diagnostics. The question is therefore whether the country strategies – or rather regional strategies, since geopolitical intervention and cross-border networks with neighbouring countries very much determine the situation in many countries – should not also incorporate international factors and influences from the outset.

According to Shobha Raghuram, ‘the report is confused about a final call on the dialectic between region- and country-specific and global analyses of aid flows. … I believe more work needs to be done on this issue of the universal and the particular.’

The trend advocating specialist expertise entails a more mechanical analysis of development, using aid for social engineering and technical assistance, and it supports independent NLAID offices. It is also advocates using Dutch specializations, e.g. agriculture, water or civil society.

This scale issue – i.e. which geographical dimensions you should be included as standard in a context analysis – is the subject of a number of contributions. Ton Dietz argues that ‘if Africa is to become the core area for Dutch bilateral aid, the country level is not the adequate level of scale in many cases’. He quotes WRR research leader Peter van Lieshout, who says that the focus can also be on ‘hubs’, metropolises or economic core regions. If you do adopt this view, then it raises the question of how to prevent the marginalization of a large part of the rest of the country, as is the case in many developing countries?

A key argument for including both global and national factors in the analysis has already been given in the section ‘Going global’. While modernization and economic growth on a national scale are perfectly logical objectives, they imply an absolute depletion of natural resources and raw materials at a global level. A global approach therefore imposes different requirements on developing countries.

It would also clarify the consequences of global problems (‘global public bads’) for those countries, as Hans Opschoor maintains. ‘They may lead to undesirable volatility and unpredictability in actual development paths; they may erode the capital basis for economic and social development in many ways; they may also directly affect the sustainability of development achievements. … The departments, think-tanks, strategic agencies and what-have-you … should all have an appropriately profound analytical and policy-developmental empathy and capability way beyond their traditional domains.’

Continue reading: the four sections of the Special report in issue 19 of The Broker Magazine

  1. Getting the basics right – General principlesfor a new development policy
  2. Going global – Alternative political projects
  3. Identifying obstacles – Strategic choices through context analyisis
  4. Building a new structure – Institutional architecture for global development