Remarks by Deputy Assistant Administrator Larry Garber at the Carothers/De Gramont Book Launch Presentation

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Good afternoon!  I am really excited to be here today.  Indeed, from the day that Tom first shared with me an early draft, I have been waiting impatiently for this book to be published.  And now that the day has come, I must start by congratulating the authors – both Tom and Diane, and note how pleased I am to see such a crowded room for this launch.  

Why am I so excited?  At a personal level, the book describes my intellectual journey during the past 30 years.   I began my international career working in the 1980s for non-governmental organizations specializing in human rights and democracy promotion.  In 1993, I joined the Clinton Administration and helped facilitate the formal incorporation of democracy and human rights policies and programs into a mainstream development agency.   We had many successes during this period, including identification of democracy and governance as one of the four core elements of sustainable development, creating a Center of Excellence for democracy and governance that developed a whole range of creative programming mechanisms and assessment tools, conducting several influential, multi-country DG evaluations, and developing [with Jim Michel’s considerable help] a donor consensus document on participatory development and good governance, which despite the awkward title included virtually all of the themes that are covered in Tom’s and Diane’s book.  Yet for a time, the revolution stalled only to be revived in the mid-2000s.  So, one of the questions that I encouraged Tom to tackle in the book is why, even today, we must talk about an “almost revolution,” as opposed to a completed revolution.

And this brings me to the second reason why I am so excited about the publication of Development Aid Confronts Politics.  For me, this book is a must-read for all my colleagues at USAID - those in policy making positions and those in operational positions, those based in Washington and those in the field, those who are direct hires and those who are foreign service nationals, implementing partners and host country counterparts.  They will not only will learn much about USAID’s history, as well as the history of development assistance as experienced from the perspective of other donors, but they will recognize the dilemmas that they confront on a daily basis regarding the role of politics in the work of a development agency are portrayed accurately in the chapters of the book.  So, I will do my best to encourage colleagues at USAID to read at least key sections of the book, and ask them to reflect upon the consequences of continuing to treat development as a mere technical discipline.  Rather, as the book documents, the keenest observers of the development process, going back to Hirschman and others in the 1960s, have appreciated that sound policies and effective institutions are essential for the transformation of societies.  And politics, in its many manifestations, can serve as either the accelerator of constructive change or the brake.

Instead of just heaping praise on the book and quoting from those sections that are particularly resonant, I will use the remainder of my allotted time to share my thoughts on why it is so hard for aid agencies to fully integrate the “political” into their development world view.   I will conclude by offering a few observations about USAID Forward, the post-Busan development effectiveness agenda and the implications for thinking politically in today’s USAID.

Let me start with a quick summary of where we are today.  Various framework documents issued by the US, – including the 2010 National Security Strategy, the President’s 2010 Global Development Strategy, the QDDR and USAID’s 2011-2015 Policy Framework – all include frequent references to democracy, human rights and governance and their importance for achieving our development goals.  Moreover, USAID is now finalizing a new Democracy, Human Rights and Governance strategy (DRG in our lingo), which encourages the type of political programming, whether under a democracy or a human rights rubric, that many other donors shy away from.  Moreover, the strategy emphasizes the importance of integrated programming, where DRG principles and programs are incorporated into activities undertaken in the health, food security, education and other more traditional development sectors.

Words in Washington-policy documents matter, but only to a point – more important is the extent that the policies affect actions on the ground.   As part of our USAID Forward reforms, we have committed to preparing evidence-based, country development cooperation strategies (CDCS), which provide excellent opportunities for undertaking political analysis and advocating for DRG programming.   Indeed, the 24 approved CDCS, as a general matter, evidence considerable attention to political context.  Moreover, many of our Missions prioritize DRG programs among all sectors.  However, we are now confronting the realities of our budget process, where the funds available for DRG programming are being severely squeezed by various Administration initiatives and congressional earmarks.   

I could give other examples that shine additional light on our efforts to incorporate “political” thinking into the development mainstream.  Indeed, there is a wonderful quote on pages 169-170 of the book from one of our Africa Mission Directors extolling the virtues of political economy assessments and noting that she insists that “all newcomers read the report as part of their briefing materials.”  And yet, I appreciate, perhaps better than most, that the glass is still barely half full.  

I recall my experience a couple years back when I served in our Africa Bureau Front Office and I was responsible for reviewing the food security strategies prepared by our Missions.  The strategies had emerged from an assessment heavy process, with careful attention paid to value chains, trade routes, technological innovations, and extension services.  Yet, during the reviews, I was struck by how few of the strategies had commissioned a political economy assessment or articulated the existing political constraints that might compromise the proposed technical approach and preclude achievement of the anticipated results.  And as the answers to the questions posed during the review sessions revealed, our staff in the field appreciated the political realities that might prevent necessary policy changes or the building of effective institutions. 

So, what is the problem?  Why too often is there a reticence to raise political considerations?   From where I sit, the explanations are several and well-delineated in the book.  Even 20 years after the “revolution” described in the book began, many development practitioners still yearn for a construct where development is an apolitical discipline, even as they intellectually recognize the importance of the political.   Those who advocate for the use of political methods remain a small number within USAID, even as many are not adverse to utilizing such methods if presented as a low cost/low risk investment.  And there is the perennial donor agency concern of spending too much time on assessments, which is magnified in the context of political economy assessments by an anticipated outcome that likely will raise more questions about the efficacy of the proposed program than necessarily provide answers.   

Unlike the Millennium Challenge Corporation, we have also not reached a consensus as a development agency regarding how best to deal with governments that are poor performers on various political and civil rights scales, but are otherwise good development partners.   The book cites Ethiopia as a paradigmatic case and quotes from the USAID Country Development Cooperation Strategy for Ethiopia as follows: 

The donor community is torn between the competing objectives of engaging with and assisting Ethiopia as a high profile example of poverty and vulnerability to famine, and addressing the major challenges and constraints to democratic space, human rights abuses and severe restrictions on civil society….

Does a political approach to development require USAID to disengage from Ethiopia or to avoid working with the government,    or do we continue to work with the government in those development sectors where we are achieving results while also supporting nongovernmental efforts to address human rights and democracy deficiencies? 

These dilemmas have become even more profound as we have sought to implement the aid effectiveness principles adopted as part of the international conclaves that have met in Paris, Accra and Busan during the past decade.  As many in this audience know, a key pillar of the USAID Forward reform agenda has sought to increase the proportion of assistance that is provided directly through host country systems, be they governmental, private sector or civil society.   And, I must note that, according to compiled as part of our USAID Forward 2013 review, the amount of funds provided to local private sector and civil society organizations exceeds that provided directly to host country governments. 

With respect to the governmental assistance, or G2G in our lexicon, we have introduced quite formal risk assessment protocols, which examine the host countries public financial management and democratic accountability systems.  Here too, there is a tension between viewing the assessments as designed to identify risks and then to suggest mitigation measures,    or to acknowledge that below a certain threshold the risks are inherently too great to apply mitigation measures.  Moreover, as Tom and Diane argue, there is a conceptual tension between the aid effectiveness agenda, which emphasizes “host country ownership” and “alignment with host country strategies” and the more conscious incorporation of political methods into donor country’s planning processes, donor-supported activities designed to strengthen country systems and the willingness of donors to work with and through civil society actors even when the host country government is antagonistic to such efforts. 

As with many revolutions, we do not yet know the ultimate outcome of the one described in the book.  But the “almost revolution” in the title suggests to me a sense of fatalism that, despite the powerful arguments in the book, we will always come up short.  My hope is that this book will motivate a profound debate within the development community, and within aid agencies in particular, regarding the proper relationship between politics, political methods and political goals on the one hand, and an emphasis on the achievement of traditional development results.    Let the conversation begin.  

Last updated: September 15, 2017

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