Sue Unsworth’s ‘upside down’ view

Sue Unsworth’s work provides us a wealth of knowledge on governance and institutional change, stemming largely from her ‘upside down’ view of the conventional reality of the aid world. Here is a quick peek into some of her work – particularly, insights into how donor-approaches should evolve to engage successfully with politics.

Sue’s work with David Booth – captured in this paper, Politically smart, locally led development – presents seven case studies of problem-driven approaches that provide important lessons to donors, as well as a clear message that merely using new terminology without actually changing the ‘ways of working will not yield results. The authors suggest that chasing ‘international best practices’ often lead to imagined solutions that do not address the problem at hand.

…for politically smart, locally led approaches to become the norm, a more radical shift is needed in the way donors conceive development challenges and their role in addressing them. They need to abandon oversimplified concepts of ‘ownership’ and ‘partnership’, and unrealistic assumptions about the scope for outsiders to lead transformational change

This resonates with the PDIA community (Matt Andrews and co) who advocate problem-driven entry strategies, arguing that successful efforts at building capabilities require an unwavering focus on solving a specific ‘problem’.

Another important document was An Upside Down View of Governance, published in 2010 by the Centre for the Future State at Institute of Development Studies (IDS). (Here is an useful 15-page summary). The authors are clear about what the lessons for donors are:

progressive change can happen when people start to see that they have common interests in cooperating to create collective goods. There can be productive bargaining between public and private actors that results in positive sum outcomes (improved security, peaceful resolution of conflicts, more productive private investment, better public financial management, more inclusive public services). Moreover the processes of bargaining between state and society can themselves strengthen opportunities and incentives for collective action (including action by or on behalf of poor people) as well as the capacity of the state to respond.

Upside Down relied primarily on examples of (mostly) home-grown success stories from around the developing world – building a narrative around how one should view governance in these countries – in many ways, similar to Judith Tendler’s ‘Good Government in the Tropics‘ that focused on good government practices that made key sectors work in Ceara, Brazil.

Staying on donor strategies, there was another interesting piece, co-authored with Mick Moore in openDemocracy, that proposes the following set of questions to shape donor strategies, and operating in politically-informed and responsive ways:

  • What is shaping the interests of political elites?
  • What is shaping relations between politicians and investors, and might they have common interests in supporting productive investment? 
  • What might stimulate and sustain collective action by social groups to demand better services? 
  • What informal local institutions are at work, and how are they shaping development outcomes? 
  • Where does government revenue come from, and how is that shaping its relations with citizens?

Much of this has now become close-to-mainstream thinking, especially in donors such as DFID. Case studies of politically smart, problem-driven, adaptive approaches abound – from many parts of the developing world. Obviously, a lot still remains to be done in making this altered view a part of mainstream practice.   

Many of these ideas are beginning to inform donor approaches, particularly in fragile states. But adopting them as mainstream practice would imply a big shift in how donors see their role: from being experts with responsibility for “delivering” on the millennium development goals, to being much more effective facilitators of locally driven change.

But ‘doing development differently’ is not easy. There are several obstacles – rigid project structures, business cases, impatient donor desk officer, a weary community (of “beneficiaries” and on-lookers), etc. Only the brave donor desk officer will take on the bureaucracy of her own organisation. Donors, especially bilaterals, remain under pressure to deliver quantifiable outputs, and this leads to a perpetuation of business of usual models of delivery, driven by standard assumptions of ‘participation’ and ‘ownership’.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Sue’s work has been her insistence that none of her insights are in themselves, ‘remarkable’ or particularly innovative. And it is true. ‘Politics matters’ is a truism. What really matters is what we do with this realisation, and how we integrate it into our work. Watch her, in this ODI video, speaking on how ‘thinking and working politically’ can be operationalised in day-to-day operations of donors

Sue Unsworth will truly be missed. Here’s hoping that we can make her ideas continue to prosper.


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