Poor performance in weak states has been attributed to donor dependence; the resources curse; inappropriate economic policy models, or authoritarian political regimes, but these variables have only undermined performance in weak states not strong ones. Thus successful aid relationships depend of the capacity and integrity of the governments involved. Donors are not supposed to interfere in the political processes that influence the choice of regime, but the failure of earlier economistic structural adjustment programmes forced them to add democratic and public sector reforms to their policy agendas in the 1990s. These should have increased accountability and the ability of the poor to oblige governments to reduce rent-seeking and adopt redistributive strategies. However, democratisation did increase political competition, but elections have been fought by clientalistic political parties, intensified ethnic and sectarian conflict, and encouraged populist policies and electoral manipulation.
These failures confront donors committed to poverty reducing programmes with their greatest challenge. They have treated democratisation and poverty alleviation as technical problems to avoid being accused of political interference, and assumed that governments will choose pro-poor rather than pro-rich policies in order to win elections as they have done in the north. This did occur there, but only in contexts where subordinated classes were able to create strong social democratic organisa-tions that enabled them to turn their formal individual right to speak, organise and vote, into effective collective claims for better services. However, this process has hardly begun in most weak contemporary states.
Representative organisations were suppressed or used to enforce state power under the authoritarian regimes that replaced colonialism. The nationalist coalitions that first took power were led by tiny elites who used ethnic or sectarian loyalties to mobilise subordinate classes who found it hard to organise independently because of limited education, low social status, intense poverty and politically atomisation. Their leaders then won power and used it to tax the poor and redistribute resources to an inefficient bureaucracy and crony capitalist class. This lost them public support so they suspended elections and suppressed or incorporated independent parties and interest groups.
Democratisation has forced elites to revive old nationalist parties or build new electoral coalitions and civic organisations to represent particular interests. But these organisations are still under-resourced, based on patrimonial ethnic or sectarian identities and dominated by the groups that responsible for many past failures. Economic and educational failures have increased marginalisation and dependence among the poor, and failure to support tertiary education has limited the growth of an effective managerial class capable of strengthening the party structures and civic organisations, except in more developed societies like South Africa and pre-crisis Zimbabwe. The poor are not totally disempowered because they can resist state controls by foot-dragging, smuggling, evading rules, and criminality; and can provide their own services by creating informal traditional organisations like religious associations, vigilante groups, credit associations, traditional healers or Koranic schools. But these are a poor substitute for real democratic competition and well managed state and private sector services.
Donors need the support of domestic political movements in order to get their programmes implemented, but are not supposed to support partisan political organisations, even when it is clear that the existing regime is both corrupt and obstructing all of the reforms they seek. Hence donors have to become surrogate representatives of the poor by creating redistributive programmes, but then have to rely on regimes dominated by unreliable regiems to implement them. They make all kinds of promises to secure funding, but divert and misuse what they receive. Donors cannot force compliance, only withdraw support and by doing so, increase poverty and threaten their own aid budgets.
This analysis is not intended to reduce aid or devalue donor attempts to facilitate redistributive policies. What it does suggest, however, is the need for a more realistic understanding of the political implications of attempts to use conditionality to introduce redistributive policies, and far stronger attempts to strengthen the representative organisations that must exist if the poor are to play an effective role in the political process.
Teddy Brett is the Associate Director of the London School of Economics' Development Management Program.
Related Material from Atlantic Community:
- Editorial Team: A New Course for Western Aid to Africa
- Malcolm McPherson: Promoting Development Through an Exit Strategy
- Gregory Adams: Local Solutions to Africa's Aid Problems