I have a problem with the latest UK Department for International Development report: The Politics of Poverty: Elites, Citizens and States - Findings from ten years of DFID funded research on Governance and Fragile States, 2001-10.
The problem is not with the research it summarises, nor the way it summarises it. The report provides admirable insight into the conclusions of more than 600 working papers, books, briefing notes and journal articles from four UK funded international research centres. It focuses on one of the most difficult, contentious and dangerous areas of development and represents 10 years of sometimes contradictory research by research centres who have very different theoretical reference points and research objectives.
Out of this vast volume of research, it finds one key message:
"that to understand development we must understand the politics that shape it. Ultimately it is political decisions that will shape whether or not the Millennium Development Goals are reached, revenues are raised to fund investment, and growth occurs. The report argues that the political settlement is central to all development."
The report documents how this research has, especially over the last ten years, shaped policy and thinking within DFID and throughout much of the international development community, prompting shifts away from the technocratic comfort zones that have dominated the development mainstream for decades. It demonstrates how research of diverse origin and methodology can reach challenging conclusions, pointing for example to the "essential role of the indigenous political process for working out a country's own development and institutions - something the transfer of blueprints from another country or the development world could not achieve".
These are not cosy conclusions to reach, not least because they inject complexity into the development process. Donors historically dislike complexity - I have lost count of the number of times I have been told by donors to KISS - keep it simple, stupid. Many of the early debates around delivering the Millennium Development Goals were in part exactly designed to do that - to strip some of the complexity out of development and focus resources on the end point of the development process, whether that be delivering health treatments, bednets or schools.
This research suggests that little of anything else will work unless the politics is right. If development at its heart needs to be a political process, and if that process can only be determined from internally driven change, the role of the external agent - and especially the donor - becomes complicated. The understanding that development agencies need to understand the political realities of the countries they are working in may seem obvious to many but for those who have been working in this field for a long time, it is the reverse of the norm just two decades ago.
Go to an international development meeting focused on governance and you will be confronted with much of the lexicon that this and linked research has developed or at least made part of mainstream policy debate - concepts of state fragility, state resilience, political settlements, for example. Concepts such as citizenship, which most in the development world would instinctively feel they have a strong understanding of, have been challenged, fleshed out, made real, made more amenable to policy interventions.
And the research has had real policy impact. Not just in DFID where successive policy White Papers over recent years have focused on making politics work for the poor and working most in those fragile states where both the political and development process are most challenging - but beyond to shape much of the debate in the international development community.
Nor is this research the abstract product of pontificating professors sitting in distant ivory towers. I should declare an interest, in that I sit on an advisory board for one of the research centres - on citizenship and accountability, and have close connections to at least one other. But that connection has provided me with a real insight into what is often involved in gathering this research - researchers spending many many months in dangerous and difficult environments, sometimes living within the environment they are studying.
So what is the problem? I have two quibbles.
Research reports like this do a critical job in providing insight from a very diverse research base. Such insight tends to focus - as it does here - on where there is agreement. Sometimes the most important insights come from where there is disagreement and contestation of research conclusions, rather than where there is consensus. The four different research centres ultimately have different perspectives and reach different conclusions about what political conditions create the best conditions for development to take place. In some parts of the report, for example, the focus is all about elite bargains and elite incentives, in others the focus is all about citizen agency. The report implies that all these things are important, which they are. The problem comes, especially going forward, in determining what is more important. A clearer flagging of not just the connections and consensus points between the research, but also a mapping of the faultlines in these research conclusions would be helpful.
Second, it is quite difficult to discern what the key research questions going forward should be and how they will link back to the ones already examined. What are the major emerging themes of research into fragile states and what can we expect to be focused on a few years from now? How quickly can the field move? Is there room - even the opportunity - to examine issues which are barely registering on the fragile states agenda but which are likely to prove transformational in their impact on political settlements and state citizen relationships?
Fragile states are not immune to the political impact of an information revolution that has already (almost) provided 5 billion people on the planet with access to mobile telephony. A strong argument can be made that the shifts in communicative power currently taking place in both media and communications and the dizzying new patterns of information access, control, and manipulation that are now occurring have a special significance in states that are politically crippled. Political actors in some of the poorest and most conflict-ridden states are developing highly sophisticated strategies to control media and communication in order to manipulate and sometimes inflame public opinion and exacerbate tension. New and old technologies alike are providing some of the most powerful opportunities for citizens to hold authorities to account. Politics is being recast internationally in the wake of the information revolution.
The fragile states research agenda sometimes comes across as seeing informational transformations as something that has yet to permeate the political realities of the poorest and most fragile countries. My bet is that the opposite is the case. It is in these states, where government and governance is weak, where control over and manipulation of information is most politically potent, where the poorest are often prepared to set aside the greatest proportion of their income for access to a mobile phone or batteries for a radio. It is in these countries where citizens are most using communication to bypass formal state institutions - seen perhaps most powerfully in the M-Banking phenomenon.
There is no lack of interest in these issues from researchers working in fragile states and they are not entirely ignored in either this report or in the work of the Centres involved. And again I declare an interest in having worked on incipient research agendas on exactly these issues with some of the academics whose excellent work is featured in this report. But my bet is that, five years from now, research will reveal that these informational and communication transformations will be acknowledged as far more central to shaping political settlements and state citizen relations than they appear to be now.