Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution

Thomas Carothers, Diane de Gramont
The overdue recognition that development in all sectors is an inherently political process is driving international aid providers to try to learn how to think and act politically.
Published April 16, 2013 by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
  • Chapter 1: The New Politics Agenda
  • Brief
  • Order by phone, UK: 44-117-902- 0275
  • International Sales
  • Print
  • Comments (2)

A new lens on development is changing the world of international aid. The overdue recognition that development in all sectors is an inherently political process is driving aid providers to try to learn how to think and act politically.

Major donors are pursuing explicitly political goals alongside their traditional socioeconomic aims and introducing more politically informed methods throughout their work. Yet these changes face an array of external and internal obstacles, from heightened sensitivity on the part of many aid-receiving governments about foreign political interventionism to inflexible aid delivery mechanisms and entrenched technocratic preferences within many aid organizations.

This pathbreaking book assesses the progress and pitfalls of the attempted politics revolution in development aid and charts a constructive way forward.

Reviews for this publication

“A hugely insightful book on how the international development community has failed to take politics into account in its efforts to help poor countries, with sometimes disastrous results. Carothers and de Gramont incisively chronicle the evolution of thinking on this critical topic and set out a practical agenda for how aid practitioners can do better.”
—Francis Fukuyama, author, The Origins of Political Order

“The assertion that development aid is, or should be, political, sparks widely diverging reactions, from outrage at crude Western interference to recognition that aid must understand domestic politics. The authors have done us all a service by rigorously dissecting the different meanings of politics in aid and providing a clear understanding of what smarter aid practice requires.”
—Mark Malloch-Brown, former minister of state, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office

“The story of how aid agencies have finally accepted that ‘politics matter’ in shaping development outcomes and what it means in practice is brilliantly told in this penetrating book. The sweep of the authors’ research and the power of their insights will stir scholars and practitioners alike.”
—Adrian Leftwich, research director, Developmental Leadership Program

“The authors bring a great amount of experience, common sense, and clarity to explain what ‘taking politics into account’ means in foreign aid, encompassing goals such as democracy promotion as well as addressing the political economy of economic reform.”
—Dani Rodrik, professor, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

More Research from Carnegie

End of document

About the Democracy and Rule of Law Program

The Carnegie Democracy and Rule of Law Program rigorously examines the global state of democracy and the rule of law and international efforts to support their advance.


Comments (2)

  • Javed Mir
    1 Recommend
    --foreign aid, encompassing goals such as democracy promotion as well as addressing the political economy of economic reform--

    In prasctice foreign aid is always attached with deamands which are not necessarily demoracy promoting nor nation building. Foreign donors generally have their own agenda and try to control the receiving countries.
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel
  • Joe Ryan
    Development Aid Confronts Politics addresses the purport of the word "political" in foreign aid, saying that something changed around 1990. As the book does, however, we must first distinguish different senses of the word "political."

    In the context of foreign aid, prominent uses of the word "political" include:

    1. Aid decision making by a political agency, rather than by a development agency.
    2. Giving aid for a political reason rather for a development purpose.
    3. Engagement in partisan political activity in the recipient country.
    4. Adopting a "political" lens in assisting legislatures, judiciaries, law enforcement, human rights agencies, journalism, etc.
    5. Engagement in the host country's implicitly political process of public policy analysis, debate, and capacity building.

    In the first two senses, foreign aid is always partly political and partly not. What happened after 1990 is that, in selected cases, U.S. foreign aid in particular started being political in the third and fourth senses. This was primarily a response to the institutional changes occurring in the former Soviet Union: ironically USAID was more engaged in the Cold War after it was over than when it was still on.

    Because foreign assistance is "foreign" and "assistance," it depends on its hosts' acceptance and on their initiative. U.S. foreign aid's engagement in partisan, anti-government politics since 1990 has in some cases, as the book notes, lost aid its acceptance and resulted in expulsion or near-expulsion.

    With respect to the fifth sense of "political," it's frequently useful (as the book urges) for development assistance to engage in and support public policy debate. Although implicitly political, constructive policy debate is non-partisan and not anti-government (even when seeking to improve the government's policies), so it's common for aid agencies and host governments to agree that aid should support the participation of the interested public.

    The book has an unfortunate tendency to interpret aid's long history of evaluating and seeking to do better on governance matters as a confession of failure or indifference. The opposite reading seems to fit better. Also, the concern for under-appreciation of specialist Democracy Officers seems overdone.

    The book's views on economics ("Economics emphasizes consensual ideas") and on the history of development economics' impact on aid deserve a separate discussion.
    Reply to this post

    Close Panel

Publication Resources

Sign up for Carnegie Email

Personal Information
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
1779 Massachusetts Avenue NW Washington, DC 20036-2103 Phone: 202 483 7600 Fax: 202 483 1840
Please note...

You are leaving the website for the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy and entering a website for another of Carnegie's global centers.