When new International Cooperation Minister Julian Fantino launches a CIDA project on democratic governance in a fragile state like South Sudan, what should he expect? If you were the consultant assigned, where would you begin? Understanding the context for collaborating on the issues with development agencies on the ground is a good start.
Whether in a post-conflict state or a region ravaged by natural disaster, context draws upon what is known in development circles as “political economy” to assess the situation. But context is also about having a vision, tracking changes and trends, and understanding the diversity, culture, and relationships of institutions and people.
Life haunted us with images of malnourished, starving children, the victims of civil war, ethnic cleansing, and geopolitics in 1968 Biafra. How do political economy and myriad sophisticated tools – tied aid, conditionalities, south-south cooperation, results based management, value for money – help explain what to do? Languaging the situation does not change things; people do, armed with information.
It is debatable whether political economy is more reliable in discerning priorities for action or in reshaping public opinion. The Commonwealth, for example, responded to a 2011 DFID assessment with a self-image of comparatively effective governance and development against a backdrop of:
- 54 countries in all regions, representing 31% of the world’s population;
- 32 small states, 24 of which are small island developing states;
- 11 high, 14 upper-middle, 17 lower-middle, and 12 low-income countries;
- 63% of the world’s poor, with 47% of country populations living in poverty;
- Deficits in gender equity, youth participation, and human rights; and
- One million public servants in need of leadership development.
Different realities call for different approaches. The Overseas Development Institute’s 2011 report Mapping Progress: Evidence for a New Development Outlook confirmed in case studies that the drivers of development progress are leadership, policy, institutional foundations, and international partnerships.
The challenges today are complex, unpredictable, and vexing – restoring public finances and trust, combating corruption, harnessing technology, managing performance, renewing public service capacity. Advice must be crafted and given with a duty of care for the setting and context. The people of South Sudan may be counting on it one day soon.
John Wilkins was a Commonwealth diplomat and a career public servant in Canada. He is Executive in Residence with the Public Management Program in the Schulich School of Business at York University (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org).