Africa and Development in the age of the SDGs

The Sustainable Development Goals encourage more and better aid. They also sustain a long-standing succession of big picture global aid visions which connect and conflate aid and development. This blog, taken from a keynote presentation, questions the merits of this conflation and offers some new and old pointers for development research outside of the aid-development nexus.

The SDGs and aid.

The SDGs are an outcome of a process of reflection on the MDGs and in central ways flow from them. The MDGs achieved partial success in Africa and the SDGs are supposed to push the international aid community towards greater success in the fight against global poverty.

But, that partial success was itself ambiguous. There are questions about the data reported by African governments to the IGOs concerning progress in poverty reduction and social provision. Ultimately, the statistics are taken on trust. They are certainly also integrated into political ideologies of progress. In-country, varied data gathering methods are used. Furthermore, the cause and effect of socio-economic progress is, at best, intuitive or based in correlation and implied causation. If aid is released under the broad mantle of the MGDs and recipient countries experience a fall in ill health, the lesson learned is that there is a success here. There is no way of accounting for country-specific political and institutional dynamics which might have very profound effects on the rolling out of policies.

So, the MDGs left a narrative legacy far more than a robust empirical legacy of major progress regarding development. The narrative legacy was simply that significant progress had been made but that there was a lot more to be done. This prospective optimism is at the heart of international aid ideology. International aid is, in effect, driven by an endlessly unachieved but aspired to mission towards more and better aid.

This being so, asking what more needs to be done is less interesting, politically speaking, than asking why do broad international aid programmes constantly succeed one another? Can we imagine a situation in which a set of global goals, driven by aid, are declared to have failed or succeeded, both of which would question the entire architecture of aid? I would suggest not and in that case the first question is: what underpins the endless succession of global aid initiatives?

The answer is, fairly obviously, the global aid project itself. International aid levels have remained high throughout the global economic crisis. The SDGs mark a stepping in ambition, effectively stating an aspiration entirely to eradicate extreme income poverty by 2030. They are also unprecedentedly detailed into their objective setting and in their attention to the detail of partnership-based implementation. And, they are accompanied by a series of other aid ‘hubs’ oriented around PRSPs and the Global Fund.

This is a not insignificant epistemic community, well-resourced and acting through a networked set of institutions, bilateral, multilateral, charitable, and corporate. The ideological ambassadorship of charitable values, celebrity endorsement, and expertise endow the international aid project with remarkable legitimacy, to an extent that making a case against aid is almost heretical, an extreme position take by a loony left or extreme right. And, here in the university, there is a very clear and lucrative financial incentive to orient one’s research around the international aid projects problem-solving optimism through the £1.5bn GCRF.

Aid is, politically, a shorthand for a large and diverse transnational social group, defined by the ability to disburse resources to poor countries in the name of development. Academic research has become aware of this aid sociology, treating different facets of aid ethnographically. This is commonly coined as ‘aidland’, a spatially tiered zone of policy-making, discourse, knowledge-building, diplomacy, and implementation. It has it own habitus: its own practices, customs, vernaculars, and hierarchies. What makes this research insightful is that it drops the notion that aid is fundamentally about solving a problem (although that is still a central concern) and replaces it with an understanding of aid as politically productive. Productive in the sense that aid discourse and practice produces a social group with a specific kind of power.

So, the move from the MDGs to the SDGs is unsurprising. It would be equally unsurprising is the SDGs are not achieved. It would also be unsurprising if they were succeeded by a new set of global aid initiatives which claim to have discovered an improved formula, to have learned lessons, and to entreat all stakeholders to stick with the aid project. Politically, this ideology is hegemonic in that ‘more and better aid’ has become commonsensical; it is framed in a way that defeats opposition: how can one be against ‘more’ and ‘better’?

It has also become substantially introverted in that evidence of performance can always be coded as a partial success and means to improve. Epistemically, failure is not an option. This is not to say that all aid doesn’t work or that the SDGs are entirely an artifice, a smokescreen for something else. But it is to say that any epochal expectation of an end to global poverty through the practices of SDG-related aid is a fantasy. At best, one might say this fantasy serves as a healthy working fiction to keep up levels of resource and optimism as moderate improvements are sought. At worst, one can say it is a distraction from the more central processes that generate mass poverty reduction, a sideshow that keeps a certain transnational elite in business, and elite that includes cadres within African governments. It is my argument that international aid is indeed a distraction from what matters, developmentally speaking.


Unpacking aid

Before I make this argument in more specific terms, I should consider the other main facets of the research on international aid to avoid being accused of attacking a straw person. Aid is dedicated to many different purposes, each of which has different stylisations of cause and effect. The most direct and convincing cause-effect process relates to humanitarian aid in which extremely time-sensitive provisions of survival resource can save thousands of lives if properly funded and logistically organised. Social safety net aid is similar, for example supporting HIV orphans, victims of war, or aged single heads of household.

The next best example of direct causation is the funding of relatively simple social goods such as vaccinations, nutritional supplements, primary education, mosquito nets, water wells and so on. Bilateral aid and NGO programmes in these kinds of areas are often showcased to Western publics as evidence that their taxes or donations are well-spent.

But this is also where the connections between aid and development loosen. For example, some health, education, and livelihood aid goes into locally-specific projects but the majority goes into multi-agent and government-overseen social programmes so that the outcomes of aid-funded social provision are less easy to untangle. Government commitment, the number of donors, the modes of multi-agency work, and the relations between the state – which often implements – and recipient populations all matter a great deal. An outcome in terms of levels of vaccination or access to clean water can be celebrated of course, but knowing exactly what happened to generate the headline good news is less straightforward. In most cases, as long as the aid is connected to the good news story, the fine grain does not trouble anyone, at least publically. Everyone can own a good news story.

Moving beyond these relatively close connections, aid might be allocated to what might be called liberal social engineering aid. At the top of this list is microfinance, but also included would be conditional cash transfers, training and agricultural extension, and support for SMEs. I call these forms of aid liberal social engineering because they are based on a quite specific model of development which is that free markets and improved social capital generate socially-optimal growth. This kind of aid is disbursed in the expectation that they will improve capabilities and livelihood stability and assets to a degree that galvanises people to improve their own lives through the adoption of new technologies or the acquiring of productivity-enhancing skills. This then has positive-sum effects on economies more broadly.

Thus, these forms of aid are embedded in quite specific expectations of how modified individual agency aggregates to generate liberal social transitions towards a growing free market economy. It is therefore worrying that identifying these transitions elsewhere, currently or historically, is extremely difficult. And, because these forms of social engineering are obviously political and socially-ambitious interventions, they have attracted a range of critical analyses: aid as a way to make societies in the image of Western ideals, aid to make people more resilient to an increasingly unstable global capitalism, aid to reinscribe gendered social identities upon men and women, aid to re-legitimise a global neoliberal project. The tension suggested in all of these critical analyses is found amidst the tendencies of aid to discipline and incentivise. It also raises questions about the plurality of states and cultures and the extent to which increasingly intimate interventions in societies is at heart a particularly full-blooded attempt to homogenise the world’s cultural diversity and national self-determination into a liberal capitalist universalism. Most recently, informed by the policy metaphor of ‘the nudge’ and the increasing openness to socio-psychological framings, even the cognitive and decision-making processes of the brain are open to aid-motivated discussions. This is why, for some, the most revealing aspect of aid-driven social engineering is its re-articulation of colonial discourses about custodianship, demonstration effects, a cloying paternalism, and in some degree a construction of racialised social distinctions.

Moving into an even broader facet of aid, we have governance. The use of aid to promote and incentivise institutional change, new policies and programmes, innovative technologies of governance, and legislation often makes up the bulk of aid allocation, especially in poor countries with small economies, highly aid-dependent budgets, and sector-wide or budgetary support mechanisms. In these countries, it is not exaggeration to say that, at a basic financial level, the state is reproduced through aid.

The rolling out of ‘good governance’ as the major overarching orientation for ODA has been extremely contentious and there remains no clear sense of a model of intervention, a clear success story, or any kind of robust causative account of how the modification of state structures through governance aid generates strong developmental responses. A great many proxy indicators are used in comparative aggregates to make implications about the effective use of governance aid, but country case studies often reveal how good governance is observed in the letter and breached in substance. The rolling out of new liberal governance programmes has not generated a strong developmental effect, although short-term infusions of aid money and reform can have some temporary positive effects. Furthermore – as with social engineering – governance aid raises considerable questions about the nature of sovereignty and the power of external actors, especially when connected to democratisation and human rights.

It is within governance aid that the connections between allocating resources and developmental outcomes most strongly derive from faith. The governance project is embedded in expectations about the effects of public institutions on the economy and the dynamics of interaction between state and society. The model is strongly embedded in a set of ideas about governance that derive from Western liberal theory: of contracts, checks and balances, synergies between a free market economy and a minimal but effective state, and of political neutrality or technocracy.

This latter point about theories of social change and development raises questions about development that go beyond the aid agenda. And, in doing so, it brings us to consider the prospects for development in Africa in ways that do not derive from the liberal aid paradigm. But before we address those, I want to recap on my assessment of international aid and the SDGs.

My argument is that the SDGs are best understood, at least politically, as an iteration on something that is intrinsic to the epistemic community of international development aid: the setting out of broad encompassing development visions within which appeals to and innovations in aid amongst a variety of aid agencies can be curated and co-ordinated. This, I argue, is the primary function of the SDGs, to an extent that, exactly like many other global aid initiatives, their success is largely irrelevant as long as programmes and lessons learned narratives can be reconstructed in a fashion that maintains what one might call the aid hegemony. The aid hegemony relies on this prospective optimism and a fundamental connection between what we call development and international aid. The more tightly these two are conflated, the more robust aid discourse looks.

I briefly explored how this connection is in fact weak and multiplex. It relies on a set of implications, generalisations, and faith statements about the ways in which aid works, the ways in which societies change as a result of aid interventions, and most boldly the ways in which all humans, societies, and states function. Although endeavours towards more and better aid matter, they are situated within a primary project to reproduce aid itself and in doing so, these endeavours at least in part cantone discussions about development within the aid paradigm.

Which is surely significant when one bears in mind that the bulk of mass poverty reduction in the present-day and the historic cases of development success have taken place by and large outside of the aid paradigm. There is a huge literature accounting for the major periods of growth, socio-economic transformation, and improvements in mass welfare within the world’s richest countries. What none of them identify as a key cross-comparative factor is more and better aid, with the partial and not uncomplicated exception on South Korea. Major poverty reduction processes seem to have emerged as a result of high rates of industrial growth accompanied by technological upgrading. Between the late 1970s and the mid 1990s, China’s industrial workforce increased from 95m to 149m. The World Bank estimates that between 1979 and the early 2000s, 400m have been lifted above the income poverty threshold of $1.25 per day. Other major centres of poverty reduction are located throughout southeast Asia and South America and are based not in more and better aid but changes in agriculture and industry, accompanied by varyingly effective programmes of state-led social provision. The two world-regions in which mass poverty persists are South Asia and Africa, those very places where the aid-development connection remains. In fact, it is implicit in aid discourse that the zones of concern are exactly these two regions. One might reasonably ask if the global project is a solution to mass poverty and a lack of development or a symptom of its absence. In other words, international aid remains most pertinent in zones of mass poverty whilst accounts of mass poverty reduction are concerned with processes largely unrelated to more and better aid. This state of affairs surely draws attention towards a decoupling of aid and development and a more open exploration of those general processes which seem to drive major poverty reduction processes. In a sense, if international aid is structured as an endless endeavour, one might even define effective development as escaping from aid as much as having more of it in new and improved forms.


Beyond the liberal paradigm

So, what sorts of issues emerge if we think of development in Africa beyond aid? Most obviously, there is the immense challenge of creating the social conditions that make capitalist transformation possible. This is a fundamental concern in political economy, combining modelling of state and economic structure, focusing on the inter-relations between changes in property rights, accumulation, investment, and wage labour, each and all inextricably interlinked into the nature of the state – its ideology, institutional form, social base, and historical legacies. There seems to be a partially-elusive charmed circle in which enough aspects of transition work together rather than against each other in ways that are flexible in the medium term and – through luck or design – roughly fit with broader global patterns of investment and trade. Development in this sense is a major socio-economic transformation in which productivity, wage employment, tax revenues, and social provision all increase over a period of at least a decade. It is both difficult, rare, risky, and subject to major constrains within the international political economy. But, that is where the concern with mass poverty alleviation centrally lies.

And, there is a connection with these concerns in some African countries in a way that was not the case in the 1980s and 1990s. Angola, Ghana, and Nigeria have been growing rapidly and with slight success, developing legal and institutions forms to enhance local content and technological or skills upgrading. Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda all have governments based in ideologies which contain within them a ‘developmentalist’ tendency, one that has led each of these countries to identify national sectors for support, to lay out major strategic infrastructural investments often with money from China or through the mobilisation of savings or bond issues.

But these are examples of a possibility, perhaps a tendency. In terms of data on economic complexity, apart from South Africa, economies remain relatively undifferentiated and in some cases remarkably similar to the kinds of economies violently forged by colonial projects. In these modest and difficult contexts, what sorts of research or political discussion might be most context-appropriate, bearing in mind that we have now located the more and better aid framework at the margins? Here, I will sketch basic co-ordinates.


Researching development in Africa

  1. Firstly, there is the orientation and politics of research. It is no exaggeration to say that the aid agendas articulated by major Western governments have increasingly defined the way research is formulated as a result of the strategic goals of funding departments within states, many IGOs and funding councils. Research is problem-solving, explicitly connected to agendas set by funders, and procedurally locked into a set of stakeholders whose primary stake is not in ensuring the highest quality research but rather evidence and modelling that push the aid project forward. This means that time and resource for development research in Western academies is constrained. It might be worked out of independent research time and seen as low impact if it does not speak to some network of aid practitioners.

My point here is to identify a direction of travel, not to argue that there is a concerted shutting down of pluralism in development research. And, in some instances – but they are instances – unorthodoxies can attract substantial funding. Nevertheless, there is a direction of travel here. What it does not encourage is research in areas that might be more focused on the kinds of transformation I characterised earlier as the best hope that development might generate mass eradication of poverty.

Detailed country research tends to be limited by a desire for multi-case research oriented towards the construction of models. The methodological turn towards large-n data and massive datasets amenable to software analysis is also part of this direction of travel. One facet of this is a broader methodological shift towards this traditions of modern economics.

There is less political economy of development in its more heterodox and detailed sense. A tradition that might draw on ethnography, structural economics, situated in country-specific historiography, sociologies of class formation. There used to be more of this. Now this work tends to be in ‘area studies’, a nomenclature explicitly post-colonial and without any identifier except a vague Orientalism.

I have encountered a version of the distinction I have stylised in those countries I have spent time in. In Mozambique when I researched there, there few Western scholars and the intellectual culture was trans-disciplinary, embedded, sometimes parochial. The work that derived from this group was empirically rich, nuanced, historically-situated. After the late 1990s, Mozambique became one of the most aid-dependent countries in the world and a great raft of aid-commissioned research swept into Mozambique. The research questions focussed on policy-based lending, legal reform, land tenure reform, capacity building, the functionality of multi-partyism… in essence a set of aid-driven problems precisely of the kind I characterised earlier. And, the work was very clearly quick, shallow, intellectually slipshod, oriented towards the donor’s global aid vision at the time. My impression from Tanzania and Rwanda which I know in less detail is that research has generally shifted in a similar fashion; indeed it seems especially sharp and polarised in Rwanda’s case in regards to agriculture. Research centres and cadres within ministries and QUANGOs, with donor funding, orient their visions and aims towards the agendas of donors, sending out researchers for ‘quick and dirty’ data gathering to address problem-solving frameworks, feeding into workshops, reports, and policy documents all funded by donors.

The case for slower, context-specific, inductive research into well-specified inquiries that relate to the conditions of possibility for capitalist transformation, its class dynamics, its sectoral focus, its contradictions, ideologies, power struggles, its messy politics… all of this is what matters most; but this is a remit under siege.

  1. One important corollary of the kind of approach I am sketching here is a shift in what one might characterise as the attitude of research. This is a shift from heroic and big picture research towards modest and inductive research. If one looks at the ways large grant-funded development research projects present themselves, it strikes me a rather ludicrous, often based in claims to be seeking to solve major world problems, often referred to as challenges. It might seem harsh to use the word ludicrous if it wasn’t for the plain fact that research – good or bad, scantily or ostentatiously funded – does not make the world in its image. In fact, the impact of research is slender, partly contingent, and chancey. Impact might be defined through workshops, mentions of research in reform discourse, some formalised shifting from one agenda to another. But, much like aid more generally, the tracing of causative processes is far less obvious.

When research is presented as ground-breaking and high-impact one cannot help but wonder how emaciated an understand the research has about the institutions, structures, cultures, and norms embodied in the targets of the research-informed aid interventions. It is something of an understatement to say that models and ideas that emanate from international research weaken radically as they encounter the states, social groups, complex and differentiated social terrains, institutional barriers or aporia that collectively make up the reality of a country’s development possibilities.

This, it is important to get a sense of proportionality, a sense difficult to achieve within aid-driven research where the tenor is often heroic. International donor-driven research is often an intervention; it encounters what Homi Bhabha called ‘sly civility’ in which acceptance of an aid initiative is accompanied by all manner of other political repertoires. It faces all manner of African agencies, from resistance to purposeful ignorance, from weapons of the weak to veranda politics. Research cannot change societies, all the more so when the research is in some fashion bound up in a Western globalisation intervening in spaces well-accustomed to strategies of extraversion.

Perhaps the first question for any development research from the West is: what, if anything, can we reasonably find out and what, if anything, might it contribute to? To situate these questions in contextualised research questions focussed in a transdiscplinary political economy might just make a difference.


  1. Development research is political. Many constraints on development are authored or underpinned by the actions of powerful capitalist states. Because these states fund so much research, there is a structurally-established ideological stricture in the aid-research nexus. Western states are ideologically articulated as ‘donors’, with all the normative warmth that this implies. One might play this stricture by speaking the language of funders and also the language of an independent academic. But, this is in part already to have lost something in the endeavour to speak truth to power. How can one generate a holistic critique of the rising tendency for ODA to go to private companies without some independence from donors? How might one explore associations between aid and militarisation and securitisation when working within the aid-research nexus? How can one integrate rights and development considerations frontally rather than contingently? One can do these things but, again, I think the direction of travel is against this, and making systemic critiques of Western global governance or connections between development and supposedly more ‘political’ and separate things like security and rights is difficult and temptingly easier to depoliticise into institutionalist-talk.


  1. Fourthly and finally, development research might be more open to detailed and less liberal understandings of how development happens. Again, drawing from the actual history of development and poverty reduction, one cannot escape the general fact that development does not happen through rights-enhancing, positive-sum, openly competitive social relations in which states intervene minimally to ensure rule of law and fair play. This is, to put it plainly, a liberal fantasy. It hardly makes for a good premise to understand the strategic and political challenges facing African states or other agencies that wish to promote capitalist transformations to bolster growth and mass poverty reduction.

It is intellectually impossible for the aid-research nexus to encompass the possibility of coercion, major state intervention, partiality, protectionism, and conflict in its models simply because aid is based on the notion that, with the right external help, poor countries can achieve a development based in just, open, non-coercive processes. This is a cornerstone of its legitimacy claim.

What more historically and empirically situated research might do is look in more sophisticated ways at the relation between the normative and the transformative, in others words how the aspirations one might have for good development reconcile with the ever-present and inescapable tendencies for development to be in some degree bound up into authoritarian state practice.

So far, this encounter between the normative and transformative has been only addressed in rudimentary ways. Some suppose the coercive actions of states are external or contingent to good development programmes; some assume that human rights or democracy matter a priori more than the material challenges of promoting growth and transformation; some assume that good development is by definition about the expansion of rights.

I would argue that there is a need to disaggregate different forms of authoritarian state action, to look more closely at the social dynamics of resistance or adaptation to those practices, to explore how specific forms of force and command are composed by different aspects of development policy, to look at how these variegated dynamics and historically produced and how they are changing. Ultimately – and without wanting in any way to make a consequentialist argument – a great many substantial achievements in political representation, democracy, and rights emerged precisely through these intrinsically political social transitions towards capitalist development – not through the conditioning of aid on the adoption of multi-partyism.


To sum up my argument. The SDGs are the latest innovation in an aid tradition in which there is constant improvement in a never-ending project. The developmental outcomes of aid are certainly real but they have quite self-evidently been limited in their ability to promote the kind of major transformations that draw tens of millions of people out of poverty through transformations in economic productivity. If one wishes to take making poverty history seriously, one needs to look at the conditions of possibility for a developmental capitalism and this is a topic that does not involve more and better aid but rather an understanding of the patterns of accumulation, state strategy, class formation, and the articulation of national projects to a global political economy. The aid-research nexus has not destroyed this kind of research agenda but it has certainly established an adverse context for it, and this is a significant problem. There are some co-ordinates for a development research agenda which, although hardly original, would repay more work. These relate to more modest, situated, nuanced research into the social relations of production, research that agonistically understands that coercions of various kinds are a major tendency in transformative projects. It also means being more independently minded about the nature of Western state power than is allowed by the aid paradigm in which Western states are synonymous with ‘donors’.

None of this solves a problem, or sets out a grand alternative model of procedure. And that is the point. The prospects for development in any African country are slender at the moment but reside very centrally in the agencies and political dynamics of that country. The collective political agencies of Africans and their political expression and contestation will, ultimately, matter a great deal more than the SDGs.

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