Thursday, May 20, 2010

Politics and human development: what's the link?

James Traub has a good article on some of the 'real' issues in Afghanistan: "The Obama administration needs to make up its mind: Is Ahmed Wali Karzai a menace or an asset?". Via a discussion of the Karzai rule and its familial ties, Traub draws out a crucial distinction:

"The [Obama] administration's Afghanistan strategy eschews George W. Bush's thunderous language of democracy promotion in favor of the more modest vocabulary of 'capacity-building.' But a legitimate government is not simply one that can deliver basic goods (though that matters a lot). Legitimacy means that power is at least minimally accountable, and that people believe they have some kind of voice in their own affairs. Kandaharis complain more bitterly about the rule of powerbrokers than they do about the lack of schools or even security."

Three points, one political, the other developmental - and the final one, about where the twain meet. The political: the nuts and bolts of contemporary warfare are located in the COIN doctrine (counter-insurgency as a whole of society approach). Migrated in bits and pieces from Iraq, in Afghanistan this has meant the full-range of interventions, from military (knocking Taliban out from Marjeh) to constructing roads, wells and mini-dams in an effort to win-over Afghan hearts and minds. As Traub argues, these NATO-led actions are fashioned to bolster the central government -- but if branches of the US administration (aka CIA) support warlords because of intelligence gains, then the politics of such a large-scale military apparatus are inherently self-defeating, like so many heads of a masochistic hydra.

The developmental point is a bit more complex, and has a pair of faces to it. Face one: human security. This conceptual framework was given birth in the 1994 Global Human Development Report, and is inherently tied to its fundamental precept: that 'human dignity' should be at the center -- in human security's case -- of international relations, displacing the bedrock notion itself of the "inter-national."

In terms of the operations of human security as a development discourse, there has been a failure on one striking count: an amnesiac disability to realize that great foe realism, is not a major social science perspective for nothing. That self-interest guides a great deal of behavior, from agents minimizing credit risk in econ 202, to the stalwart actors of the global scene, nation-states -- realism (in economics) can cover a lot of ground in explaining why the poor stay in poverty traps, and in IR theory, why Iran wants nukes - and equally why the US wants to stop them. To be sure, my Sen-ianism compels me to note that self-interest or utilitarian calculus do not cover all reasons for, say, donating parts of one's kidney to a complete stranger; and behavioral experiments prove the point that we're so driven by a sense of justice/equity that we will in fact cut off our noses to spite the face. Human security's main problem has been that it does not explain anything better than does realism.

The second developmental question with reference to Traub's essay is about a compelling refrain in human development-talk: providing basic services is key to reducing poverty and reasons for disaffection, and thus critical for dampening radicalization of disaffected youths. While not a human developmentalista per se, Paul Collier shares enough of the view to be spoken of in the same paragraph as the capabilities perspective. He's recently remarked on how instituting something like an Independent Service Authority -- which, opposed to current uncoordinated approaches, would band together government, civil society, private sector and donors to dish out aid for basic services -- can go a long ways towards giving jobs to young men. And it's this demographic that spins into violent insurgencies, not grandmothers.

The human development lens argues, on one hand, for the delivery of basic services for the intrinsic worth of bringing a human's potential into fruition. Lant Pritchett (via Blattman's blog) reminds us of this Aristotlean point, and one we shouldn't forget for Nussbaum's (a Greek classicist by training) involvement in developing the capability approach. On the other hand, making the other Kantian ethical argument, delivering basic services, per Collier, is also instrumental for taking insurgencies apart.

And this brings me to my third and main point: this Collier perspective is nearly as far as human development goes in getting political, that is, enmeshed in power plays as opposed to idle policy banter. The notions of democracy, human rights and the activation of citizenship are important for human development, but Oxfam has done more recently of really bringing the 'active citizen' dialogue out.

This leaves open an intricate problem: human development follows in much the same vein of conventional development-speak -- it inculcates an anti-political machinery to discuss grand designs like "freedom" a la Bush, capacity building viz. Obama, and much else. Analytical insights via a human security lens differ little from a realist explanation of a political problem. And human development solutions are virtually indistinguishable from your standard menu of economics-informed policy redactions.

Traub's conclusion -- "Afghanistan's problems are, at bottom, political. The solutions must be political. That's what it means to fight a counterinsurgency war" -- are spot on, and something like a human development perspective as currently formulated offers little in grasping or expanding these political processes.

But, just the same, it may be looking for inspiration where the need-not be found. Ultimately, however, this calls into question the significant conjectures that human development represents an entirely new paradigm for development.