PRSPs: ‘Political space’ at whose expense?

12 September 2003

The four years of experience with Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) have resulted in countless reports and seminars discussing the merits of this new development vehicle. Some questioned from the start the capacity and willingness of donors to devolve control over economic and social policies of ‘developing’ countries (see Comment). There is a belief that while PRSPs have only departed from previous programmes in their increased emphasis on social spending, they are nonetheless a worthwhile exercise because of the unprecedented ‘political space’ they have opened for local NGOs to participate in designing public policies.

But increasingly commentators argue that not only do PRSPs not widen the range of policy options from which governments can choose, they have the potential to hamper or undermine existing democratic structures, and consolidate the hegemony of creditors’ interests in the development policy arena. This is well argued in two recent papers, Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers: a New Convergence by Craig and Porter and Merging in the Circle, the Politics of Tanzania’s Poverty Reduction Strategy by Gould and Ojanen.

‘Development without enemies’: PRSPs as a technocratic, depoliticised mode of governance

As noted by Craig and Porter, an academic and an official at the Asian Development Bank, PRSPs tend to ignore power issues and the political economy of poverty and inequality. They are the result of a broad consensus at the international and national level that combines economic integration, good governance and investment in human capital, a “Third-Way remorphing of neo-liberal approaches”. A sign of this growing consensus is perhaps that when new governments come into power, they do not feel the need to revise their PRSP. Interestingly the supposed universal applicability of the PRSP approach to all countries contradicts pronouncements by the World Bank and the IMF that one-size-fits-all approaches do not work.

PRSPs are an attempt to generate a level of global to local integration unprecedented since colonial times.

Craig and Porter argue that PRSPs are best seen as “‘inclusive’ liberal approaches held together and legitimated by […] apparently apolitical catchwords like participation, partnership, and community”. In effect they consider the emerging convergence in policies for poverty reduction as “an attempt to generate a level of global to local integration, discipline and technical management of marginal economies, governance and populations unprecedented since colonial times”.

Gould and Ojanen, in their paper for the University of Helsinki, agree that PRSPs reflect a “depoliticised mode of technocratic governance”, in accordance with a tradition in the development industry of “effecting far-reaching political solutions via technocratic measures”. Their case study of Tanzania found that the PRSP resulted from a partnership between a core group of players (an ‘iron triangle’ of donors, state and non-state actors forming a “transnational policy elite”) who share a narrow social and ideological background. This includes lifestyle and vocabulary, but also a commitment to “‘managerialism’ (a faith in the expertise of the professionalized ‘new public manager’ to achieve optimal policy outcomes) and ‘budgetism’ (a faith that the optimal allocation of public resources through official budgetary mechanisms constitutes the government’s main tool for addressing social issues)”. Aid industry efforts to build capacity of public institutions in Tanzania create a”a corps of depoliticised budgetists” who “have made a survival strategy of adapting themselves to the roller-coaster ride of donor whims”. In this context the PRSP has “deteriorated into an exercise of ‘budgetism’, rather than a genuine consideration of the various policy alternatives available to Tanzania”.

The ‘consultative imperative’: opening space for whom?

Many NGOs argue that while PRSPs are not perfect and the core macroeconomic framework remains untouched, at least the new framework has created political space for local civil society actors, often pushing them to get better organized to influence political processes in their country. The assumption therefore seems to be that PRSPs can reinforce democracy and offer opportunities for the poor to get their voice heard (if not translated into core policy priorities), with NGOs playing the role of facilitators.

However a number of critics have questioned how the space opened has been filled, at what cost, and at whose expense. David Brown, of the UK’s Overseas Development Institute, argues that the discretionary element inherent in this model of participation can create a “quiescent form of representation, for there are no entitlements. On the one hand, those who continue to be excluded under the discretionary arrangements have no legal right to demand representation. On the other, those who are included will be put under pressure to accept whatever they are offered, on the grounds that, as supplicants, they could have received much less”. This can be at the expense of democratic structures that are bypassed, often because they are considered corrupt or inefficient, as opposed to capable technocrats of the ‘iron triangle’ described in the case of Tanzania.

Despite pronouncements by the Bank and the IMF that legislators should be more involved in PRSPs, Gould and Ojanen argue that in the new consultative mode of development policy formulation, “the dominance of the public policy arena by a narrow corps of transnational development professionals occludes the possibility of deepening democratic oversight”. Representative democratic structures (imperfect as they might be) are bypassed, but structures of clientelism are left intact. In what becomes in effect a ‘fast-track democracy’, “legitimacy of post-SAP policies is being sought through the establishment of direct channels of communications” with NGOs used as brokers to bring ‘the poor’ directly into the policy arena.

The actors who capitalize the most on the political space opened by the ‘consultative imperative’ opened by PRSPs are not necessarily domestic actors but rather international NGOs, whose “well-resourced, highly professional exponents of ‘global civil society’ have managed, by entering into an opportunistic albeit tense alliance with public bi- and multilateral aid agencies, to co-opt the narrow political space precariously occupied by those few domestic actors”. However the authors also argue that “far from conspiring to capture political space for its own sake, transnational private aid agencies would prefer to see domestic actors taking the lead”.

The incredible amount of ink and paper used to discuss the merits of PRSPs shows the unease of NGOs and academics with the recycling of the concept of participation by the World Bank and the IMF. This in turn has led to the emergence of the concept of participation as the “new tyranny”. At the very least these studies show that participation is no panacea and may be a distraction or worse in the context of the steep hierarchies that operate within developing countries and the aid industry.