Archive for the ‘Theory and Practice’ Category

Where should foreign aid go?

The latest World Development Report, the flagship annual publication of the World Bank, proposes that from now on, a much bigger proportion of foreign aid should focus on issues of political conflict and justice.

This might seem natural, given all the wars, violence, terrorism, and displacement around. And political considerations have always influenced aid.

But putting political risk as the central purpose of aid is a sea change.

When the World Bank and other Bretton Woods institutions came about after the Second World War, the initial focus of multilateral aid was infrastructure. After Europe was rebuilt, attention shifted to the “Third World” under the guise of development.

This aid, all the way through the 1980s, strengthened the state much more than the society. There were two reasons for this. First, the Cold War meant that much of multilateral aid really went to prop allies and their offices, even if they were corrupt and brutal dictators. Second, the entire “development project” pushed by the West saw the state as the key dispenser of “development,” be it the provision of healthcare or education or employment.

In the 1990s, large states crumbled under people power, from Berlin to Manila, and donors shifted to the private provision of development. Human development, highlighting individual empowerment, took the scene; NGOs like Brac and Grameen expanded.

The 2000s saw an intensification of the privatization of development to a new level. “Development” was to be achieved through globalization, i.e., foreign trade and investment [1]. This was trickle-down at a world-scale: the state became detached from both planning and provision. Development goals were planned at the international level, and the grand blueprint was set by the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

In this approach, although implementation was said to be national, the state’s role was mainly at the regulatory level: open up borders and promote an environment conducive to free global enterprise. India in the last decade was the poster child of this approach.

Now we’re back to the future. On the one hand, if conflict is the focus, then multilateral aid will become as political as it was in the height of the Cold War. Even though the potential exists for aid to be distributed on a non-partisan basis to the most conflict-prone parts of the world, history squarely contradicts that promise. Most recently, aid was suspended in Ivory Coast, as a way to punish the autocrat Gbagbo, even though a bloody civil war was raging in the country. The dispensing of aid on political grounds will never be easy.

On the other hand, a conflict focus reinforces the neoliberal idea of development as a global private enterprise. Aid will aim to bring political peace. Once that happens, the hope is that all else will fall in place: MDGs will determine overall targets, the state will (de)regulate to allow private trade and investment to flourish, and development will be the by-product of growth.

The overall logic of conflict and security makes sense. Neither state-led nor private-led development can take place under high political risk. A main challenge will be to ensure that aid is non-political, even though aimed at politically combustive situations. Over the next few blog posts, I will discuss some of the specific challenges and opportunities of targeting foreign aid at reducing political risk.

1. Philip McMichael discusses this changeover from development to globalization in Development and Social Change: A Global Perspective (Pine Forge Press, 2007). Highly recommended.


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The US House of Representatives has just conducted hearings on “The Extent of Radicalization in the Muslim Community and That Community’s Response.” The overall premise of the hearings is directly relevant to the subject matter of this blog: local risks posed by the globalization of trends, or in this case, the globalization of extremist concepts.

The hearings were criticized on many levels, including racial profiling, persecution and vilification. The credentials of the chairman, Peter King, have also come under fierce criticism, including his well-known knee-jerk aversion to Muslims. (I call it “knee-jerk” because it is not based on evidence and analysis, but simple assumptions .) 

But my topic of interest here is risk analysis. Radicalization of Muslims was assumed to pose threat to society, and I hoped that the hearings might shed light on that. But after having followed the hearings, I shudder to say: if this represents the standard of risk assessment by the vaunted Committee on Homeland Security, then we have a lot to feel insecure about.

They hearings were one-sided; no “expert” respected by both aisles was invited. They dealt with loose anecdotes. They did not provide, nor methodically analyze, actual data and overall trends, from which one can make an informed and intelligent assessment and forecast. In the end, they were, as James Zogby noted, a “shameful” waste of public resources.

But, the hearings got wide support from the political right. Why? Over the last decade, low-quality media commentary, violent images, and existing prejudices have together created an environment where the word “Islam” automatically connotes high risk to many. No analysis needs to be done; it’s a foregone conclusion that Muslims pose political and security risks.

I’m not just claiming that. There’s ample poll data to show how attitudes toward Muslims have evolved, especially on the political right. But instead of becoming better informed about the true risks, the political right has become ill-informed about the supposed risks, and prone to replace analysis with reactionary judgements. My recent article in The Huffington Post, “The Congressional Hearings That Are Really Needed,” talks about this problem.

The article argues, in sum, that a divergence has happened in America. On one hand, Muslims in America have become more integrated, both in terms of wealth and attitudes, into the mainstream than Muslims in other Western countries. On the other hand, the deteriorating quality of US media has made the majority believe that the opposite is true. What’s really needed are Congressional investigations of these two trends, because that, not wholesale radicalization, is what’s happening in reality. And you can’t do risk analysis without first basing it on real-world trends.

Read the full article here. Comments, feedback, sharing, as always, are welcome.

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The revolts on the Arab street have occasioned a renewed interest in the measurement of political risk. And businesses are paying greater attention to political risk analysis. Both are good news. But is it just passing interest, or will this result in real innovations in risk analysis?

Typically, business analyses of political risk have involved a blend of political indices, such as those provided by Freedom House or the Heritage Foundation or the World Bank, with qualitative analysis focused on specific industries. While informative, these dwell on past and ongoing trends and events, which are then extended to forecast the future.

What has lacked is real understanding of theory. Without it, we cannot understand causality, and without knowing “why men rebel” (the title of a classic political science book), we really cannot understand the risk of rebellion and upheaval, let alone forecast it.

The point of departure of risk analysis, therefore, should be theory, especially theories of revolution. This is where political scientists, and social scientists in general, can make a real contribution to a field dominated by actuaries and financial forecasters. 

In this effort, The Economist made excellent inroads recently. Its humorous-but-apt “Shoe-Thrower’s Index” begins with theory, then garners related indicators, and then produces a risk-ordered list of countries in the Middle East. It’s not complete, but it’s a great start.

The Shoe-Thrower’s Index identifies several factors as causal in the chain of rebellion. All these are established by the social sciences. It then attaches different weights to the factors, as shown in the table.

The higher the total for a given country, the greater its risk of political instability. According to this, Yemen, with a score of over 80, is the riskiest country in the region. Next are Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, all with scores of over 60. UAE, Kuwait, and Qatar are at the lower end of the spectrum.

There are two main weaknesses in this index. First, as The Economist itself admits, it discards factors that are “hard to quantify,” including unemployment information because they’re not comparable across the countries in the region. This quantitative bias is typical of many risk approaches. More qualitative factors such as ideological motivation or support (such as between Islamism or secularism), leanings of leaders (such as between non-violence or violence), leanings of the armed forces, control over governmental employees, and ideas of justice/injustice are important predictors of not just the occurrence of instability but the duration and extent of it.

The Economist also overlooks the fact that some of the indices it uses as sources of quantitative data, such as those of corruption or democracy, are really qualitative information, drawn from people’s subjective perceptions or opinions. These are merely disguised and presented as quantitative data by attaching numbers to survey responses. Pronouncing a flat-out preference for quantitative data, therefore, is misleading.

The second important factor, which can be both quantitiative and qualitative, not included in the index is “resources.” Political scientists have shown that revolts, and specifically democracy movements, are critically dependent on organizational, technological, and infrastructural resources available to protesters. Simply put, without access to technology, such as Twitter, Facebook, or satellite TV channels, all the other “factors” may not have produced the type of instability that is sweeping through the region. Resources allow isolated show-throwing to snowball into concerted political upheaval.

In any case, the type of risk-indexing exercise that The Economist undertook is definitely a solid step in the right direction. To further improve our understanding of political risk, we need to start weighing in additional qualitiative factors.

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This article describes step 2 of 4 of the South Asia Political Forecast project. The 4 step method is described in the previous post. In the first step, I discussed the baseline for the forecast, identifying the current state of democracy in South Asia. In this step, I draw from theory to identify factors that influence the strengthening of democracy in general.

The baseline indicated strong support for democracy despite weak performance. But we cannot assume that democracy will continue by default. A significant share of the population is open to alternatives, such as “strong leaders” or “military rule”, even while they support democracy (Ref 1). So we need to find predictors of democratic strengthening.

What strengthens democracy?

Among the many factors debated in the literature on democratic consolidation, a general consensus exists around only three:

  • Income and wealth levels are positively correlated to democratic strengthening (Income inequality, however, is negatively correlated)
  • Economic growth is positively correlated to democratic strengthening
  • Literacy rates and education level are positively correlated to democratic strengthening

The combined positive influence of these factors was theorized in a famous 1959 paper by Seymour Martin Lipset. Lipset considered these factors inter-related and termed them together as “the economic development complex.” Subsequent cross-national studies have generally held these relationships as valid. (These are cited in the full report.)

The most recent survey of South Asia, in this vein, found that formal education is the single biggest factor in determining support for democracy. “In South Asia, someone with a graduate degree is seven times more likely to support democracy than is a nonliterate person” (Ref 1, 92).

Another strain of research focuses on cultural factors: History as a former British colony (as opposed to say, French colony) and penetration of the English language have been correlated with democratic viability. Diversity may also help, especially because minorities in any given area are stronger promoters of democracy.

Forces extraneous to South Asia may constrain region-wide democratic politics. The political environment of the neighborhood (e.g., China, Iran, Southeast Asia) affects longer-term democratic consolidation, due to both geopolitics and the so-called “contagion effect”. (The most famous example of this effect was in Eastern Europe, where the fall of communism in one country affected others almost like dominoes.)

In addition, we need to consider spillovers from international terrorism, American foreign policy, and, very significantly, climate change.

Next step

All these influences on democratic strengthening are derived from theory and past data, which are predictors but do not form a forecast. The next step is to organize these predictors to form a forecast, in which variables are prioritized by risk. In doing so, the next post will introduce relative certainties and uncertainties.

Note: I’m using these posts to summarize my lengthier analysis. The references below reflect only this summary.

Ref 1. deSouza, Peter R., Suhas Palshikar, and Yogendra Yadav. “The Democracy Barometers: Surveying South Asia.” Journal of Democracy 19/1 (January 2008): 84-96.

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I have completed the initial report on the future of democracy in South Asia, and submitted it to the Pardee Center. It will be reviewed by analysts and then discussed at a conference planned for the fall. Meanwhile, let me update you with highlights of the forecast. (And thank you for your earlier feedback; you are acknowledged in the report.)


I followed a four-step political risk forecasting process:

  1. Define baseline: What is the current state of democracy in South Asia?
  2. Detect first-order trends: What factors influence (drawing from theory) the strengthening of democracy in general?
  3. Identify certainties and uncertainties: Which of these factors are relatively certain to exist in fifty years? Which of these are uncertain?
  4. Construct scenarios: What are the likely combinations of the main certainties and uncertainties? What are the risks and implications?

In this post, I will highlight some aspects of the baseline that I constructed for the report. Later posts will discuss subsequent steps.

Baseline for Political Forecast

Democracy is common and understood well as a system. In the past fifty years, the common platform across South Asia has been a Westminster-style parliamentary system. Challenges to this, either presidential (in Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Maldives), or military-autocratic (Bangladesh and Pakistan), or one-party rule (India and Maldives) have been temporary, which eventually gave way. Even monarchies (Nepal and Bhutan) have begun to move toward greater parliamentary legislation.

Governance is weak; political risks are high. The violation of civil and political liberties is widespread across the region. Corruption is common: South Asian countries have consistently ranked in the bottom half in the world’s corruption indices. Insurgency is significant: Af-Pak frontiers, Kashmir, Nepal, Sri Lanka (until recently), Bangladesh’s southeast, the Indian northeast, and more than a third of the rest of India. Terrorism has increased since the late 1990s. The states of South Asia have built large security forces, which makes civilian political leadership uncomfortable.

Political organization varies greatly. Political parties are organized to varying degrees of success, and often fall prey to cults of personality. Dynastic influence is high across the region. Most political parties are run in an authoritarian fashion. Some major parties are affiliated, directly or indirectly, with armed cadres to enforce strikes and carry out political violence.

Mass support for democracy is strong. Despite weak performance, citizens across South Asia voice strong support for democracy, according to most surveys conducted in the last two decades. The most recent region-wide survey shows that South Asians overwhelmingly favor the rule of “leaders elected by the people.” It reported that “For every one South Asian response that endorses dictatorship, there are six South Asian responses that prefer democracy” (deSouza et al 2008, 86). However, South Asians want to modify their democracy with stronger leadership, greater discipline, and greater respect for traditional values. This is an important point we will come back to at the end of the forecast.

Stay tuned for the next installment: first-order trends.

Cited reference: deSouza, Peter R., Suhas Palshikar, and Yogendra Yadav. “The Democracy Barometers: Surveying South Asia.” Journal of Democracy 19/1 (January 2008): 84-96. This paper summarizes the results of a large-N survey across South Asia.

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[Note: This post draws from my previous post, Future of Democracy in South Asia.]

Thank you everyone for a wonderful set of suggestions on the Future of Democracy in South Asia project. I thank I have an excellent set of variables and potential approaches. It’s time to begin categorizing these. Let me share some of my initial thoughts, based on your feedback.


I will take Martyna’s suggestion, and divide it into phases, because the outcome of the first phases will determine the path of the later years. But, for simplicity, I’ll keep it to two: the present till 2030, and then 2030-2060.

Relative Certainties

One of the key tasks in forecasting is to understand how past changes and continuities might translate into future uncertainties (and risks) and certainties. The foremost here is what Chris suggested: climate change. Past changes are relatively certain to have impact on migration, and put strain on, as Chris put it, “inclusive politics.” But the timeline of it is not certain yet … 30 years, 50 years, 100 years?

However, another change-related certainty is: food crisis. This will be due to the loss of arable land because of sea-level rise and/or himalayan glacial melting.

Continuity from the past, I think, will assure two other relative certainties: (1) increase in literacy levels. I think Lubna’s thesis is right on this (although I don’t know whether the education will be “secular” though; I think it will continue being more technical and less critical). (2) increase in per capita income across the region. Overall GDP, however, may get affected by the climate change situation.

Relative Uncertainties

The path of anything else other than these seems uncertain to me: size of army, nuclear weapon possession or even use, press freedom (Lubna’s point), human rights performance, external trade / GDP, ethno-nationalism (Denis’s point), terrorism, US role in the region (Murli’s point), or Middle East peace (Lubna’s point).

Of these, I think the path forward for ethno-nationalism is the most complex one to predict. Greater fragmentation might continue, because of regional/local collapses (e.g. warlordism), strains from climate change, reactions to terrorism, unequal economic growth (to wit: India’s northeast or the Naxalite insurgencies in its underbelly), or as a reaction to globalization.

On the other hand, common crises such as climate change or a limited nuclear war (heaven forbid) or common positive trends, such as region-wide economic growth and the establishment of a common market might reduce the political (not cultural) importance of ethnic groups.

Health improvements to me seemed a certainty at first. But sea-level rise and flooding could intensify the incidence of water-borne diseases.

I need to think more about the path of these trends, and the changes/continuities in specific actors that can affect these trends.

Cause-effect relationships

I like Martyna’s suggestion: first figure out, what do theories of democracy predict about the empirical cause-effect relationships, and then guess how the certainties and uncertainties might affect those relationships. The consolidation literature is indeterminate with regard to many of these variables, from trade, to terrorism, to economic growth. Some say they help strengthening of democracy and others say it is unclear. I’ll need to look more into this.

Lubna also makes a very interesting point that boundaries are bound to change anyway, so we might as well think about the region as a whole. (Makes it easier for me to rationalize the project.)

So, this is an initial attempt at categorizing some of the suggestions. Please let me know what other crucial variables I’m missing or anything else! Meanwhile, I’ll be doing some background research on some of these to provide the next iteration, so stay tuned.

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I have never used crowd-sourcing in my work. But I am beginning a project in which I think crowd-sourced insights would be particularly appropriate.

The Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer Range Future at Boston University has invited me to contribute to its South Asia 2060 Project. The goal of this project is to envision how South Asia, as a region, would look fifty years from now.

Within the team, my task is to predict the future of democracy in South Asia. I am to think about the region as a whole and not do the typical country-by-country analysis.

This introduces a couple of novelties. First, whether we remove the borders or not, “India” remains the big influence. Given its past democratic performance, will it be the source of stability or continuity in the region? Or, given that its foreign policy is really about realist competition, will its values subside in its external behavior?

Or, given the million mutinies going on — from Naxalite insurgencies, to the condition in the Northeast, to Kashmir, to Hindu fundamentalism in Maharashtra and Gujarat, to the large increases in economic inequality — will democracy be challenged significantly in the next 50 years?

Aside from what happens “internally” in India, the removal of borders from consideration means that other pan-regional forces or identities, such as ethnicity or religion, will come to the fore of the analysis. And movements of political risk and reward here are harder to predict.

Of course, this forecasting exercise will follow a structured method, which I have used in other projects, and which my graduate students are familiar with. We will identify the actors and trends, the axes of likely change and continuity, the relative certainties and uncertainties, and we will develop scenarios. But what should all these be?

So, here’s an open call to blue-sky this. Help me out, and help me think through this by putting forward what you see as the future, the movers, the shakers. What might democracy in South Asia look like in 50 years?

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