default Political Settlements: Implications for International Development Policy and Practice

Author: Thomas Parks and William Cole
Institution: Asia Foundation
Publication Date: July 2010
Keywords: Political Settlements, Conflict, Governance, Peace Processes, Peacebuilding


There is growing recognition that “aid effectiveness” reforms, which focus on operational-level issues such as improving management, evaluation and project design, are failing to engage with underlying political dynamics that prevent real change in conflict and fragile situations. The line of thinking developed in this report is that a key reason behind this failing is that the roles of powerful actors who use their influence to prevent change are not being adequately addressed in aid programmes.

The political settlements framework which presented in this report provides an alternative approach to addressing this problem. The framework places power and political interests at the centre of the development process. This has a number of practical implications which are discussed for how external actors – whether they are working on political, economic or security issues – conceptualise, plan and deliver aid.

Key Issues:

The notion of political settlements is defined (p. 5) as an “expression of common understanding, usually forged between elites, about how power is organised and exercised”. Rather than being associated with a particular event, such as a peace agreement, political settlements are understood as agreements among powerful actors which evolve over time and are constantly subject to re-negotiation and contestation. In conflict-affected and fragile regions, political settlements are often the primary factor determining the success or failure of state-building and peacebuilding – and hence, need to be understood by aid actors.

The authors suggest that the political settlements framework (pp. 6-20) can be helpful in understanding where change may be possible in certain areas, and why it may be difficult in others. Central to this framework is the notion of power, which is the ability of one actor to prevail in conflicts over others, the way that the interests of different actors are aligned, and the factors which may contribute to shifts in these interests over time and, therefore, to changes in elite behaviour that are more conducive to development outcomes.

For donors interested in influencing political settlements, the report identifies four areas (pp. 21-24) where more concerted attention and greater investment of resources may help to drive positive change: these are stability, conduciveness to development, inclusiveness and reducing the level of elite predation. But as the report underscores, it is rarely possible to pursue all four goals at the same time: movement towards one may undermine progress towards another, at least in the short term. This makes it necessary for aid actors to understand the trade-offs involved in seeking to influence political settlements, and to prioritise among the different drivers of change.

An important concern raised by the report relates to the legitimacy of external actors seeking to influence the political affairs of sovereign states (pp. 25-26).  In light of these concerns, the report identifies a number of practical approaches that may allow donors to have a positive influence on political settlements without damaging relations with recipient governments (pp. 27-42). The report concludes that while these approaches can result in more politically-informed aid distribution, influencing political settlements in any fundamental way remains extremely difficult.

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