default Introducing Political Settlements

Author: Eric Gutierrez
Institution: Christian Aid
Publication Date: March 2011
Keywords: Political Settlements, Conflict, Gender, Governance, Peacebuilding


This paper makes a case for a political settlements approach to ending poverty. A growing number of donors now recognise the importance of politics in shaping reform processes. But as the paper argues, there is still a failure to develop an operational agenda to improve governance that accounts for this reality. The paper discusses key limitations of conventional “good governance” approaches which have informed donor assistance activities. It then suggests some ways in which a political settlements approach can be incorporated in policy and programme work.

Key Issues:

The basic limitation of good governance approaches, the paper argues, is that there exist powerful elites in all countries who are in a position to thwart efforts to strengthen weak institutions through technical assistance or capacity building if they do not approve of these reforms. The roles of these elites – referred to as the “elephants in the room” - are typically ignored or downplayed in development analysis. The paper argues that there is a need to acknowledge not only their existence, but also their interests. They then need to be bargained with to achieve outcomes which are more consistent with growth and development.

The paper maps out the limitations of conventional good governance thinking (p. 5-8), particularly as relates to dealing with corruption. At root is the tendency to interpret local political realities through a western model and a failure to understand the nuances of each context. This results in a “blue-print” approach which seeks to bridge the gap between that model and developing country realities. In so doing, this approach minimises the difficulties elites face in addressing corruption, but also the fact that political competition in many countries, by its very nature, requires the mobilisation of resources through corrupting activities.

While the paper acknowledges that most donors recognise the limitations of “blue-print” approaches, it argues that most donor governance activities are still based on technocratic reforms. These do not engage with the need to find ways of aligning the interests of elites with broader public interests. Accordingly, it suggests that the policy question needs to be reframed so as to put greater emphasis on building “impersonal” government systems (pp. 9-11) that deliver services based on rights and entitlements rather than citizens’ connections and social standing.

To this end, the paper suggest that a political-settlements approach can enable conflicting social groups and elites to find common ground in ways which can maintain political stability and enhance prospects for development. For donors who want to support political settlements but are concerned about political interference, several principles for targeting aid are discussed (p. 14):

• Rather than seeking to undermine political settlements which are considered problematic, influence should be on encouraging a positive evolution, including greater inclusion, stability and a reduction in elite predation.

• There should be a long-term focus on building an inclusive, stable and pro-development settlement, recognising that there may be trade-offs in the short-term.

• Influence should be exerted through legal and transparent means, such as development assistance.

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