Equity, Evaluation, and International Cooperation: In Pursuit of Proximate Peers in an African City

By Gabriella Y. Carolini

Introduction: From Rhetoric to Verdict on South–South Cooperation (excerpt)

The newspaper article sprawling over the desk of the Brazilian Vice Ambassador to Mozambique ran across two pages of print. Its title, in large, bold font, read: O NEOCOLONIALISMO BRASILEIRO EM MOÇAMBIQUE, or “Brazilian neocolonialism in Mozambique.” (1) The Vice Ambassador, Mr. Nei Bitencourt, had freshly arrived in the Mozambican capital Maputo following another high-ranking diplomatic appointment in Washington, D.C. (2) I was there to interview him about Brazil’s growing portfolio of cooperation projects with Mozambique in the urban landscape, and more widely its role as a global “model” of urban development reform. Clearly, however, I was not the only one interested in this subject. In his short time in Maputo, it seemed Mr. Bitencourt already had been fielding many questions about Brazil’s intentions in Africa, and more specifically in Mozambique.

Unsurprisingly, my interview with Bitencourt was a testament to this statesman’s political savvy and foreign-policy experience. He said all that a development idealist could hope to hear making intelligent, frank arguments about Brazilian motivations in Africa widely and in Mozambique especially. In Bitencourt’s telling, Brazil represented a harbinger of possibility, not a “model” of urban development (carefully correcting my terminology) and certainly not a neocolonial force. Instead, Brazil was something like a friend or relative of other developing countries. Importantly, this “relative” was one who intimately understood and wanted to help, but also made no attempt to disguise proprietary self-interests. Bitencourt juxtaposed this Southern community to what he called a more troubled historical relationship of hostility and admiration between countries of the global South and their Northern industrialized development partners. Clearly, he was a master of the art of rhetoric, but what Bitencourt espoused in our conversation about Brazilian– Mozambican cooperation that day seemed like more than mere shop talk or political ideology. I wanted to understand whether his hard sell about South-South Cooperation (SSC) was based on realities on the ground. This line of inquiry begs for empirical attention, but rarely receives it at the project level, and even less so within the urban environment.

Provoked by the newspaper lying open in front of him and hoping to expand my study of Brazilian engagements in SSC, I asked the Brazilian Vice Ambassador to suggest projects between the two countries at the urban scale that I might include in my analysis. Surprisingly, he demurred from recommending a major project I had repeatedly heard about from others, a slum-upgrading project with Brazilian technical assistance in one of Maputo’s oldest neighborhoods, Chamanculo C. Instead, he suggested I visit the National Institute of Employment and Vocational Training (Instituto Nacional de Emprego e Formação Profissional, or INEFP). Vice Ambassador Bitencourt seemed convinced that Brazil’s cooperation with INEFP in constructing a new training facility and curriculum for the city’s unemployed youth would well represent the success of Brazil’s approach to working with other countries in the South. When I visited INEFP, however, its director made clear to me that he did not share Bitencourt’s opinion. Instead, he lamented the slow pace of SSC work with Brazil and announced that if the. project were to have been in partnership with China — in his telling a country much advanced compared to both Mozambique and Brazil — the work would already be complete. (3)

I heard similar complaints from some Mozambican municipal practitioners working with Brazilian partners in the aforementioned upgrading project in Chamanculo C, who felt that turnover among Brazilian staff and a lack of information-sharing created delays and therefore difficulties in working with residents who had become skeptical of the project’s capacity to deliver change.(⁴) And yet a very different, more positive picture was emerging from another set of discussions I eventually had with Mozambican municipal practitioners working with partners from the Brazilian city of Guarulhos on the mobilization of waste-picker collectives akin to Brazilian catadores in Maputo. These diverse narratives of frustration, satisfaction, and optimism reflect why today there is still more rhetoric than verdict on the utility of labels such as the “South” and whether SSC is an improvement over other forms of cooperation for development.

2. Plan and Methods for this Book

This book represents my attempt to make sense of the fuzziness around SSC. Specifically, I examine SSC within, as opposed to separately from, the ecosystem of international cooperation stakeholders at the project level and, relatedly, explore the implications of project partnerships for local governance and capacity-building in cities like Maputo. An interrelated set of questions guides my enquiry. Does it matter — as SSC proponents might have us think — if a city partners, with whom it partners, and what their financial backing may be? If so, why and in which ways?

The specific outcome of interest in my work is equity — or the distribution of benefits related to an infrastructure project’s materiality (i.e., distributive and procedural justice) and the knowledge recognized and produced among stakeholders (i.e., epistemic justice) from the project’s planning and delivery. In this way, my research on international cooperation projects fills a critical gap. While procedural justice in project management and governance is well studied, anticipating precisely how international cooperation partnerships influence distributive and epistemic equity is not an object of empirical and scholarly focus. Organizational-learning and project-management literatures provide insights into how partnerships in infrastructure projects influence learning and material outcomes. Those analyses, however, tend to relate more to efficiency rather than equity as in distributive justice. Urban planning and geography scholarship on urban governance offer perspectives on how power relations between infrastructure project stakeholders matter for how urban development is envisioned and materialized. Rarely, however, do these perspectives focus on the context of an African city, like Maputo, where the international development community and aid are major influences. And, of course, critical development and postcolonial studies provide insights into the historically situated political, economic, and cultural influences on cities like Maputo.

But these offer few, if any, inter-scalar project-level analyses in an African urban context. The varieties of thinking and the incomplete fit of each of these diverse academic bases vis-à-vis my work convinced me that my initial questions could only begin to be fully fleshed out and answered by an inductive research approach. Inductive research, such as a grounded theory, allows for the exploration of possibilities where a clear explanatory path is not already evident. This was certainly the case I encountered in studying international cooperation — and the presumed specialness of SSC therein — within Maputo’s infrastructure project world. My research methods were also strongly influenced by a vein in critical planning theory, informed by postcolonial scholarship, that deftly demonstrates the epistemic vulnerabilities of universalist explanations for how urban development unfolds (or should unfold) across cities. The latter narratives, shaped by the experiences of cities across North America, Europe, and some parts of Asia, seemed especially misaligned with realities of urban development in Maputo — where the mainstay of planning power sits not with city planning offices nor even private-sector developers, but in national government, a political party, and the diverse and dense cadre of bilateral and multilateral partners.

Map: Maputo, capital of East Africa’s Mozambique

With these theoretical and methodological perspectives related to understanding complex development processes in cities like Maputo, I began spending time in the city in two-, three-, and occasionally four-month blocks. Cumulatively, this amounted to about eighteen months in the field between 2009 and 2015 — time spent listening, gathering data and narratives, and beginning to code themes from my encounters with professionals involved in infrastructure cooperation projects. Within the world of infrastructure cooperation, I chose to focus on water-and-sanitation-related projects — in part because water and sanitation were the most enduring challenges where I most often resided within Maputo, namely in KaTembe. KaTembe is one of seven municipal districts in Maputo, and is characterized as rather rural. It lacks an extensive network of sewerage lines, has limited access to treated water, and only partially hosts an electricity grid. Nonetheless, the projects I focused on spanned a wide and diverse landscape across the city of Maputo and captured a range of water-and-sanitation-related projects with different international partners. In each of the projects, the Maputo Municipal Council was an important arbitrator, stakeholder, and participant. In taking a grounded approach to understanding how cooperation projects, and their partnerships, functioned, I engaged with various qualitative research methods, including: direct observation; in-depth and repeated semi-structured interviews (N=74) with development and municipal professionals involved across the five infrastructure projects; community-based meetings (ranging from one to four per month); and, discourse analyses of documents from infrastructural project practitioners and sponsors, including their evaluations and assessment guidelines. In addition, I led the design and deployment of a rapid household survey (N=261) and an in-depth household survey (N=82) in Guachene, one of five large neighborhoods in the KaTembe district of Maputo, which had the least available background information and current analyses on households and project-level work. These surveys sought to improve information available on intended beneficiaries, their access to water-and-sanitation-related services, and to gather community-based perspectives on project participation, project-related progress, and community-based infrastructure and service priorities. This work in Mozambique was complemented by further qualitative research in Brası´lia, Brazil and Salta, Argentina, where I also used semi-structured interviews (N=14) with practitioners (e.g., general managers, project, and logistic specialists) working across two water utilities within a technical cooperation project I studied under a United Nations (UN) platform for such partnerships.

This book’s findings reflect how multiple scales of organizational nuance in international cooperation influences project-level work and potentialities for equity therein. In surprising ways, what I found explicitly challenges the geopolitical primacy of approaches to international cooperation advanced in SSC. Nonetheless, in the tradition of the aspirational, within which planning (despite all its faults) and my own academic path are squarely situated, my work also points to the potentiality of a different strategy for organizing partnerships promoted in the name of equity and solidarity. As the urban planning and legal scholar Peter Marcuse⁵ wrote, it is not enough to simply expose that which does not work. In seeking out change, we must also propose and politicize new modalities of practice. For me, this meant moving beyond my ultimate disappointment with how SSC played out on the ground. It also forced me to think reflectively and critically about the implicit shaping power of project evaluation methods in which I had been trained and which still dominate the development industry. The journey of that reflection, woven into the pages of this book, ultimately helped me to reconcile discrepancies between the distributive, procedural, and epistemic justices which are, and those which ought to be, in international cooperation projects.

3. Promoting Proximate Peers and Equity

In this book, I reject the simple notion that a combination of similar histories or struggles and the new availability of capital make SSC leaders such as Brazil, China, India, or South Africa especially — or universally — preferred development partners for lower-income countries. Orthodox accounts of SSC would expect projects in Mozambique with Brazil or with China to be equally compelling for building equitable development. I show that this is not the case. Indeed, my analysis highlights how even different SSC projects between the same countries are not similarly operationalized on the ground.

With SSC not holding up as a fair general proxy for equity and solidarity in development, what, then, are partnerships that can? Based on my close study of the cooperation landscape in Maputo, my response centers on a heterarchical conceptualization of “proximate peer” partnerships. These comprise proximities beyond just partners’ geopolitical identity and the technologies they use, and toward project governance, embeddedness, and professional theories of practice among cooperation project staff. Advocates and organizers of SSC already point to the relevance of historical geopolitics, and often also use technical proximities as a rationale for expecting that Southern partners are better situated to cooperate around shared development challenges. However, my study of projects in Maputo found that these other characteristics of cooperation work — project governance, embeddedness, and theories of practice — enable a deeper theorization of what types of proximity matter in development partnerships, and why.

Critically, this theorization positions Southern actors with a potential relative, but not absolute, advantage over Northern ones in promoting equity and solidarity. Two out of five proximities namely geopolitical position and technological use — largely, but not universally, afford Southern partners a conceivable advantage over other cooperation partners as proximate promoters of equitable development. Yet I also submit that traditional cooperation “emitters” — or partners from higher-income countries in the global North — can foster solidarity with equitable learning and outcomes. However, this requires that they strategically prioritize and support heterarchical partnerships between practitioners in project governance, encourage embeddedness in host environments through co-locating staff with local partners, and consider the theories of practice their staff bring to projects.

In searching for how attention to such “proximities” might enter and shape projects, I call attention to the utility and governmentality of evaluations in development work. Financial trajectories of aid, trade, and investment are major empirical windows through which SSC and other international development partnerships are traditionally studied and understood. (⁶ ) Project level evaluation is another foundational lens to assess the delivered impacts of development cooperation partnerships. Yet neither macro-level nor project level evaluative practice pays attention to some of the primary aspirations of development partnerships such as SSC, rooted in notions of equity and solidarity.

Like their macro-level counterparts, project evaluations center on a logic of efficiency rather than a logic of equity. Cost-benefit and cost-effectiveness analyses, performance-based indicators, and even program-level evaluations like randomized-control trials ultimately seek to empirically establish how efficiently and how widely — but not how equitably — objectives are or could be met. While such practices have helped to elevate and leverage the use of expert knowledge in shaping public policy and taming what Cass Sunstein calls “expressivism,” or opinion as opposed to information-based decision making, (⁷) they also raise the false assurance that evaluations are an apolitical exercise. In contrast, this book shows how project evaluations in development are historically used to both raise and suppress different political priorities. I trace the evolution of evaluation practices and trends therein to demonstrate how a culture of evaluation advanced in the development industry. I find that the widely promoted values of SSC (namely of Southern ownership, leadership, and equity) do not — indeed cannot — register in the orthodox project evaluations that have dominated development work throughout much of the development industry’s history. Such evaluative orthodoxies necessarily find that the most fruitful cooperation partnerships are those characterized by efficiencies created by capital availability, predictability, and stability. Thus, projects with traditional multilateral development partners, Northern donors, and most recently China — all partners with relatively greater capital availability and stability — are poised to secure most favorable reviews. Here I contend that assessments of development practice require a critical postcolonial lens as well, or a perspective that emphasizes epistemic justice and a high quality of knowledge, and the criticality of distributive and procedural justice as orienting objectives in projects.⁸ Toward this end, my study of international cooperation projects sited in Maputo forwards a framing of project evaluation which positions the logic of equity as equally relevant as the logic of efficiency for assessing development cooperation partnerships and projects.

This reframing of project evaluation openly embraces the governmentality of the assessment exercise. In accepting the fundamentally political nature of evaluation, I promote an explicit accounting of equity in material outcomes (i.e., examining the distributive justice of project benefits on the ground), in knowledge production (i.e., assessing who learns and what is learned), and in decision-making processes. In short, both efficiency and equity can serve as governing principles for projects, as opposed to efficiency alone.⁹

The normative objectives behind international cooperation demand assessments and partnerships that explicitly make room for — indeed elevate — considerations of equity, both within project management as well as in project outcomes. Evaluation exercises are no strangers to rewiring. Major international financial institutions such as the World Bank and bilateral aid agencies like the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and US Agency for International Development (USAID) periodically revisit and revise their internal guidelines for project evaluation.

These efforts reflect the political zeitgeist and the rising criticisms about the international development industry globally, as well as within national political chambers where budget allocations for aid are made. Thus, we see organizations move from a concern with performance to an interest in output, and from “monitoring and evaluation” toward “monitoring, evaluation, and learning.” In practice, however, I argue that the changes do little to improve how equity is operationalized and evaluated in development project processes and outcomes.

For example, even evaluations that include efforts to promote knowledge sharing and learning among “beneficiaries” remain concerned with spreading what I position here as basic-level knowledge types: technical knowledge (i.e., understanding basic functions) and conceptual knowledge (i.e., knowledge of interrelationships). A consideration of how well projects foster higher-level knowledge typologies, such as procedural knowledge (i.e., knowledge of different methods and of when to use them) or metacognitive knowledge (i.e., awareness of one’s own cognition and self-reflection) is not evidenced in the typical project evaluation, although these typologies are arguably most critical for the successful implementation of highly discretionary development projects (Pritchett and Woolcock, 2004).

Furthermore, project evaluations seek to ensure partners work toward effective project implementation, as opposed to engaging in a political concern with the distribution of project benefits. This apolitical stance is a ruse; historically, project evaluations have done much to promote the politics of donors. I argue that they can also better prioritize and politicize distributive, procedural, and epistemic justice through the institutionalization of an explicit concern for equity in development projects.

Adapted from the new book, “Equity, Evaluation, and International Cooperation: In Pursuit of Proximate Peers in an African City” (Oxford University Press, June 2022) by Gabriella Y. Carolini, Associate Professor, MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning

Footnotes:
1 The article in question was published by the newspaper O País in August 2011 (Rafael, 2011).
2 Mr. Bitencourt’s appointment trajectory, from an established international relations center in D.C. to a growth pole in Africa, one could reasonably argue, was evidence of his strong performance from the Brazilian perspective. He was later moved to the Brazilian Embassy in Congo, but I interviewed him in the Brazilian Embassy in Maputo on September 15, 2011.|
3 Interview with Eduardo Chimela on August 13, 2012 at INEFP in Maputo.
⁴ Interviews with Cesar Cunguara from the Maputo Municipal Council (CMM) planning office on August 21, 2012 and two Mozambican technical staff hired by an NGO working with Brazil in Chamanculo C on July 4, 2013 (in a project detailed in Chapter 3 of this book).
⁵ Marcuse, with whom I studied, has spoken and written about this extensively, but his thoughts are well summarized in Marcuse (2009).
⁶ The number of publications that reference financial figures is significant, and include: Manning, 2006; Kragelund, 2008, 2015; Brautigam, 2009; Corkin, 2012; Dreher et al, 2011; Patel, 2011; Sato et al, 2011; Tierney et al, 2011; Bhattacharya, 2011; Agarwal, 2012; Chaturvedi, 2012; Herbert, 2012; Humphrey & Michaelowa, 2013; Mawdsley, 2012; Roque & Alden, 2012; Cirera, 2013; Fuchs& Vadlamannati, 2013.
⁷ See, for example, Cass Sunstein’s recent book, The Cost-Benefit Revolution (2018) for a narrative of how cost-benefit analyses have helped public policies improve well-being.
⁸ Even Sunstein (2018), in his celebration of cost-benefit analyses, rightly recognizes that the evaluative practice raises concerns around distributive justice, the criticality of welfare (as opposed to cost efficiency) as an objective, and the lack of full information or knowledge about all costs and benefits of a potential policy. I focus on how to address these concerns within project evaluations in the context of development work.
⁹ There has been some interesting recent work to introduce equity considerations into the planning and assessment of transport systems, which is an infrastructure shaped and evaluated historically by measures of efficiency. For example, see Karel Martens’s (2016) book, Transport Justice. However, the practice of international development planning, and project evaluation therein, are still largely dominated by efficiency concerns across infrastructure sectors.

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