Larry Garber serves as deputy assistant administrator for Policy, Planning and Learning

Last week I participated in two panel discussions organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that addressed two important development issues: 1) “Closing Space for International Assistance,” a roundtable discussion that included over 20 participants from various U.S. Government agencies, implementing partners, and think-tanks; and 2) the role of politics in the work of development agencies as described in a new book Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution.

USAID confronts the issue of closing space in a number of different country settings. Recently, Agency efforts have catalogued the diverse and creative Mission responses to the problem under the rubrics of prevention, adaptation, and continuing support. In addition, we have engaged implementing partners–both those involved in Democracy, Rights and Governance and in more traditional development sectors–and donor counterparts regarding the challenges we all face.

The second panel discussion involved the launch of a new book by Tom Carothers and Diane de Gramont, entitled Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution. As I stated in my remarks at the launch, the book is a must-read for all USAID staff, whether they are in policy making or operational positions, and whether they are based in Washington, D.C. or serving in the field.

The book describes how the development community shifted over a period of 50 years, from a generally apolitical, technical orientation during the 1960s, 70s and 80s to a recognition in the 1990s that both political goals and political methods are essential for achieving development results. The book acknowledges the progress that many donor agencies, including USAID, have made in introducing democracy and governance programs into their portfolios and in encouraging robust political analysis as part of their strategy and project design processes.

Carothers and de Gramont include many examples from USAID. There is an extended quote from the 2010 Ethiopia Country Development Cooperation Strategy (CDCS) (PDF), which forthrightly describes the “competing objectives of engaging and assisting Ethiopia as a high profile example of poverty and vulnerability to famine, and addressing the major challenges and constraints to democratic space, human rights abuses and severe restrictions on civil society.” There is also a wonderful quote from a Mission Director serving in Africa, who extols the virtues of political economy assessments and “insists that all newcomers read the report as part of their briefing materials.”

And yet, the authors conclude that this transformation is only an “almost revolution.” I share their view that the glass is half full, yet also hope that the book will motivate a profound debate within the broader development community as well as USAID regarding the proper relationship between politics, political methods, and political goals on the one hand, and an emphasis on the achievement of traditional development results on the other hand.

Let the debate begin!