Interview with Prof. Stephen Brown (Senior Fellow)

Written by Diana León-Espinoza, March 16th, 2015

“… if there is a greater harmonization or coordination among donors, it means that actually they can strengthen their ability to impose things on a developing country. They become kind of like a cartel”.

Prof. Stephen Brown comes from Montreal, Canada. He is a senior fellow at the Käte Hamburger Kolleg and a professor at the University of Ottawa. He studied Political Science with special interest in politics of development. Most of his work in recent years is related to African politics and African governments’ relations with donors. Now, he wants to focus more on the aid regime, which are the global policies, practices, and understandings around foreign aid.

Why did you choose your research field and topic of specialization in particular?

Photo taken by the Käte Hamburger Kolleg’s team

Photo taken by the Käte Hamburger Kolleg’s team

S.B:  I initially wanted a career in developing cooperation. In fact, after my master’s I worked for four years for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). After I started my Ph.D., I had no intention of becoming an academic. I wanted to become a consultant in International Development. I changed my mind during my Ph.D. programme once I started to teach. I realized that I really liked the independence of academia and the ability to still do interesting things and go to different places.

At what point in your life did you realize that you want to be a researcher?

S.B: It was after I did the fieldwork for my Ph.D. in Kenya and Malawi. I really enjoy having my own research projects and setting my own agenda. I had the freedom to take a more critical approach, which I felt I didn’t have when my agenda was controlled by somebody else.

The other aspect that made me decided to be an academic was teaching. I discovered that I love teaching. Those two things made me decide to be an academic. Although I still keep a foot in practice by occasionally doing contracts, for instance with the UN, the Canadian government, or the OECD.

I guess if you teach is very important to research

S.B: Yes! There is a great link between teaching and research. My research enriches my teaching very much.

Why did you come to the Käte Hamburger Kolleg?

S.B: It was a great opportunity to dedicate more time to my own research. Also, it is a great opportunity to be somewhere different and interact with different people. It has been a new enriching experience, personally and professionally.

What would you say is interesting/capturing about your research topics?

S.B: I think they are really important. Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent every year on foreign aid. I am interested in the politics of it, the politics behind it, and the power relations that are involved in it. Most of the times it is all presented as very neutral, but it is not that simple.

Also, I am interested in new practices like those derive from the ‘Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness’. It all sounds very good, but how does it play out on the ground? For instance, if there is a greater harmonization or coordination among donors, it means that actually they can strengthen their ability to impose things on a developing country. They become kind of like a cartel. Which is very interesting when China and other donors come in and do not coordinate. That action increases the bargaining space of the developing countries because there is an alternative.

What I feel about cooperation is that sometimes it is presented as recipes for developing countries and there is not much interest in helping or improving the development of a country.

S.B: Often the donors prescribe the same economic policy everywhere. I am in favour of foreign aid, but I also recognize that foreign aid can be wasted and can be harmful. More doesn’t necessarily mean better.

Billions of dollars are dedicated to foreign aid, so it will be better if there will be a real impact. I think it can.

S.B: Yes, it certainly can have an important impact. Still, I am sceptical about donors’ intentions and discourses. In Canada, so much of what the government is saying about foreign aid is for the consumption of the Canadian public. It is all about projecting an image. Not about the quality or effectiveness of the foreign aid.

Which topics do you consider to be more crucial right now and should be researched more?

S.B: I think foreign aid and development are very important. Right now, also crucial is the issue of climate change. It is the cutting edge in International Cooperation because is about the future of the planet.

Even though there are a lot of people working on that topic already?

S.B: There are a lot of people, but much more needs to be done. More needs to be done on the politics behind climate change, negotiations, and treaties. For example, why are countries acting in a certain way around climate change? How can countries work together on this issue? Why are some countries refusing to do so and actually sabotaging international attempts to impose binding targets?

How is your work bridging the gap between social research and practical life?

S.B: In my case it is not very difficult. When I work on Canadian aid, I talk to newspapers, I publish books, and I go on the radio. Also, I try to participate in discussion panels with people who work in the government and NGOs.

Recently, I have been invited to participate in a discussion panel at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London. They have an ongoing project called ‘Designing the Development Agency of the Future’ and they are having a conference at the end of April. This is another way of interacting with high-level practitioners.

I actually enjoy bridging the gap because it had not been my goal to be an academic. I have always been interested in the practical side. Theory is important too, but I’ve never been interested in theory for theory’s sake. It is very satisfying that my work has a practical aspect.

I want to be a researcher, but I think it is always a struggle in my head that if you are a researcher how much social justice can you seek or how much of an impact you can achieve.

S.B: I wrote a chapter in one of my books about how Canadian foreign aid been used to help Canadian mining companies. That got a lot of public attention. I have been on the radio and given talks to NGOs about this issue. That is where I feel that I can be very activist oriented.

We had and still have in Costa Rica a huge problem with a Canadian mining company

S.B: Yes, their practices are often very dodgy and the Canadian government does a lot to support them. It is very problematic and very few people can talk about this. The people who work for the government cannot say anything because they’ll lose their jobs. People in NGOs perceive a lot of problems, but they can’t say anything because they might lose funding from the government.

This is not an abstract threat, it is a real threat. Who does that leave to speak out in public? Mainly there is just a few academics who can talk about these issues and actually comment without fear. It is a privilege and also a duty to speak out in public about this situation.

From the outcomes of your current research project, what are the social and academic impacts that you expect to have?

S.B: My current research here is for six months and it is part of a five-year project. While I am here, I am going to go to Mali to do fieldwork. The larger project will also have field work in Ethiopia and Ghana, which will allow me to have more of a comparative view.

I want to determine what is going on on-the-ground in those countries. Been here is enabling me to concentrate on these issues and to advance in my theoretical understanding.

How would you describe your experience in Duisburg during your stay?

It has been really good. Duisburg is a great place to feel at home quickly and get a lot of things done. It is a very interesting region. It is also easy to go to cities like Cologne, Bonn, or Dusseldorf.

Can you recommend books that you have read and have remained meaningful to you over the years? 

S.B: I have been interested in developing issues since I was in high school. I just keep going along the path that took me towards the UN and the university. My interests haven’t radically changed, but I can’t really say that specific books remained meaningful over the years.

More from Stephen Brown


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