“Politics is too important for development in general to be left to political scientists and governance advisors only – we all need to think about it when we act.”
Aid is Politics, Stefan Dercon, DFID Chief Economist, 2013.
Many influential thinkers have looked at the difference between success and failure in development, and all point to the centrality of domestic politics. Admittedly, this conclusion does not necessarily help to predict how developmental change will unfold in different contexts, and it directly confronts the notion that some institutional models will always work better than others. However, we have learned that progressive change usually involves local political processes of contestation and bargaining among interest groups, and that development programs can significantly improve their impact by understanding and responding to these dynamics.
So what does ‘thinking and working politically’ look like?
A TWP approach has three core principles: strong political analysis, insight and understanding; detailed appreciation of, and response to, the local context; and, flexibility and adaptability in program design and implementation.
|1. ANALYSIS: Political insight and understanding
- Interrogate the project, the sector with a relentless focus on power dynamics, interests, incentives and institutions
- Be frank about where power resides and on whose behalf it is being used
- Move away from idealised models of development change, and start with contextual realities
- Recognise the multiple (and potentially contradictory) nature of interests at play
- Focus on problems identified and articulated by local actors, not outsiders
- Ensure as far as possible that locally-defined problems and proposed solutions are accepted as legitimate by all relevant stakeholders, thereby ensuring ownership
|2. CONTEXT: Responsiveness to domestic environment
- Work with and through domestic stakeholders, convenors and power-brokers (also referred to as ‘arm’s length’ aid)
- Understand the network of stakeholders involved and facilitate coalitions of different interests, rather than relying on a ‘principal-agent’ relationship with one Ministry / Minister
|3. DESIGN: Flexibility and adaptability in design and implementation
- Be guided by the program goal, and do not be overly prescriptive in how to achieve it. Strategy should set a clear goal, allowing for sufficient flexibility and iteration in the day-to-day efforts to make progress towards these goals. Clear goals should not translate into rigid project frameworks – they represent an understanding of what changes you are hoping to promote
- ·Recognise that politics is not static, continue to assess the local context, test original assumptions, and adapt programs based on new information and opportunities
- Merge design and implementation with a focus on a series of small ‘experimental’ or ‘incremental’ steps and monitor results. In this way implementation and monitoring and evaluation become one concurrent process
- Periodically engage in ‘review and reflection’ exercises to critique and understand what is working and what is not – and stop doing what does not work
- Understand your own agency’s political economy – which issues can be negotiated and which ones cannot