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“Parlez-vous politics?” Or why working politically is like learning a language

April 8, 2014
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Alina Rocha Menocal of the ODI introduces her new paperAlina

The world of development assistance has come a long way since James Ferguson published his searing critique of the aid establishment in The Anti-Politics Machine: Development,Depoliticization and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho in 1994. The (gradual) evolution that different international development actors have undergone to better understand the politics of development has been remarkable – what Carothers and de Gramont have described as an ‘almost revolution’. By now it is pretty widely acknowledged that the challenge of development is not only technical but also profoundly political in nature: it is not simply about what needs to be done (be it building schools or providing vaccinations), but perhaps more fundamentally, about how it is done (processes that facilitate or obstruct change). And this requires coming to grips with the institutional dynamics at work – and the politics underlying them.

So far so good.

But if today most donors buy into the principle that development has to start with the domestic context, making a jump from more technical, one one-size-fits-all models of change to more politically aware programming that is grounded in local realities has proven much more challenging. As I argue in a new ODI paper on “Getting real about politics”, what is needed is a shift not only to think politically but also to work differently – and the process may not be dissimilar to learning a new language.

How so?

Being politicalTaking politics seriously” is not about an end- product (the kind of “we’ll do, or, more likely, commission, a nice piece of political economy analysis and be done with it” perspective that tends to be increasingly common among donors, who are often at a loss about the operational implications), but about process; it is not a box that you tick on Monday morning (“taken politics into account?”, “✓”), but a mind-set.

This raises the question of whether working in a more politically aware manner is something that can actually be learned or is innate. This way of working does seem to call for a particular kind of person – a ‘maverick’ of sorts, less bound by bureaucratic forms and comfortable with the uncertainty and ambiguity of political processes and the dilemmas and trade-offs they present. But the environment these individuals operate within is just as important.

When learning a different language, there is no question that natural ability or predisposition matter, but so does the learning process itself. Young children tend to be more adept at languages because they are less self-conscious and anxious about making mistakes. Rather they run with it and adapt (if not actively improvise) as they go. But they need an environment that is permissive enough to let them learn organically from their own mistakes, rather than shutting them down pre-emptively for fear they may get a word or sentence construction wrong.

The teaching method matters too. If you have a teacher who makes you do sit ups when you get the conjugation of an irregular verb wrong (as I did when I was trying to learn English in Mexico), it will probably not get you very far: the incentives are all wrong and you will simply focus on getting a particular answer right without thinking of the broader picture.

To continue with the metaphor, this is often how the aid system operates. As Elinor Ostrom and her collaborators noted in their now classic study for Sida in 2000, the incentive structures that govern the funding, commissioning, design and implementation of development assistance often militate against efforts to think politically and work differently. The most recent report of the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) on DFID, released last week, is also critical of the agency for failing to learn not only from what works but also from what doesn’t, given the focus on short-term results – a situation that is in no way peculiar to DFID. And Ex-USAId chief Andrew Natsios has written about the worrisome growth of layers and layers of bureaucracy within agencies, which tends to foster a risk-averse culture and to encourage staff, as one aid veteran has put it, “to do things right rather than do the right things.”

So what can be done? Despite the challenges, over the past decade there has been on-going engagement from a variety of stakeholders, including donor learning a languagerepresentatives, policymakers, development experts and civil society actors (including NGOs, activists and academics) on how to advance the agenda of taking politics seriously in both thinking and practice. Dedicated communities of practice have emerged to refine understandings of what not only ‘thinking politically’ but also ‘working differently’ might mean and how the potential embedded in this kind of approach can be realised.  This is also an on-going and expanding area of engagement within the ODI, in collaboration with other partners.

A great deal of work remains to be done. But there have been important areas of progress, and very meaningful insights and lessons have emerged. For example, there are ongoing efforts to build up the existing body of evidence of more/less successful initiatives to work in a more politically aware manner, and identify the ingredients that have made a positive contribution (including, among other things, long-term and committed staff, flexible approaches not tied to rigid logframes identified at the start of a project, and a willingness to invest in ideas and relationships that may not pay off immediately). Some international actors are also increasingly willing to act not simply as providers of funds or implementers, but also as facilitators of change – bringing together domestic stakeholders, supporting them in identifying problems and encouraging them to work collaboratively in finding potential solutions.

However, it is also clear that what is needed to get real traction on this agenda is not only or even principally about generating the evidence or documenting examples of where a politically smart approach has made a difference. Rather, it is about altering the way international development actors engage in developing settings, in some cases quite fundamentally. A radical approach is needed – much akin to learning a new language from scratch, within a conducive environment that fosters adaptation, flexibility, ingenuity, and the ability to learn by doing.



  1. A good example of how politics is taken into consideration in developing and implementing programmes is the organisational approach followed in Pakistan. This approach has led to investment in organisations within communities. Projects are grafted onto the organisation which have a considerable experience of local environment and politics and can maneuver and adapt around the environment. This has enabled these organisation so survive and work in an environment where most organisation find it hazardous to work in and find it very difficult to find space to operate from actors both in the government and security set up who may not be willing to give that space. This is well documented and can be found at the SRSP web site: http://www.srsp.org.pk: RSP experience of working in complex and choatic environment and the proceedings of seminar on the challenges professionals face in working in this environment

  2. I think development NGO’s have to learn to work more politically in their relationship with the donor community too. Too often , the messages we put out to the public are simplistic and just not accurate in describing what development on the ground is like.

  3. Dear Alina
    Many thanks for a good post. Can I ask you two questions though.
    1/ Could you be more specific on the whether it’s realistic to expect current civil servants to acquire these linguist skills?
    2/ Do we really want civil servants to act (increasingly) politically? Or wouldn’t it be better to separate things like proposed by David Booth with his arms-length principle?

  4. Thanks Alina for continuing to prise open this can of worms… my only addition to the wormery is that thinking politically means also analysing the political economy/incentives at work in donor govts/agencies. It seems to me that this is still an area often left out of the POGO teams ongoing excellent work on this – but it is sine qua non – makes no sense to carry out political analyses of the other without also doing the same at home… And the current state of political analysis of aid givers/agencies motivations continues to be quite woeful, certainly in the UK, where “charity” is still seen as the key motivating factor of aid interventions, other countries are significantly more sophisticated/honest… J

  5. Spot on Alina. Operationally, the term politics needs unpacking. I think that there is a tendency to think ‘political activism’ rather than more subtly being ‘politically savvy’. A lot like Daniel Goleman’s (1995) ’emotional intelligence’, it is ‘political intelligence’.

  6. Dear Alina

    You have stated the problem very well: the need to move from thinking politically to working differently.

    VERY important for staff on the ground to be involved in PEA. A big challenge is to get technical specialists who are sensitive to politics.

    Re: Box 2 in your paper. Donors understand the need for policy ownership – Paris Declaration etc. But in some cases, donors have yet to grasp the importance of process ownership; that is, donors aligning themselves to internal country dynamics and policy processes, rather than expecting country actors to conform to the donor’s processes.

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