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Thinking and Working Politically: an exciting new aid initiative

November 27, 2013
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Gosh I love my job. Last week I attended a workshop in Delhi to discuss ‘thinking and working politically’. A bunch of donors, academics, NGOs andChatham-House-Royal-Insti-005 others (Chatham House rules, alas, so no names or institutions) taking stock on how they can move from talk to walk in applying more politically informed thinking to their work.

That means both trying to do the normal stuff better (eg understanding the politics that determines whether your water or education programme gets anywhere) and in more transformational work trying to shift power from haves to have nots.

The meeting was convened by some very practical (‘what do I do on Monday Morning’) aid people keen to move on from what they see as the overly academic (‘needs more research’) character  of discussions on governance, institutions, state-building and all its obfuscatory language (‘What we don’t need is lots of people talking about isomorphic mimicry, rules of the game and political settlements’).

The purpose of this discussion was to take the growing body of research from the Development Leadership Programme, Tom Carothers, ODI, Matt Andrews, ESID etc and turn it into programme ideas that can be tested on the ground. A giant ‘do tank’ exercise, in fact. Alarmingly, I can’t think of other examples of such an explicit research →hypothesis→test process on governance (unlike drugs research, say).

Some impressions:

The political economy of donors: lots of discussion on the institutional barriers to progress – ‘projectization’, logframes, value for money, results agenda, short time frames, staff rotation. One of the few potentially positive side effects of the dismemberment restructuring of aid ministries in Australia and Canada and their takeover by foreign ministries is that diplomats don’t do logframes – they understand the importance of relationships and seizing opportunity. (Trouble is they do so to pursue national self-interest, rather than development.)

MDG--US-Food-aid--USAID---008People not products: This is about having the right people, working in the right way: ‘searchers’ and mavericks able to spot opportunities as they open up, thinking on their feet, building relationships. Big question is whether this is teachable – are people who work politically born not made? Local staff are more likely than expats to be embedded in the political realities, but are also more likely to be junior and cowed by the institutional machine. Supporting them needs mentoring rather than (yet more) workshops, but also accepting that we need a percentage of mavericks who don’t do what they’re told (or what they’ve said they’ll do). Tough for any bureaucracy to accept.

Labour intensive not capital intensive: Good politically-informed work is about relationships, trust and a subtle understanding of power and politics. Very hard to achieve that while waving a chequebook (‘if you come in with $ and say ‘we’re here to set up a coalition’, you will get one! You’re a good-looking guy’). The pressure to spend can be a serious obstacle to this longer term, more painstaking work.

What are the risks of ‘working politically’? A certain amount of self-deception here. Everyone else (southern governments, civil societypower and hierarchyorganizations etc) already sees aid as heavily political, so who are we trying to kid? But being explicit about engaging with political players, elections, supporting change coalitions etc works better in more permissive contexts, whereas elsewhere it will lead to accusations of infringement of sovereignty, especially if it’s bilateral agencies doing it.

Dangers of Openness: Some of this is about the dark arts of influencing – how you persuaded a politician to do something, but then enabled them to take the credit. How you twisted arms, or appealed to self interest. Disclosure can damage the project. One old hand from a multilateral complained ‘no wonder everything I say sounds bland and generic – I can’t tell all the interesting stuff!’

Should it stay below the radar? Ros Eyben among others has documented the double discourse of aid workers – they are adept at saying one thing and doing another, eg presenting a project as purely technical/apolitical, then using all the tricks of advocacy to get them implemented. If we try and drag such practices into the light, do we risk destroying them? In some countries, the technocratic veneer is important camouflage, but elsewhere the general view was that acknowledging the realities can ‘unleash a lot of energy’ among staff who can then ‘fess up about what aid work is really like, and learn from each other out in the open.

Overall, I was struck by the contrast between the intellectual self confidence – a bunch of highly experienced senior aid types saying there is simply no other way to go in order to improve the impact of aid – and the fragmenting institutional context – Ausaid and CIDA being subsumed into foreign ministries, the demands of a dumbed down version of the results agenda and value for money, a general aversion to taking risks of any kind for fear of imperilling aid budgets. Really hope the good guys are right.

Next steps? This looks like an incipient ‘community of practice’, with the focus on the practice. Lots of appetite for building a good evidence base, with the healthy caveat from one senior aid boss ‘I want anecdotes, I don’t want evidence – I’m serious. I’m fed up with research – it’s not going to persuade the minister.’ A further meeting is planned in January – watch this space.


  1. Sounds like an interesting and useful discussion – good to hear lots of thinking happening about “understanding of power and politics”, thanks for feeding back.

    Was there a feminist analysis in the meeting? Did discussions address the fact that deeply patriarchal structures are the context in which all aid and development (and in fact all politics) work?

    And also, out of interest, what was the gender balance of the discussants, and the balance of northern and southern discussants?

    Thanks a lot, Lee

  2. You do indeed have an interesting job!

    I hope the International Budget Partnership and Christian Aid were/will be involved in this conversation as both have much to share.

    I am currently doing a study looking at how Christian Aid’s investment in developing power analysis capacity (through providing tools and thinking space) has increased their efficacy and that of their partners to think and act more politically. Some really interesting practical examples at local and national level that raise and speak to many of the issues above. What I find striking is that international organisations appear to have so much to learn if we/they can provide space for national and community level organisation partners to share their nuanced political analysis, but this is as your say so difficult given the power relations in the political economy of aid and the dominant paradigm of normative governance models, technical log frames and ‘best practicitis.’

    By the way, was there much discussion about the implications of the (re)emergence of non DAC donors and any representation from BRICs’ aid agencies?

  3. Oh dear…I was going to ask a similar vein of question by Lee but read “Should it stay below the radar?” and paused…Duncan,women’s organizations have been “Thinking and Working Politically” for eons. There nothing really “exciting” except that those who can afford to hide behind Chatham House rules can afford to do so. Not a luxury for those who think and work politically as a matter of daily existence in “development”.

    That this is considered exciting is reason for concern: radical ideas are now prone to be coopted by the mainstream!

    (Isnt Ines down the hall or the next floor? I am sure you didnt have to travel to a closed door conference to know how to think and work politically: its been happening around gender issues since or before GADU was established!)

  4. Thanks for your blog Duncan! Do Chatham House rules prevent you from noting any military representitives? Particularly in the US, the increasing use of miltary personnel for traditional response and development work can blur ‘spaces’.

  5. Very interesting to hear about this discussion..

    I am working with SAVI – the DFID funded State Accountability and Voice programme in Nigeria. Over the last 5 years, we have been piloting ways of supporting partners (citizens, CS groups, media and State Houses of Assembly) to “think and act politically” in influencing and holding to account state governments. We are aiming to build processes of engagement between citizens and state governments which take on a life of their own.

    Building on learning from previous programmes in Nigeria, our key concerns have been to ensure that our partners:
    • have maximum flexibility to apply their political intelligence and efforts where there is momentum for change in their ever-changing contexts
    • are able to learn and progress through regular processes of action and reflection
    • work in strategic and flexible partnerships

    We have been able to support partners to work in this way by changing the modality of aid away from the usual form of accountable grants, to hands-on behind-the-scenes facilitation, relationship brokering, mentoring and capacity building. In our context, this is working – our partners are achieving unprecedented access to, credibility with and influence at state government level.

    It’s not that thinking and acting politically is new – as others have pointed out. Our experience – which seems to be echoed in this conference – is that the ways aid money is distributed and managed all too often undermine partners’ ability and incentives to work in this way.

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