What would persuade the aid business to ‘think and work politically’?

March 4, 2015 17 By Duncan Green

Some wonks from the ‘thinking and working politically’ (TWP) network discussed its influencing strategy last week. There were some people with proper

True that, Albert

True that, Albert

jobs there, who demanded Chatham House Rules, which happily means I don’t have to remember who said what (or credit anyone).

The discussion was interesting because it covered ground relevant to almost anyone trying to shift an internal consensus (in this case towards aid donors taking more account of politics, power, institutions etc in their work). Some highlights:

Who are your target groups? The ‘aid industry’ or ‘governments’ is far too wide. The best effort identified four: in the rich countries, professional advisers within donors and relevant academic networks; in the developing country, politicians and senior officials.

Within those target groups, there are ‘natural allies’, who entirely understand the importance of thinking in terms of locally specific politics, incentives, institutions etc rather than checklists of best practice. Interestingly, they may not be obvious – diplomats and foreign office types ‘get’ this much more easily than their more econo-technocratic aid ministry counterparts. Sectoral specialists in health and sanitation have done a lot of thinking on systems, but (reportedly) education and water engineers  less so.

Talking-politics-December-27-2013The next question is ‘what persuades your targets?’ My bet would be that the most important factor is the messenger, not the message – if a senior politician hears about TWP thinking from their university professor, or a retired political heavyweight, they are far more likely to listen. So perhaps we should deliberately recruit a lot of ‘old men in a hurry’ – apologies for gender bias there, Mary Robinson and Graca Machel are great counterexamples – retired big cheeses keen to make a difference.

Incentives can get in the way here, in that the institutional make-up of TWP means people have hammers, and so are usually looking for nails. Researchers want things to research and have an overwhelming urge to split hairs and generally complicate everything; consultants want to develop products and toolkits and generally make themselves indispensable. Both usually feel the need to begin by trashing their rivals, even if what they are saying is almost indiscernibly different. Both can only do things if they are funded by someone (typically an aid donor).

But what if influencing the targets means creating a major sense of risk and the need for change by highlighting (preferably in the Daily Mail) the failures of those same aid agencies? Dropping everything to lobby like hell when a new minister takes over, creating a brief window of opportunity? Repeating a simple message endlessly and avoiding too much nuance? Setting up mentoring and programme exchanges with successful examples on the ground?

There are several quagmires around the use of the word ‘politics’. The word puts off people who may actually be ‘thinking politically’, but talk in terms of education, health etc – and it can easily come across as a turf grab by governance people. To targets in developing countries, it can sound like political interference by donors (and let’s be honest, to some extent it is!). But on the other hand, how can we talk about politics by downplaying politics?

In addition, lots of people in the aid business (and especially in the diplomatic corps!) think they are already ‘working politically’. So urging them to do so is more likely to alienate than persuade (see recent rant on annoying your target audience), unless we can show very clearly (and quickly) what they would need to do differently in a TWP approach.

TWP uptake spectrumThere are some bigger questions about the purpose of TWP: is it primarily about ‘small p’ politics – using political economy analysis to design better aid programmes with a greater chance of success. Or is it about Big P – empowerment, transformation, shaking everything up, redistributing power etc? At the moment it is rather fudging the issue (see graphic), and I think at some point it will have to decide.

Putting those last two paras together makes me think TWP should probably accept its institutional constraints and go for small P. How about ‘Politics is keep-calm-and-love-politics-2Value for Money’ as a slogan? (only half-joking)

My suggested basic messages for Politics as VFM:

  • The current system doesn’t work: here are 5 disasters from ignoring politics
  • We have new ideas that work and we can prove it
  • Here are some key (<6) sensibilist principles which you probably agree with, and a bunch of case studies that exemplify them


And some FAQs and Myth busters

  • What do we mean by ‘working politically’?
  • Is this just about governance?
  • So you think you’re doing it already? Ask yourself these questions…….
  • Why this is not (just) about governance


Any additional suggestions very welcome!