Thinking and Working Politically update: where have aid agencies, consultants etc got to?

September 23, 2014 6 By Duncan Green

Spent an engrossing couple of days last week at a ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ (TWP) seminar, organized by a group of donors, thinktanks and consultants (sorry, Chatham House Rules, so that’s as much as I can say about them). Their common ground is that aid needs to get beyond its technocratic comfort zone, and take politics and power more seriously. It’s a new initiative, and as with all such efforts, is pretty messy and confusing at first, as people try to agree on problems, definitions, language etc before deciding what to do. But this was the third such meeting, and I think we’re getting somewhere.

TWP uptake spectrum

First a bit more clarity on ‘the spectrum’ of what constitutes TWP (see graphic). At one end is what was termed an ‘evolutionary’ approach – getting more politically savvy in the way donors do their normal aid activities (building stuff, offering technical support, financing public services). It’s a random number, but people typified this as ‘adding 15% to the impact of aid programmes’ by designing them with a fuller understanding of institutions, incentives and interests (both material and political).

At the other end is a more transformative ‘revolutionary’ approach, for example where donors do not claim to know the answer, and either respond flexibly to events and political opportunities, or concentrate on bringing together local players to solve a problem (what Matt Andrews calls Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation, or I call ‘convening and brokering’).

A shout out to readers of this blog whose ‘where the fxxx is gender’ comment stream after the first TWP meeting was credited by various speakers who raised gender and the wider question of ‘are we talking about power, or just formal politics?’ this time around. See? Commenting on blogs can make a difference. Sort of.

We also had a good discussion on what TWP is not. This is partly a response to grizzled old aid types who sniff ‘huh, that’s not new – we’ve been TWP for decades.’ One speaker proposed the following list:

  • Formal Political Economy Analysis (PEA) without changing approach
  • Standard donor policy dialogue with government
  • Country ownership/partnership narrowly defined as government-led
  • Demand side of governance that solely focuses on “more and louder NGOs”
  • Working through the same old local partners that speak the donor language
  • Supporting “reform champions” without deeper understanding of political dynamics
  • Assumption that no one will lose from reforms
  • Conditionalities attached to a loan

We got a bit clearer on ‘why change doesn’t happen’ – the sources of inertia within the aid system that mean that even when the country director says

Not a great theory of change

One alternative to TWP

‘yes, this sounds like the world I know’, TWP has minimal impact on the country programme. There is a dispiritingly long list of blockers, including the pressure to spend aid budgets: ‘In Afghanistan, people talk constantly about maintaining the burn rate [spending the budget within the financial year]. We can’t do anything that slows the burn rate – we have to address anything going wrong, while continuing to spend.’

More broadly, the technocratic approach of logframes and roll-outs has created a system of staff, contractors, partners and evaluators, who even though they recognize that the system is often based on false assumptions, are either unable or unwilling to do everything differently. It’s an interesting question whether the best tactic is to try and get them to unlearn decades of the old ways, or merely help those who recognize its flaws subvert the current system in a more politically informed way (which Ros Eyben has documented beautifully) – ‘how to bypass a logframe’ guidance notes?

So if promulgating TWP approaches is uphill work, where are the best prospects? Some smart advice here:

–          Areas of the aid business where failure is rife and/or risks are high, so people are willing to try new things (fragile and conflict states, oil revenue management, anti-corruption)

–          TWP needs to get out of the ‘governance silo’, and show how the approach is relevant to bigger spending areas of the aid business – infrastructure, natural resource management, service delivery etc. Some high profile non-governance champions would help.

–          New or rapidly changing contexts, which have not yet had time to entrench standard approaches and so people are more ready to experiment (eg Myanmar).

–          Countries with senior champions within aid agency offices – eg ‘Heads of Mission’, or their equivalent

And a few concerns:

Are we designing TWP for gurus or newbies? Rejecting rigid guidelines in favour of ‘every context is different, just cross the river by feeling the stones’ is fine if you’re a veteran of dozens of previous river crossings. It’s not so encouraging if you’re in your late 20s and you’re panicking in your first aid job. My own attempt to square this circle is that a combination of case studies, sample questions to ask, and mentoring via HQ or peer networks, can provide the support people need, without destroying the ability to be flexible and adapt to context. But you probably need some element of written guidance too.

It’s also still very top down. As Craig Valters recently noted, TWP approaches and their accompanying theories of change tend to be dreamt up by the donors and their consultants, not arrived at through anything like a participatory process involving the actual people concerned. That’s pretty worrying.

There is still a tendency to default to ‘if in doubt, commission more research’, even though people accept that the political economy of aid is probably a much greater barrier to TWP than a lack of research. Probably worth getting some professional lobbyists in to design a TWP advocacy programme that covers windows of opportunity, champions, reform coalitions, tactics etc as a counterweight to all those academics seeking yet more research contracts.

It’s still a bit linear: the donor people there are practical types, with very little time for all that stuff about complexity and systems thinking, even though they are highly relevant to making sense of TWP. That pushes us towards the ‘evolutionary’ end of the spectrum – add a dollop of TWP secret sauce to your standard linear programme and voila!

I need a toolkit for the toolkit

I need a toolkit for the toolkit

Finally, how to communicate all this? For a start, change the name – TWP is unnecessarily and off-puttingly shrill in my view. Call it ‘what works’ or even (not my favourite), ‘politically smart, locally led development’ – the title of a new ODI paper which I will review tomorrow.

But also, there’s tension on how to frame it – consultants and evangelists want a shiny new product, to which aid staff already overwhelmed by endless restructurings and management processes wail ‘OMG, not another toolkit’! We need a sharper narrative and a lot more case studies on what is actually distinct about a TWP approach if we are going to convince the sceptics. Some horror stories and ridicule of bad aid projects that fail by ignoring power and politics would also help open minds. That sounds fun.