3. Thinking and Working Politically, and Adaptive Management

3.1 What is thinking and working politically (TWP)?

‘Thinking politically’ is about ensuring that actors understand the local environment in which they are operating and the real drivers or barriers to change. Political economy analysis (PEA) is an important tool to enable actors to understand their contexts and develop realistic strategies - whether long term development outcomes or diplomatic, trade or security outcomes.

‘Working politically’ involves integrating analysis and interventions through continuous, flexible adaptation in response to the political context to achieve the desired outcomes (McCulloch and Piron, 2019). Attention is focused on the power of local stakeholders and structures and their ability to determine the success or failure of their goals (Laws & Marquette, 2018).

Thinking and working politically (TWP) involves integrating political analysis into everyday work (Whaites, 2017). In short, TWP puts PEA into action (Marquette, 2019).

TWP was initiated in the field of development assistance, and recommends important changes in the way it is designed, implemented and managed. Development interventions must be flexible and adaptive to acknowledge the uncertainties and constant changes in the political environment. According to the TWP Community of Practice, decisions about how projects should adapt should be driven by three core principles:

  1. A strong political analysis and understanding
  2. Responding appropriately to the local environment
  3. Incorporating flexibility and adaptability into the design and implementation of the project

Teskey (2017) also provides some useful insights about how to use TWP in practice. Pett (2021) shows how TWP relates to other adaptive approaches: agile, lean start up, human -centred design, problem-driven iterative adaptation, and adaptive management. Baguios et al. (2021) raise important questions regarding the links between adaptive approaches and localisation in practice. This paper reviews the barriers and challenges to localisation and locally led practice, with a view to informing a campaign for systemic change.

There is now greater attention to relevance of PEAs and TWP for other field beyond development, and the value of diplomatic skills (e.g. managing stakeholder relations, ongoing political reporting) to development outcomes.

Older analyses of the difficulties experienced by development partners attempting to think and work more politically include Carothers and De Grammont (2013), Booth et al. (2016), and Hulme and Yanguas (2015).

This article provides a summary of the insights about what thinking and working politically means in practice by examining a set of initiatives undertaken by both development partners and government departments in Nigeria, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, China and India.

This paper provides an overview of the thinking and working political evidence base in relation to political context, sector, and organisation, highlighting recurring factors in TWP programmes and using them to make suggestions for future practices.

The government’s guide to political economy analysis (PEA) brings together the best materials that are available on the components of PEA, different varieties, and tools for conducting PEA, into one easily accessible document.

This blog describes the differences between problem-driven iterative adaptation, adaptive management programmes, political economy analysis, and thinking and working politically and the implications of using each one in practice.

This paper proposes how the insights of Doing Development Differently and Thinking and Working Politically can be integrated into the traditional project framework.

This book seeks to explain and assess the history of development aid’s attempts to think and act more politically.

This paper reflects on the experiences of policy researchers to ask “Under what conditions does an understanding of political economy strengthen aid-supported development efforts?”

This article uses qualitative data from two governance “leaders” – the United Kingdom Department for International Development and the World Bank – to analyse the administrative hurdles facing the institutionalization of political analysis in aid bureaucracies.

This working paper compares six of the most prominent adaptive approaches to emerge over the past two decades from the private sector and global development sector (agile, lean startup,  human-centred design, thinking and working politically, forms of adaptive management and problem-driven iterative adaptation).

This report highlights the existence of numerous positive examples of localisation and locally led practice, while unpacking the power imbalance that has stalled progress overall.

3.2 Does TWP work in practice?

There are several case studies that have explored the successes as well as the challenges in applying a TWP approach in practice. One example is the case study on the Facility for Oil Sector Transparency and Reform (FOSTER) a development project designed to transform Nigeria’s governance of the oil and gas industry (Lopez Lucia, Buckley, Marquette and  McCulloch, 2017) which describes both the successes and occasional failures of the approach. Similarly, the Coalitions for Change programme in the Philippines demonstrates the positive impact TWP can have on development outcomes. This problem-driven and adaptive programme was designed to support governance reforms and improve the functioning of formal institutions (Sidel & Faustino, 2019).

Other reviews of how political economy analysis has been conducted and used to inform operational decision making, including in sectors, include:

  • Making Development Co-operation more effective (UNDP, 2019).
  • Problem-Driven Political Economy Analysis The World Bank’s Experience (Fritz, Levy, and Ort, 2014).
  • Hout and Schakel (2015) for a review on the Dutch experience of using the SGACA tool.
  • Food security: Strengthening Policies for Better Food Security and Nutrition Results (FAO, 2017).
  • Climate Change: National Climate Change Governance (GSDRC, 2017).

The evidence base to demonstrate that a TWP approach yields better outcomes is growing, though it often includes single programme case studies (Laws and Marquette, 2018). A review of 44 TWP case studies by Dasandi, Laws, Marquette and Robinson (2019) revealed that most studies fall short of the standards of transparency, validity and reliability that one would expect to see in an evidence base. One reason for this is that TWP case studies tend to focus on institutional reform rather than on development outcomes. This makes it difficult to determine whether the TWP approach has contributed to more positive development outcomes (McCulloch and Piron, 2019).

This paper seeks to identify the factors that drove the successes and failures of the Facility for Oil Sector Transparency and Reform (FOSTER), a development project designed to transform Nigeria’s governance of the oil and gas industry.  The paper explains what FOSTER’s experience can tell us about TWP, particularly in challenging political and sectoral contexts.

This book provides a detailed account of the Coalitions for Change programme in the Philippines; a problem-driven adaptive programme which was designed to facilitate governance reform and improve the functioning of formal institutions.

This paper provides an overview of the thinking and working political evidence base in relation to political context, sector, and organisation, highlighting recurring factors in TWP programmes and using them to make suggestions for future practices.

This article critically reviews the evidence base that claims a relationship between thinking and working politically and aid effectiveness with a focus on three key areas: political context, sector, and organisation.

This article provides a summary of the insights about what thinking and working politically means in practice by examining a set of initiatives undertaken by both development partners and government departments in Nigeria, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, China and India.

3.3 Adaptive management

One aspect of TWP that has been enthusiastically adopted by some funders is adaptive management. It consists of the process whereby programme managers learn from political economy analysis and other analytical and evaluative inputs and continuously adapt their programme to maximise its chance of meeting its objectives, even if the route that it takes to get there is not the one originally envisaged.

To help guide practitioners about how and when to adapt a development programme, USAID have provided a useful decision tree (USAID 2019)Teskey and Tyrrel (2021) also provide comprehensive guidance from Abt Associates on how to manage programming more reflectively and elastically.

Both this guidance and USAID’s earlier work also pointed out the connections between PEA and Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (CLA) (USAID, 2018). USAID’s (2020) literature review on CLA shows that such an approach can contribute to both organizational effectiveness and development results. A review of Christian Aid’s Irish Aid funded Programme Grant II also shows that their pivot to adaptive programming has supported more flexible delivery, which has in turn contributed to better development outcomes (Gray and Carl, 2022). A review of 20-years of UK governance programming in Nigeria (Piron et al, 2021) also shows how TWP approaches can contribute to sustained changes and the challenges donor and implementers face in operating in this way. 

However, adaptive management has been criticised for not shifting significantly from the traditional approaches on which it was trying to improve (Nixon, 2019). Byrne, Sparkman, and Fowler (2016) also argue that, in practice, adaptive management has constraints related to knowledge, leadership, culture and procurement. Laws et al. (2021) detail key messages from the United Kingdom’s LearnAdapt programme. It argues that there is an urgent need to rethink how accountability requirements, results frameworks, value for money considerations, performance markers, procurement and contracting mechanisms and other processes are understood and applied so that they are better aligned with and can support adaptive management more effectively.

This link provides a useful diagram of a decision tree that is designed to help practitioners determine how best to adapt when programming challenges are encountered.

This guidance provides information on how USAID can think and work in ways that are more politically aware — an approach known as “thinking and working politically” through the use of applied political economy analysis. 

This blog presents a short, critical analysis of the recent rise of adaptive management programmes and highlights gaps which have caused a misunderstanding of what it means in practice.

This paper presents examines the incentives and constraints to adaptive programming across the donor- implementer relationship drawing on interviews with a range of donors and a review of the recent literature on adaptive management.

This research identifies the contextual factors and causal mechanisms that explain how UK governance interventions contributed to improving governance, health and education outcomes by influencing the ‘service delivery chain’ that connects the Nigerian federal, state and local governments to frontline service providers (e.g. primary schools, local health facilities) and to users of health and education services.

This research identifies the contextual factors and causal mechanisms that explain how UK governance interventions contributed to improving governance, health and education outcomes by influencing the ‘service delivery chain’ that connects the Nigerian federal, state and local governments to frontline service providers (e.g. primary schools, local health facilities) and to users of health and education services.

This paper reviews Christian Aid Ireland’s experience of promoting adaptive learning in their Irish Aid funded Programme Grant II (2017–2022). The paper reveals how the application of adaptive programming has supported more flexible delivery, which has, in turn, contributed to better development outcomes.

This paper argues that logical framework, results frameworks, or theories of change need to be handled more reflectively and ‘elastically’. It proposes 15 tools for donors, implementors and front-line staff to apply adaptive management in practice at critical stages of the project cycle.

This short note summarises key messages from the United Kingdom’s LearnAdapt programme. 

3.4 Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning of TWP

Monitoring and evaluating TWP programming is challenging. Davda and Tyrell (2019) document Abt’s learning in Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL) programmes in complex contexts and raise questions about aggregating results, assessing contribution, and real-time learning and adaptation. Sharp and Wild (2021) further unpack the opportunities and challenges for Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) members. They argue that organisations need to meaningfully empower staff to work adaptively, including examining incentives and cultures that can make staff more comfortable with traditional results management.

To help people identify whether a programme is implementing adaptive management effectively, Christie et al., (2018) provide six indicators: (1) a shared understanding of why the programme is taking an adaptive approach, (2) a shared understanding of, and commitment to, adaptive programming in practice, (3) as much flexibility as possible in management systems, (4) a commitment to working with the right people, (5) an organisational culture of learning, and (6) an ability to tell honestly the story and learning journey behind results. Christie and Green (2019) also offer a useful typology to distinguish between different levels of adaptation: adaptive governance, adaptive programming, and adaptive delivery.

In order to respond to concerns over the quality of the evidence base, Ramalingam et al. (2019) make a proposal for introducing principles of adaptive rigour: (1) strengthening the quality of MEL data and systems, (2) investing in MEL across the programme cycle, and (3) strengthening capacities to ensure the effective use of evidence and learning as part of decision-making. Hernández et al. (2019) further offer a roadmap for more evidence-informed adaptive management. Sharp et al. (2022) document the MUVA programme’s experience in Mozambique which suggests that building collective ownership over the programme’s objectives and the purpose of MEL from the outset is fundamental to success. Laws and Valters (2021) argue that Value for Money analysis should also take complexity into account, especially for adaptive programming.

Pasanen and Barnett (2019) recommend nine MEL methods for supporting adaptive management. Apgar, Hernandez and Ton (2020) have also explored how theory-based approaches such as contribution analysis can support adaptive management by facilitating the collection and use of high-quality data and analysis. Another tool of adaptative management, included in Pasanen and Barnett’s (2019) recommended list, is Strategy Testing, a monitoring system developed by The Asia Foundation, which was developed to track programmes that are addressing complex development problems through an iterative, adaptive approach (Ladner, 2015).

More broadly, Aston et al. (2021) argue that case-based approaches such as qualitative comparative analysis, process tracing, realist evaluation, and outcome harvesting are the best fit methods for assessing TWP programming rather than experimental methods such as Randomised Control Trials. They propose the following criteria for rigour: (1) reasoning, (2) credibility, (3) responsiveness, (4) utilization, and (5) transferability. 

This paper looks at effective monitoring, evaluation and learning approaches to assessing overall performance in three facilities in Papua New Guinea, Timor Leste, and Indonesia. It considers issues such as contribution, monitoring progress in real-time, and adapting accordingly.

This discussion paper provides some guiding principles on managing for sustainable development results for OECD-DAC.

This blog provides six indicators for telling whether a programme is ‘doing development differently’ and truly working adaptively.

This paper brings together three case studies of large Department for International Development (DFID) governance projects in Myanmar, Nigeria and Tanzania adopting an adaptive approach to empowerment and accountability programming.

This briefing paper from the Global Learning for Adaptive Management (GLAM) initiative proposes an approach to ’adaptive rigour.’ It recommends investing in quality MEL systems across the programme cycle and strengthening capacities and incentives to ensure the effective use of evidence and learning as part of decision-making.

This note is designed to share guidance on using contribution analysis for adaptative management by examining how the approach enables programmes to work with theories of change in a practical, reflexive way, and how its findings can inform programme adaptation.

This paper looks at the experience of adaptive programming the DFID-funded MUVA programme in Mozambique, focused on female economic empowerment. It looks particularly at MUVA's approach to monitoring, evaluation and learning, and building an evidence culture.

This paper looks at how to reframe the  United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)’s approach to Value for Money (VfM) to better capture and incentivise flexibility, learning and adaptation.

This working paper introduces a set of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) tools and approaches, discussing their potential usefulness in supporting adaptive management in development and humanitarian programmes. It focuses on the complex aspects of adaptive programmes and the importance of focusing on learning. 

This note is designed to share guidance on using contribution analysis for adaptative management by examining how the approach enables programmes to work with theories of change in a practical, reflexive way, and how its findings can inform programme adaptation.

This paper attempts to address issues with traditional monitoring approaches, such as their inability to adapt to changes in development, by developing a new monitoring system that Ladner calls Strategy Testing.

This article explores the challenges of monitoring and evaluating politically informed and adaptive programmes in the international development field. It proposes the most appropriate methods, appreciating context, experiential knowledge, accommodate adaptation and realistically grapple with the power relations.