3. Thinking and Working Politically, and Adaptive Management
‘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).
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:
- A strong political analysis and understanding
- Responding appropriately to the local environment
- 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).
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).
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.
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.