5. Thinking and working politically
‘Thinking politically’ refers to the approaches to political economy analysis described in the previous sections of this Online Library. It is about ensuring that actors understand the local environment in which they are operating and the real drivers of the observed outcomes. ‘Working politically’ involves integrating analysis and interventions through continuous, flexible adaptation in response to the political context to achieve the desired long-term development goals (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 the development goals (Laws & Marquette, 2018). Thus, whilst political economy analysis can be seen as a development tool, thinking and working politically (TWP) is a way of thinking and working that involves integrating political analysis into everyday work (Whaites, 2017). TWP puts PEA into action (Marquette, 2019).
TWP suggests a change in the way development is designed, implemented and managed. Development 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.
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).
Despite the growth of TWP, there are still relatively few studies that can demonstrate that a TWP approach yields better outcomes and those that are available tend to be single programme case studies (Laws & 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 & Piron, 2019). Further research is needed on how success can be measured for projects that are designed to achieve long-term improvements in governance. See Paul Terry’s thesis for a further critical analysis on TWP.
One aspect of TWP that has been enthusiastically adopted by some funders is adaptive management. Adaptive management 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). Their earlier work also pointed out the connections between PEA and Collaborating, Learning and Adapting (USAID, 2018).
To help people identify whether a programme is implementing adaptive management effectively, Christie et al., (2018) provide six indicators. These six indicators are: (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.
Apgar, Hernandez and Ton (2020) have 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 is Strategy Testing, a monitoring system developed by the Asia Foundation, which was developed to track programs that are addressing complex development problems through an iterative, adaptive approach (Ladner, 2015).
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.