Political economy analysis from a community level perspective


Political Economy Analysis (PEA) is a useful tool for those working to improve development outcomes in developing countries. However, traditional PEAs are not geared to supporting communities to address the problems that they uncover. A new community level approach for PEAs is needed.

National level PEAs can be too elite driven

PEAs are usually undertaken for or by development partners who want to invest in a particular country to make sure that their investment reflects its actual governance and culture. PEAs analyse the power dynamics, formal rules (such as administrative or financial regulations) and informal political aspects of a country. As a result, they can identify maladministration, state larceny and corruption as well as the influences of business, commerce, religion and culture on a country’s real politik. PEAs can also show what reforms are needed to improve development outcomes.

Traditional PEAs are often carried out by expatriate or senior national consultants who collaborate with national ministries or other national institutions. These consultants are usually men, often patriarchal in outlook, and come from (or work with) the elite of the country. As a result, these PEAs can end up as a macro level analysis of a country or sector, carried out by senior male analysts who are unlikely to be directly affected by the reforms that the PEA may be suggesting.

Community level PEAs are needed

For development programmes targeting local communities of the poor and marginalised, PEA modalities need to be modified. In order to get useful information which will inform reform minded government departments at district level, the PEA will need to be carried out by local actors, particularly those who have some “skin in the game”, e.g. people who are affected by the local maladministration or corruption, and, moreover, who will be affected by the reforms that are being suggested.

PEAs are about the “why” things work or don’t work. A traditional PEA might explain, for instance, why a percentage of the funds from the Ministry of Education to local schools does not arrive and suggest that reform is needed in the transfer process. By contrast, a local community PEA will show which government officials are accountable for the losses, and why they have behaved as they have, and will suggest reforms that will not only recover such funding, but also improve the situation of the poor and marginalised.

Two examples of the benefits of community PEAs from my personal experience

During 2017-18, I worked with communities in Kenya’s Laikipia County as part of the UK funded Deepening Democracy in Kenya programme delivered by VSO volunteers. Citizens of Laikipia and Isiolo counties in central Kenya were very concerned about the lack of pre-primary education, and particularly the lack of government funding on pre-primary education facilities. While the allocation was meant to be 2% of the County Council’s budget, a local community PEA carried out by a consultant hired by the community (and supported by community volunteers) found out that the County Council had only expended 0.02% of the budget on this.

The PEA picked up evidence of underspending and gross negligence in the relevant infrastructure. This photo of a collapsing toilet in a pre-primary school caused much anger when it was displayed.

Moreover, the PEA found that much of the money budgeted for pre-primary education had been spent on building primary schools, and on scholarships for secondary schools. Local knowledge suggested that such payments went to politically connected contractors. A traditional PEA would not have got beyond finding a shortfall in spending on pre-primary education. It would be unlikely to have discovered what the missing money was spent on without community level insights.

I have also had similar experiences in Nepal. Following the end of the Marxist civil war in Nepal in 2006, a raft of new legislation was introduced, particularly promoting the lives of women, and substantial budgets were agreed for women’s activities. I managed the World Bank’s Program for Accountability in Nepal (PRAN) which worked with civil society organisations (CSOs) using social accountability techniques and community PEAs. PRAN found that very little of these funds had reached women’s groups.

For example, in the Leknath ward of Nepal’s Western Region, a local council grant for the purchase of rice husking equipment for women had not involved local women in that decision. A community PEA found that the money had been paid to men who had submitted false invoices and that the women had received nothing. Once Leknath women were made aware of this trickery, they organised to fight the local council to get their money back. The community PEA led to community action.

Implementing a community level PEA  

Development partners can make valuable use of community PEAs. While PEAs can be applied at national, sectoral, or provincial level, there are specific advantages of community level PEAs which I have seen in different countries.

When a community identifies a particular problem in their area, they can work with a local community-based organisation or a CSO to build awareness of the problem. Social accountability techniques (particularly civic education teaching rights and entitlements) are effective and will inform the community of what they should be getting from government. The local CSO can introduce such techniques and explain the value of a community PEA. Before embarking on a PEA, the local CSO can identify a local consultant experienced in PEAs, introduce him/her to the community, and support him/her in their interaction.

The local consultant draws up a plan for the community PEA; facilitates agreement by all; and ensures the community team consults all the relevant stakeholders (local council, government bodies, politicians, traditional and religious leaders, community groups – especially women –, businesses, police, and possibly army). As the PEA team discovers information that favours reform, they communicate it to the community involved, strategise together on how change could happen, and build a critical mass of citizens enthusiastic for reform.  The community, for instance, could hold meetings with the local government, in order to put their points of view across, reach agreement on specific reform activities, and then monitor progress towards those reforms.


DSA 2020 Conference: “Case Study on Building Local Leadership in Kenya” George Awalla, Richard Holloway

PRAN Nepal: “Social Accountability in Practice” ed. Richard Holloway

PRAN Nepal “Source Book for 21 Social Accountability Tools” ed. Kedar Khadka