Thinking and Working Politically: Learning from Practice, Neil McCulloch, Laure-Hélène Piron (2019)

This overview article draws out five lessons from a set of initiatives undertaken by both development partners and government departments in Nigeria, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, China and India. They are: (1) the fundamental importance of undertaking political economy analysis (PEA) to adapt programmes to their contexts; (2) the importance of having a realistic level of ambition for interventions; (3) the need to support local ownership—not just “agreement ownership” (between a donor agency and government) or local “management ownership” of the programme, but critically “driver ownership” by generating trust with the key local actors driving change; (4) the need for a more effective set of tools for measuring results in complex programmes that attempt to achieve improvements in long-run governance; and, (5) that although the political economy of donors is often seen as a barrier to applying Thiking and Working Politically (TWP), the articles show how much can be done with a TWP approach if the analysis takes into account the political economy of donors as well as that of the local context.

Our six recommendations are:

(1) Funders should ensure that PEA is embedded in programmes as an ongoing process rather than simply as an upfront assessment or part of an evaluation.

(2) Donors should focus more on how they can best support the efforts of the coalitions that are driving reform (that is “driver ownership”), and not just attempt to instil ownership into those with the formal responsibility for implementing it (“agreement” or “management” ownership).

(3) Donors should take seriously the need to revise their models for contracting teams to manage programmes to put much greater focus on the skills needed to build trusting relationships (if necessary, at the cost of strong technical skills).

(4) Further research is needed into how success is defined and measured for interventions that are designed to achieve long-term governance or institutional reforms. The solution is not the abandonment of quantitative rigour, but rather the development and application of rigorous qualitative methods that are appropriate for the complex, non-linear, “small-n” problems that are often associated with institutional reform.

(5) The implicit claim of advocates of TWP is that it is more effective at achieving long-term reforms than more traditional approaches. However, the evidence base for this is thin. There is an urgent need for research that could help to identify the kinds of problems and the sorts of context where a TWP approach is more or less effective.

(6) We need to find a way of learning more from failures. While the incentives facing donors and implementers make them very reluctant to do so, systems and processes can be put in place which make it easier.

You can download the overview article here.