Getting to the ‘so whats’: how can donors use political economy analysis to sort out bad governance?


Close but no cigar. Just been reading an ODI paper from a few months ago, Making sense of the politics of delivery: our findings so far, by Marta Foresti, Tam O’Neil and Leni Wild. It’s part of the ODI’s excellent stream of work on governance and accountability (see my review of David Booth and Diana Cammack’s book) and repays close study.

The starting point is the widespread disillusionment in DFID and elsewhere with ‘political economy analysis’ (PEA), memorably summed up by Alex Duncan’s definition of a political economist as ‘someone who comes and explains why your programme hasn’t worked’:

‘There is no doubt that PEA has helped answer some of these questions [why stuff doesn’t work]. Yet many would say that researchers have not found a middle ground between generality and specificity. On the one hand, the use of catch-all concepts, such as political will or unspecified incentives, fail to provide enough analytical purchase on which to hang entry points for reform. On the other, if we view every context and problem as sui generis, experience cannot be used to construct theories of change that in­clude learning across programmes and contexts.’

So ODI has been trying to apply PEA, working with governments and donors on health, water, sanitation, justice and security and social protection in Malawi, Nepal, Rwanda, Si­erra Leone and Sri Lanka.

The result is ‘problem driven PEA’ – the ODI’s big new idea, which has substantial overlap with Matt Andrews’ Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation.transparency 2

‘Problem driven PEA is structured around three main dimensions:

Problem identification: identifying the specific ‘problem’ to be addressed or those poor outcomes to which po­litical economy issues appear to contribute.

Diagnosis: This has two components: (i) Structure: identifying those systemic features that help to explain why the problem persists (e.g. historical legacies, geo­graphic and social features, geopolitics, and the ‘rules of the game’ that underpin power relations); and (ii) Agency: identifying the incentives that shape actors’ behaviour, including key motivations, decision logics and power dynamics. Crucially, analysis needs to look at the interaction of both structure and agency, and can draw on a varied toolbox of relevant analytical concepts.

What can be done: Identification of plausible theories of change and assessment of the range of potentially vi­able entry points (selection of appropriate modalities, timing and sequencing of interventions, and so on)’

Which bears more than a passing resemblance to the ‘Power and Change cycle’ regularly discussed on this blog.

And their findings of what works on the ground (or at least a bit closer to it than the ivory towers of London or Harvard)?

Aid modalities: External actors can play beneficial roles in government efforts to ad­dress political constraints if they adopt appropriate ap­proaches. Six factors appear important to enable aid-funded ac­tivities to gain domestic traction:

  • Identify and seize windows of opportunity: ex­ploit country-led imperative for change.
  • Focus on reform of goods and services with tangi­ble political pay-offs.
  • Don’t focus on ideal models; build on what exists and get current policy and legal mandates work­ing.
  • Move beyond reliance on policy dialogue and fo­cus instead on making existing systems deliver.
  • Bear transaction costs to facilitate problem-solv­ing and local collective action.
  • Ensure adaptation by learning.

fragile states 1Arm’s length aid: An ‘arm’s length’ model of engagement and organisation may be best placed to help people in developing countries build the institutions that enable them to act in their collective long-term interests. Such mod­els work through organisations that offer advisory ser­vices directly to governments and other public bodies in developing countries and have had some success as bro­kers of collective action and/or facilitators of change. Examples include the Africa Governance Initiative, the Budget Strengthening Initiative and TradeMark East Africa. Donors should consider delivering more aid in this way.

Great, in that the ODI work really is starting to address some of the criticisms of PEA. I particularly like the recognition of the importance of critical junctures/windows of opportunity, and a real effort to understand why change isn’t happening before outsiders jump in. Why no cigar? Because in this rendering of reality, the world is apparently made up of only of donors and states (and of course researchers). No-one else matters. Nothing on the coalitions of disparate actors (state and non-state) that can drive or block change, or create the desire (or at least perception) among elites that change is needed. Civil society organizations, faith organizations, Diasporas, business associations etc etc.

But this quibble aside, this is all part of a very exciting effort to really get to grips with the issues of governance and institutional reform.

Update: see comments for update/response from ODI

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11 Responses to “Getting to the ‘so whats’: how can donors use political economy analysis to sort out bad governance?”
  1. Geir Sundet

    Hi Duncan,
    great post, as usual.

    One more thing to consider – PEA is most often presented as an output. Something that one has to do something with. What if we instead try and imagine PEA as a process? A process that is not necessarily tied to any one particular project.

    Imagine a team of monitors that report regularly on what is happening on the ground, to a team of analysts or someone who has time to process the data.

    Plot the collected info into a model of politics from the ground up. Data could include info on how much money and resources make it to schools and clinics (an ongoing PETS); how / what decisions are made at the local council; how local business is doiong; time and resources required for licenses / permits. Etc.

    By taking a long term perspective, at least five years, one could build a picture of realities on the ground, compile stories of change, test theories, map pilots.

    Outputs of this process could include a website with continuous updates, periodic reports and a the occassional workshop to eak out lessons and connect with the everyday politics of change.

    Get the participants right, make sure of connections with the national politics and movements, and perhaps you could get “the coalitions of diparate actors who drive or block change” involved.

    Anyhow, my main point is that there is an argument for seeing PEA much more as a long term process in its own right, and not just an add-on or put-in to something else.


    • Duncan

      Thanks Geir, this echoes a lot of my own thinking on the NGO version of PEA – theories of change. Theories of change need to be a shift in mindset, (to political awareness, power analysis and continuous stock taking and adaptation). It will be a huge waste if they are reduced to a form-filling exercise

  2. Alice

    Another quibble concerns the document’s emphasis on service-providers’ *incentives*, rather than their normative beliefs.

    Both at central and district level, attention and resource allocation may also be shaped by ideas about what is important, what matters.

  3. I quite enjoyed reading the paper and don’t want to be too tough of a crowd to please but there’s another omission that irked me.

    The feeling is similar to that I got when I was at presentation of current research on development interventions in fragile states in Copenhagen last Wednesday.

    What struck me most, beyond the sparsity of tangible recommendations, was that those recommendations that did surface(similar to those above) could hardly be said to be ‘best fit’ with current structures and practices among bilateral aid agencies. E.g. the widespread practice of staff rotation, the rights-based framework or evidence-based politics.

    “The use of catch-all concepts, such as political will or unspecified incentives,” is just as pointless in the context of donor countries as it is in the receiving end.

    Does anyone know of a research programme doing problem-driven PEA focussed on donor agencies? (Other than Rosalind Eyben perhaps)

  4. Marta Foresti

    Thanks Duncan, very insightful as usual.

    Soren, and others interested in the ‘so what’ questions vis a vis the political economy of donor agencies: in our most recent briefing (see suggest that it is time to turn the lens back on to aid agencies themselves, recognising that much attention to date has focused on understanding how institutional reform happens within countries and not enough on what it will take for international assistance to change. We are moderately optimistic that something seems to be changing: see for example recent thinking in DFID about adaptive programming ( and on whether the WB can do PDIA ( It would be great to get others’ views.

    Duncan, we are very aware that much of PEA has focused on state and institutions and not enough on the dynamics of power relationships. However things are changing on this too: see for example our work on citizens scorecards in Malawi ( with more to come soon in Tanzania, Ethiopia and Rwanda (with Care UK). Also we have work underway now with Twaweza on the role of ICTs to help citizens monitor health services in Tanzania and on legal empowerment/access to justice for women, land entitlements and reproductive rights. So watch this space!


  5. This discussion very much resonates with us. At INASP (, we work with partners in a wide range of countries to strengthen the production and communication of scientific research (not for its own sake but ultimately so it can inform development). We’ve been doing this for 21 years, but we’ve recently shifted to working more at a national level, trying to understand the local research “ecosystem” and to identify who has the power and interest to push for change. For us this system is made up of research institutes and universities, government ministries, science academies, and other networks of those who do and support research. And, of course, it is different in every country. But although we are quite new to this, we can already see some key principles:

    – All of our work involves identifying local partners and working with them to achieve what they want to achieve. But if the system does not value the role of the people we’re working with, it will take a massive effort of will and energy on their part for change to happen.

    – That said, we can see several examples in different countries where exactly that has happened and the system has shifted in response. So the challenge is how we spot these possibilities and provide support.

    – If that passion (or ability) is absent, we have to shift our attention to finding someone in a more influential role who does have some energy and interest. This doesn’t necessarily mean someone more senior (though it sometimes is) – but someone who’s prepared to do this, or someone who’s listened to a bit more.

    – Best of all is to find the combination of energy and interest in someone who is handing out money – and so can really shift the agenda, such as in a government ministry or higher education commission) and someone who can push from below. But it’s not often that you get the two together.

    – While we are investing money in training and skills, we find we can do a surprising amount by simply convening meetings or brokering conversations while we’re visiting a country – and often then stepping back -. It’s remarkable how often each individual wants change and there may be broad agreement about what kind of change. What was missing was either the legitimacy to start a conversation about it or the oomph to put it at the top of the agenda of others, so that something actually happens. It’s not unusual for us to be told ‘those people wouldn’t have come to the meeting if we’d called it ourselves’. It also has the potential to begin to build those coalitions which are needed, but often blocked by existing silos of responsibility and thinking.

    – We need to be increasingly adaptable to do this well – not only to really emphasise learning, but to find ways to plan and develop our programmes iteratively, and sometimes changing approaches which we’re most familiar with to try something new.

  6. Hi Duncan,

    Thanks for the post – very enjoyable, and good to see ODI products are being well received.

    Issues of political economy, PDIA and just making things work (perhaps through arms length aid, perhaps not) will be discussed at the 2013 Cape Conference in November – we’re talking about ‘Budgeting in the real world’.

    Matt Andrews will be speaking on how PDIA can help reformers working to improve budgeting processes in developing countries.


  7. Hi Duncan,

    Interesting post. At ECDPM we recently talked to one of our experts at ECDPM, Jean Bossuyt, who argues that you badly need Political Economy Analysis.

    He worked on the PEA Senegal study with the European Commission.

    He says: “We need to go deeper: deeper into understanding the local context, deeper into understanding the drivers of change, deeper into understanding the incentives that will push elites to reform”,.

  8. Diane de Gramont

    Thank you for the as always thoughtful post and discussion. Our research at Carnegie also finds that political analysis focused around particular development problems and entry points tends to be most useful to practitioners. Just a note that the World Bank’s political economy analysis team has also been advocating a problem-driven focus since 2009 and have put together some useful guidance on that. See Fritz, Kaiser, and Levy on Problem-Driven Governance and Political Economy Analysis: