What would persuade the aid business to ‘think and work politically’?

Some wonks from the ‘thinking and working politically’ (TWP) network discussed its influencing strategy last week. There were some people with proper

True that, Albert
True that, Albert

jobs there, who demanded Chatham House Rules, which happily means I don’t have to remember who said what (or credit anyone).

The discussion was interesting because it covered ground relevant to almost anyone trying to shift an internal consensus (in this case towards aid donors taking more account of politics, power, institutions etc in their work). Some highlights:

Who are your target groups? The ‘aid industry’ or ‘governments’ is far too wide. The best effort identified four: in the rich countries, professional advisers within donors and relevant academic networks; in the developing country, politicians and senior officials.

Within those target groups, there are ‘natural allies’, who entirely understand the importance of thinking in terms of locally specific politics, incentives, institutions etc rather than checklists of best practice. Interestingly, they may not be obvious – diplomats and foreign office types ‘get’ this much more easily than their more econo-technocratic aid ministry counterparts. Sectoral specialists in health and sanitation have done a lot of thinking on systems, but (reportedly) education and water engineers  less so.

Talking-politics-December-27-2013The next question is ‘what persuades your targets?’ My bet would be that the most important factor is the messenger, not the message – if a senior politician hears about TWP thinking from their university professor, or a retired political heavyweight, they are far more likely to listen. So perhaps we should deliberately recruit a lot of ‘old men in a hurry’ – apologies for gender bias there, Mary Robinson and Graca Machel are great counterexamples – retired big cheeses keen to make a difference.

Incentives can get in the way here, in that the institutional make-up of TWP means people have hammers, and so are usually looking for nails. Researchers want things to research and have an overwhelming urge to split hairs and generally complicate everything; consultants want to develop products and toolkits and generally make themselves indispensable. Both usually feel the need to begin by trashing their rivals, even if what they are saying is almost indiscernibly different. Both can only do things if they are funded by someone (typically an aid donor).

But what if influencing the targets means creating a major sense of risk and the need for change by highlighting (preferably in the Daily Mail) the failures of those same aid agencies? Dropping everything to lobby like hell when a new minister takes over, creating a brief window of opportunity? Repeating a simple message endlessly and avoiding too much nuance? Setting up mentoring and programme exchanges with successful examples on the ground?

There are several quagmires around the use of the word ‘politics’. The word puts off people who may actually be ‘thinking politically’, but talk in terms of education, health etc – and it can easily come across as a turf grab by governance people. To targets in developing countries, it can sound like political interference by donors (and let’s be honest, to some extent it is!). But on the other hand, how can we talk about politics by downplaying politics?

In addition, lots of people in the aid business (and especially in the diplomatic corps!) think they are already ‘working politically’. So urging them to do so is more likely to alienate than persuade (see recent rant on annoying your target audience), unless we can show very clearly (and quickly) what they would need to do differently in a TWP approach.

TWP uptake spectrumThere are some bigger questions about the purpose of TWP: is it primarily about ‘small p’ politics – using political economy analysis to design better aid programmes with a greater chance of success. Or is it about Big P – empowerment, transformation, shaking everything up, redistributing power etc? At the moment it is rather fudging the issue (see graphic), and I think at some point it will have to decide.

Putting those last two paras together makes me think TWP should probably accept its institutional constraints and go for small P. How about ‘Politics is keep-calm-and-love-politics-2Value for Money’ as a slogan? (only half-joking)

My suggested basic messages for Politics as VFM:

  • The current system doesn’t work: here are 5 disasters from ignoring politics
  • We have new ideas that work and we can prove it
  • Here are some key (<6) sensibilist principles which you probably agree with, and a bunch of case studies that exemplify them


And some FAQs and Myth busters

  • What do we mean by ‘working politically’?
  • Is this just about governance?
  • So you think you’re doing it already? Ask yourself these questions…….
  • Why this is not (just) about governance


Any additional suggestions very welcome!

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17 Responses to “What would persuade the aid business to ‘think and work politically’?”
  1. Rob Yates

    You only have to look at the debate raging about the NHS in the run up to the UK elections to realise that health reforms are intrinsically political. Basically extending health coverage (people getting the health services they need with financial protection) involves forcing healthy wealthy people to subsidise the sick and the poor. It also requires huge state involvement to correct market failures and control profit maximising behaviours of powerful interest groups – notably healthcare providers and the pharmaceutical industry. As these interest groups are often well organised in resisting these controls, it takes a lot of political capital to develop a health system that delivers universal coverage – ask President Obama!

    But unfortunately many people working in health and development overlook these political processes and tend to treat health systems reforms as a purely technical matter. This results in a lot of strategic planning which might talk about increasing public spending and improving health equity but often ends in failure due to political resistance from privileged groups. For these reasons, the growing campaign for Universal Health Coverage should be welcomed because it tackles the issue of politics and health systems reforms head on. In particular one can’t ignore politics when the UHC title explicitly states that EVERYBODY should be covered.

    Our new UHC Policy Forum at Chatham House is planning to engage specifically in the Political Economy of UHC reforms (see http://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/14972) and we would be very keen to work with others interested in this field. Perhaps we could even join the TWP network and we’ll certainly be able to stick to the Chatham House rules.

  2. Chris Roche

    Big question for me is the degree to which those who generate organisational policies, processes and procedures realty understand the ‘front line’ practice of thinking and working politically. My hunch is that in the official Aid sector at least, much of this happens despite the organisational set up. Seems like, as in other areas http://www.wa.ipaa.org.au/content/docs/IPAA2014/Rhodes%202014%20IPAA%20version.pdf , we often forget the importance of the existing ‘craft”and turn to ‘sexy new reform’ .

    Maybe if we understood and researched this front line practice we could better shape the ‘fitness landscape’ of the organisational & policy environments which shape, and are shaped by this practice.

  3. Annette JE

    Great to see that the TWP crew are looking at ways to get the message out and influence further. However from your post above, I think a key audience group might be missing. Practitioners and implementers (I appreciate that the TWP and DDD groups include many but there are many of us out there!).
    I manage a project where we use TWP approaches throughout every aspect of the project (demand side, V&A project), some of the approaches we use as a project itself to help us get government buy-in etc but mainly we support our civil society partners and communities we work with to use these approaches to give them alternative avenues through which they can get their voices heard, to give them ways to build allies and to help them identify the incentive structures surrounding those they seek to hold to account.

    If the TWP and DDD people want to have a real influence then development implementers have to be brought on board to integrate this thinking into new and existing programmes. The push can’t just be from donors and national governments.

  4. Jaime Faustino

    Thanks Duncan for raising this question. An answer to the question (what would persuade the aid business to ‘think and work politically’?) is for all who believe in TWP to 1) pursue various methods and approaches and 2) document them for others.

    What we are trying to achieve reminds me of a saying from Chinese writer Lu Xun, “Hope is like a path in the countryside: originally there was no path – – yet, as people are walking all the time in the same spot, a way appears.”

  5. Paul O'Brien

    Thanks for pushing the conversation along. Agree that its the right question but current answer is a bit mushy. NYT was interesting this morning on this. Mo Ibrahim gave $5M this morning to President of Namibia for leading race to the top on good governance. Meanwhile, dissenting voices in Ethiopia are bemoaning the love fest donors have with the economic growth story while dissenters are getting locked up. Seems to me the key thing TWP should strive for is to seek out opportunities to support politicians in developing countries who gain political power from making development commitments and then hold them accountable.

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Paul, I think the mushiness comes partly from the confusion over whether this exercise is about big P, small P or both. I would put Oxfam in the ‘both’ camp – using all these political wiles to do something disruptive/transformatory, rather than just tweak the status quo. Others in TWP lie in different points on that spectrum, I think

  6. Donna Loveridge

    Thanks Duncan for continuing to walk the path. Like Annette, I wondered where the program managers, implementers, practitioners and technical assistance (or any combo of these various labels) fitted into the picture. While there are those that are already doing /supporting TWP (and potentially more I think than those individuals or organisations that often get cited on various discussions such as DDD etc) there are many individuals or teams that don’t TWP and don’t see it as their role. I can also see some people might try TWP to comply with donor expectations or requirements rather than valuing it.

    I would be interested in learning if the discussions covered who should be TWP, beyond aid donors, …. Is it everyone’s job?

    • Duncan Green

      That’s partly the problem of creating a label like TWP – it galvanizes some people, gives them a sense of shared purpose etc, but the danger is that it excludes others. Hard to exaggerate the importance of getting this initial ‘branding’ right, and I don’t think TWP has spent enough time on it yet. In the meeting, people talked about how DFID staff still refer to the ‘Drivers of Change’ initiative from the mid noughties – worth thinking about why that is: a good name that ‘does what it says on the tin’? Getting the brand out established before the researchers and consultants could take over and complicate things? And yes, of course I think it’s everyone’s job!

  7. Claire Melamed

    Of course I am fully on board with the idea that if you are trying to change something, like for example improve the health system, in a given country, then you have to build in the politics from the beginning – and it’s great that you and others are thinking about how donors can be more aware of, and sensitive to, this. But two things I am left wondering.

    Firstly, this feels like a big shift from what used to be the progressive position on aid. It used to be that the way that Oxfam or ODI-types thought that donors should engage with politics was to give money to governments through their normal budget process, so as to distort local politics as little as possible (by avoiding conditionality and perverse incentives from donor biases), and to let the people in that country manage their own politics. Now, it seems, progressive people in the aid business are saying the opposite – that aid should be given in ways that do influence local politics as much and as effectively as possible, in support of donor objectives. Is that a good thing? I’m not sure.

    Secondly, a workshop which concludes that politicians and senior officials in developing countries should be persuaded to think and act more politically must be going wrong somewhere (they’re your suggested target group for this approach)? If anyone, anywhere, is thinking politically it is them. You might not like the reality of the politics they are facing (elite capture, etc), but is the problem really that it isn’t political enough? Seriously doubt that…..

    • Duncan Green

      Good points Claire, I share some of your qualms about the political direction of all this – it’s partly the big P v little P clash, but I think it goes beyond that. Got a feeling this one is going to return and bite us at some point

  8. Marta Foresti

    Duncan, thanks for stimulating an interesting discussion. I think that whether to use the word ‘politics’ is not necessarily the right question. I think the problem is a different one: acknowledging or stating that the nature of a problem is ‘political’ (which we all agree with ) does not help much to solve it. Having figured out that politics does indeed matter, the conversation (and our efforts) needs to move to tactics, ways of working, attempts, experiments, innovations, failures and = crucially- tangible results which can help navigate the reality of power and politics in any given context.

    More importantly: I think Claire is right, if we are suggesting that this is about persuading people who live and breathe the politics of a country, a sector, a city or an office day in and day out – but may call it developing a health system or drafting a law – to ‘act and think politically’ we are going wrong somewhere. Would we refer to ‘thinking and working politically’ in the ways in which groups in our country campaign or draft policies on the living wage or the rights of migrants? I think there we simply see the connection or recognize the political stance in what people do, say and stand for.

    I do worry that for too long the label ‘ politics of’ has let us off the hook of being clear about what we mean and what to do about it….

  9. Marc Cassidy

    Thanks for sharing the main discussion points of the TWP network meeting. Identifying champions, deciding to focus on little of big P politics, what to call the movement, how to sell it to skeptics are just some of the challenges we face.
    I think the TWP uptake spectrum is a useful visual to explain the TWP approach. I’d argue that progress has been made in the evolutionary uptake by donors and their partners over the last decade. The revolutionary path, however, is still in its fledgling stage. This is because, like any revolution, it takes great courage and risk to take on the establishment–and in the case of the aid business, cause industry-level disruption. I do believe TWP/DDD would likely lead to better development outcomes, but is unlikely to occur without significant push back from various corners of the aid industry. A PEA of TWP policy change would like reveal more spoilers than champions of its adoption, I’d wager.
    I don’t doubt that savvy TWP marketing is essential to its greater acceptance and adoption over time. Perhaps we need to start engaging ad agencies looking to do pro bono work?
    However, I see the major obstacle to adopt a TWP approach is donor procurement mechanisms. As I am confident that most readers of this blog will agree that most donors and implementers are not set up to incentivize a flexible/adaptable TWP/DDD approach. At present, most of the aid industry is firmly lodged in the linear project cycle. This incentivizes more static approaches to design and implementation and allows donors and implementers to do budget planning based an anticipated “burn rates”. Most contractor and NGO business models demands a certain degree of constant spending to remain financially viable. TWP/DDD would threaten this status quo, and this will likely result in a least a few assassination attempts on the TWP/DDD approach.
    I would like to believe that a new USAID administrator or UKaid Minister who believed in this approach could bring about necessary changes to procurement mechanisms, but it will probably take a larger TWP cohort located throughout the donor agencies with ample political support from their respective legislature to firmly entrench TWP as the new way of doing aid differently.

  10. Heather Marquette

    Hi Claire,

    I don’t think it’s about trying to get politicians to understand that politics is important. Like bringing coal to Newcastle, as they say! It’s about supporting politicians to put pressure on donors, implementers and others to better think & work politically, which we need if aid is to truly be ‘politically smart, locally led’. Donors (especially senior managers or ministers) are more likely to listen to their political counterparts than analysts.

    I actually think the focus on donors distorts the discussion too much. There are plenty of donor staff who do actually get this, though that’s clearly not the majority. But the same holds for implementers, INGOs etc. Plenty may get it, but the majority, many of whom are technical specialists where the politics is implicit but you have to go looking for it, probably don’t. Is there really an entire development industry just waiting for donors to unclip their wings, or are there pockets of frustrated people who would like their work to be more effective and think this is the way to do it? There are also plenty of barriers within recipient countries as well, including some bureaucrats who – like bureaucrats everywhere – like best practice, like having clear guidelines, don’t like risk and like avoiding blame. I don’t think we should see donors as a magic key to unlocking TWP or DDD, but see them as one important link in a chain. After all, donors are becoming a smaller and smaller part of the story anyway.

  11. Heather Marquette

    I do definitely think we need to keep politics at the heart of these discussions (I would say that, as a political scientist…). A ‘failure’ case study that I’m hoping to be able to write up (if it can be done in a way that’s politically sensitive to the context and the actors!) looks at a service delivery programme in a fragile state. The project failed to deliver in 6 of the 10 target municipalities, and improving the processes (more flexibility, better feedback loops etc) could’ve helped improve the success rate substantially. But the interesting part of the story is the 4 municipalities where it worked. In some of these, the service was captured by local armed gangs (or even non-local ones who moved in) who used violence and intimidation against local authorities and the community and now use the service to extract rents. The success of the project was the problem, not its failure, because it didn’t keep politics at the heart of its planning and implementation. I think we’d have a lot to learn from cases like this if we could get more of them out there in the public domain. But that’s a big political challenge.

  12. David Booth

    I like your formula, Duncan, for basic messaging about TWP (including coopting the language of VfM):
    •The current system doesn’t work: here are 5 disasters from ignoring politics
    •We have new ideas that work and we can prove it
    •Here are some key (<6) sensibilist principles which you probably agree with, and a bunch of case studies that exemplify them
    But as some of the discussion above illustrates, when we get to filling in the examples, we shall need to be clear about things that TWP doesn't mean and does mean. This clarity is there in the long statement prepared by Graham Teskey but tends to get lost in the abbreviated versions (which we do also need). I would suggest:
    It doesn't mean "thinking about political things" (most development workers do that already, and governance specialists do little else.
    It does mean understanding well the deeper realities of how specific political systems function and how progressive change happens, based on a good engagement with country and global history (I don't believe there are many donor programmes that really do that. Even when advisers on the ground want to do it, they are effectively overruled by directives from their top management and ministers which ignore the best evidence, with the single exception of one prominent person's reading of one ideologically congenial book — Acemoglu and Robinson's Why Nations Fail)
    In short, I don't think the make issue is about small p or big P politics, its about superficial and deeper ways of taking political (and socio-economic) realities into account.

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