Thinking and working politically: What have we learned since 2013?

It’s always a red letter day when a new paper from Graham Teskey drops. His most recent is Thinking and working politically: What have we learned since 2013? For those that don’t know him, Graham is a consummate insider-outsider within the aid sector – long stints at DFID (UK), DFAT (Australia) and now Abt (Management Consultants). From this vantage point he has been one of the leading proponents of ‘thinking and working politically’, always ready to call out the hand-wavey academics and demand some practical lessons, please.

This paper is part biography of an idea, setting out the timeline, moments and key documents and policy wins in the evolution of TWP (which seems to have involved a lot of seminars that I missed due to Oxfam’s meagre travel budget). The other part is, to be honest, a bit of a lament – a study in ‘Why Change Hasn’t Happened’, because TWP has ‘got lost in the maelstrom’ of the wider, largely negative, changes in the aid sector. Overall, it’s a brilliant summary, and one I’ll be recommending to my increasingly long-suffering activism students….

For reasons of space, I’ll skip the timeline in favour of some extracts on where we are now and the lessons he draws from his historical account.

Early thinking

The changed context

2013 now seems like ancient history. The differences in geo-political and national contexts could hardly be more different. It is no exaggeration to say that DFID sat astride the donor world, and was widely admired for its consistency, coherence, and technical excellence. Down under, AusAID was – explicitly – modelling itself on DFID. A number of ex-DFID advisers were recruited as AusAID, under the driven Directorship of Peter Baxter, sought to transform itself from a project factory into a serious development organisation. This ended in September 2013 following the federal election, when AusAID was abolished, literally overnight. Specialist skills were deemed unnecessary and hundreds of years of development experience walked out of the door, many experts were unceremoniously sacked, also overnight, with no prior warning. Observers are watching to see what will happen in the FCDO.

The geo-political environment has changed. China has continued its inexorable rise, to the extent that we are once again living in a bi-polar world, even if it is, at the moment at least, an asymmetrical bipolarity. National interests dominate. Thomas Hobbes is back in fashion. The domestic political economy in many donor countries is less supportive of aid, and they are generating distinctive and mutually exclusive narratives: for example, Black Lives Matter and decolonising aid on the one hand, and the populist sloganeering of Global Britain and America First on the other.

These trends have had implications for all aid agencies, most notably for the UK and Australia. Less attention is now being paid to the underlying issues of governance, as policy reform, system strengthening, and institutional support rarely lead to the short-term photogenic results so beloved of ministers. Further, and of deeper concern, is that the dominant culture in foreign affairs departments seems to dismiss the idea that governance advisers have much to offer anyway. Indeed, I would note three trends as development agencies are ‘asset stripped’:

  • downgraded: the critically important but unglamorous work of program design, review, and evaluation has been downgraded and is increasingly contracted out to consultants;
  • degraded: in-country, frontline, technical policy discussions with partners has been degraded. Government-to-government discussions over technical issues now don’t happen – or if they do it’s through outsiders; and
  • upgraded: the emphasis on the here and now, the transactional, the soundbite, the ‘announceable’, has been upgraded.

From this he draws ‘ten lessons’ (my summaries of his explanations in brackets):

1: TWP (and DDD) have been overwhelmed by changes in the international context (see above)

2: The organisational culture and ‘DNA’ of formal government aid departments have major implications for their interest in, and ability to, ‘think and work politically’. (Governance departments have been massacred in the mergers of Wasaid and DFID, giving the lie to the increasing use of TWP language in aid documents).

3: The practice of TWP (and indeed DDD) has not been localised. (‘nationalist practice’ has frustrated efforts to take TWP out of its Western donor origins)

4: TWP is now commonplace but not common practice. (Interesting – TWP-washing is everywhere in donor policies and requests for tender, but has failed to really change the business model, which is dominated by what Andrew Natsios called ‘the frenzy of results’.)

5: Where successful at the project level, TWP has metamorphosed into Adaptive Management in practice (because AM is less likely to frighten the political paymasters than talk of politics)

6: TWP has struggled to make inroads into sector-specific programs. (TWP was born in work on governance and institutional reform, and there it has more or less stayed, with the notable addition of gender rights work. Efforts to influence the big ticket items of health, education, infrastructure etc have largely stalled).

7: Organisational structures and staffing for implementing TWP projects have to be specifically tailored. (quoting Graham ‘only if we ‘learn as we go’ can we adapt in real time: this requires delivery (implementation), data collection (monitoring), learning (reflection) and adapting (changing) to be undertaken simultaneously, not sequentially. And it is here I believe that we run into constraints in organisational (program management) design.’) Unfortunately, in the case of DFAT (Australia), the number of governance specialists has dropped from 30 in 2013 to just one today.

8: TWP has to be incentivised by donors at the procurement and design stages, then enabled at delivery (all the unsexy bits have to buy in, or they will block progress)

9: TWP has led to a greater appreciation of both formal and informal sources of knowledge (including valuing local knowledge, not just fly-in, fly-out consultants)

10. Diplomatic colleagues remain unimpressed with TWP (the once hoped-for silver lining from merging foreign affairs and aid departments has not materialised).

Given what is pretty close to a damning post-mortem, it is perhaps hardly surprising that the last section’s inevitable call to arms is pretty half-hearted. My overall impression? Seen from 2022, TWP may have won some battles, but it lost the war – back to that maelstrom image. I guess if you’re looking for a straw to clutch, you could say that a lot has been learned that can be drawn on when politics becomes more propitious for making aid work better. And if you want to hunker down with fellow TWP enthusiasts, please check out the TWP Community of Practice website.

More than happy for other TWPistas to chip in with a more optimistic take, but this is what I got from the paper.

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11 Responses to “Thinking and working politically: What have we learned since 2013?”
  1. Priyanthi Fernando

    Returned to FP2P after a lapse. (Tribute to Duncan that even though his readers may lapse he doesn’t – not sure how you do it!!!) Anyway, just want to say very curious and confused about TWP. Only just came across it despite decades of working in development and several brushes with DFID. Confused because its not just that development is messy and politics gets in the way, but more that development IS politics?

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Priyanthi, I think the confusion partly comes from the unhelpful (to my mind) conflation of ‘aid’ with ‘development’. What northern cooperation does is clearly more than just $, but it is substantially less than ‘development’, which is largely locally-driven. So I think TWP is saying cooperation must be more political, and that does make sense.

  2. This is an excellent (if a bit depressing!) overview. For an agenda that relied so heavily on buy-in from select donor patrons, the downgrading of key aid agencies has certainly been devastating. From the vantage point of my tiny corner of the world, it would appear that the UK has lost the kinds of DFID advisors who really cared about making TWP possible in a practical sense: working closely with implementers and local partners, building trust, providing space for reflection and adaptation. Compared to just five years ago, I see more projects in the governance space that have unrealistic objectives, micro-managed outputs, absurdly short inception phases, and little to no resourcing for learning and strategic functions.

    Having said that, I do think the core principles of context sensitivity, flexibility, and systematic learning do endure under various guises (e.g. AM, versions of RBM), and a lot of the work continues to be done at the coalface – drafting context-sensitive bids, managing funder expectations, and fostering approaches that allow local partners to thrive. Though the big war may have been lost and most generals may be gone, there are still plenty of partisans and sympathizers. It’s perhaps less visible, less conceptually rigorous work, but no less impactful. So my recommendation to the CoP (those that remain) would be to focus less on getting buy-in from the ever-shrinking pool of high-minded patrons, and more on continuing to enhance the skills and methodologies of TWP-minded practitioners at the local level.

  3. Ufff. We live in a different world than 2013. A world disappeared: DFID, DFAT. My feelings about the changes are something akin to grief. And at this point, it’s hard to know how much time spend digging amid the rubble for anything of value. I mean, what’s your best estimated time-frame for this: “a lot has been learned that can be drawn on when politics becomes more propitious for making aid work better.”

    Or is it better to clear the whole mess away and try to think anew. I honestly don’t know at this point. Am struggling.

  4. George

    I’m wondering about the battle/war metaphors used here. If we say that the ‘war’ has been lost and ‘generals’ have gone etc etc, that paints a very black and white picture. Of course there’s no getting away from the fact that DFAT and DFID are gone, but those so-called generals weren’t slaughtered on the battle field, they lost their jobs, some may have retired but many will have taken-up positions at other organisations (perhaps INGOs, academia, other govt institutions) – so the expertise and knowledge hasn’t completely evaporated. It would be interesting to know whether any of these people continue flying the TWP flag at other institutions. And following on from this, what this article doesn’t cover is the rise of the ‘Philanthrocapitalists’ over this period since 2013. Many of us may have our concerns about the source of the money, but there’s no getting away from the fact that the likes of Bill&Melinda Gates, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller etc are now significant players in the aid scene (perhaps not at the scale of DFID, but not too far off I think). Are these new heavy-weights using TWP? Are any of the ex-generals working within these institutions and embedding the TWP approach/expertise there? I’d be interested to hear people’s reflections.

  5. George

    #10 is worth reflecting on. Why have diplomatic colleagues remain unimpressed with TWP? Possibly because, for what is essentially a framework for helping people to think about how to make change happen, it has been over-fetishised, and diplomatic colleagues wonder what all the fuss is about. There’s also been a failure to set TWP within the wider context of dealing with the complex problems of development – this has led to an alphabet soup of ‘movements’ (TWP, DDD, AM etc.) which are really all responding to the same problem but emphasising different elements of it.
    For what’s it’s worth, I think Pablo’s points about changes in xDFID are over-stated. Not that many of xDFID’s advisors have left…yet.
    George (not a diplomatic colleague)

  6. Graham’s paper is a lovely history of the TWP CoP evolution. I would add other milestones from my own insider/outsider journey such as re-energisng the internal DFID debate with our 2015 DFID PEA/TWP stocktake, embedding PEA/TWP in DFID’s 2016 Building Stability Framework, huge UK gvt staff appetite for PEA/TWP courses I’m involved in that are always over-subscribed, advisers/managers keen to infuse TWP/PEA when they see openings, etc.

    Lessons 3 and 9 are the long term, positive agenda: TWP as a way of working, on a daily basis, which prioritises sharing skills with local partners and developing local capacities to design and deliver change strategies, regardless of the sector. ‘Embedded’, ‘facilitated’ PEA/TWP is the way to go.

    More than any international consultant or donor could ever be, my counterparts already think and work politically to achieve change in their local contexts – I learn from them. Global North practitioners can pass on insights about how to help donor agencies become more politically savvy (given their own internal PEAs) so programmes are more realistic and successful. This means sharing savoir-faire, as well as concepts, tools, frameworks, vocabulary for local partners to influence development programmes and make them think and work politically.

  7. Robin Perry

    In my view the big picture backdrop for deteriorating capacity in aid governance is the increased hollowing out of civil service capacity (to but it politely and broadly) in recent years – certainly here in Australia and also in the UK, it seems. More bluntly, what that means in practice is much less ‘frank and fearless’ advice from civil servants and a much greater appetite to dismiss what the evidence dictates in favour of what ministers’ offices want. In a nutshell, the downgraded, degraded and upgraded characteristics of aid policy which you refer to above could arguably be applied to public policy in general – across the spectrum of government agencies. And so attempts to reverse the trend with respect to aid policy must also grapple with the broader public policy landscape of which it is just one small part. I’ll leave it to better qualified people than me to find the evidence for those connections.

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