Thinking and Working Politically: where have we got to?

TWP uptake spectrumSpent a day with the TWP crew recently. Chatham House Rules, so no names. Like its close relative and overlapping network, ‘Doing Development Differently’, TWP urges aid organizations to stop trying to impose rigid blueprint/’best practice’ approaches, paying far more attention to issues of power, politics and local context. The driving force has mainly been staff in bilateral and multilateral aid donors, researchers from universities and thinktanks, the odd NGO (very odd, in my case) and ‘implementing organizations’ – the low profile, but big budget private companies that actually run a lot of the big aid programmes.

TWP has been meeting and talking for a few years now, and this seminar provided a chance to take stock. Which was surprisingly hard – reality is messy, with a mix of positive and negative trends all interacting, so let’s identify a few.

First, the positive: it’s growing – the meeting was full, with a waiting list of disappointed TWPistas. One speaker claimed (slightly alarmingly) that the ‘TWP chip’ is now in most aid workers’ heads. The World Bank’s flagship report, the World Development Report 2017, not only covered TWP issues but even name-checked the network (Box 9.4 on page 271, since you asked).

Talking-politics-December-27-2013But that is set against a wider panorama of aid under attack (the rise in populism/nationalism, reflected in institutional setbacks like the dissolution of Ausaid, one of the network’s original drivers, USAID under fire, and who knows what fate awaits DFID).

What’s interesting is that those setbacks create opportunities as well as threats for TWP. As I found on my recent trip to New Zealand and Australia, where aid budgets are now managed by foreign ministries, diplomats readily ‘get’ TWP. In contrast, the professionalization/technification of aid has seen it become dominated by formulaic ‘planner not searcher’ approaches to economics and medicine that usually ignore/downplay the importance of power and politics.

One of the standout themes from the discussion was the desire of TWPistas to move ‘beyond governance’, ‘beyond programmes’ and even ‘beyond aid’.

Beyond Governance: TWP originated among frustrated state builders in governance teams, seeing how little success was achieved by traditional approaches to introducing institutional blueprints from other countries. But governance is a bit player in aid, compared to the big money items like economic development, infrastructure, health or education. How to get out of the governance ghetto to influence the big stuff? In DFID the governance team (with the unfortunate acronym of GOSAC), has just been transferred to the Economic Development Directorate creating a perfect test case – will TWP thinking influence the growth/markets people or be squeezed out by them?

Beyond Programmes: Rather than run programmes, donors have always wanted to influence government policies. In the past, this was often through pretty unsuccessful attempts to impose reform conditions on their loans. As aid falls, in absolute or at least relevant terms compared to other sources of cash, imposing conditionalities is likely to be even less successful. Now donors say they want to influence policy through a more respectful approach to dialogue and persuasion, rather than arm-twisting.

This reminds me of the growing interest in advocacy among NGOs and all the stuff I wrote about in my book – systems thinking, stakeholder mapping, power analysis, building change coalitions, seizing windows of opportunity (critical junctures) presented by crises, shocks and changes of leadership etc. But there’s an obvious problem with governments following suit – official donors using advocacy to influence sovereign governments is a political minefield and could provoke a serious backlash. Exhibit A: Russian interference in the US elections.

Beyond Aid: as aid budgets fall, or are raided by other departments, it becomes more important to influence what keep-calm-and-love-politics-2other branches of government are up to. This could be very interesting (see my visit to Aus/NZ above), but only if aid officials respect and listen to their counterparts among the diplomats and soldiers. Bouncing up to them and saying ‘hey it’s all about power and politics, let me explain it to you poor simple folk’ is unlikely to impress. In fact, we should start by asking them how they understand TWP. We might learn something.

There was a good discussion on technical assistance v TWP. You can’t just abandon TA and shift to advocacy for a whole bunch of reasons. Not least, TA buys you credibility with host governments – they want your skills and knowledge, not your TWP – and then the trust and space created by TA allows you to operate and do more political stuff. But ‘presenting yourself as technical and apolitical is political’, a tactic of ‘strategic naivete’, as one speaker put it. And who are we trying to fool? Do we really think host governments will buy the whole apolitical thing?

Finally, an intriguing discussion on ‘beyond Westphalia’, i.e. applying TWP beyond the world of formally constituted national governments. One participant told me she is trying to take her organization above, below and beside national governments: above to focus more on how to influence the international system that increasingly constrains government action; below to subnational units such as City administrations and/or local civil society organizations (not just international NGOs); and beside to take in other forms of power and ‘public authority’. All good, but hard work when the aid business is dominated by the organizations and relationships of national governments.

Conclusion? TWP is in good health, faces some huge challenges, and needs to move asap to consolidating its position with more concrete work, both in terms of research on how TWP works in specific areas (eg gender, conflict or learning how to measure when TWP is having impact) and building up the support network that aid workers need to implement TWP in practice.

Other participants – feel free to emerge from the Chatham House shadows and add your bit…

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12 Responses to “Thinking and Working Politically: where have we got to?”
  1. A selfish and humble pitch to consider how partnering with local policy research organizations (aka think tanks) can help advance TWP thinking and practice. See this RSA paper for the argument: (the title is a little misleading). I was hoping you would engage more with this argument in your talk at the RSA on June 8, as I think Guy Lodge and Will Paxton make a compelling case. Your (and others) thoughts welcome.

  2. Helen

    I am interested to see your observation that the non-aid diplomats in places like NZ MFAT and Australian DFAT, who have taken over aid management, really ‘get’ TWP. Having worked extensively with DFAT and previously AusAID over many years, in many countries, this is definitely not my experience. I would have expected to see what you have reported, that diplomats would have ‘understanding the politics and working creatively within them’ as their number one focus. Sadly I have seen little evidence of this. In fact I have been surprised at how superficial much of the discussion and thinking by non-aid diplomats has been. Perhaps I (and the programs I’ve been involved with) have just been unlucky? There are also very strong signs that the sorts of ‘results’ the diplomatic agencies are looking for from aid investments are increasingly just simple outputs like kilometres of road or numbers of women trained.

    • Irene

      I would agree with Helen, after 3 years of peering into DFAT. The handful that seemed to get it deeply seem to have left or be operating under the radar to avoid detection.

        • Ema

          Duncan from my experience I would say it is the ‘how’ they don’t get. There is a whole lot of “Its political, silly!” in DFAT but once you scratch the surface they don’t know what it takes and looks like in practice…..

  3. Tim

    Beyond programmes: bit surprised that you think donor governments don’t already seek use advocacy to influence national governments. At least in the region I am most familiar with (MENA), this is what donor governments seem spend a lot of their time trying to do, sometimes working informally with UN, INGOs and national civil society in pushing to achieve common policy goals.

    Beyond aid: Your comments here seem very connected to the ongoing discussions around how aid actors should / shouldn’t engage with the Countering Violent Extremism agenda. This recent article may be of interest:

    • Duncan Green

      Thanks Tim, I guess the TWP argument is that advocacy has been very ineffective and crude so far, and donors should get more sophisticated, but yes, donors have always tried to influence governments. My bad if I gave any other impression.

  4. Priyanthi Fernando

    Interesting blog! In many ways TWP, like Doing Development Differently, seems to be rebranding some of the old ideas of the eighties and nineties, on participatory development etc etc. I would have been interested in some reflexivity on the political relationship between donors and recipients. Whether it be bilateral and multilateral donors and developing country governments, or INGOs and national civil society orgaisations. Examining that power relationship and its implications e also goes in and out of fashion….

  5. Hi Duncan. You fear that TWP is being squeezed out of the governance work of DFID because they have been transferred to the Economic Development Directorate. As you experienced yourself (, there is very similar thinking going on in the sphere of economic development. I would say there is a big potential for synergies there that will hopefully be recognised by the people involved at DFID.

  6. Dear Duncan, I think we need to widen the debate and really start to mine the experience of practitioners, and especially consulting companies (big and small) and the NGOs, who work ceaselessly in these difficult environments. There is a big difference between ‘getting’ TWP and actually trying to get it done on a day to day basis. As a practitioner and part-time academic myself, I am acutely aware of plenty of academics and researchers who can manage the lingo, but put them in a difficult spot in Somalia, Iraq or Afghanistan and unsurprisingly things are not so easy. On another issue, people respect each other when their views are respected. The recent Independent Review of the Somali Compact highlighted the lack of space for honest dialogue on development issues expressed by the Somalis, but this point was not recognised or raised by the development partners. Unsurprisingly, many of the Somalis wanted to talk about the political economy of the donor community and how they could encourage donors to think and do things differently!