Thinking and Working Politically – why the unexpected success?

Spent a fizzy day with the Thinking and Working Politically crew last week, taking stock on its (surprising?) success over the last 5 years (first sighting, November 2013 and this meeting in Delhi), and pondering next steps. Too much to say for a single post, so this will be spread over the next two days. All under the Chatham House Rule, so no names, no institutions.

TWP is part of that family of approaches & acronyms that includes ‘Doing Development Differently’ and ‘Adaptive Management’, which Graham Teskey has jointly labelled (somewhat prematurely in my view) a ‘second orthodoxy’ in aid. He identifies the common components of that orthodoxy as:

  • Context is everything – so political economy analysis is central, and not just at planning stage
  • Best fit not best practice
  • From blueprint → flexible, responsive, adaptive programming
  • Real-time learning
  • Long-term commitment

That 2013 post concluded ‘This looks like an incipient ‘community of practice’, with the focus on the practice.’ Fast forward five years, and the CoP exists, with a website and a burgeoning list of publications.

Thinking v Working: There is a common lament that there’s been lots of activity on thinking politically – researchers churning out papers, big books from assorted gurus; but the working bit is lagging behind. I’m not sure that is true – it may be down to an overly crude idea of how change happens in the aid sector: someone has a good idea → another person turns it into a pilot to test it → researchers measure the impact and if results are good, the approach spreads, if bad, it is abandoned. Job done.

But what actually seems to happen is more like lots of talk and intellectual branding + a few iconic case studies → a new bubble/fuzzword → partial adoption and a lot of hype claiming to be doing TWP, adaptive management etc, but not really doing anything new, making it well-nigh impossible to know what on earth is going on, let alone ‘test’ anything. See frustrated practitioners’ recent post on sorting out hype from substance on adaptive management.

In addition, the transition from new idea to isomorphic mimicry (when everyone starts sprinkling the relevant phrase over every funding application or project report to make themselves look funky and cutting edge) is shrinking. Fad grazers prowl the blogosphere, detecting new buzzwords, sifting useful from stupid, and then start sprinkling them liberally over their powerpoints and project documents. You now only have a couple of years (at most) to establish and develop a good idea before a tidal wave of isomorphic spin and hype engulfs you.

Why TWP’s Unexpected Success?

The fact that TWP/DDD/AM etc have generated a hype bubble in the aid sector is actually pretty surprising, given the countervailing forces working in the opposite direction (politicians eager to minimise risk, the narrow focus on short term, easily measurable results and value for money). We could easily have ended up in an aid sector consisting entirely of bednets and vaccines, where all that politics and power stuff is the abandoned relic of a previous era.

How did that happen? If I’m honest, I don’t think it’s because of an overwhelming body of evidence, but because TWP itself goes with the grain of reality. The language of TWP reflects the experiences of aid people – they know this is how the world works, how change happens. Now, like the character in Moliere who gets terribly excited when he is told that he has been speaking in prose all his life, what they instinctively feel to be right is being validated by ideas, research, jargon.

What evidence exists (summarized here) is largely of the case study kind, rather than some attempt at an econometric slam dunk (TWP improves X by Y%). I much prefer that – you learn a lot more, and in any case, the sceptics are not persuaded by that kind of number crunching (climate change, anyone)? Instead we need compelling stories and narratives, and I think TWP is on much firmer ground there.

That also comes back to whether TWP should become a ‘product’ or an ‘approach’ – an approach is a way of seeing the world, more like an academic discipline. No-one is expected to ‘prove the effectiveness’ of history or anthropology via an RCT.

But unexpected success also creates a risk – you get noticed. Tall poppy syndrome. Overclaiming/overselling happens a lot in the aid sector, and I think we need to avoid it in TWP – we’re already making progress, so there’s no need.

Familiar Themes with new twists: Ages ago, Tom Parks identified a spectrum of approaches from reformist to radical. Some of those engaged in ‘doing development differently’ are looking for better tactics with which to bring about the reforms they want within the existing system. They are more interested in pulling levers and getting stuff done, and not that interested in all that talk of inclusion and transformation. Others see the ‘politically’ in TWP as a call to something more revolutionary (or transformational as we call it nowadays).

That is still the case, and there has still not been a serious falling out between the reformists and the radicals, although the latter have got pretty frustrated over the way gender keeps dropping off the TWP agenda. That remains a challenge, but one that is acknowledged and generating good research and advice. What is at least as worrying, from my point of view, is the lack of ‘decolonization’ (more on that in this paper by Jonathan Fisher and Heather Marquette). TWP remains an overwhelming White, Northern (if you include White South Africans and Aussies) gig; no-one in the room could think of a TWP programme that was not initially drawn up by white outside ‘experts’, even if the programmes subsequently succeed in ‘indigenising’. Changing that will require spreading the message, letting go of control, and maybe offering some limited support for experimentation outside the donor home countries.

That comes into sharp relief when we talk about legitimacy: when is it OK for outsiders to try and change institutions and policies in another country? INGOs partially answer that by working with and through local partner organizations; but bilateral donors carry out the policies of their governments – the potential infringement of sovereignty is much clearer. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this adequately discussed in a TWP setting, but there were some useful comments this time around: ‘Are we trying to strengthen institutions and structures, building political resilience, or get specific wins and results by telling them what we think they should be doing. That’s when we cross the line on legitimacy.’

Another familiar complaint that has yet to be addressed is the pressure to spend: from a donor perspective, one of the problems with TWP is, paradoxically, that it does not require much money – it needs lots of time, brain power, facilitation, knowledge and local antennae, but by aid standards, none of those cost that much. But staff are under enormous pressure to hit their ‘burn rates’ or risk being punished for underspending. Aid officials complain that they are so busy spending money (a very bureaucratic, and time consuming process) that they have no time left to think any more.  As one donor staffer put it ‘The last thing you need is a big slug of money that you need to get out of the door. Maybe TWP can help tell me where can I put a large amount of money safely and quickly that is not going to make things much worse!’

Another hardy perennial that surfaces briefly, then disappears back into the talkswamp, is HR. Put bluntly, these kind of changes in approach require different kinds of people to come and work in the aid sector: up to now entrepreneurial, innovative, dancing-with-the-system types have seldom survived the mind-numbing bureaucracy and process-heavy ways of working. The aid sector needs to value different skills and ‘competencies’ when hiring, work out ways to support and retain the mavericks, and rethink its attitudes to rewards and incentives.

That’s enough for now. Please come back tomorrow for Working With/Against the Grain, the case for toolkits and my crystal ball on the future of TWP.

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6 Responses to “Thinking and Working Politically – why the unexpected success?”
  1. Geoff

    As you said context is everything, therefore case studies are the only way to understand how a TWP approach can be understood as to if it is making a contribution. If you agrégate so called ‘impact’ across a sweet of Programmes then by definition you are going to be losing the granular details of what is happening in the local context, you will not see the skill required to facilitate relationships across political divides or the time and care required to even have the conversation, so to sense make what is happening I agree you need to look at how principles of TWP are being applied in context. So yes the evidence for this must be in case studies, of both what works and what is not working. Looking at what is not working may hold some answers to why gender keeps dropping off, an analysis of power in these examples can highlight how the TWP principles even when applied well may run up against forces that TWP can not overcome, that may point to the potential role of social movements and other approaches that are not TWP. Your point on the legitimacy of donors to even be in the room let alone playing an active role in shaping a countries so called development is the elephant in the room. One that large INGO’s are potentially getting less willing to discuss let alone argue. It maybe time to INGO’s to look at who they are accepting funding from and where there interests lie.

    I disagree on one point however that TWP approaches are largely led by northern donor orgs, peoples global understand that politics and power are all pervasive and have likely been thinking and working politically for a very long time without our input. It would be arrogant to think otherwise. I suspect that we just don’t recognize it because it’s not being labeled and we are not involved…

    Is this a case for northern donors turning away from ‘aid’ and instead focusing on the actions of our home countries that promote government and private sector policies and behaviors that promote equity globally…

    We used to do this this but I think we may have lost our way.

  2. Gilbert Muyumbu

    A timely article for us Duncan. We are having a DDD Nairobi event in about a week’s time (4th December) to respond to the ‘decolonization’ question that you have raised. Hopefully it shall summon this perspective to the debate going forward.

  3. Ed Laws

    Thanks for a great summary Duncan. A few quick thoughts:

    Your point about legitimacy becomes particularly sharp when we consider the role and potential cross-purposes of TWP in fragile states, particularly in the context of cross-government projects and funds. I was in a workshop recently where TWP was more or less equated by one participant with intelligence gathering. That raises the issue – is TWP principally about informing our government about the contexts that we’re working in and furthering our domestic diplomatic and military interests, or is it about helping to address locally-defined problems, build stability and alleviate poverty and exclusion? Development folk need to be aware of the potential unintended consequences of TWP, and be smart about how, where and when they push for more of it.

    Getting the right kind of ‘maverick’ aid practitioner in place is probably less important than teaming up with the right local partners with the right connections. Our donor representatives may not often be able to speak the language of local politics (or even just the language very well, for that matter), but that may not be crucial if they can find the right partners who can.

    At the same time, little is achieved in the mid to long term by getting the right aid staff with the right partners and skills in place if they leave their country placement after a short period. There’s examples out there of country offices that were hotbeds for TWP/adaptive thinking going back to square one in the space of a few years due to people drifting away over time and taking their TWP mindset, experience and connections with them. At the least, TWP fans need to think harder about how to create better institutional memories in programmes/offices, and how to preserve connections and relationships over time.

    Hype, and the evidence base
    How do we avoid TWP getting swallowed by the wave of hype and spin? Calmly and methodically developing better evidence for what works is one place to start. This is not about dry, econometric ‘proof’ but about sifting wheat from chaff and getting better at understanding what works, where and why.

  4. Hirut (M) Johnson

    Thoughtful article, I look forward to the next installments. The competency challenge really resonated with me.

    I believe not having a system and institutional perspective on recruitment will nullify any isolated efforts to deal with the issues of diversity and attracting/retaining new competencies. There is so much I could say here but it’s like trying to stay focused on one pink petal falling at the end of cherry blossom season … on a windy day.

    Then there is the issue of quality or discernment. You cover this topic as an isomorphic mimicry problem. What if it was an issue of quality standards and professionalism on the work? I’ve seen firms charge millions for a series of workshops that was more about them going through a set of non-contextual motions rather than holding a space for the client to think and act politically in an operational way. TWP can cost money, but do we know when it’s money well spent? Can we lay out TWP program and at the same time set expectations on things like high facilitation cost at the start, increased training and coaching in the middle, large procurement kicking in after the first prototypes and not after etc… Our expectations of how and when disbursements happen don’t match the pace & sequencing of spending of a TWP approach. Maybe because we’ve left some of these details, which drive exceptions around program planning to chance … or is it serendipity?