Working With/Against the Grain, the case for Toolkits, and the future of Thinking and Working Politically

Second instalment of my download from an intense day spent last week with the Thinking and Working Politically Community of Practice (first instalment here).  

Working With or Against the Grain?

In a way, this is a reworking of the reformist v radical divide. Should TWP focus on understanding local institutions and find ways to work with them to achieve progressive change, or should it challenge those institutions, eg on norms, or the exclusion of particular groups? ‘TWP can reduce conflict by doing deals with elites, eg in the Middle East, but that’s inclusion going out of the window.’

This is particularly relevant because of the way the world has changed since those early conversations in 2013. The crackdown on civil society and the increasing assaults by political leaders on the rule of law and democratic institutions (Duterte in the Philippines, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Magufuli in Tanzania) have made ‘whose grain are we talking about here?’ a more pressing question. TWP was conceived on the front foot – a world where political and social progress was the aim. We need to think about whether TWP in a political downturn looks different – defending previous gains rather than seeking new ones; helping to protect those at risk; changing our language, practices and alliances to reflect the fact that aid and foreigners are less welcome (should some organizations even try to go back to the kinds of covert support for the good guys they practiced during the anti-apartheid struggle and the Central American civil wars?)

But working against the grain can be a conflict-ridden exercise, and while conflict may indeed often be an effective driver of change, aid donors don’t show much appetite for stoking it, probably with good reason (back to legitimacy and risk). In practice, whatever the intellectual argument, I think it is likely that official donors will default to working with the grain, and NGOs (at least the more radical ones) feel more comfortable working against it.

And whichever path you choose, you may well need the same skills – context analysis, power mapping, building coalitions and seizing windows of opportunity as they open up.

The Case for Toolkits

I don’t normally get excited about a discussion on toolkits, but I did this time. Why? Because I’ve had a nagging feeling that I was being too dismissive of toolkits, and this conversation helped me articulate a better way of thinking about it.

The aid sector works through tools – guidance documents, ‘how to’ checklists etc. For ideas to spread, they need to be codified so that they can easily be adopted by new entrants or people who are not passionate advocates, but just doing their jobs. If you refuse to produce toolkits, you are likely to remain pure but marginal.

The issue is what kind of tool. Some tools empower/encourage people to think harder, others disempower/make people think less. I’m not a big fan of sports metaphors, but I liked the comparison with Pep Guardiola’s doctrine at Manchester City (as reported to us) – you need rules for what players do in the first 2/3 of the pitch, but in the last 1/3, it’s all about instinct. The standard TWP cliché is that you need ‘a compass not a map’, but you need some training on how to use a compass well – that’s the kind of toolkit I’m talking about. Guidance not checklists/straitjackets.

My rule of thumb is give people questions to ask, and lots of case studies, but don’t tell them what answers to look for – that’s the last 1/3 of the pitch. In the case of the ‘second orthodoxy’, it feels like the tipping point, when good tools become bad, is somewhere around the point when we say ‘right, let’s draw up our Theory of Change’. Thinking stops, and everyone obsesses on drawing a super-complicated diagram that no-one who was not in the room can ever understand.

Crystal Ball: Where does TWP go from here?

Where next for TWP? How to use TWP to ensure the sustained success of TWP? In his great book, Limits to Institutional Reform in Development, Matt Andrews summarizes the stages of paradigm shifts in political thought as:

  • Deinstitutionalization: encourage the growing discussion on the problems of the current model
  • Preinstitutionalization: groups begin innovating in search of alternative logics, involving ‘distributive agents’ (eg low ranking civil servants) to demonstrate feasibility
  • Theorization: proposed new institutions are explained to the broader community, needing a ‘compelling message about change.’
  • Diffusion: as more ‘distributive agents’ pick it up, a new consensus emerges
  • Reinstitutionalization: legitimacy (hegemony) is achieved.

Seems to me like we (by which I mean the broader group of second orthodoxy approaches) need to think about the last two bullets. In our governance bubble, we may think it’s already the orthodoxy, but it certainly doesn’t look like that in other sectors (health, education, infrastructure) – plenty of diffusion still to push for.

But what about reinstitutionalization? Can we make TWP the standard, without it becoming dumbed down, like happened to the logframe? Probably not, but we can try and minimize the erosion by creating the right (empowering) tools, and capturing the institutions of training and replication, where new groups of ‘change makers’ are formed. One of the institutional reasons for the flourishing of PDIA and the Political Economy Approach has been the summer schools and training courses run by Harvard and The Policy Practice/ODI respectively – we need to do the same thing for TWP.

And finally, back to decolonization. Whatever steps we take to institutionalise TWP should be part of ‘handing over the stick’ to practitioners in the Global South, whether aid workers, activists or civil servants. That should shape the things we fund, the tools we create and disseminate and the way we design training and the kinds of ‘project in a box’ TWP social franchising that could really spread.

Two longish posts – but it was a fascinating and productive day. Over to the participants and others to add their bit.


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6 Responses to “Working With/Against the Grain, the case for Toolkits, and the future of Thinking and Working Politically”
  1. Duncan

    Great blogs as always. But on the working with vs against point I think you are being too binary. It isn’t that donors with work with the grain and NGOs will work against (although that is their natural instinct); it’s that both are missing a trick by not doing more of the other. For example, in some sectors donors work almost exclusively with the grain despite abundant evidence that it fails time and again. In my field – energy/infrastructure – donors repeatedly do large loans to build stuff (transmission lines etc); and supply endless TA to regulators and ministries to get the policy environment right. But the policy environment is often fundamentally dysfunctional for political reasons. A quiet programme of support for local institutions/organisations to expose and demand the interests that block reform might be much more effective in creating space for real reform than endless TA to the regulator. Moreover, depending on how it is done, it is possible to work on both the supply side and the demand side at the same time. Likewise it is possible for NGOs to work with the grain to good effect too. The key is to get the right balance between supply (with the grain) and demand (against the grain) side within each sector and country context.


  2. Tim Kelsall

    I think ‘working with the grain’ means working with the predominant political realities, changing them incrementally perhaps, but not trying to transform them, or attempting something incompatible with them. Thus the example of trying to create the ideal policy environment in a dysfunctional political context is, in my view, an example of working against the grain. Working with the grain would involve analyzing the powerful actors and institutions involved and trying to create a policy that will do something positive without generating overwhelming resistance or indifference.

    And for anyone interested in following the Pep Guardiola analogy, my original post on this topic can be found here:

  3. Harvard and ODI ( and others no doubt) run courses and promote approaches and then ‘we’ hand over the stick to partners in the global South? Sounds more colonial than decolonial. I was in Malawi recently and talk to a medical doctor, the only MD in a district of 600,000 people, who wishes more preventive health work would be supported because he knows he will never be able to afford the curative solutions. Maybe if the population had some help understanding how to prevent disease he would stand a fighting chance to improve health in the District. I think a bit more listening is still needed but somehow we keep coming up with solutions rather than engaging to figure out what the problem really is.

  4. Larry Garber

    Duncan – Thanks for summarizing the meeting so cogently – sounds like fascinating discussions. I particularly appreciate your referencing the TWP dilemma that is magnified by growing authoritarianism and continuing crackdowns on civil society. I hope the discussion at the meeting will stimulate further posts by you and others on how we work politically, when the outcome may involve further strengthening those responsible for implementing restrictive policies. Indeed, the reason that the health, education, infrastructure and other sectors have not bought into TWP is that they have already made their bargain, which mostly involves accepting the power dynamics as mutable only at the margin and so working with the grain to achieve desired sectoral impact regardless of the broader political impacts.

  5. Excellent blog as usual. I think TWP has a precursor in the magnificent writings of Albert Hirschman who although rarely mentioned has made similar claims, e.g. search for endogenous ‘inducement mechanisms’ or ‘pacing devices’ which foster change from within. These mechanisms are important as ‘development depends not so much on finding optimal combinations for given resources and factors of production as on calling forth and enlisting for development purposes resources and abilities that are hidden, scattered, or badly utilized’. Hidden resources are informal institutions for instance in the rural waterscape of Tanzania. We just published something on this. See here The Elephant in the Room: Informality in Tanzania’s Rural Waterscape