December 19, 2013

The four As of thinking and acting politically (and avoiding ‘purposeless muddling’)…

Posted: 13:53 PM CET

by Bruce Byiers

in Cross-cutting issues, Political economy analysis

This week the OECD Development Co-operation Directorate (DAC) Network on Governance hosted a workshop on “Political Economy Analyses (PEA): Lessons Learned and New Directions”. Discussions looked at past progress in incorporating political analysis into donor thinking and programming as well as ways to mainstream this kind of analysis. While that raises a number of challenges it seems to me that it may be helpful to frame thinking and acting politically around four main points: acknowledgement, awareness, adaptation and alteration.


Although the workshop’s group of political-economistas needed no convincing of the political nature of development interventions, the desire to ‘mainstream political economy thinking’ would do well to start with the getting broad acknowledgement of the political nature of donor support within donor organisations and beyond.

As expressed by Ferguson in his “Anti-Politics Machine” or authors such as Leftwich, any action that affects the distribution of resources among different groups and individuals has political consequences whether or not it affects party politics. So whether or not a donor intervention aims explicitly or implicitly to strengthen democracy, promote a specific political agenda, promote trade facilitation or ‘reduce poverty’, it is political. Even the most apparently party-political neutral donor programme nonetheless reinforces the political status quo at a minimum. The sooner one realizes that, the better chance of designing and achieving more effective development interventions.


Beyond acknowledgement of the political nature of policy interventions, there is a bigger challenge in encouraging deeper political awareness around development interventions. What is the history around the issue? Who are the key actors being affected by policy x or programme y? Who is driving and who is likely to block particular programmes or reforms? And indeed who has identified the ‘gap’ or ‘problem’ that needs addressing? Again, participants needed no convincing of the need for trying to mainstream this thinking, but there were discussions about who could or should be expected to carry out PEAs. Whatever the approach (regular light studies with periodical in-depth studies, or continuous information gathering; engaging local actors or not) a good country or sector level political economy analysis to inform donors of the context in which they are operating is invaluable.

Ideally, as one person put it, political economy analysis should be like grammar – to learn it may take time and effort, but once you have it, you should be able to use it without thinking.


Building on this awareness, a big challenge then is to react. This leads to a choice between adapting to the current power structures and relations or trying to alter them.

Adaptation might be better understood as what has been called “going with the grain”. That is, accepting current political and power structures and working through those to affect change, rather than attempting to alter the system itself. There are clearly questions about what the implications of that are. It raises the question about what is considered ‘neutral’ support, and whether this is in effect supporting a regime that is not necessarily developmental.

Adaptation also entails an important tradeoff presented by one participant between: Control, Sophistication, and Impact. It maybe hard to achieve all three within a given political environment, requiring tradeoffs and adaptation.

But there is also an adaptation required around internal donor processes. Paradoxically, given the sense expressed by some that political economy analyses are too donor-centric, there is a need for more on the internal political economy of donors and how they are able to adapt to political economy study findings, a topic previously raised by my colleague Jean Bossuyt. Workshop discussions pointed in particular to the need to perhaps invest time before applying money; find ways to reduce ambitions to more realistic levels; adopt longer time-horizons either in projects or perhaps also in field postings for donor staff; and a way to focus on processes rather than results while avoiding the aforementioned muddling. The key is to include the donor in the political economy analysis. 

Such an adaptive approach represents a different class of political economy analysis. One which focuses more on what is sometimes called a “problem driven approach” that looks at what is feasible to achieve a specific objective within the given political economy environment, potential opportunities to be seized (like just after elections), and the likely political economy consequences of different policy options.


While some donor adaptation seems unavoidable once there is greater acknowledgement and awareness of the political nature and context of development cooperation, donor objectives may also aim at altering the current political and power structure. They may be trying to “change the grain” rather than go with it. This may come from programmes focused on election processes, party politics, security reforms, or broader strengthening of democratic institutions. This more explicit political engagement is therefore part of a spectrum of political engagement, but one that pushes a more normative agenda.

This alteration agenda then also requires a different type of PEA. One that is less about being politically sensitive about interventions within the current political context, than about trying to alter the political and power structures.

From A to P

Beyond these four A’s, a lot hinges on process. As was acknowledged, and is drummed into anyone working with ECDPM, development is all about processes, and interventions need to recognise and adapt to that. This may mean investing more time and energy in working with local parties, awaiting opportune moments to carry out joint analyses with partner countries, or working in a far more networked way.

But getting back to the A-words – acknowledging that everything is political invites reflection on the importance of donor country domestic politics. In the current climate of results-based management and value for money, donors may be shooting themselves in the foot by reducing the leeway that would allow more effective and politically nuanced interventions that would come with a focus more on process than results. Although there is always the danger of sliding into what one participant described as “purposeless muddling”, there is a case for providing a better rationale for aid that takes political issues into account at both ends of the donor-partner relation.

Apart from that – Merry Xmas!  


Photo by  watsonsinelgin.

Dr. Bruce Byiers is Policy Officer Trade & Economic Governance

Views are of the author and do not necessarily represent ECDPM


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