Politics Matter: How Implementers Can Do Development Differently


It makes intuitive sense at many levels: power and politics matter. We know this to be true in our own hometowns, organizations, or governments: different formal and informal alliances, power imbalances, and motivators — stemming from kinship or affinity, party politics, economic interests, cultural ties, race and gender relations, and other informal systems — determine a great deal of why people act as they do around otherwise stolid matters related to achieving an institution’s stated objectives.

A technocratic solution to achieve these objectives may be backed by scientific evidence from similar contexts, but if informal incentives are pulling organizations and individuals in other directions, it may still never see the light of day. Or, if local actors have another way of getting something done that may not align 100 percent with the technical evidence base but is better understood and fits better with local custom, it is likely that the “local way of doing things” will be more sustainable. If this is true in Washington, D.C., why would it be any different in, say, the Democratic Republic of the Congo?

It’s not. In fact, in many developing countries where the public and personal spheres are even more blurred, and when there are additional power and political dynamics stemming from the very same foreign assistance aiming to improve development outcomes, it can be all the more important to think and work politically (TWP). Moreover, it’s important to do so regardless of the sector; power and politics do not care if your project is under a development objective of better governance or, say, better health.

Power and politics matter

The TWP movement, closely aligned with doing development differently, has been picking up speed in the last several years, leading to what can be seen as either the sign of full legitimization or co-optation: TWP as a predominant focus of the 2017 World Development Report. The World Bank, which has traditionally maintained a public stance of eschewing politics, now officially recognizes that in many cases, “carefully designed, sensible policies” fail or are not adopted because of issues related to their “complex political and social settings, in which individuals and groups with unequal power interact within changing rules as they pursue conflicting interests.”

In some ways, the participatory development movement and previous attempts at policy change through a systems approach have already been trying to “do development differently” for decades now. But a lot of participatory, inclusive governance and accountability approaches are still highly technocratic — trying to regiment processes without ever grappling with politics. As an example, see my recent examination of how one such participatory education system reform failed to contend with power and politics in Guinea.

What’s our response?

Aid actors still fall somewhere within a typology of recognition and response to power, politics, and informal dynamics (see box). On one end, some are so focused on the next best fertilizer or medical protocol that they remain blind to the informal dynamics determining whether local actors will take up that breakthrough. Some recognize these dynamics but think the only response is to try even harder to push forward a technocratic solution that somehow steers clear of politics. Others will try to proceed as planned, but with the uneasiness of knowing that politics are influencing outcomes without doing anything about it. Finally, some aid actors do contend with power and politics, engage with these contextual dynamics, and then try to go “with the grain” of local systems as much as possible and aim for “best fit” rather than “best practice” — iterating and trying again as needed.

At Chemonics, we are examining ways to get more of our projects thinking and working in the vein of this last response to politics and informal dynamics. As a company implementing a funder’s vision, what are our opportunities to do this in concrete terms? What more or different preconditions are needed?

Opportunities and enabling factors for thinking and working politically

At USAID, the new Automated Directives System (ADS) 201 guidelines on the program cycle, as presented to implementers, open the door to applying TWP in a meaningful way as part of a push to better take into account local context and apply adaptive management, which includes collaborating, learning, and adapting (CLA). But while some at USAID have recently offered ways CLA and TWP are linked, CLA is apolitical or at least makes no mention of how collaboration could include working with local actors to identify ways of “going with the grain,” or that learning should include context or political economy analysis (PEA) in addition to marshalling the “technical evidence base.” USAID’s Local Systems Framework presents a further opportunity: Systems thinking and TWP overlap in many ways, and an applied political economy analysis can help generate the information needed to plan in accordance to the framework’s principles.

For all of these things, however, implementers depend on what the CLA framework calls the “enabling conditions” to apply these approaches, and depend on where funders fall across the typology of TWP recognition and response. Essentially: Does the project’s scope of work or program description call for a local systems or TWP approach, or aspects of it (such as PEA)? If not, is there room within the results framework and often breakneck timelines, and an appetite among the activity’s managers, to build in TWP and adaptive programming? Is there recognition that risk can be reduced by failing with smaller, iterative attempts rather than failing at the level of a multi-million dollar project implemented at scale from the very beginning with a preestablished design?

The political economy of operationalizing TWP

There are many questions about what TWP looks like in practice, particularly at the project implementation stage after a donor has already decided to intervene in a given context through an externally funded project. In order to be better positioned to try out more concrete ways to do development differently, implementers in these cases require a political economy that includes a few things, such as:

  • A mindset shift and higher comfort level both within our own staff and with our funder interlocutors to grapple with questions of power and politics.
  • More time and space to articulate project work plans as something that fits into the groove of existing local plans.
  • More acceptance for facilitating dialogue and local solutions — that align with or shift local incentives systems — and less direct “doing.”
  • True willingness on the part of donors to make real changes along the way, demonstrated and enabled through more flexible contracting mechanisms and agile monitoring, evaluation, and learning plans that measure sustainability as well as any possible immediate impact.
  • Incentives, such as might be built into the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System (CPARS), which would reward the application of contextual knowledge and place value on iteration and learning. These would be in addition to the incentives in favor of adaptive programming that donors like USAID are now considering building into project manager performance assessments.

These may be seen as tough asks, particularly given the uncertainties surrounding coming plans for U.S. foreign assistance. But they are the very things that could effectively capitalize on this moment of disruption as we are questioning how development is and should be done — and could ultimately result in greater and more sustainable development gains in the long run.

Jennifer Swift-Morgan is a director in Chemonics’ West and Central Africa and Haiti Division and an education and governance expert with more than 15 years of experience designing, managing, and evaluating integrated projects.

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