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.

Leave a Comment

6 Tips to Catapult Public Sector Reforms to the Next Level

Chemonics is implementing public sector reform projects across all regions and in most sectors. Whether it is improving the effectiveness of institutions of accountability in Tanzania or working with the Ministry of Education in Zambia to improve learner performance, we use a participatory approach to engage counterparts charged with providing services of all shapes and sizes to citizens. We apply a systems approach to ensure we are fostering partnerships and delivering targeted assistance to...

Read More »

Approaches that Projects Can Learn from the Democracy and Governance Sector

What is cross-sectoral democracy, rights, and governance (DRG) programming and why is it important? Cross-sectoral DRG programming recognizes that development issues are not single-sector problems — they overlap with other sectors; exist in a political context; and are as much, and often more, about power and relationships as they are about technical solutions. Solving a public health problem, for example, may involve governance, service delivery, citizen participation in decisions about health...

Read More »

Government Accountability is More than a Simple Equation

Improving government accountability has been a goal of democracy programming in the development world for years. Practitioners of governance reform have tended to pursue increased accountability by focusing on two individual factors of the equation: transparency, by opening up government decision-making processes and increasing access to information; and participation, by increasing citizens’ voices through strengthened civil society organizations and improved advocacy methods. The problem with...

Read More »

5 Ps to Move Open Government Forward

Open government is critical to enhancing essential services, opening civic space, and making government more accountable to citizens. Sustainable Development Goal 16 asks the international community to aim toward building more effective, responsive, and inclusive institutions, which evidence shows lead to better development outcomes for citizens. Recently, at the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Global Summit in Paris, governments around the world, in consultation with civil society, committed...

Read More »

Four Lessons for Sri Lanka from Bangladesh’s Right to Information Experience

Access to information is a fundamental right. More than 100 countries worldwide have adopted right to information (RTI) legislation, which are laws regulating public access to information, particularly from public institutions (sometimes referred to as access to information or freedom of information laws). These countries are increasingly recognizing the connection between good governance, accountability, and freedom of information. Most recently, Sri Lanka joined the ranks of these countries, ad...

Read More »

3 Questions with Kelly Brooks: On the Historic Colombian Peace Process

Kelly Brooks is chief of party for the USAID Human Rights Activity (HRA) in Colombia. HRA supports the Colombian government and civil society to foster respect for human rights and protect vulnerable populations. The Colombian government is negotiating a peace accord with the FARC guerrilla group after 50 years of conflict. What are the biggest challenges that the demobilization of the FARC presents, and how can the donor community support Colombia in overcoming those challenges? The FARC has...

Read More »

3 Questions with Rosa Jimenez: Prosecuting Criminals in the Dominican Republic

Rosa Jimenez is deputy chief of party for the USAID Dominican Republic Criminal Justice System Strengthened Project (CJSSP). The project is designed to improve the island nation’s judicial institutions, expedite prosecutions, and improve vulnerable groups’ access to legal protection. The Dominican Republic has one of the highest crime rates in the Caribbean. In your view, what is the most pressing challenge facing the country's criminal justice system? The essence of the problem is our low...

Read More »

Trust Between Government, Civil Society Bringing More Transparency and Accountability in Tanzania

By Betel Ezaz, Luciana Debenedetti, and Vieshnavi Rattehalli How can the global development community improve governmental transparency and accountability? This week, civil society actors and partners are gathering in Bogota to consider this question, and specifically, the role of civil society in promoting positive change while spurring accountable practices and institutions. Chemonics’ projects often engage local actors in strengthening accountability. Through these efforts, we have found that...

Read More »

4 Recommendations for “Thinking and Working Politically” on Local Governance Projects

As Sharon van Pelt argued in her recent blog post, politics are an inescapable reality for any international development project and must be factored into project design and implementation. The “thinking and working politically” concept is catching on, and more development practitioners are using political economy analysis to understand national-level politics in the countries where they work. Projects can benefit from these studies, but we also need to dig deeper to understand politics at the...

Read More »

Think Your Project Isn't Political? Think Again.

All changes and reforms are driven by interests and incentives. We generally understand this and, therefore, we try through our projects to foster positive incentives and collective interests that lead to the change we want to see. Sounds fairly straightforward, but clearly we know it is not, regardless of if we work in agriculture, climate change, health, education, or democracy and governance. Politics – that conflict and struggle for power – permeates the development activities we undertake in...

Read More »

Cambodia’s Shrinking Space for Civil Society and the Role of Donors

When conducting a preliminary analysis of civil society capacity in Cambodia in September 2015, there was one topic that dominated all my meetings and interviews: the new Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (also called LANGO). Everyone, from donors to international NGOs and local civil society organizations (CSOs), were sharing their concern about how LANGO would curtail the ability of civil society to do its work. The Cambodian Center for Human Rights described it as...

Read More »

The Policy Communities Approach to Integrating Democracy and Governance

There is a growing recognition that democracy, human rights, and governance (DRG) needs to be integrated into programs in other sectors of development. The policy community model takes a complementary approach, integrating sector policy reform objectives into DRG-focused projects. This model, which my team and I developed under USAID’s Program Representasi (ProRep) project in Indonesia, helped us to overcome sectorial siloes and could be replicated elsewhere. What are policy communities? Policy...

Read More »

Making Political Will Less of a Mystery

As the old saying goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” But in anti-corruption programming, it can be difficult to tell whether there is political will for change in the first place. How can you tell? What should you do if you discover, as is often the case, that there is not much will to address corruption in a developing country? How to gauge political will Historically, political will centered on the supply side and focused on the commitment of government to address corruption and enact...

Read More »

Know Your SDGs: Your Guide to What the U.N. Is Doing This Weekend

Today, the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit opens in New York. More than 150 world leaders are expected to gather there to adopt the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), an ambitious document meant to define the world’s development agenda for the next 15 years. With 17 goals and 169 individual targets, the SDGs are more numerous and complex than their predecessor, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), adopted in 2000. But they are hugely important, both individually and...

Read More »

In Focus: Painting for Peace

In an area of Colombia terrorized by illegal armed groups, this mural stands out as a colorful beacon of tolerance and peace. Young people in Tumaco painted the community mural as part of a municipal human rights training initiative developed as part of Chemonics’ Colombia Human Rights Program. The program develops community leadership skills and promotes peace in the municipality. The Colombia Human Rights Program works in eight Colombian departments to spread awareness among targeted...

Read More »

In Focus: Greater Social and Economic Inclusion for All Citizens in Vietnam

The Vietnam Governance for Inclusive Growth project strengthens private sector competitiveness, enhances rule of law, and promotes greater social and economic inclusion for all citizens. As part of this initiative, the project is collaborating with government and civil society to strengthen public consultation around Vietnam’s Civil Code. This photo features ICS, a civil society organization representing the LGBT community, which has engaged with the Ministry of Justice to provide inputs to the...

Read More »

Similar Context and Language Matter: Shared Experience from a Common History

Last year I witnessed firsthand how common history and language can foster and promote positive changes across borders. In June 2014, I was invited by the USAID/Moldova Rule of Law Institutional Strengthening Program to give a presentation on our USAID/Ukraine FAIR Justice Project judicial reform efforts, including innovative work we are doing related to court user satisfaction surveys, at a conference they were organizing on modern court administration techniques later that year. I readily...

Read More »

Democracy and Governance: Measuring for Success

I once commented to a caseflow management trainer that caseflow management is “as much art as science.” He replied that it is actually “much more art” than science. My work on rule of law projects has led me to the same conclusion. Democracy and governance (D&G) programs are dynamic. Each program begins with a clear plan and well-defined objectives, then many competing interests and priorities emerge during implementation. D&G programs aim for positive changes in organizational...

Read More »

Democracy and Governance: Hot Topics on Our Mind

As the head of Chemonics’ Democracy and Governance practice, I’m pleased to invite you to join us in an ongoing discussion about programming, trends, innovations, and experiments in this critical sector of international development work. To get the conversation going, I’m sharing here some thoughts that I hope will help structure our discussions moving forward. Initially, I want to emphasize that we’re eager to use this space to address any and all topics, perspectives, etc., on DG programming....

Read More »