Opinion: Can we actually think and work politically?

Women lining up outside a pharmacy in Madagascar. Photo by: Lan Andrian / GHSC-PSM

Development is not working — at least not at the scale or pace needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This is the central, fact-based premise behind calls and movements to do development differently from host-country recipients of aid, international organizations, donors, and implementing partners.

Such calls emphasize adaptive, locally-owned, problem-solving approaches to tackle chronic development challenges. Proponents of this movement increasingly recognize the role thinking and working politically — or TWP — can play in achieving these goals to actually do development differently.

“We must all commit and invest in TWP and DDD, work to align incentives toward this aim, and embrace and learn from failure and criticism if we are to really change how we do development.”

We know TWP means different things to different people. People often use TWP interchangeably with terms such as doing development differently — or DDD — and, at times, TWP can feel like nothing but the latest buzzword.

To be clear, we define TWP as grounding support in strong and intentional political analysis, insight, and understanding of the local context throughout implementation and using iterative program cycles to continually adapt support based on this.

Barriers to TWP

Despite its potential, TWP is difficult in today’s aid environment. At a global level, although the rhetoric of both DDD and TWP now permeates donor strategies and approaches, requirements tied to funding for aid can inhibit implementers’ ability to think and work politically — most notably, the ability to effectively and quickly adapt support.

For instance, funding for aid in the health sector continues to be siloed predominantly to disease-specific areas and held primarily to disease-specific goals with parameters placed on which aspects of the health system the funds can support. These limiting factors are exacerbated by the onerous compliance, administrative, and reporting requirements that come with using taxpayer dollars, which have also historically limited the transition to local organizations.

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There are also few incentives for implementing organizations to explicitly embed approaches to TWP in their projects. While donor solicitations or tenders now often promote these approaches, related changes to contract or agreement compliance and the way metrics are set and performance is measured have lagged behind.

Work plans, for example, often continue to be required within the first 30 days after an agreement award and are based on standard logical frameworks or rigid theories of change. As a result, a consistent and intentional application of TWP is often counterintuitive, especially to implementing organizations that are traditionally donor- or client-facing and risk-averse.

At a program level, the development community has long acknowledged that power dynamics and incentives within a local system play a central role in the success and sustainability of system reforms. However, it is challenging for development actors to effectively engage local actors to understand, navigate, measure, and positively change a country’s dynamics and incentives — it is much easier to focus on “outputs” such as the number of people trained, or services delivered.

For example, in Senegal under the U.S. Agency for International Development-funded HRH2030 program, we are supporting the ministry of health to increase the transparency of policies and processes related to health workforce distribution. While we’ve made progress, a core challenge and area of focus has been helping local actors understand and address power dynamics and incentives working against such changes, and then to use this information to refine approaches, strategies, and partnerships. These global- and program-level factors are some of the key drivers for why, at present, there is a limited evidence base for approaches to thinking and working politically.

Bringing rhetoric to reality

As we have voiced, we believe there is real potential for TWP to bring DDD rhetoric to reality and accelerate development results. To that end, we have been examining our programs and internal structures, systems, and processes and exploring how we can institutionalize TWP overcoming our own risk aversion. The following is what we have learned thus far.

1. TWP requires changing the system within an organization

Helping staff to embrace a TWP mindset is difficult. Initially, we worked to introduce TWP concepts and tools on a few existing projects. Often staff struggled to fully grasp TWP — which can feel ambiguous — or see the value in its application. Many initially saw TWP as additional work and not part of their ongoing tasks.

The key takeaways from this initial experience are that it takes time and persistence to get buy-in internally, and clearly showing value is critical if staff are to see and use TWP as an essential part of their jobs.

We also recognized the need to build teams that bring the skills and competencies to TWP, which are often distinct from standard key personnel qualifications. Building on this experience, we are now exploring a more concerted and holistic approach to institutionalize TWP.

To that end, we recently launched a Global Center for Politically Informed Programming to serve as a resource hub, are building internal awareness of and capability to use TWP-based approaches and tools, incorporating TWP into our core business model, and gathering meaningful evidence from our projects on how TWP makes our work more effective and contributes to greater development impact.

2. TWP is the means, not the end

In applying TWP, it can be hard to balance analysis and adaptative management with a singular focus on achieving desired results. We have experienced and worked through both “analysis paralysis’” and lack of appreciation for analysis findings in trying to use TWP-based approaches.

For example, some of our projects have undertaken a political economy analysis — or PEA —  but once the deliverable was successfully completed, the findings were essentially shelved. This was primarily due to lack of ownership and understanding among project staff of how to effectively to use the findings, most notably when the findings were essentially provided to them by outside consultants or research organizations.

We have and are increasingly seeing more traction and results when we reframe the approach — emphasizing PEA as a tool to TWP — and focusing on building staff commitment and donor support from the onset. We’ve experienced greater success when we create critical pause and reflect moments within the project lifecycle to not only discuss political analysis per se, but determine how to use that analysis to refine our theory of change, ensure activities are on point and are both technically sound and politically savvy, and then adjust, as needed, maintaining focus on goals and results.

Nurse Jeanine Munyana counsels a patient on family planning products in Rwanda. Photo by: Robert Neptune / GHSC-PSM

3. Getting involved is essential to learning and building the evidence base

We are not the only implementing organization struggling with this, so there is much to learn from and share with others. While there’s a general appreciation for learning and exchange, the incentives both within and across organizations are not always there to do so. We highly recommend getting involved and actively participating in forums that are examining TWP approaches, such as the TWP Community of Practice and the DDD movement.

While a recent review of the evidence shows that we should go beyond qualitative case studies and explore the use of a wider range of evaluation methods, we still need to share our cases and experiences about what is working and what isn’t. We can also take a cue from USAID’s Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting community and flip the idea of return on investment on its head, exploring the risk of not thinking and working politically, or the “risk of ignoring.”

As we share our stories and experiences, we can hopefully build support and win over skeptics.

Working together to accelerate progress

We recognize these internal efforts to operationalize TWP alone are not enough. To effectively foster approaches that are locally owned, problem-focused, complexity-aware, evidence-based, politically savvy — and everything else promoted in DDD rhetoric — requires new ways of working across development actors.

Donors must examine their own risk aversion and ability to trust and give implementing organizations space to rapidly fail, learn, and adjust as they modify their approaches and processes for designing and managing programs.

Fortunately, this is starting to happen. Bilateral donors such as the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency have moved away from rigid logframe requirements to a results-based management approach. USAID has developed an agency “risk-appetite statement” to re-examine its procurement strategies, and has recently launched a new guide on TWP. The U.K. Department for International Development — through politically informed programming for adaptation approaches — and USAID — through CLA practices — are trying to hardwire “pause and reflect moments” and use work planning as opportunities for significant change in approaches and activities. Others, such as Abt Associates, are examining and suggesting real ways for donors to adjust their design and evaluation of proposals.

But will this be enough? We must all commit and invest in TWP and DDD, work to align incentives toward this aim, and embrace and learn from failure and criticism if we are to really change how we do development.

It is only then that we can work together to irreversibly accelerate progress toward our collective SDGs.

Chemonics is hosting an event, “A Critical Look at Health Systems Thinking,” at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on March 14.

About the authors

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    Robert Brookes

    Robert Brookes is a public health and project management specialist with more than 15 years of experience designing and managing assistance programs across sectors of development in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. He currently serves as managing director in the global health division at Chemonics, where he leads efforts to grow the company’s health portfolio, and contributes to industry initiatives and discourse to promote and further global goals for health.
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    Susan Kemp

    Susan Kemp is a democracy and governance specialist with more than 10 years of international development experience in areas such as elections, civil society strengthening, human rights, capacity development, advocacy and legal reform, and gender integration. Currently a manager on the democracy and governance practice at Chemonics, Kemp provides technical project and proposal support and supports knowledge sharing, internal capacity building, and thought leadership.