From “thinking politically” to “working politically”

Most people involved in the development enterprise, however, are ‘doers’ as well as ‘thinkers’ – far more of my students hope to work for donor agencies, NGOs or charities than within university faculties or think tanks. A key challenge for proponents of the ‘thinking politically’ agenda, therefore, comes with the ‘operationalization’ of said agenda. How can policy-makers and those dealing with the practical implementation of development projects learn to ‘think politically’? How can ‘thinking politically’ simply become second nature for these individuals? How, ultimately, can we move from ‘thinking politically’ to ‘working politically’?

These vital questions will be addressed by a range of scholars and practitioners at the University of Birmingham at a special International Development Department (IDD) – Political Studies Association (PSA) workshop on ‘Making Politics Practical’ and a summary of the workshop’s major points will be provided on this blog shortly after the event. Today’s entry, however, will place this discussion in context by exploring some of the basic obstacles development policy-makers and managers often face when attempting to mainstream political thinking within their organizations.

  1. ‘Doing development’ and the political scientist deficit

It remains the case that most employees of major donor agencies (particularly within the World Bank) are economists or technicians of some kind by training. Informed by the somewhat discredited view of development as a technical, mechanical process commonplace in the decades following 1945 (see Monday and Tuesday’s blog entries), donors have traditionally recruited people based on their technical know-how rather than their understandings of local contexts. These recruitment patterns have been amended in recent years in some cases – DFID, for example, has employed a growing number of political scientists since the mid-2000s, albeit primarily in its Governance cadre. 

Most donors remain, however, populated by people with a certain type of intellectual background and approach to development. This has rarely been addressed or acknowledged, however, by those within these organizations attempting to mainstream political thinking, many of whom have themselves been political scientists! As Sue Unsworth, James Copestake and Richard Williams have argued, donors have not been sufficiently ‘reflexive’ in trying to understand their own workforce and its dominant mindsets when advancing the thinking politically agenda. 

  1. Career incentives and the fear of ‘risk’

Mainstreaming political thinking in donor organizations has also been resisted because its implications undermine the prevailing bureaucratic incentive structures within these organizations. For most donor officials, spending (or in the World Bank’s case, lending) money is the main avenue to promotion and, indeed, World Bank managers frequently implore their subordinates to ‘meet our lending targets’. Thinking politically, however, raises problems here since understanding local political contexts often makes policy-makers more wary of ‘risks’ presented to their programmes from corruption, conflict etc which they otherwise might have been blissfully unaware of. Political analysis for many donor officials, therefore, is what Alex Duncan and Gareth Williams have called ‘the dismal science of constraints’ – it flags risks and problems which few donors wish to hear about because it means spending less money.

What is at fault here, however, is not political analysis but the incentive structures within donor organizations and the way in which taking risks is punished rather than encouraged. A growing consensus is emerging in development and wider scholarship (see the work of Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Tim Harford) that real progress comes only when actors are given the space and incentives to take risks and be flexible. Successfully mainstreaming political thinking, therefore, requires a wholescale rebalancing of the ways in which development bureaucracies work internally – something that numerous officials I have spoken to voluntarily acknowledge.

3. The ‘so what?’ question

The final obstacle to mainstreaming political thinking in development organizations can be summarized by two words: ‘so what?’

People working in development are busy people. They often work in very difficult and challenging environments on complex projects and programmes with sometimes limited support or even security. Even those officials chained to a desk in Washington or London must spend their days wading through endless boxes of paper, log frames and evaluation reports with little time to reflect on their ‘thinking’ about development. For many donor officials, therefore, learning how to ‘think politically’ is a distraction – in their minds – from an already over-brimming schedule of responsibilities. Moreover, the theoretical debates on coalitions, relationships and local ownership that political analysis often delves into (see this week’s earlier blog entries) often seem a mile away from the nitty-gritty of the work that most development actors undertake on a daily basis; “this is all fascinating”, say many such officials at ‘political economy analysis’ promotion and training events, “but what do I do with it on Monday morning?”

Making ‘political thinking’ appealing and relevant to donor officials without turning it into another ‘tool’ or subsection of a project planning application is a difficult task…..over to the experts at tomorrow’s workshop!

Sources: 

James Copestake and Richard Williams (2012): ‘The evolving art of political economy analysis: Unlocking its practical potential through a more interactive approach.’ Development Futures Paper, Oxford Policy Management.

Alex Duncan and Gareth Williams (2012): ‘Making Development Assistance More Effective Through Using Political-economy Analysis: What Has Been Done and What Have We Learned?’ Development Policy Review 30 (2): 133-148.

Dr Jonathan Fisher is a Lecturer in International Development at the University of Birmingham.

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