Book Review: ‘Thinking and Working Politically in Development’

September 4, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

‘Thinking and Working Politically in Development’, by John Sidel and Jaime Faustino, is a new book on one of my favourite ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ programmes – Coalitions for Change (CfC) in the Philippines. It’s not the most user-friendly (no exec sum, no index), but at least it’s open access – download here.

I’ve written about CfC on the blog before – see this podcast and blog from a visit last year (ah visits, I remember those). The bits that jumped out at me from this latest research were some uncomfortable conclusions (including its trademark willingness to discuss its failures in public) and a great afterword from Graham Teskey.

First the conclusions:

‘As of mid-2019, CfC can boast of a set of important achievements in locking in rule-altering, self-sustaining, government policy reforms which exemplify the program’s aspiration to promote transformative change in the Philippines:

• Assisting in the passage of excise tax reform legislation which has already begun to produce significant new streams of revenue earmarked for public health care and some evidence of reduced cigarette consumption;

• Identifying and analyzing the complex sources of school congestion, exploring and experimenting with potential procedural and budgetary solutions, and introducing and institutionalizing them within the Department of Education;

• Introducing and institutionalizing new practices and procedures facilitating participation of people with disabilities in elections;

• Engineering the passage of the Election Service Reform Act, which releases public schoolteachers from compulsory polling day duties, improves compensation and legal protection for members of Electoral Boards, strengthens procedures for recruitment to Electoral Boards, and excludes local government employees from Electoral Boards, thus improving the conduct of elections;

[and several other wins]

CfC has also achieved other, more provisional and partial reform gains in various areas of the program: [list provided]

Finally, CfC has experienced disappointments in the limited outcomes and impacts of other activities and initiatives in which it has been involved:

• Delays and dead-ends on legislative reform initiatives supported by the program, such as the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and efforts to amend the Build Operate Transfer (BOT) Law during the Aquino administration;

• A dead-end in exploratory efforts to promote the expansion of “Bottom Up Budgeting”;

• Limited success in promoting improvements in the workings of PhilHealth, the government’s universal health care program;

• Little progress achieved in the implementation of the Aquino administration’s in-city relocation program for informal settler families (ISFs) living in low-lying, flood-prone areas of Metro Manila; and

• Little impact on the belated passage, enactment, and ratification of the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), little evidence of progress in “security sector reform”, and a resurgence of episodes of large-scale violence, conflict, and displacement in the southern Philippines since 2015.’

The uncomfortable/heretical bit comes in its exploration of why these patterns emerged. Basically, it has done better when it goes it alone, or at least takes the lead:

‘Where CfC has relegated itself to a subsidiary, supportive role within one or another reform agenda or initiative external to the program, its room for maneuver – and its ability and/or inclination to engage in independent, iterative, adaptive policy reform work – has been rather more restricted, and its efforts have proved to be somewhat less innovative, effective, and impactful…..

On the other hand, when and where CfC has worked autonomously to identify problems and solutions through an iterative, adaptive process of engagement with academic research and empirical evidence, policy experts and insiders, and a wide range of alternative policy reform options, the program has often – if not always – managed to achieve one or another form of rule-altering, self-sustaining transformative change.

Here, CfC has tended to be less successful when it has immersed itself in campaigns which focused on immediate impact (e.g. PPCRV) and which required continuing or recurring external mobilization, monitoring, and monetary support to protect their achievements and prevent backsliding.

By contrast, CfC has tended to be more successful when it has focused energies on the highly complex, compromising, and contingent process of passing new laws, and drafting new implementing rules and regulations (IRRs) and other official guidelines that institutionalize and instantiate policy reforms in government practices and procedures.

The importance of this focus on the “end game” of “locking in” policy reform has been evident in the decidedly mixed record of various CfC-sponsored local pilot projects, which have only delivered scalable and sustainable results if undertaken and exploited in the service of the abiding agenda of targeting national-level government policies and procedures for institutionalized reform.

In terms of its forms of organization and recruitment, moreover, CfC has tended to be most successful when and where its approach to building “coalitions for change” has relied not on formalized partnerships with civil society organizations and government agencies, but on small, tightly organized, personally committed teams and advocacy groups working in a very iterative and adaptive fashion.’

Let me unpack that a bit for you. As I read it, Sidel and Faustino conclude that CfC gets results by:

a) being the ubergeeks: Understanding (by hiring/studying) the in-depth, mind-numbing details of how laws get passed and implemented, when other campaigns often seem content to win the new law and either declare victory or shout betrayal (when nothing changes). That enables you to stay out of the political spotlight, and be a relatively big fish in a small pond.

b) staying in charge, at least initially: The book very clearly states the CfC gets the best results when it ‘has worked autonomously to identify problems and solutions’, and then they put together coalitions, including CSOs, and hired a number of CSO operators because of their political smarts, connections and technical expertise. That doesn’t sound very ‘locally-led’, but when I pressed Jaime on this, he replied ‘there are quite a few cases when leaders pursued reforms even if I disagreed. How and why does that happen?  At the end of the day, I am keenly aware and respect the fact that the leaders are on the frontlines.  Given that reality, I have to give them a lot of autonomy and trust.’

I’ve had a back and forth with the authors via email on this – so over to them to nuance/correct my version!

I haven’t got space for Graham Teskey’s afterword, but it is a slightly wistful hymn to what CfC has achieved, and why the aid industry may now be unable to replicate it. Do please have a look (p. 221 onwards) if you can.