Thinking and Working Politically: an exciting new aid initiative

November 27, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

Gosh I love my job. Last week I attended a workshop in Delhi to discuss ‘thinking and working politically’. A bunch of donors, academics, NGOs andChatham-House-Royal-Insti-005 others (Chatham House rules, alas, so no names or institutions) taking stock on how they can move from talk to walk in applying more politically informed thinking to their work.

That means both trying to do the normal stuff better (eg understanding the politics that determines whether your water or education programme gets anywhere) and in more transformational work trying to shift power from haves to have nots.

The meeting was convened by some very practical (‘what do I do on Monday Morning’) aid people keen to move on from what they see as the overly academic (‘needs more research’) character  of discussions on governance, institutions, state-building and all its obfuscatory language (‘What we don’t need is lots of people talking about isomorphic mimicry, rules of the game and political settlements’).

The purpose of this discussion was to take the growing body of research from the Development Leadership Programme, Tom Carothers, ODI, Matt Andrews, ESID etc and turn it into programme ideas that can be tested on the ground. A giant ‘do tank’ exercise, in fact. Alarmingly, I can’t think of other examples of such an explicit research →hypothesis→test process on governance (unlike drugs research, say).

Some impressions:

The political economy of donors: lots of discussion on the institutional barriers to progress – ‘projectization’, logframes, value for money, results agenda, short time frames, staff rotation. One of the few potentially positive side effects of the dismemberment restructuring of aid ministries in Australia and Canada and their takeover by foreign ministries is that diplomats don’t do logframes – they understand the importance of relationships and seizing opportunity. (Trouble is they do so to pursue national self-interest, rather than development.)

MDG--US-Food-aid--USAID---008People not products: This is about having the right people, working in the right way: ‘searchers’ and mavericks able to spot opportunities as they open up, thinking on their feet, building relationships. Big question is whether this is teachable – are people who work politically born not made? Local staff are more likely than expats to be embedded in the political realities, but are also more likely to be junior and cowed by the institutional machine. Supporting them needs mentoring rather than (yet more) workshops, but also accepting that we need a percentage of mavericks who don’t do what they’re told (or what they’ve said they’ll do). Tough for any bureaucracy to accept.

Labour intensive not capital intensive: Good politically-informed work is about relationships, trust and a subtle understanding of power and politics. Very hard to achieve that while waving a chequebook (‘if you come in with $ and say ‘we’re here to set up a coalition’, you will get one! You’re a good-looking guy’). The pressure to spend can be a serious obstacle to this longer term, more painstaking work.

What are the risks of ‘working politically’? A certain amount of self-deception here. Everyone else (southern governments, civil societypower and hierarchyorganizations etc) already sees aid as heavily political, so who are we trying to kid? But being explicit about engaging with political players, elections, supporting change coalitions etc works better in more permissive contexts, whereas elsewhere it will lead to accusations of infringement of sovereignty, especially if it’s bilateral agencies doing it.

Dangers of Openness: Some of this is about the dark arts of influencing – how you persuaded a politician to do something, but then enabled them to take the credit. How you twisted arms, or appealed to self interest. Disclosure can damage the project. One old hand from a multilateral complained ‘no wonder everything I say sounds bland and generic – I can’t tell all the interesting stuff!’

Should it stay below the radar? Ros Eyben among others has documented the double discourse of aid workers – they are adept at saying one thing and doing another, eg presenting a project as purely technical/apolitical, then using all the tricks of advocacy to get them implemented. If we try and drag such practices into the light, do we risk destroying them? In some countries, the technocratic veneer is important camouflage, but elsewhere the general view was that acknowledging the realities can ‘unleash a lot of energy’ among staff who can then ‘fess up about what aid work is really like, and learn from each other out in the open.

Overall, I was struck by the contrast between the intellectual self confidence – a bunch of highly experienced senior aid types saying there is simply no other way to go in order to improve the impact of aid – and the fragmenting institutional context – Ausaid and CIDA being subsumed into foreign ministries, the demands of a dumbed down version of the results agenda and value for money, a general aversion to taking risks of any kind for fear of imperilling aid budgets. Really hope the good guys are right.

Next steps? This looks like an incipient ‘community of practice’, with the focus on the practice. Lots of appetite for building a good evidence base, with the healthy caveat from one senior aid boss ‘I want anecdotes, I don’t want evidence – I’m serious. I’m fed up with research – it’s not going to persuade the minister.’ A further meeting is planned in January – watch this space.

November 27, 2013
Duncan Green