Thinking and working politically: What have we learned since 2013?

February 1, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

It’s always a red letter day when a new paper from Graham Teskey drops. His most recent is Thinking and working politically: What have we learned since 2013? For those that don’t know him, Graham is a consummate insider-outsider within the aid sector – long stints at DFID (UK), DFAT (Australia) and now Abt (Management Consultants). From this vantage point he has been one of the leading proponents of ‘thinking and working politically’, always ready to call out the hand-wavey academics and demand some practical lessons, please.

This paper is part biography of an idea, setting out the timeline, moments and key documents and policy wins in the evolution of TWP (which seems to have involved a lot of seminars that I missed due to Oxfam’s meagre travel budget). The other part is, to be honest, a bit of a lament – a study in ‘Why Change Hasn’t Happened’, because TWP has ‘got lost in the maelstrom’ of the wider, largely negative, changes in the aid sector. Overall, it’s a brilliant summary, and one I’ll be recommending to my increasingly long-suffering activism students….

For reasons of space, I’ll skip the timeline in favour of some extracts on where we are now and the lessons he draws from his historical account.

The changed context

2013 now seems like ancient history. The differences in geo-political and national contexts could hardly be more different. It is no exaggeration to say that DFID sat astride the donor world, and was widely admired for its consistency, coherence, and technical excellence. Down under, AusAID was – explicitly – modelling itself on DFID. A number of ex-DFID advisers were recruited as AusAID, under the driven Directorship of Peter Baxter, sought to transform itself from a project factory into a serious development organisation. This ended in September 2013 following the federal election, when AusAID was abolished, literally overnight. Specialist skills were deemed unnecessary and hundreds of years of development experience walked out of the door, many experts were unceremoniously sacked, also overnight, with no prior warning. Observers are watching to see what will happen in the FCDO.

The geo-political environment has changed. China has continued its inexorable rise, to the extent that we are once again living in a bi-polar world, even if it is, at the moment at least, an asymmetrical bipolarity. National interests dominate. Thomas Hobbes is back in fashion. The domestic political economy in many donor countries is less supportive of aid, and they are generating distinctive and mutually exclusive narratives: for example, Black Lives Matter and decolonising aid on the one hand, and the populist sloganeering of Global Britain and America First on the other.

These trends have had implications for all aid agencies, most notably for the UK and Australia. Less attention is now being paid to the underlying issues of governance, as policy reform, system strengthening, and institutional support rarely lead to the short-term photogenic results so beloved of ministers. Further, and of deeper concern, is that the dominant culture in foreign affairs departments seems to dismiss the idea that governance advisers have much to offer anyway. Indeed, I would note three trends as development agencies are ‘asset stripped’:

  • downgraded: the critically important but unglamorous work of program design, review, and evaluation has been downgraded and is increasingly contracted out to consultants;
  • degraded: in-country, frontline, technical policy discussions with partners has been degraded. Government-to-government discussions over technical issues now don’t happen – or if they do it’s through outsiders; and
  • upgraded: the emphasis on the here and now, the transactional, the soundbite, the ‘announceable’, has been upgraded.

From this he draws ‘ten lessons’ (my summaries of his explanations in brackets):

1: TWP (and DDD) have been overwhelmed by changes in the international context (see above)

2: The organisational culture and ‘DNA’ of formal government aid departments have major implications for their interest in, and ability to, ‘think and work politically’. (Governance departments have been massacred in the mergers of Wasaid and DFID, giving the lie to the increasing use of TWP language in aid documents).

3: The practice of TWP (and indeed DDD) has not been localised. (‘nationalist practice’ has frustrated efforts to take TWP out of its Western donor origins)

4: TWP is now commonplace but not common practice. (Interesting – TWP-washing is everywhere in donor policies and requests for tender, but has failed to really change the business model, which is dominated by what Andrew Natsios called ‘the frenzy of results’.)

5: Where successful at the project level, TWP has metamorphosed into Adaptive Management in practice (because AM is less likely to frighten the political paymasters than talk of politics)

6: TWP has struggled to make inroads into sector-specific programs. (TWP was born in work on governance and institutional reform, and there it has more or less stayed, with the notable addition of gender rights work. Efforts to influence the big ticket items of health, education, infrastructure etc have largely stalled).

7: Organisational structures and staffing for implementing TWP projects have to be specifically tailored. (quoting Graham ‘only if we ‘learn as we go’ can we adapt in real time: this requires delivery (implementation), data collection (monitoring), learning (reflection) and adapting (changing) to be undertaken simultaneously, not sequentially. And it is here I believe that we run into constraints in organisational (program management) design.’) Unfortunately, in the case of DFAT (Australia), the number of governance specialists has dropped from 30 in 2013 to just one today.

8: TWP has to be incentivised by donors at the procurement and design stages, then enabled at delivery (all the unsexy bits have to buy in, or they will block progress)

9: TWP has led to a greater appreciation of both formal and informal sources of knowledge (including valuing local knowledge, not just fly-in, fly-out consultants)

10. Diplomatic colleagues remain unimpressed with TWP (the once hoped-for silver lining from merging foreign affairs and aid departments has not materialised).

Given what is pretty close to a damning post-mortem, it is perhaps hardly surprising that the last section’s inevitable call to arms is pretty half-hearted. My overall impression? Seen from 2022, TWP may have won some battles, but it lost the war – back to that maelstrom image. I guess if you’re looking for a straw to clutch, you could say that a lot has been learned that can be drawn on when politics becomes more propitious for making aid work better. And if you want to hunker down with fellow TWP enthusiasts, please check out the TWP Community of Practice website.

More than happy for other TWPistas to chip in with a more optimistic take, but this is what I got from the paper.

February 1, 2022
Duncan Green