Thinking and Working Politically: where have we got to?

June 13, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

TWP uptake spectrumSpent a day with the TWP crew recently. Chatham House Rules, so no names. Like its close relative and overlapping network, ‘Doing Development Differently’, TWP urges aid organizations to stop trying to impose rigid blueprint/’best practice’ approaches, paying far more attention to issues of power, politics and local context. The driving force has mainly been staff in bilateral and multilateral aid donors, researchers from universities and thinktanks, the odd NGO (very odd, in my case) and ‘implementing organizations’ – the low profile, but big budget private companies that actually run a lot of the big aid programmes.

TWP has been meeting and talking for a few years now, and this seminar provided a chance to take stock. Which was surprisingly hard – reality is messy, with a mix of positive and negative trends all interacting, so let’s identify a few.

First, the positive: it’s growing – the meeting was full, with a waiting list of disappointed TWPistas. One speaker claimed (slightly alarmingly) that the ‘TWP chip’ is now in most aid workers’ heads. The World Bank’s flagship report, the World Development Report 2017, not only covered TWP issues but even name-checked the network (Box 9.4 on page 271, since you asked).

Talking-politics-December-27-2013But that is set against a wider panorama of aid under attack (the rise in populism/nationalism, reflected in institutional setbacks like the dissolution of Ausaid, one of the network’s original drivers, USAID under fire, and who knows what fate awaits DFID).

What’s interesting is that those setbacks create opportunities as well as threats for TWP. As I found on my recent trip to New Zealand and Australia, where aid budgets are now managed by foreign ministries, diplomats readily ‘get’ TWP. In contrast, the professionalization/technification of aid has seen it become dominated by formulaic ‘planner not searcher’ approaches to economics and medicine that usually ignore/downplay the importance of power and politics.

One of the standout themes from the discussion was the desire of TWPistas to move ‘beyond governance’, ‘beyond programmes’ and even ‘beyond aid’.

Beyond Governance: TWP originated among frustrated state builders in governance teams, seeing how little success was achieved by traditional approaches to introducing institutional blueprints from other countries. But governance is a bit player in aid, compared to the big money items like economic development, infrastructure, health or education. How to get out of the governance ghetto to influence the big stuff? In DFID the governance team (with the unfortunate acronym of GOSAC), has just been transferred to the Economic Development Directorate creating a perfect test case – will TWP thinking influence the growth/markets people or be squeezed out by them?

Beyond Programmes: Rather than run programmes, donors have always wanted to influence government policies. In the past, this was often through pretty unsuccessful attempts to impose reform conditions on their loans. As aid falls, in absolute or at least relevant terms compared to other sources of cash, imposing conditionalities is likely to be even less successful. Now donors say they want to influence policy through a more respectful approach to dialogue and persuasion, rather than arm-twisting.

This reminds me of the growing interest in advocacy among NGOs and all the stuff I wrote about in my book – systems thinking, stakeholder mapping, power analysis, building change coalitions, seizing windows of opportunity (critical junctures) presented by crises, shocks and changes of leadership etc. But there’s an obvious problem with governments following suit – official donors using advocacy to influence sovereign governments is a political minefield and could provoke a serious backlash. Exhibit A: Russian interference in the US elections.

Beyond Aid: as aid budgets fall, or are raided by other departments, it becomes more important to influence what keep-calm-and-love-politics-2other branches of government are up to. This could be very interesting (see my visit to Aus/NZ above), but only if aid officials respect and listen to their counterparts among the diplomats and soldiers. Bouncing up to them and saying ‘hey it’s all about power and politics, let me explain it to you poor simple folk’ is unlikely to impress. In fact, we should start by asking them how they understand TWP. We might learn something.

There was a good discussion on technical assistance v TWP. You can’t just abandon TA and shift to advocacy for a whole bunch of reasons. Not least, TA buys you credibility with host governments – they want your skills and knowledge, not your TWP – and then the trust and space created by TA allows you to operate and do more political stuff. But ‘presenting yourself as technical and apolitical is political’, a tactic of ‘strategic naivete’, as one speaker put it. And who are we trying to fool? Do we really think host governments will buy the whole apolitical thing?

Finally, an intriguing discussion on ‘beyond Westphalia’, i.e. applying TWP beyond the world of formally constituted national governments. One participant told me she is trying to take her organization above, below and beside national governments: above to focus more on how to influence the international system that increasingly constrains government action; below to subnational units such as City administrations and/or local civil society organizations (not just international NGOs); and beside to take in other forms of power and ‘public authority’. All good, but hard work when the aid business is dominated by the organizations and relationships of national governments.

Conclusion? TWP is in good health, faces some huge challenges, and needs to move asap to consolidating its position with more concrete work, both in terms of research on how TWP works in specific areas (eg gender, conflict or learning how to measure when TWP is having impact) and building up the support network that aid workers need to implement TWP in practice.

Other participants – feel free to emerge from the Chatham House shadows and add your bit…