Thinking and Working Politically – why the unexpected success?

November 27, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Spent a fizzy day with the Thinking and Working Politically crew last week, taking stock on its (surprising?) success over the last 5 years (first sighting, November 2013 and this meeting in Delhi), and pondering next steps. Too much to say for a single post, so this will be spread over the next two days. All under the Chatham House Rule, so no names, no institutions.

TWP is part of that family of approaches & acronyms that includes ‘Doing Development Differently’ and ‘Adaptive Management’, which Graham Teskey has jointly labelled (somewhat prematurely in my view) a ‘second orthodoxy’ in aid. He identifies the common components of that orthodoxy as:

  • Context is everything – so political economy analysis is central, and not just at planning stage
  • Best fit not best practice
  • From blueprint → flexible, responsive, adaptive programming
  • Real-time learning
  • Long-term commitment

That 2013 post concluded ‘This looks like an incipient ‘community of practice’, with the focus on the practice.’ Fast forward five years, and the CoP exists, with a website and a burgeoning list of publications.

Thinking v Working: There is a common lament that there’s been lots of activity on thinking politically – researchers churning out papers, big books from assorted gurus; but the working bit is lagging behind. I’m not sure that is true – it may be down to an overly crude idea of how change happens in the aid sector: someone has a good idea → another person turns it into a pilot to test it → researchers measure the impact and if results are good, the approach spreads, if bad, it is abandoned. Job done.

But what actually seems to happen is more like lots of talk and intellectual branding + a few iconic case studies → a new bubble/fuzzword → partial adoption and a lot of hype claiming to be doing TWP, adaptive management etc, but not really doing anything new, making it well-nigh impossible to know what on earth is going on, let alone ‘test’ anything. See frustrated practitioners’ recent post on sorting out hype from substance on adaptive management.

In addition, the transition from new idea to isomorphic mimicry (when everyone starts sprinkling the relevant phrase over every funding application or project report to make themselves look funky and cutting edge) is shrinking. Fad grazers prowl the blogosphere, detecting new buzzwords, sifting useful from stupid, and then start sprinkling them liberally over their powerpoints and project documents. You now only have a couple of years (at most) to establish and develop a good idea before a tidal wave of isomorphic spin and hype engulfs you.

Why TWP’s Unexpected Success?

The fact that TWP/DDD/AM etc have generated a hype bubble in the aid sector is actually pretty surprising, given the countervailing forces working in the opposite direction (politicians eager to minimise risk, the narrow focus on short term, easily measurable results and value for money). We could easily have ended up in an aid sector consisting entirely of bednets and vaccines, where all that politics and power stuff is the abandoned relic of a previous era.

How did that happen? If I’m honest, I don’t think it’s because of an overwhelming body of evidence, but because TWP itself goes with the grain of reality. The language of TWP reflects the experiences of aid people – they know this is how the world works, how change happens. Now, like the character in Moliere who gets terribly excited when he is told that he has been speaking in prose all his life, what they instinctively feel to be right is being validated by ideas, research, jargon.

What evidence exists (summarized here) is largely of the case study kind, rather than some attempt at an econometric slam dunk (TWP improves X by Y%). I much prefer that – you learn a lot more, and in any case, the sceptics are not persuaded by that kind of number crunching (climate change, anyone)? Instead we need compelling stories and narratives, and I think TWP is on much firmer ground there.

That also comes back to whether TWP should become a ‘product’ or an ‘approach’ – an approach is a way of seeing the world, more like an academic discipline. No-one is expected to ‘prove the effectiveness’ of history or anthropology via an RCT.

But unexpected success also creates a risk – you get noticed. Tall poppy syndrome. Overclaiming/overselling happens a lot in the aid sector, and I think we need to avoid it in TWP – we’re already making progress, so there’s no need.

Familiar Themes with new twists: Ages ago, Tom Parks identified a spectrum of approaches from reformist to radical. Some of those engaged in ‘doing development differently’ are looking for better tactics with which to bring about the reforms they want within the existing system. They are more interested in pulling levers and getting stuff done, and not that interested in all that talk of inclusion and transformation. Others see the ‘politically’ in TWP as a call to something more revolutionary (or transformational as we call it nowadays).

That is still the case, and there has still not been a serious falling out between the reformists and the radicals, although the latter have got pretty frustrated over the way gender keeps dropping off the TWP agenda. That remains a challenge, but one that is acknowledged and generating good research and advice. What is at least as worrying, from my point of view, is the lack of ‘decolonization’ (more on that in this paper by Jonathan Fisher and Heather Marquette). TWP remains an overwhelming White, Northern (if you include White South Africans and Aussies) gig; no-one in the room could think of a TWP programme that was not initially drawn up by white outside ‘experts’, even if the programmes subsequently succeed in ‘indigenising’. Changing that will require spreading the message, letting go of control, and maybe offering some limited support for experimentation outside the donor home countries.

That comes into sharp relief when we talk about legitimacy: when is it OK for outsiders to try and change institutions and policies in another country? INGOs partially answer that by working with and through local partner organizations; but bilateral donors carry out the policies of their governments – the potential infringement of sovereignty is much clearer. I don’t think I’ve ever heard this adequately discussed in a TWP setting, but there were some useful comments this time around: ‘Are we trying to strengthen institutions and structures, building political resilience, or get specific wins and results by telling them what we think they should be doing. That’s when we cross the line on legitimacy.’

Another familiar complaint that has yet to be addressed is the pressure to spend: from a donor perspective, one of the problems with TWP is, paradoxically, that it does not require much money – it needs lots of time, brain power, facilitation, knowledge and local antennae, but by aid standards, none of those cost that much. But staff are under enormous pressure to hit their ‘burn rates’ or risk being punished for underspending. Aid officials complain that they are so busy spending money (a very bureaucratic, and time consuming process) that they have no time left to think any more.  As one donor staffer put it ‘The last thing you need is a big slug of money that you need to get out of the door. Maybe TWP can help tell me where can I put a large amount of money safely and quickly that is not going to make things much worse!’

Another hardy perennial that surfaces briefly, then disappears back into the talkswamp, is HR. Put bluntly, these kind of changes in approach require different kinds of people to come and work in the aid sector: up to now entrepreneurial, innovative, dancing-with-the-system types have seldom survived the mind-numbing bureaucracy and process-heavy ways of working. The aid sector needs to value different skills and ‘competencies’ when hiring, work out ways to support and retain the mavericks, and rethink its attitudes to rewards and incentives.

That’s enough for now. Please come back tomorrow for Working With/Against the Grain, the case for toolkits and my crystal ball on the future of TWP.