Working With/Against the Grain, the case for Toolkits, and the future of Thinking and Working Politically

November 28, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Second instalment of my download from an intense day spent last week with the Thinking and Working Politically Community of Practice (first instalment here).  

Working With or Against the Grain?

In a way, this is a reworking of the reformist v radical divide. Should TWP focus on understanding local institutions and find ways to work with them to achieve progressive change, or should it challenge those institutions, eg on norms, or the exclusion of particular groups? ‘TWP can reduce conflict by doing deals with elites, eg in the Middle East, but that’s inclusion going out of the window.’

This is particularly relevant because of the way the world has changed since those early conversations in 2013. The crackdown on civil society and the increasing assaults by political leaders on the rule of law and democratic institutions (Duterte in the Philippines, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Magufuli in Tanzania) have made ‘whose grain are we talking about here?’ a more pressing question. TWP was conceived on the front foot – a world where political and social progress was the aim. We need to think about whether TWP in a political downturn looks different – defending previous gains rather than seeking new ones; helping to protect those at risk; changing our language, practices and alliances to reflect the fact that aid and foreigners are less welcome (should some organizations even try to go back to the kinds of covert support for the good guys they practiced during the anti-apartheid struggle and the Central American civil wars?)

But working against the grain can be a conflict-ridden exercise, and while conflict may indeed often be an effective driver of change, aid donors don’t show much appetite for stoking it, probably with good reason (back to legitimacy and risk). In practice, whatever the intellectual argument, I think it is likely that official donors will default to working with the grain, and NGOs (at least the more radical ones) feel more comfortable working against it.

And whichever path you choose, you may well need the same skills – context analysis, power mapping, building coalitions and seizing windows of opportunity as they open up.

The Case for Toolkits

I don’t normally get excited about a discussion on toolkits, but I did this time. Why? Because I’ve had a nagging feeling that I was being too dismissive of toolkits, and this conversation helped me articulate a better way of thinking about it.

The aid sector works through tools – guidance documents, ‘how to’ checklists etc. For ideas to spread, they need to be codified so that they can easily be adopted by new entrants or people who are not passionate advocates, but just doing their jobs. If you refuse to produce toolkits, you are likely to remain pure but marginal.

The issue is what kind of tool. Some tools empower/encourage people to think harder, others disempower/make people think less. I’m not a big fan of sports metaphors, but I liked the comparison with Pep Guardiola’s doctrine at Manchester City (as reported to us) – you need rules for what players do in the first 2/3 of the pitch, but in the last 1/3, it’s all about instinct. The standard TWP cliché is that you need ‘a compass not a map’, but you need some training on how to use a compass well – that’s the kind of toolkit I’m talking about. Guidance not checklists/straitjackets.

My rule of thumb is give people questions to ask, and lots of case studies, but don’t tell them what answers to look for – that’s the last 1/3 of the pitch. In the case of the ‘second orthodoxy’, it feels like the tipping point, when good tools become bad, is somewhere around the point when we say ‘right, let’s draw up our Theory of Change’. Thinking stops, and everyone obsesses on drawing a super-complicated diagram that no-one who was not in the room can ever understand.

Crystal Ball: Where does TWP go from here?

Where next for TWP? How to use TWP to ensure the sustained success of TWP? In his great book, Limits to Institutional Reform in Development, Matt Andrews summarizes the stages of paradigm shifts in political thought as:

  • Deinstitutionalization: encourage the growing discussion on the problems of the current model
  • Preinstitutionalization: groups begin innovating in search of alternative logics, involving ‘distributive agents’ (eg low ranking civil servants) to demonstrate feasibility
  • Theorization: proposed new institutions are explained to the broader community, needing a ‘compelling message about change.’
  • Diffusion: as more ‘distributive agents’ pick it up, a new consensus emerges
  • Reinstitutionalization: legitimacy (hegemony) is achieved.

Seems to me like we (by which I mean the broader group of second orthodoxy approaches) need to think about the last two bullets. In our governance bubble, we may think it’s already the orthodoxy, but it certainly doesn’t look like that in other sectors (health, education, infrastructure) – plenty of diffusion still to push for.

But what about reinstitutionalization? Can we make TWP the standard, without it becoming dumbed down, like happened to the logframe? Probably not, but we can try and minimize the erosion by creating the right (empowering) tools, and capturing the institutions of training and replication, where new groups of ‘change makers’ are formed. One of the institutional reasons for the flourishing of PDIA and the Political Economy Approach has been the summer schools and training courses run by Harvard and The Policy Practice/ODI respectively – we need to do the same thing for TWP.

And finally, back to decolonization. Whatever steps we take to institutionalise TWP should be part of ‘handing over the stick’ to practitioners in the Global South, whether aid workers, activists or civil servants. That should shape the things we fund, the tools we create and disseminate and the way we design training and the kinds of ‘project in a box’ TWP social franchising that could really spread.

Two longish posts – but it was a fascinating and productive day. Over to the participants and others to add their bit.