Researching the politics of development



Political analysis: sticking plaster or salvation?

29 April 2014
A conversation between Chris Jordan and Pablo Yanguas
Pablo: The new ESID briefing on “Making political analysis useful” is the result of many conversations with donor staff and other people involved in the Thinking and Working Politically community. Virtually every presentation of our PEA research findings – that the bureaucratic nature of aid often gets in the way of political engagement – was met with knowing smiles and nods all around: after all, these are issues that insiders know very well on a personal level. However, there was often a second part to this interaction, taking the form of a challenge: what would we suggest? Did we have a better way of doing things? Could administrative barriers to politically smart aid be overcome? Given the massive challenges involved in reforming aid agencies, we started to think about alternative ways of interpreting the problem, and came up with the basic message animating the briefing: it is not what particular toolkit you use, or what specific agency you work for, but how you can adjust and scale political analysis to make it more accessible and useful to practitioners.
Chris: Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for increasing the amount and quality of political analysis in the development sector – but your assertion that aid bureaucracy gets in the way of political engagement troubles me. I come from an INGO background, having worked on campaigns and advocacy with ActionAid for 10 years or so. My sense is that while there are obviously many sensitivities and compromises within the organisation, fundamentally the disbursement for funding did not get in the way of political engagement. In fact, for the most part it supported it through grassroots empowerment projects. Obviously, ActionAid is only a single example and the organisation takes a more overtly political approach than most large INGOs, but I can’t help wondering if the real problem is with the bureaucratic nature of large donor organisations getting in the way of political engagements. I have a nagging doubt that, while useful, PEA exercises may be acting as a sticking plaster for dysfunctional donor bureaucracies.
Pablo: “Sticking plaster”, ouch! Well, you have a point there: political analysis is hardly a panacea, and there is little it can do to correct the deeper problems of donor administration. Even so, it is a necessary step right now: most donor agencies are dealing with political context one way or another, and their programmes will be more effective when supported by useful political analysis. I am fully on board with the idea of aid agencies becoming more like advocacy NGOs than banks – the very survival of bilateral aid in the 21st century may depend on it! However – and this is a big however – the fact is, these are bilateral or multilateral organisations funded with public money, whose purpose is not solely advocating policy, but in many cases implementing it – that requires expertise and significant investments, which translates into large sums of money. So there is a reason why aid practitioners are often buried in paperwork (reporting back to politicians and taxpayers) and obsessed with disbursing (justifying their existence in a sceptical and even hostile political environment back home). Do you think it would be feasible for such a tax-funded aid agency to operate as a campaigning NGO?
Chris: When I read your briefing, it really struck me that the different types and scales of political analysis you suggest would be totally standard components of most campaign or advocacy planning. Perhaps that’s unsurprising, given that most campaigns are explicitly designed to generate political influence, but I suspect that there’s more that donors could learn from these approaches. There’s already a wealth of tools, materials and thinking available (see here, here and here). I wouldn’t say that donor agencies should try to operate like campaigning NGOs, but if the aim is to encourage a greater sense of the dynamic political context within programming, it’s worth looking at how parts of the development community already do this on a day to day basis.
Perhaps the other way that campaigning approaches can help inform more politically engaged programming is by demonstrating planning over a longer time horizon. My sense is that the real reason that recipients of donor funds are often buried in paperwork isn’t due to reporting requirements, but to the short-termist control freakery of some donors. Many ‘difficult’ advocacy issues (trade or tax justice, for example) are conceived as 10-20 year projects to change the terms of the debate, while also generating incremental wins to maintain momentum along the way. Could this be a way to enable donors to take the longer-term approaches that are more context to politics, whilst also producing the tangible progress required to maintain domestic support?
Pablo: Yes! A thousand times yes! Years ago, when I still knew very little about aid, I called for longer, more flexible and incremental interventions by donors. This was in my PhD, where I studied institutional reforms in Sierra Leone and Liberia: it was evident that two- or four-year programmes were barely capable of changing anything on the ground, other than the cosmetics of it all; moreover, often donors left when local reformers were at their most vulnerable, having drawn plenty of political ire. If conventional aid donors could learn only one thing from campaigning NGOs, I would certainly go for longer time horizons. However, I still think the political environment at home is hardly compatible with a more freeform kind of aid – I could see a campaigning NGO devoted to changing popular perceptions of development over here… In the meantime, I believe in political analysis as a tool, and the new briefing is just a small contribution for making it more useful.
Chris: I’m actually more optimistic that its viable for donors like DFID to win public support by communicating a longer-term approach to aid and development. An IPPR/ODI research project on public attitudes in the UK found “considerable appetite for greater understanding of development and for more complex stories of how change and progress happens”. In fact, I’d say that this is one area where donors have a real advantage over NGOs – in not having to rely on images and stories of immediate need in order to raise money from the public. If you look at the headline results DFID communicate, the vast majority are the result of long-term and ongoing priorities, not individual projects in any case. It sounds like we agree that donors should ensure that political economy analysis informs programming. I think the agenda setting, problem solving and influencing analysis typologies you set out are useful ways to think about doing this at different stages of planning – but this isn’t a substitute for long-term engagement if donors really want to made an impact.