“Thinking politically” Part II:

What, however, do we mean by ‘political’ in the context of development policy and thinking? Almost absent from development discourse prior to the 2000s – as scholar and practitioner Sue Unsworth points out (2009:883) – the word ‘politics’ has now become an integral part of development language albeit without ever having been clearly defined. Along with terms like ‘ownership’, ‘agency’ and even ‘development’ itself, ‘politics’ seems to mean something so intuitive and obvious to all that exploring its actual meaning seems like ivory tower navel-gazing to many policy-makers. Indeed, at a World Bank event I attended last year, participants being told about political economy thinking by their superiors protested on several occasions that ‘we know this’!

The problem is, of course, that when people talk about an issue being ‘political’ they often mean different things with their understandings shaped by a wide range of cultural, intellectual, sociological and environmental contexts. This definitional pluralism matters in development interventions for a whole host of reasons; if two donors both talk about delivering ‘development’ with one meaning ‘democratization’ by this and another ‘poverty alleviation’ then their actions to achieve these goals will be very different – and possibly undermine one another’s. If two donors reassure a recipient government that they wish to support ‘local ownership’ it matters if they define this as that government’s ‘commitment to pre-determined donor policies’ or ‘control of the policy-making agenda itself’.

Tuesday and Wednesday’s blog entries will therefore explore some of the main ways in which ‘politics’ is defined – explicitly or implicitly – by scholars, practitioners and policy-makers involved in ‘saving humans’.

1: Not technical:

The most common understanding of ‘political thinking’ in the development world defines the term against ‘technical thinking’. This contrast ultimately focuses on the assumptions underlying our thinking on how development happens. Those with a ‘technical’ mindset assume that development is a linear process that requires the correct inputs in order to be progressed. As the late Adrian Leftwich emphasized, this has often meant an emphasis being placed on institutions and structures by donor agencies – the things we in the West have that we can ‘build’ in the developing world to mechanically move developing states along the development conveyor belt.

Like the ‘big push’ thinkers of the 1950s ‘modernization theory’ era, this group believes that ‘getting to Norway’ (that is, to an economically developed state with minimal poverty or disparity) is just a question of applying the right formula of interventions and medicines. Donors, in this model, are the purveyors of advice, tools and instruments to developing states moving along this path at varying speeds with World Bank staff (many of whom are economists by training) often seen as the most influential group in this category.

Proponents of “thinking politically”, however, reject this conceptualization of development as naïve, simplistic and ahistorical. They argue that development – however defined – has not happened in quite the same way in any two states and thus why should we expect it to start doing so now? Moreover, they contend that technicalist understandings of development underplay the role of people and societies in shaping their futures. Institutions such as parliaments or political parties have delivered certain public goods in the West not simply because they are there but because important societal coalitions built them and gave them their continued support – and not without significant and continuous reforms and alterations.

“Thinking politically”, according to this strand of thought, therefore means two key things: 1) understanding the contexts and nuances of the environments we work in – people, regions and states are different and ‘one-size-fits-all’ solutions are therefore likely to fail in most cases; 2) focusing on the agency of local actors and seeking to support the institutions, relationships and organizations that they view as legitimate and developmental.

Dr Jonathan Fisher is a Lecturer in International Development at the University of Birmingham.


Sue Unsworth (2009): “What’s politics got to do with it?” Why donors find it so hard to come to terms with politics, and why this matters.’, Journal of International Development  21 (6): 883-894

Further links:

Thinking politically about development

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