Thinking and working politically in development interventions . Workshop round-up from Jonathan Fisher

Friday’s workshop – and Sam Hickey’s keynote which followed it – saw a mammoth amount of discussion, presentation and critical reflection packed in to one day. Podcasts of the 14 – yes 14! – presentations which took place will shortly be available to listen to for those who couldn’t attend; keep an eye on #mpolprac for this where you can also follow the discussion courtesy of our live-tweeters from the day (thanks to Laurence Cooley of GSDRC and Suda Perera of DLP in particular). The Development Leadership Programme ( will also be launching a blog very soon which will kick-off with a detailed summary of each of the four panel sessions.

Before I hand over to this week’s blogger, however, I will leave you with my own personal highlights from the workshop. Some of the below are conclusions drawn from the presenters, others are questions which policy-makers and/or academics still need to address in the on-going quest to “make politics practical”:

Incentives don’t always work the way we want them to

When talking about “working politically”, scholars often encourage policy-makers to “go with the grain” by working within the existing incentive structures to achieve developmental goals in particular societies. As David Hudson (UCL/DLP) points out, however, incentives aren’t always aligned towards these goals and may be overlapping and organized in an extremely complex and contradictory manner. Hudson encourages us to ‘move beyond – or, at least, inside – incentives’ and explore how demand for pro-poor politics can be built by external actors through building coalitions for change between local organizations and groups.

“Thinking politically” means thinking about the politics of the poor as well as the politics of elites

Much of the ‘political economy analysis’ work donors and scholars have done to date has focused heavily on elite politics and the distribution of power among leaders and politicians, both national and local. Caroline Hughes and Jane Hutchison (Bradford and Murdoch Universities respectively) argue that we need to do far more work to understand the ‘politics of poor people’ – particularly as they are so often the stated beneficiary of development interventions. We also, they contend (and I agree), need to be more willing to ‘take sides’ in such interventions regarding resource allocation since development is ultimately a conflict between groups, not simply a problem-solving exercise; it creates winners and losers.

Political scientists need to be more reflexive too!

Important point from Pablo Yanguas (University of Manchester) – we as political scientists are convinced that “politics matters” in development but can rarely agree ‘how or why’. What does this mean for us in terms of advising policy-makers?!

Effective development interventions require flexibility and discretion to be given to those on the frontline

The importance of senior donor managers allowing their staff the room to act in an adaptable manner – and to take risks – was a key point made during the day. Claire Mcloughlin (University of Birmingham/GSDRC), Leni Wild (ODI) and Daniel Harris (ODI) placed particular emphasis on this drawing-on a range of empirical examples.

Whose knowledge counts when “thinking politically”?

A challenging, but important, point was made by Wil Hout and Rosalba Icaza (Erasmus University) in relation to our understanding of “politics” itself. To what extent do donor organizations and programmes (such as the World Bank or DLP) draw-upon a narrow, Westernized conceptualization of this term and ignore alternative, non-Eurocentric understandings? In other words, whose knowledge matters most when we are trying to encourage “thinking politically”? Does accepting that “context matters” in development also apply to the normative and intellectual frameworks we use? If so – my own question – where, if anywhere, can or should we try and draw a line? Development, after all, is a normative enterprise even if, as James Copestake (University of Bath) rightly points out, it draws-upon multiple intellectual histories and genealogies.

Do donors tend to work with “safe” experts and what are the implications of this?

 In their analysis of the work of consultants for the OECD, Nicolas Lemay-Hebert (University of Birmingham) and Xavier Mathieu (University of Sheffield) point out the value of being seen as a “safe” expert who will need limited supervision to produce a report acceptable to the organization and its norms for being hired by the OECD and other donors. James Copestake – following some “action research” inside a donor-favoured consultancy – also highlights the importance of ‘repeat business’ and ‘providing answers’ quickly for many of these consultants. What do these incentive structures mean for the kind of research these expert consultants (“scholar-practitioners” as Lemay-Hebert and Mathieu call them) produce?

Should donor staff spend more time ‘in-country’?

Yes – we all agree. The difficulty comes in putting this into practice.

No real change has ever come about because of a logframe

Alina Rocha Menocal (ODI) tells it like it is!

Is there a middle-ground between “one-size-fits-all” and “context matters”?

Finally, the idea that the same programme can work in every country (the “blueprint” model) has been steadily undermined over the last two decades; none of the speakers in Friday’s workshop suggested that donors still take this perspective – commonplace until the 1980s/1990s – seriously. What is equally clear, however, is that policy-makers do not find the truism that “context matters” a very helpful framework for engaging in the developing world. Indeed, Friday saw speakers from several major donor organizations arguing for a middle ground between “one-size-fits-all” and “every country is unique” in the approach taken during development interventions. In a particularly revealing statement the audience were told that the speaker was “sick to the back teeth of people who say ‘it’s all about context’ because it doesn’t help [policy-makers involved in development operations]’.

This corresponds, to some extent, to Merilee Grindle’s argument about developing a “mid-level theory” for development which goes beyond ‘each country is its own universe’ but doesn’t try to transplant a programme that worked well in India into the Central African Republic expecting the same results.

I am not entirely sure, however, what this mid-level theory looks like or if anyone has yet attempted to articulate one. What I took fromFriday’s workshop was the importance of encouraging policy-makers to take risks and adapt according to what they find in their development activities. Is that a mid-level theory? Maybe!


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