Posts tagged ‘thinking politically’

November, 2013

From “thinking politically” to “working politically”

Most people involved in the development enterprise, however, are ‘doers’ as well as ‘thinkers’ – far more of my students hope to work for donor agencies, NGOs or charities than within university faculties or think tanks. A key challenge for proponents of the ‘thinking politically’ agenda, therefore, comes with the ‘operationalization’ of said agenda. How can policy-makers and those dealing with the practical implementation of development projects learn to ‘think politically’? How can ‘thinking politically’ simply become second nature for these individuals? How, ultimately, can we move from ‘thinking politically’ to ‘working politically’?

These vital questions will be addressed by a range of scholars and practitioners at the University of Birmingham at a special International Development Department (IDD) – Political Studies Association (PSA) workshop on ‘Making Politics Practical’ and a summary of the workshop’s major points will be provided on this blog shortly after the event. Today’s entry, however, will place this discussion in context by exploring some of the basic obstacles development policy-makers and managers often face when attempting to mainstream political thinking within their organizations.

  1. ‘Doing development’ and the political scientist deficit

It remains the case that most employees of major donor agencies (particularly within the World Bank) are economists or technicians of some kind by training. Informed by the somewhat discredited view of development as a technical, mechanical process commonplace in the decades following 1945 (see Monday and Tuesday’s blog entries), donors have traditionally recruited people based on their technical know-how rather than their understandings of local contexts. These recruitment patterns have been amended in recent years in some cases – DFID, for example, has employed a growing number of political scientists since the mid-2000s, albeit primarily in its Governance cadre. 

Most donors remain, however, populated by people with a certain type of intellectual background and approach to development. This has rarely been addressed or acknowledged, however, by those within these organizations attempting to mainstream political thinking, many of whom have themselves been political scientists! As Sue Unsworth, James Copestake and Richard Williams have argued, donors have not been sufficiently ‘reflexive’ in trying to understand their own workforce and its dominant mindsets when advancing the thinking politically agenda. 

  1. Career incentives and the fear of ‘risk’

Mainstreaming political thinking in donor organizations has also been resisted because its implications undermine the prevailing bureaucratic incentive structures within these organizations. For most donor officials, spending (or in the World Bank’s case, lending) money is the main avenue to promotion and, indeed, World Bank managers frequently implore their subordinates to ‘meet our lending targets’. Thinking politically, however, raises problems here since understanding local political contexts often makes policy-makers more wary of ‘risks’ presented to their programmes from corruption, conflict etc which they otherwise might have been blissfully unaware of. Political analysis for many donor officials, therefore, is what Alex Duncan and Gareth Williams have called ‘the dismal science of constraints’ – it flags risks and problems which few donors wish to hear about because it means spending less money.

What is at fault here, however, is not political analysis but the incentive structures within donor organizations and the way in which taking risks is punished rather than encouraged. A growing consensus is emerging in development and wider scholarship (see the work of Matt Andrews, Lant Pritchett and Tim Harford) that real progress comes only when actors are given the space and incentives to take risks and be flexible. Successfully mainstreaming political thinking, therefore, requires a wholescale rebalancing of the ways in which development bureaucracies work internally – something that numerous officials I have spoken to voluntarily acknowledge.

3. The ‘so what?’ question

The final obstacle to mainstreaming political thinking in development organizations can be summarized by two words: ‘so what?’

People working in development are busy people. They often work in very difficult and challenging environments on complex projects and programmes with sometimes limited support or even security. Even those officials chained to a desk in Washington or London must spend their days wading through endless boxes of paper, log frames and evaluation reports with little time to reflect on their ‘thinking’ about development. For many donor officials, therefore, learning how to ‘think politically’ is a distraction – in their minds – from an already over-brimming schedule of responsibilities. Moreover, the theoretical debates on coalitions, relationships and local ownership that political analysis often delves into (see this week’s earlier blog entries) often seem a mile away from the nitty-gritty of the work that most development actors undertake on a daily basis; “this is all fascinating”, say many such officials at ‘political economy analysis’ promotion and training events, “but what do I do with it on Monday morning?”

Making ‘political thinking’ appealing and relevant to donor officials without turning it into another ‘tool’ or subsection of a project planning application is a difficult task…..over to the experts at tomorrow’s workshop!


James Copestake and Richard Williams (2012): ‘The evolving art of political economy analysis: Unlocking its practical potential through a more interactive approach.’ Development Futures Paper, Oxford Policy Management.

Alex Duncan and Gareth Williams (2012): ‘Making Development Assistance More Effective Through Using Political-economy Analysis: What Has Been Done and What Have We Learned?’ Development Policy Review 30 (2): 133-148.

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

November, 2013

“Thinking politically” Part III:

2: Not ‘the problem’:

Another way in which ‘politics’ has often been understood by donor officials has been as a ‘problem’ – as Laura Routley and David Hulme have recently pointed out (Routley and Hulme 2013: 15-16). The introduction of ‘political economy analyses’ (see tomorrow’s blog) of development programmes and interventions in recent years has – for many donors – simply flagged-up all the obstacles ‘politics’ poses to the successful implementation of an otherwise well-designed project. ‘Politics’ is the corrupt official embezzling part of the budget. ‘Politics’ is the inter-agency rivalry between local government bureaucracies standing in the way of smooth implementation of policy. ‘Politics’ is a nuisance and an enemy of development and something which policy-makers and practitioners must find a way to neutralize in order for their work to make the difference it is meant to make.

“Thinking politically”, however, means getting out of this mindset – particularly difficult in the ‘project cycle’ environment within many donor agencies and NGOs. Apart from anything else, ‘politics’ is not something one can avoid – it is everywhere and exists in every relationship and organization. There are few more politicized situations than those which are commonplace in development interventions: foreigners delivering services because a government can – or will – not, local elites losing resources (or gaining them) at the expense of others etc. Seeing this reality as a ‘problem’ is counterproductive at best.

Supporters of political thinking would also argue that this reality opens up opportunities for development actors. If we as outsiders can understand and appreciate the dynamics of power relationships within societies we can also work with – or through – them to deliver development projects and objectives. This is something increasingly advocated by leading public policy scholars such as Merilee Grindle and even by donors themselves – see, for example, the World Bank Institute’s Leadership for Development programme. This may mean making awkward choices – working through patronage networks instead of government ministries or with warlords instead of NGOs – but ultimately politics can be a solution and not just a problem.

3: About relationships

Building on this a range of commentators and organizations – including the Development Leadership Programme, led initially by Adrian Leftwich and now by the University of Birmingham International Development Department’s Heather Marquette – advocate focusing on relationships as the core of ‘thinking politically’. Emphasizing human agency rather than (or, at least, within) the formal and informal structures that govern a society, these thinkers stress that positive change happens through building coalitions between different groups and that, therefore, donors should focus on organizing ‘coalitions for change’ – bringing actors and organizations together around common goals. This involves understanding incentives – why people do the things they do – and appreciating the fact that incentives change and relationships evolve; politics is dynamic, complex and messy.

4: ‘How things really are’

My own favourite definition of ‘thinking politically’ is perhaps summarized as ‘seeing things for how they really are’. This means trying to avoid applying too many general frameworks or models to societies, or processes occurring within them, for fear of missing important issues and developments that don’t fit into those models.

Astute readers may have noticed that I have not yet even attempted to define ‘politics’ itself…..perhaps I will try and do this before the week is out!

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


Laura Routley and David Hulme (2013): Donors, Development Agencies and the use of Political Economic Analysis: Getting to grips with the politics of development, Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID) Research Centre Working Paper No 19, University of Manchester.

Development Leadership Programme 

Further links:

What are some of the ways in which donors have tried to get their staff to ‘think politically’ in recent years?

How to think and work politically in development

Discussion paper

Second paper

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