Thinking and Working Politically: Challenges and Implications

I’ve recently been participating in and following (through the likes of Duncan Green and Michael Bear Kleinman) a fascinating and ongoing discussion about the need for development organisations to think and work politically. The discussion seems to have been sparked by a growing consensus around two major points related to the importance of power and politics in shaping development outcomes:

  • The need to understand power relations: if we want local buy-in and ownership, we need to understand who the local actors are and what they want.
  • The need to change power relations: if we want to address and mitigate the effects of inequality, we need to shift the balance of power between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.

What are the challenges?

The discussion is particularly interesting because the idea of wading into the messiness of politics doesn’t fit well with the technical perspective that is characteristic of the aid industry today. From that perspective, development is seen as a linear process that is achieved through technical fixes. ‘Results-based management’, ‘rigorous data’, ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘value for money’ are all terms that feature heavily in development-speak and portray a sense of clarity: by spending x, we can do y and achieve z. Dealing with politics and power, on the other hand, only serves to muddy the waters.

To some extent, the reluctance to engage is understandable. Working politically can be risky: a development organisation may not want to be affiliated with a particular actor, for any number of reasons. Perhaps more crucial, from a technical perspective, is the fact that power can be quite intangible, and its distribution, at any scale, may not necessarily be very obvious.

While we can quantify the number of wells built, or the number of schoolchildren provided with deworming treatment, or the number of households provided with cash transfers, we can’t meaningfully measure the number of power relations that have changed.

Dealing with power, therefore, isn’t very compatible with the standard toolkits of results-based management frameworks (e.g. logical frameworks, baseline studies, performance-based indictors), which tend to be apolitical and designed for quantifiable measures of progress and change.

So what does this mean?

  • We need to recognise that development is not a simple, linear process. Thanks to work by thinkers like Ben Ramalingam, there is a growing acceptance of the complexity of development, but it is worth reiterating. Development outcomes are resultant of, and shaped by processes of political contestation. A perspective that focuses on technical fixes can’t account for the effects of such contestations.
  • We need to expand our understanding of what counts as a result. The oft-cited Einstein quote comes to mind – “not everything that counts can be counted”. We can’t ignore the effects and importance of power and politics just because we can’t easily measure them.
  • Long-term perspectives and deep regional knowledge are invaluable. Developing an understanding of the political landscape, identifying opportunities to empower people, and recognising change when it is happening requires knowledge and perspective that cannot be gained within short time-frames.
  • Cookie-cutter approaches need to be avoided. Toolkits, frameworks and best practice approaches are attractive in development because they simplify analysis of and responses to complex processes. If we apply them rigidly, without understanding the contours of the political context, we shouldn’t be surprised if results are not as anticipated.

I’m sure there more more in terms of challenges and implications, and certainly in terms of opportunities, which I haven’t really touched upon here. It would be great to hear from any readers about their thoughts and experiences of thinking and working politically.

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