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Political analysis as the practical art of the possible

24 July 2014

Image: Dr Adrian Leftwich (1940-2013), the Developmental Leadership Program’s founding Director of Research.

In May 2011 I met Adrian Leftwich for a cup of tea, to discuss a project that was plaguing him.

He bounded over with a ‘Hello!’ and vigorous handshake and set out his concerns. Why, he wanted to know, couldn’t donors do a better job of understanding and navigating the politics of the places in which they work?

Adrian’s own work had long shown just how important politics was for development outcomes. And now, he said, he was frustrated that smart and dedicated people in donor agencies couldn’t seem to get a better grip on what he always called ‘the inner politics of development’.

By this he meant the endless competition, cooperation, and conflict among individuals and organisations. The real stuff of politics, as far as he was concerned: the deliberation over distribution and values; the striking and breaking of deals; and the building, maintenance and transformation of coalitions and institutions. Above all, the operation of power.

Adrian’s proposition was that donors couldn’t develop a sufficiently detailed understanding of these living processes because they didn’t have the right tools. As we discussed where those tools might be found, our hunch was that we should go back to basics and do some serious theoretical excavation.

Out of that work came a paper, From Political Economy to Political Analysis, affectionately known here at DLP as ‘Hudwich’. Its argument was extremely important to Adrian and, tragically, it turned out to be the last piece of writing he did.

It is a ground-clearing exercise, an invitation to think more deeply about the very nature of politics.

There has been much progress towards thinking and working politically over the last decade, thanks largely to the PEA approach, but that progress has stalled. Sue Unsworth argues persuasively that the rhetorical acceptance of the importance of politics rarely translates into politically-informed programming (ungated here).

Why isn’t PEA helping us bridge this gap between thinking and working politically? Partly because of donor agencies’ own incentive structures and administrative barriers to more flexible programming. It’s also about staffing issues, skill-sets, resources, capacity and – to put it frankly – appetite. And it is difficult to communicate PEA in an attractive and compelling way. These factors all need to be tackled.

But in our view, a crucial stumbling block is the lack of sufficiently sharp analytical tools to help donors understand the all-important inner politics of development.

PEA has in some cases become a ‘dismal science of constraints’, argue Alex Duncan and Gareth Williams (ungated here). PEA is often very good at identifying the tenacity of institutions and vested interests, and therefore at explaining why change can’t happen. Yet the key question is surely about how change can happen – as Duncan and Williams point out, it is about the room for manoeuvre amidst the constraints. Where is the room for manoeuvre, or how can it be created to make support of developmental reform possible?

This is not a new question: political scientists have long discussed it. As we returned to those debates, Adrian and I found that learning from them could help identify room for manoeuvre in development work by bringing politics back into PEA.

As the title of our paper suggests, existing PEA approaches and tools rely too much on economic assumptions – that people are consistently rational and respond to incentives in largely predictable ways. And economists have always failed to take power seriously enough.

From the perspectives of politics and political analysis it becomes clear that interests and ideas are part of the same story: ideas, social norms and power all affect people’s motivations and interpretations of what their incentives are. Self-interest is not the obvious and consistent force it is often assumed to be.

Understanding this makes it easier to identify room for manoeuvre. Whether it already exists or might be created, it is critical to work out which ‘realities’ are more or less available.

To do this, political analysis sets out with the idea that we are venturing into the unpredictable terrain of a living, changing landscape.

The most recent manifestations of PEA have become static and inflexible. They miss opportunities for change because they assume that every developmental journey will be a methodical and rational navigation through a maze of fixed walls.

Political analysis is simply more dynamic. It investigates ideology, power, politics, and socio-economic context. It examines the role of ideas and interests in these arenas, helping us understand the strategic creativity of political actors.

While political analysis recognises the constraints of political realities, it assumes that there is always room for manoeuvre. So it asks not only how institutions and structures shape what agents can and can’t do, but also what they might think of doing. Where, in institutions and structures, do agents find the resources to shape conduct and context? We also want to know how agents interpret their political context and their interests, what forms of collective agency are feasible, and what political work is necessary.

When, in 1867, Otto von Bismarck described politics as the ‘art of the possible’, he was pointing out the limits of what can be achieved. But political analysis isn’t just a study of obstacles; it considers how people creatively negotiate and reshape their context. Bringing politics back into PEA can transform the ‘dismal science of constraints’ into a practical – and more positive – ‘art’.

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