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What are governance advisers missing with ‘Political Economy Analysis’? How can they do better?

08 October 2015

Image: World bank community meeting, Indonesia.

Guest post in FP2P

From a restaurant in Jakarta, David Hudson & Heather Marquette with some new thinking on power, politics and governance

What advice would you give to a novice governance advisor working for a bilateral donor going into the field for the first time? Want to know how some of the top governance experts, advisors, researchers and academics would say? Well, wonder no more.

In a welcome departure, the OECD-DAC’s Governance Network (GovNET) has ditched the usual formal format for something slightly more interesting. The new A Governance Practitioner’s Notebook: Alternative Ideas and Approaches is guidance but not as we know it. The book’s premise is that there is a new governance advisor named ‘Lucy’, and our job as authors is to provide real-life support and guidance to her as she gets her head around her new job. Not the ‘official’ line coming from HR or Heads of Profession but the kind of advice she may really need before taking up her first country posting. The volume includes chapters from the likes of Matt Andrews, David Booth, Thomas Carothers, and Sue Unsworth, as well as some highly experienced practitioners. And some of it is even funny.

A couple of months before a trip to Indonesia/Myanmar/Australia, and all points in between, we’d been asked to contribute a chapter. The book was pitched to us as an ‘alternative guide to Political Economy Analysis (PEA)’. We were given carte blanche to be critical and provocative and to reflect on our own experiences with PEA and what we thought was missing.

Mo Ibrahim index of African governance. Best 10 countries, 2014.

One warm night in Jakarta, we faced the stark realisation that we’d somehow chosen to take a taxi some distance out to a dry restaurant. Not a drop of alcohol on the menu and nothing to do other than reflect on what we’d observed after spending time with a number of impressive DFAT, DFID and Asia Foundation folks working on a range of different development programmes. In meeting after meeting, we heard about people ‘thinking and working politically’ (TWP) in all sorts of ways: finding innovative ways to better support women parliamentarians; thinking through implementation of the new ‘Village Law’, designed to bring more financial resources and control to the microlevel; better integrating health and education reforms to tackle HIV; harnessing youth engagement and social media to fight corruption.

Far from TWP being something that sits only with governance advisors, we found evidence of it everywhere we looked. But we also found some cynicism, a sense that TWP didn’t serve the needs of the people who were, ironically, doing it all the time (and, at least to our observations, doing it well). Three main reasons kept coming up in our conversations: 1) TWP (and now ‘Doing Development Differently’ – DDD) seems to be a bit ‘cult-ish’, with too many ‘Messiahs’ rocking up in Jakarta or elsewhere to tell people what they’re doing wrong and how, if only they’d listen, what they could do better; 2) a perceived lack of appreciation for how much the local political context shapes how much political space there actually is for external actors, in particular, to work differently; and 3) how much PEA there is sitting on people’s shelves or, worse, in their ‘circular file’, i.e., the bin.

So sitting there, enjoying satay (one of life’s true pleasures) and fruit juice (enough said…), we thought long and hard about what’s missing in PEA, why it matters and what we’ve learned and observed over the years. We came up with four gaps.

Person labelled "good governance" spraying worms labelled "Corruption".

First, it’s time to stop thinking about politics in PEA through a single lens of institutional theory. Economists may like talking about interests and incentives, but it hides away the ‘real’ politics – the compromises, deals, coalition building, battles for power and so on – that lie at the heart of every country’s political system. And it’s a better way to engage with non-economists/governance types as well. Everyone inherently gets power, but not everyone gets ‘institutions’. At a recent TWP Community of Practice meeting in Bangkok, participants brought a gender lens to shine on TWP (and vice versa), showing how power needs to be at the heart to TWP. So why not put it at the heart of PEA? Can it help go some way towards keeping PEA in people’s heads, on their desks and out of the bin?

Second, the time to see PEA as a one-off discrete process that happens as part of initial programme design is at an end. Political analysis needs to be a living, breathing process that fits the operational needs of development practitioners. Political analysis need to be an everyday thing that helps people test their assumptions and theories of change as they go along. It needs to be used to help teams frame conversations about better learning from success and failure. It should be an essential input into strategies. Sure, a one-off PEA report written by an external expert will always have its place, but it should be one of a menu of choices (and not always the default one). There needs to be a rethink of PEA based on demand and need, not based on supply.

Third, we need to be able to answer the question, ‘But does PEA/TWP/DDD actually work to make development programmes more effective?’ Common sense says it should, and some single case studies suggest that it’s likely, but we have no ‘rigorous enough’ evidence base on PEA or on TWP/DDD. Something systematic and comparative, that doesn’t ‘cherry pick’ successes and then tells only part of the story. As we say in our paper, those of us in this ‘space’ make a lot of claims and demand a lot of changes without knowing for sure that we’re right, or even that we’re right in the right way. Just because something happened in the Philippines or in Nigeria in one way, will it work like that in another context? Because something worked in a particular way in a legal reform programme, will it work in a big infrastructure one? Anecdotes (should) only get us so far. What we have now are some fantastic attempts at theory generation and reflection (Sue Unsworth and David Booth’s paper is probably the best example of this so far), and a forthcoming DLP paper sets out a way to build on this work (and others) in order to build this much-needed evidence base. Some organisations are doing important internal reviews. Hopefully, with the collective effort of authors in the OECD book and beyond, we’ll soon have a more definitive answer to the ‘but does it work?’ question than we’ve had before.

Finally, we need to get more real about the things we can actually change and what we can’t. There’s good work out
there on why donors in particular struggle with TWP (though many lessons also apply to large INGOs and other bureaucracies). But the solutions suggested rarely seem politically feasible. Get rid of the imperative to spend? But that’s what government departments – all government departments – do. They’re given a budget and they spend it, and if they don’t, they lose it. Hire more political scientists or more ‘mavericks’? But what happens to existing staff with their strong technical knowledge in an era of austerity and cuts? Get rid of log frames? But how then do we hold programme leads to account? Focus on working more flexibly and adaptively? But how do we keep politics at the heart of this?

"politics is more difficult than physics" - Albert Einstein.

What our time in Jakarta (and elsewhere) showed us is that great people are finding ways to better think and work politically all the time, but they’re often doing it by swimming upstream. They’re not usually getting support from above, but they’re not really getting the support they need from PEA experts either. What they are doing is coming up with tweaks to normal business practice that make this a lot easier, and is politically easier in the often contentious contexts in which they work: co-designing programmes with both sector and governance staff; creating cross-sector strategies with on-going political analysis at the heart of regular team discussions; designing programmes with embedded, independent researchers so that political analysis is something that happens every day.

Our paper explores all of this in a bit more depth, but it also sits in a collection that aims to break down some of the walls between governance advisors and everyone else so that political analysis and TWP can become a better part of everyday working. It’s refreshingly critical (and self-critical) and is rooted in the day-to-day operational realities of development programming. We think that it shows how Lucy – or her real-life counterparts – are entering the field at an exciting time, but one where she needs to be open-minded and her colleagues need to be refreshingly honest about the challenges and the ways in which to better overcome these.

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