Three challenges for ‘politically smart’ programming (and me)

Fish and produce markets in Indonesia in 2012. NOAA photos by Megan Moews.“So, I’m still reading about TWIA”, I said to my new boss one morning over coffee.

“TWIA?” he frowned, peering at me quizzically. “What’s that?”

“Oh.” I said, realizing my error. “TWD…… wait… no!” I spluttered, “TWP and PDIA!”

As I stumbled over the acronyms, feeling the unfamiliar syllables trip up my tongue, I reflected on a curiosity: the closer my work takes me to aid providers, the more I hear about Thinking Working Politically (TWP), Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA) and Doing Development Differently (DDD).

These agendas, which are often referred to as ‘politically smart’, all share a similar set of ideas: development interventions operate in challenging environments, achieve greater traction when they are aligned with the incentives of local political settlements, and that the complexity of most development challenges calls for an iterative approach to programming.

I’m a newcomer to aid contracting and program implementation, having previously worked in research and spent periods of time overseas with think tanks, NGOs and the private sector. At first, I found these references and the concepts they embodied confusing: the language of program management was unfamiliar, and the programs were complex, long-running and featured multiple stakeholders with different agendas. Initially, I relied heavily on my technical or country knowledge, but after a while, it became apparent that I would need a different set of skills. Although I started with an idea of what I thought I would need to perform effectively, what was actually required was very different.

So that morning, as I clunked my way through acronyms loaded with meaning I hadn’t fully synthesized, it struck me that my move from academia shared similarities with the context development agencies encounter when they begin programming in a developing country: a complex, unfamiliar environment, which is at first unpredictable and difficult to understand, yet still requires the production of some kind of measurable output or tangible benefits. In my case, it was the work allocated to me, on programs I wasn’t familiar with.

Granted, it’s not an ideal or particularly poetic comparison, and there’s a great deal more nuance than I’ve described here, but it does illustrate some of the key tenets at the heart of this curious agenda, and allow me to introduce a number of challenges that are crucial to its impact on development.

The first is legitimacy; the degree to which TWP, DDD and PDIA are endorsed by the development community. All three have been criticized because, in staking their claim for greater political awareness, there is a tacit inference that the previous approach, which has been described as “technocratic” [pdf] and with little political relevancy or awareness of conditions on the ground [paywall, p.3],  was somehow inadequate. Such criticisms are typically accompanied by eye-rolling and benign amusement at the sense that those promoting these ideas presume they are on the cusp of the next development panacea, riding the crest of a new wave of poverty reduction. However, as Heather Marquette commented recently, “Few people would now try to claim that you can do development without thinking seriously about politics and yet, (…) this used to be a controversial claim that required a degree of advocacy, as well as evidence. The fact that the claim that politics is central to development has recently been described as a new orthodoxy is incredibly rewarding and probably a little bit bemusing to those of us who’ve been part of this long journey.”

So, to disparage these ideas misses the point. One of the challenges with any kind of paradigm shift is how to ensure that as a new initiative or innovation, it survives the transition from the realm of the novel and faddish, to enduring, meaningful and hopefully, transformational. By raising awareness of its concepts and enabling people to participate in the conversation, a critical mass of people can be encouraged to develop the ideas and apply the lessons learned. If this is repeated to the point where the ideas are prevalent enough to sustain themselves, a process is set in motion. Eventually, these acronyms and the ideas they embody can be incorporated not just into governance, but into development policy and practice; beyond the architecture of program delivery.

The second challenge is authority, the extent to which arguments are grounded empirically. One way to develop support for a set of ideas is to build a strong evidence base. Presently, there is a critical lack of high-quality evidence for the politically smart agenda. It has been argued [pdf] that much of that used so far is “anecdotal; does not meet standards for a robust body of evidence, is not comparative (systematically or otherwise); and draws on a small number of self-selected, relatively well-known success stories written by insiders.” This suggests that under these agendas, development practitioners need to improve how they document and share the results of aid interventions. Programs also need to be monitored over long time periods, with impacts rigorously evaluated, so that a causal chain can be mapped and the methodology better understood. ODI has published an excellent example of this here.

Finally, the lack of robust evidence perpetuates another challenge: the tension between the different levels of risk tolerance across stakeholders. Donors, who are required to justify their actions to tax payers and hence need to appear in control of expenditure at all times, have a preference for minimal risk exposure; contractors, who deliver aid programs on behalf of donors and who, although not always profit-maximizing, need to use innovative (and thus inherently risky methods) to achieve transformation on the ground, have a higher tolerance for risk; while program recipients (who benefit most from high impact programs which are likely to involve higher levels of risk for donors and contractors), are willing to accept more risk. The challenge is in aligning these.

Overcoming these obstacles is crucial to the impact politically smart agendas will have on development programming and policy. In many ways, there is a feedback loop between them: improving the quality of documentation on the impacts of these agendas will help to ensure that future programming is informed by evidence, which can help address issues of legitimacy and authority. This in turn, can cut across different appetites for risk. As researchers have observed, given the lack of evidence-based analysis on the impact of politically smart approaches to development programming, it is “not surprising that many senior donor staff and the politicians they report to have tended to be cautious about adopting what is still seen in some quarters as a risky and unproven approach.” [pdf]

In the meantime, as the stream of program-related emails continues to land in my inbox, I’ll go back to blundering my way through acronyms.

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One thought on “Three challenges for ‘politically smart’ programming (and me)

  1. Hi Tara. Great article, thank you! A question: do you think your three challenges deserve equal weighting, and/or are there others we need to consider? Thinking here of those instances where budgets, domestic politics (both donor and recipient), program legacy/ inertia, and principal-agent relationships can play a key role in how programs are designed and carried over – often despite what the best available evidence says.

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