How does politically informed programming shape development outcomes?

Originally posted on the DLP Opinions blog

With Niheer Dasandi and Mark Robinson

Many well-intentioned development programmes founder in the face of resistance from entrenched elites who feel threatened by a potential loss of power and resources. Resources intended for the poor and disadvantaged benefit the rich and powerful. In response, development practitioners and academics have become keenly interested in the political factors that shape development outcomes over the past ten years. The approach, often called ‘thinking and working politically’ (TWP), tries to understand the political obstacles that get in the way of developmental reform and successful practical interventions.

However, taking political obstacles into account in programme design is easier said than done. This is why a community of practice has recently emerged from this upsurge of interest in TWP, designed to learn lessons and develop practical guidance for development practitioners who may be sceptical of the value of such an approach.

The development literature has long shown that the capture of development benefits by rich and powerful groups is centred on the extraction of rents and economic surplus in pursuit of narrow self-interest. More recently, a range of case studies has begun to document the political factors that influence development outcomes. Some use political economy tools to analyse the power dynamics that shape policy decisions and programme implementation. Political economy approaches, of course, analyse the decisions of those who hold political power in the context of their economic interests and the unequal distribution of material resources. These case studies reveal a rich array of political factors that can frustrate efforts to improve development outcomes in favour of the poor and disadvantaged.

Despite the resurgence of interest in political economy analysis, we lack a rigorous evidence base that shows a consistent link between the politically sensitive design of development interventions and any resulting positive outcomes. Much of the evidence used to justify a politically informed approach is anecdotal; it lacks a systematically comparative approach and the little evidence we have of the success of TWP is based on a few cases, many of which have an inbuilt selection bias. There has been little effort to consider whether any initial positive results have been sustained – although this is hardly surprising, given the relative newness of this approach.

Even so, the absence of such evidence weakens the appeal of political economy analysis for development practitioners, especially those who have to make decisions about policy choice and budget allocations. Decision makers need to know whether analysis grounded in political analysis will help them use scarce development resources better and reduce the risk that funds will be misused and diverted.

Our new working paper suggests an analytical framework to help build the evidence base on ‘politically informed programming’. The overall aim is to understand how and why some development interventions adopt a politically informed approach, and what the effect of TWP may be for the implementation and outcomes of development programmes.

We take it as a given that politics matters for development outcomes; our focus here is on how incorporating politics into programme design and implementation affects outcomes. The framework distinguishes between four levels of analysis: political, sectoral, organisational and individual.

  • The first level, political context, considers how the political system, leadership and the nature of the political settlement in a given context affect development programmes
  • The sectoral level considers how characteristics of specific sectors (such as health, education, or water delivery) influence programme implementation and impact
  • The organisational level looks at how features of an implementing organisation can support or hinder politically informed programming – features such as flexibility, adaptability and autonomy, or type of organisation (government, donor, NGO)
  • Finally the individual level illuminates the role played by individuals in programme success when they think and work politically – particularly the behaviours, incentives and motivations of decision makers and frontline staff responsible for service delivery.

We believe such a framework will make it possible to compare and contrast development interventions systematically across a range of political contexts – including both fragile states and democratic environments – and in a limited number of sectors.

Our hope is that this type of in-depth analysis can help address the current methodological and analytical gaps in the existing literature and fill gaps in the current debate around TWP in development programming. A better evidence base on politically informed programming will, we believe, prove central to moving ‘thinking and working politically’ from the margins of development policy into mainstream development programming. In the process, the adoption of this approach by development practitioners should help them understand political risks and ensure that resources for the poor do benefit the poor in practice.

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