What we’re missing by not getting our TWP (Thinking & Working Politically) alphabet straight

 

This blog is republished under a Creative Commons license. The original was published on Oxfam’s From Poverty to Power. See the original post for lots of great comments!

I am struck by how often people say ‘TWP/PDIA/adaptive management/PEA…whatever’. Kind of like when my great-aunt calls me by various relatives’ names first before getting mine right – ‘Sheila… Mary…Lily…Heather!’ – these things may share a common genesis, and there are threads that obviously connect them, but they are actually different things.

That matters because important distinctions are getting lost, so here is my (final) attempt to unmuddle the soup.

Problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA)

PDIA isn’t about donor programmes. It’s about state capability. Matt Andrews and Lant Pritchett et al’s research looks at what effective states do, not what donors do directly. They describe this approach as:

  • Local solutions for local problems;
  • Pushing problem driven positive deviance;
  • Try, learn, iterate, adapt; and
  • Scale through diffusion.

Their interest in donors is limited to how donors should support states in building their own capacity to undertake reforms and, just as importantly, what not to do to undermine this.

Donors can’t ‘do’ PDIA. DFAT’s Saku Akmeemana made this point really well at the 2018 Australasian Aid Conference (see 13:19-16:06). If you’ve not watched this, stop reading this blog right now and do so! She said,

The whole idea of…the PDIA model is around learning…[PDIA] is looking at the process of national development…There’s an endogenous feedback loop from the experimentation to the adaptation. There’s a whole political and administrative system to respond, and we’re trying to mimic that somehow in a compressed project/programme cycle with something that’s externally imposed. So some of these ideas are going to be very hard to implement, because we don’t have that endogeneity in the feedback loop.

Referring to China’s experience with adaptive learning, she talked about the Chinese Communist Party’s incredible – and massive – system for learning, concluding that, ‘We have to have some humility and modesty in terms of what we can do through a project’.

PO tech complex

In his (non-)retirement speech, David Booth made an important observation that PDIA isn’t just about adaptation – it’s about being problem-driven, not solutions-led. External actors, like donors, tend to come to the table with funding for particular solutions, rather than starting with asking local actors what their priority problems are.

I recently met with a programme team in Ghana, and a standout comment from a Ghanaian colleague was that he has been so proud to be able to go to country counterparts and say, ‘What problems are you grappling with? How can we help you solve these?’, not ‘here’s what I’ve got for you’. David’s work intersects with Matt and Lant’s in the sense that one of the worst things that donors can do to undermine a state’s own reform process is to insist on the solution in the beginning, or perhaps by only being interested in specific problems – which may not be the state’s own priorities. More than getting rid of log frames or developing new M&E frameworks, moving away from solutions-led aid would be an important step towards building state capability, enabling states to define their own problems and, through their own problem-driven iterative adaptation, finding their own solutions.

So PDIA = important insights into how effective country reformers work.

But PDIA ≠ TWP.

Adaptive management (AM)/Flexible & Adaptive (F&A) programmes

Adaptive management is, in some ways, how PDIA translates into aid practice. It is seen as good management practice in a huge range of sectors and so isn’t aid specific. At its heart, it’s about piloting, testing, learning, adapting and delivering. This is likely to look different at different scales and in different contexts and needs a good evidence base to understand how, when, where, why and who, and – just as importantly – what doesn’t work.

What is aid-specific is that adaptive programmes are being delivered in contexts that aren’t funders’ own. It is (or could be), in effect, aid’s riposte to development programming that’s solutions-led, and there is a direct line from research on PDIA to adaptive management; however, the two are not interchangeable, and that’s really important. Understanding this helps to explain why the M&E nut has been so hard to crack.What M&E (and L) needs to do in the context of externally-funded adaptive aid programmes is to try as far as possible to find ways to replicate the feedback loops that exist ‘naturally’ in local contexts, as Saku explained so well.

So AM/F&A ≠ PDIA (as David Booth pointed out).

And AM/F&A ≠ TWP.

Political Economy Analysis (PEA)

Unlike PDIA or even AM, PEA isn’t an approach. It’s a tool, an input, a sense check, a framework. Or, more accurately, it’s a range of tools, inputs and frameworks that can help with sense checking a programme, from planning through design to implementation and beyond. It can be formal or informal. It can be national, regional, sectoral, problem-driven, ‘everyday’. It can be done once, producing a big report, or it can be integrated into a team’s daily working. It can be insightful or it can be rubbish.

It’s not the same thing as the political analysis done by diplomats, though that can make an important contribution to PEA. At it’s best, PEA helps us to understand where political will for reform may come from and, if at all possible, how to shift from political won’t to political will in order to achieve programme outcomes or – just as importantly – to avoid negative unintended consequences/do no harm. ‘Political won’t’ is not always passive, an absence of will; it can be active – from refusing to acknowledge and engage on an issue, to actively preventing an action (sometimes for good reasons), to harnessing powerful interest networks and violently sabotaging it. Good PEA can help you understand which one of these is happening and, perhaps, also help you figure out if you can do anything about it.

PEA reflects a reality where development programmes are funded, owned and implemented by outsiders. PDIA – the process by which states deliver their own reforms – shouldn’t really need the kind of ‘rules of the game’, full bells and whistles PEA analysis that outsiders need in order to understand the context. Reformers in country may pursue reforms that aren’t technically or politically feasible, of course, but the basic contextual knowledge is there. Anyone can need help thinking through how to unblock reforms or how to generate necessary political will, but only external actors need the sort of ‘full blown’ PEA that ends up in training courses for donors and INGOs. But Everyday Political Analysis, stakeholder mapping, risk analysis, horizon scanning etc can be used by national as well as external actors. The outputs might still be rubbish, and bad PEA can generate its own problems, of course. We definitely need better (any?) evidence on this.

But PEA ≠ TWP. This is important.

Thinking & working politically (TWP)

Unlike PEA, thinking and working politically isn’t a tool, or even an approach. It’s a way of thinking and working that keeps the understanding that everything is political front and centre. It is, at its heart, how people ‘parlez-vous politics’ (see this and this). It isn’t something that only aid people do. It’s not even something that only policy makers do. My dad – a carpenter and fisherman – thinks and works politically better than anyone I’ve ever met.

Research shows how TWP has helped local reformers get from political won’t to political will. Research looking at how a donor supported local civil society in better holding the Nigerian government and oil companies to account, to understanding how government agencies in India and China have ‘bundled’ climate change with other priorities in order to make change happen, to getting more High Net Worth Individuals paying tax in Uganda, and through this we’re learning more and more about how TWP – by local actors, sometimes supported by external actors and sometimes not – helps make progress on specific problems. The size of the impact from better evidence on this is potentially vast.

Without TWP, PDIA can build states’ capability in ways that could do harm. Capable states can do unspeakable things, after all.

Without TWP, adaptive programmes can do the wrong things flexibily and adaptively: starting with solutions and not problems, hitting the political will wall and, of course, doing harm.

Without TWP, PEA could be just another programme input that sits on a shelf and doesn’t actually do anything. And, of course, rubbish PEA, done poorly,aimed at the wrong level or coming at the wrong time could lead to poor decisions that (one more time…) do harm.

As an incredibly experienced aid practitioner and diplomat once said in a TWP Community of Practice meeting, ‘TWP should be firstly about not f***ing things up’. By getting our TWP alphabet right, and having a good evidence base, we can bring focus back onto state capability, think more clearly about how best to do adaptive programming and to use PEA, and we can stop f***ing stuff up. That seems pretty important to me.

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