The ‘almost revolution’ of thinking and working politically

Last week, I had the opportunity to spend a couple of stimulating hours with colleagues at ODI discussing where we have got to with the “almost revolution” of thinking and working politically, and where we need to go from here.  The discussion with policy-makers (DFID), practitioners and researchers was held to reflect on the experience presented in David Booth and all’s recent publication “From political economy analysis to doing development differently: A learning experience”.

The main messages from Booth’s paper certainly seemed to resonate with most participants in the room.  Challenged by DFID staff and others, our discussion focused on 2 main points:

  • Are we using the right language to engage people in the thinking and working politically revolution?
  • Do we need better evidence on how effective the thinking and working politically approach is to continue the revolution?

Overall, we were agreed that, so far, we haven’t found the right language.  The language of working politically resonates with some individuals – the governance types for example – but not necessarily others.  In officialdom, it can trigger a negative reaction, placing people in rather uncomfortable territory.  The language of ‘adaptive programming’ which stems from the work of Matt Andrews and others at the Center for International Development at Harvard University provides some alternatives but the term ‘adaptive programming’ is already at risk of entering the ever extending lexicon of meaningless development jargon.

My take on this was that we need a clearer articulation of the essential elements of adaptive programming and the right language will emerge from that.  Experience of doing adaptive programming is helping to crystallise these critical elements approach and Itad is proud of the contribution we have been able to make here through the innovative SAVI programme.  But more needs to be done to communicate these critical elements and demonstrate how an adaptive, politically aware approach is different to the norm.

Our discussion around the need for a stronger evidence base on the effectiveness of thinking and working politically was a bit thornier.  Was the challenge for evidence an unfair test – not applied to other approaches – designed to distract and resist?  Matt Andrews and colleagues’ work is founded on a large evidence base of failed public sector reform projects – wasn’t that enough evidence on which to conclude alternative approaches to development are needed?  Perhaps a reframing of our ambitions is required, no longer focusing on determining “what works” but seeking out approaches that “work better”? These are all valid points and ones that will certainly play out.  In the meantime, key individuals emphasised the need to expand the set of case studies – like the one on SAVI and those in Booth and Unsworth’s 2014 paper Politically smart, locally led development – documenting a thinking and working politically approach and its dividends.  Looking at Itad’s portfolio of work, there are several opportunities for us to do exactly that.  We look forward to sharing our experiences and helping build the evidence base.

Claire Hughes, February 2016

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