TNRC Blog How can I integrate Thinking and Working Politically into my day-to-day programming on natural resource governance?

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How can I integrate Thinking & Working Politically  into my day-to-day programming on natural resource management?


This blog post captures key learning from an April 2020 TNRC Learning Series webinar with Heather Marquette. Heather is Professor of Development Politics at University of Birmingham and is currently seconded part-time to DFID’s Research & Evidence Division as Senior Research Fellow (Governance and Conflict). She has been a major voice in evolving debates on ‘Thinking and Working Politically’, from Whitehall to the World Bank, and beyond. Heather has worked in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa and India, and is the author of many publications.

Integrating TWP into day-to-day programming

Recently, the TNRC project hosted a Learning Series webinar on how ‘Thinking & Working Politically’ (TWP) can help to unlock the political will needed to target corruption in environmental crime and natural resource governance. The webinar focused on answering three learning questions: (1) What is political will and why does it matter?; (2) How can TWP help to unlock political will?; and (3) How can I integrate TWP into my day-to-day work? A recording of the webinar is above. Outlined in this blog post are key concepts, warnings and resources for practitioners. Read the first post in this two-part series here, and download a PDF of the presentation slides here.

Alphabet soup

There are many different names for ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ (TWP), and even different epistemic communities that have evolved in recent years in the global development world. This makes it confusing for people who want to move beyond seeing political will as a barrier to their work.

As I’ve written recently:

  • I am struck by how often people say ‘TWP/PDIA/AM/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. This matters because important distinctions are getting lost that make designing more effective, politically informed interventions challenging.

These are all distinct things, though they connect with TWP. Knowing the differences as well as the connections is important. We’ll start with “PEA” (Political Economy Analysis), then “PDIA” (Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation) and, finally, “AM” (Adaptive Management).

Political Economy Analysis (PEA)

PEA underpins TWP through high quality political analysis built right into interventions to ensure that they’re politically informed and able to go with the flow for good or not. PEA is a range of tools, inputs and frameworks that can help with politically sense checking an intervention, 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 expensive, or it can be done on a shoestring, or it can be free. It can be insightful or it can be rubbish. But PEA in whatever form it might take is essential for TWP.

At its 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. But analysis on its own can’t generate political will. Thinking politically, without working politically, can end up being just words on a page. And it won’t—on its own—tell you whether you should intervene in the first place. It can, however, feed into sensitive discussions and hopefully aid better decision-making.

Look at this link for USAID Learning Lab’s sample interview questions and a data collection template for applied PEA focused on anti-corruption and impunity and this one to read reflections from anti-corruption implementers on how PEA (and PDIA) has helped in their work.

Problem-driven iterative adaptation (PDIA)

PDIA involves working with committed reformers to identify what the problem is (and this may not be what everyone, especially external actors, may have thought). PDIA + TWP is about rooting a reform process in strong sense of what’s politically as well as technically feasible, and can be about how to generate political will as well as to build state capability.

Matt Andrews and Lant Pritchett et al’s research looks at what effective states do, not what donors or other external actors do directly. They describe this approach as: 1) local solutions for local problems; 2) pushing problem-driven positive deviance; 3) try, learn, iterate and adapt; and 4) scale through diffusion. External actors, such as 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):

  • 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’.

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. 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. 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. Assuming there’s political will for reform, of course…

Look at this link to learn about how the Building State Capability team is using PDIA to help Honduras address problems in its power sector and this one to learn about helping Sri Lanka develop a sustainable tourism project.

Adaptive management (AM)

Finally, adaptive management is, in some ways, how PDIA and TWP translate into aid practice, At its heart, AM is about piloting, testing, learning, adapting and delivering and, really, it’s just a formalized version of what all of us do all do all the time: learn from and by experience. The difference is AM helps us to plan that learning proactively and systematically, leaving less to chance. 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.

AM is not interchangeable with PDIA or TWP, and that’s really important. What adaptive aid programmes need to do is to try as far as possible to find ways to replicate the feedback loops that exist ‘naturally’ in local contexts, as Saku explained. Of course, this isn’t necessarily going to get you far on its own in terms of political will, though, as adaptive management can be as politically ignorant as anything else if it doesn’t have TWP at its core. And recall the W in TWP is “working.” The work is not just to implement but to adapt in response to new political events.

Look at this link to learn about how Wales is using adaptive management for marine development or this link for several relevant resources on adaptive management and adaptive governance from Learning for Sustainability.

A final health warning

Remember the undiplomatic language from our friend the diplomat, about TWP helping us not to f*** things up? As someone who has been involved with the global TWP Community of Practice since it was founded in 2013, some of our ‘safe space' workshops have felt almost like group therapy, because thinking and working politically—done well—may make visible some of the trickiest, most sensitive challenges we face in our day to day work. Developing a language to talk about politics, or frameworks to build our contextual understanding, or more agile ways of working may not always feel comfortable, and it’s important to be prepared for this. As in our own lives, creating space for difficult discussions is rarely easy, but it’s almost always much better in the end for having done this.

Recent innovative research on TWP is dealing explicitly with issues like this. This includes a framework from Niheer Dasandi and Lior Erez on thinking politically about difficult choices, which helps external actors model whether they are at risk of 'complicity’, ‘double effects’ or ‘dirty hands’ when engaging with non-democratic actors or where human rights violations are a possibility or have occurred. Rebecca Haines and Tam O’Neil at CARE International show us why we need to bring gender into our PEA and TWP and what sorts of power dynamics we’re missing as a result of being gender-blind. Sam Hickey and Badru Bukenya are asking important questions about where ‘working with the grain’ as part of a TWP approach can lead to picking the ‘wrong side’ for what can look like the right reasons.

TWP isn’t a magic key, and it also requires a ‘do no harm’ perspective like any other sort of intervention. This is especially true when it comes to the sorts of messy, complex and often violent world of anti-corruption, organised crime and natural resource governance. It shows us how the idea of being ‘apolitical’ is not possible in an inherently political world, but it can help us better understand the difference between ‘working politically’ and ‘acting politically’—being politically aware versus picking sides or seeking to directly influence politically outcomes. Working in a politically-blind way has become unconscionable, but we are probably some way away from feeling comfortable cracking open the black boxes of political will and corruption, even as we learn more about how better to do it. Bit by bit, though, we’re getting closer to a world where ‘lack of political will’ fades into memory as an excuse for giving up when we should instead think and work politically to find ways to bring about the meaningful change needed to improve our environment and the lives of people who depend on it.

Where can I find out more, receive guidance and support?

Join the TWP Community of Practice where you’ll find many more resources.

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Image attribution: © / Jen Guyton / WWF; © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; © Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK; © Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus