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Three Challenges for ‘Politically Smart’ Programming (And Me)

June 4, 2018

politically smart programming

“So, I’m still reading about TWIA,” I said to my new boss one morning.

“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 an irony: I’m a newcomer to aid contracting and program implementation, having previously worked overseas with think tanks, NGOs and the private sector, but 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 approaches, 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.

So that morning, as I clunked my way through acronyms loaded with meaning I hadn’t fully synthesized, it struck me that my move to development programming 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, but it does illustrate some of the challenges that exist in the aid contracting and program implementation space.

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 was somehow inadequate. One of the challenges with any kind of paradigm shift is ensuring that it survives the transition from the realm of the novel and faddish to enduring and meaningful. By raising awareness of its concepts and enabling people to develop the ideas and apply the lessons learned, a process is set in motion. Eventually, these acronyms and the ideas they embody become self-sustaining and are incorporated beyond the architecture of program delivery and into development policy and practice.

The second is authority, and the extent to which these approaches are grounded empirically. One way to develop support for them is to build a strong evidence base. Development practitioners delivering programs this way need to improve how they document and share the results. 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.

The third is risk, and different tolerance for it across stakeholders. Donors, who are required to justify their actions to tax payers, have a preference for minimal risk exposure; contractors, who deliver aid programs on behalf of donors and who 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 the politically smart agenda will have on development policy. In many ways, a feedback loop exists: improving the documentation of impacts will ensure that future programming is informed by evidence which, by addressing issues of legitimacy and authority, can cut across different appetites for risk.

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.

This blog was originally featured on the Governance Soapbox; read the whole article here.