It makes intuitive sense at many levels: power and politics matter. We know this to be true in our own hometowns, organizations, or governments: different formal and informal alliances, power imbalances, and motivators — stemming from kinship or affinity, party politics, economic interests, cultural ties, race and gender relations, and other informal systems — determine a great deal of why people act as they do around otherwise stolid matters related to achieving an institution’s stated objectives.
A technocratic solution to achieve these objectives may be backed by scientific evidence from similar contexts, but if informal incentives are pulling organizations and individuals in other directions, it may still never see the light of day. Or, if local actors have another way of getting something done that may not align 100 percent with the technical evidence base but is better understood and fits better with local custom, it is likely that the “local way of doing things” will be more sustainable. If this is true in Washington, D.C., why would it be any different in, say, the Democratic Republic of the Congo?
It’s not. In fact, in many developing countries where the public and personal spheres are even more blurred, and when there are additional power and political dynamics stemming from the very same foreign assistance aiming to improve development outcomes, it can be all the more important to think and work politically (TWP). Moreover, it’s important to do so regardless of the sector; power and politics do not care if your project is under a development objective of better governance or, say, better health.
Power and politics matter
The TWP movement, closely aligned with doing development differently, has been picking up speed in the last several years, leading to what can be seen as either the sign of full legitimization or co-optation: TWP as a predominant focus of the 2017 World Development Report. The World Bank, which has traditionally maintained a public stance of eschewing politics, now officially recognizes that in many cases, “carefully designed, sensible policies” fail or are not adopted because of issues related to their “complex political and social settings, in which individuals and groups with unequal power interact within changing rules as they pursue conflicting interests.”
In some ways, the participatory development movement and previous attempts at policy change through a systems approach have already been trying to “do development differently” for decades now. But a lot of participatory, inclusive governance and accountability approaches are still highly technocratic — trying to regiment processes without ever grappling with politics. As an example, see my recent examination of how one such participatory education system reform failed to contend with power and politics in Guinea.
What’s our response?
Aid actors still fall somewhere within a typology of recognition and response to power, politics, and informal dynamics (see box). On one end, some are so focused on the next best fertilizer or medical protocol that they remain blind to the informal dynamics determining whether local actors will take up that breakthrough. Some recognize these dynamics but think the only response is to try even harder to push forward a technocratic solution that somehow steers clear of politics. Others will try to proceed as planned, but with the uneasiness of knowing that politics are influencing outcomes without doing anything about it. Finally, some aid actors do contend with power and politics, engage with these contextual dynamics, and then try to go “with the grain” of local systems as much as possible and aim for “best fit” rather than “best practice” — iterating and trying again as needed.
At Chemonics, we are examining ways to get more of our projects thinking and working in the vein of this last response to politics and informal dynamics. As a company implementing a funder’s vision, what are our opportunities to do this in concrete terms? What more or different preconditions are needed?