Helping donors to ‘think politically’: Going beyond the orthodoxy.

Published: Posted on

marquette-heatherHeather Marquette is a Senior Lecturer in Governance in IDD. She is a political scientist specializing in political development, corruption and discourses of corruption/anti-corruption, political economy analysis, and donor approaches to good governance and statebuilding. Heather is the director of IDD’s International Development (Governance and Statebuilding) programme and Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC).

Jonathan FisherJonathan Fisher is a lecturer in IDD. He is interested in the politics of aid, political economy analysis and governance reform in Africa, African foreign policy making and diplomacy, fragile states and donor perceptions of the developing world, democratisation and the role of international actors. Jonathan co-convenes postgraduate modules on Aid Management and on Critical Approaches to Development for both on-campus and distance learning students.

This post marks the first of the series of papers that were presented by some members of IDD staff who attended the International Studies Association Conference at San Francisco in April 2013.

Dr. Heather Marquette and Dr. Jonathan Fisher at the conference organized a panel called ‘Politicising or Depoliticising Aid? The Political Economy of Political Economy Analysis’, and presented a joint paper on ‘Donors Doing Political Economy Analysis™: From Process to Product (and back again?). The paper discusses the shift in focus with respect to the intended purpose of Political Economy Analysis (PEA) to the donor community. The post documents a chat I had with them about some of the main issues they raised in their paper.

What is responsible for the failure of the 1st generation PEA to deliver ‘the hoped-for results’?

When we talk about the ‘failure’ of the 1st generation of PEA we have to be clear about what standards we are judging the approach by. In so doing, it seems fair to base our assessment on whether it achieved its stated aim – that is, getting donor officials (within DFID in particular) to ‘think politically’ in the way they engage with the developing world and plan their interventions there. Our work – and that of many others, including one of PEA’s early proponents (Sue Unsworth) – argues that this has not yet been achieved. Most donor officials outside of ‘governance cadres’ do not intuitively ‘think politically’ in their approach to their work and privilege, often subconsciously, more technocratic, economistic ways of thinking. It is fair, then, to say that the 1st generation of PEA has failed in delivering the results originally hoped for.

Why is this? Some have argued that it is a problem with the 1st generation itself – that it was too vague in its analysis and policy relevance. It highlighted problems and difficulties in the politics of developing states without suggesting tangible, feasible ways for donors to address these challenges. Donors reading 1st generation PEA reports would find the conclusions interesting but then say ‘well, what can I do with this on Monday morning when I get into the office?’. These criticisms are certainly fair to some extent.

What we do in our research, however, is to try and understand this failure by looking at the political economy of donors doing PEA itself. We argue that the problem is not so much one of the ‘wrong framework’ or focus but of the whole character of PEA work since the 1st generation. Donors have attempted to make PEA fit their own incentive structures and bureaucratic logics – How can PEA help me implement project X? Can PEA tell me if project Y will work or not? One of the key things scholars of development politics have learnt over the last few decades, however, is that donors cannot intervene successfully in developing states without the support and assistance of key local stakeholders. Donors need to get the ‘buy-in’ of these groups to make any positive difference in their activities and our work tries to re-focus the debate on PEA around this key truism.

What distinguishes the 2nd generation PEA from the 1st?

There are three main differences that can be seen in the shift from 1st to 2nd generation PEA. Firstly, a shift in purpose. 1st generation PEA was meant to ‘enhance donors’ capacity to understand how change occurs’ in the developing world; a broad, ambitious project to establish ‘thinking politically’ as an integral part of everyday donor culture. The shift to 2nd generation, however, has seen this approach abandoned in favour of a much narrower, instrumental goal – PEA as an ad hoc, problem-solving tool to be used ‘as and when’ required in relation to specific projects, logjams or initiatives.

Secondly, a shift in units of analysis. 1st generation PEA was very much a macro enterprise; whole countries and even regions were the main focus of most early PEA reports. The 2nd generation, however, has seen a reduction in the size and scope of what is under consideration with specific sectors, themes and local-level issues becoming increasingly popular. Finally, we have seen a shift in uptake strategies. In line with its wide-ranging scope, 1st generation PEA was meant to be ‘mainstreamed’ in donor agencies over a number of years so that, ultimately, all donor officials within these agencies would use PEA logic intuitively to inform their work. With the shift away from ‘thinking politically’ to ‘problem-solving’ in the 2nd generation, however, PEA is now more generally ‘farmed-out’ to external consultants and policy institutes and ‘-commissioned-’ by donors whenever necessary.

Would you liken the ‘problem solving’ approach of the 2nd generation PEA to the “Piecemeal Approach”?

2nd generation PEA is certainly piecemeal in that it is unsystematic – it is not part of a broad, comprehensive overall strategy to gradually move donors forward in their understanding of the politics of the countries they work in. ‘Piecemeal’ suggests, though, a problem with the means to reach an end goal rather than the likelihood of reaching the end goal at all. In this regard, 2nd generation PEA fits less well into this paradigm as its continuation in its current form is not going to lead to any significant change in the way donors view and understand their interventions abroad. If PEA continues as an instrumental, externalised tool then donors will remain as perplexed by politics in 10 years’ time as they are today. What is needed is a re-focusing of the approach around the political economy of donors themselves and of their interactions with recipient governments and other ‘local’ stakeholders.

The ‘problem solving’ approach is also fairly dissatisfying in that it always approaches politics as a problem that needs to be resolved. Approaching analysis from this perspective may blind us to the ways in which politics works, even when it’s ‘problematic’.

With respect to the proposed 3rd generation PEA, are you advocating for a combination of the aims of the 1st generation PEA and the promotion of ownership and partnership by donors.

We are not advocating a specific new framework or approach to PEA as such – indeed, the proliferation of PEA frameworks – most of which represent really only incremental improvements on 1st generation frameworks – in recent years has, if anything, taken us even further away from focusing on what is really problematic in PEA today. Indeed, we are uncomfortable with the idea of a ‘3rd generation’ of PEA if it is simply a refinement of the first two.

What we are doing is trying to re-direct the PEA debate away from questions of ‘tweaking’ the existing framework and towards broader, more foundational concerns. Is PEA methodologically robust? Is PEA straying into territory that takes donors beyond their mandates (e.g. secretly ‘collecting’ sensitive political information in foreign countries to feed-back into the policy process at home)? Most importantly, can any international intervention in the developing world hope to be effective without engaging directly with the relevant local stakeholders? This is where the ownership question comes into play since both 1st and 2nd generation PEA has been often (though not always) characterized by a wilful exclusion of – particularly – recipient governments from the PEA process. Our work suggests that this is highly problematic not only from an instrumental perspective (local buy-in is crucial to the success of any initiative) but also from a normative one. Since the late 1990s, donors have emphasized at aid effectiveness fora how central the fostering of recipient ‘ownership’ is to the development enterprise. Surely this should apply to PEA also?

Are donors already moving on from the 2nd generation PEA?

Good question! We have both attended a large number of meetings with donors as part of this research where the current state of PEA has been the key issue under discussion and three things are very clear from these meetings. Firstly, that donors are not satisfied with PEA in its current form as an aid to policy-making in their agencies and departments. There appears to be widespread agreement that the approach needs to be developed and improved. The second thing which is clear, however, is that donors have very little sense of how to go about this process or what they want PEA to ‘do’ or help them to ‘do’. Finally, what we don’t know is what sorts of ‘political analysis’ is going on all the time in donor agencies that may be informal, or certainly less formal than typical PEA frameworks, and may in fact be quite effective.

That there are still, after more than a decade, fundamental questions in donor agencies about PEA highlights the importance of looking again at the approach – and with a more critical eye. This is what we try and do in our work.

Do you think the possibility exist for donors to integrate your recommendations into the 3rd generation PEA should they decide to shift towards it? 

We readily acknowledge that some of our suggestions – particularly on joint donor-recipient PEA work – may seem unfeasible or impractical for donors and this may represent a challenge in terms of incorporating our ideas into their future usage of PEA. Individuals responsible for PEA in their own organisations, and the consultants with whom they regularly work, have a tremendous amount of time, effort and reputation invested in existing PEA frameworks, and may be loathe to throw these away and think in a fresh way about PEA. We have nevertheless encountered a lot of interest in our research from donors in recent months – we have been invited, for example, to present our findings at the OECD, DFID and Norad and are also maintaining a dialogue with the World Bank on the research. It is clear, then, that donors are keen for us to join the discussion on the future of PEA and this is, of course, extremely encouraging.

It is also worth noting that one donor – the World Bank Institute – is currently experimenting with joint donor-recipient PEA initiatives as part of its Leadership for Results programme. It is early days, and how successful this scheme turns out to be remains to be seen but it nevertheless demonstrates that there is another way of approaching PEA and that this can involve engaging more directly and constructively with recipient stakeholders. We hope that WBI’s work will stand to reassure donors that our suggestions can be incorporated into their work in the developing world.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.