Why politics matters in development

October 31, 2014
Photo credit: Society For International Development - Washington, DC Chapter

“Politics” is often treated as a dirty word in development. But, Pact believes that we can achieve more lasting project outcomes by learning to think and work "politically smart way that takes into consideration local context.”

Political, social and economic factors play an important role in every aspect of people’s lives. Working in highly complex environments, being aware of existing power dynamics and implicit and explicit incentive structures helps Pact to more effectively impact the way communities tackle their issues.

To support communities in making a better tomorrow, Pact employs Applied Political Economy Analysis (APEA), an analytical framework designed to gain deeper insight into how local power structures influence programming. Through research, interviews, and careful observation of both explicit and implicit political and economic incentives, APEA gives us a more comprehensive view of the operational landscape.

Pact recently co-hosted an event with the Society for International Development to share experiences on how PEA has been utilized by donors and implementers to improve the quality, local ownership and sustainability of development projects.

The event, “Why your project is doomed to fail unless it is based on a meaningful political analysis: a discussion about applying political economy analysis to improve development outcomes,” brought together donors, researchers and implementers from across the development sector, including USAID, The Asia Foundation, Urban Institute and Pact. Participants learned about individual PEA experiences implemented at varying levels—country, sector and project—how PEA improved the overall efficiency and effectiveness, and the difficulties faced and lessons learned.

Based on our experience and that of the other panelists, the international community should consider a few key points around PEA:

  1. We have to be flexible. There is a strong desire at all levels for more flexibility from donors, and for them to build in mechanisms that allow implementers to go beyond responding to the plethora of indicators that are linked to an opportunity.
  2. Timing is key. PEA has to be done in a timely matter. It must be conducted in time to inform programming, in the wake of contextual shift, and iteratively.
  3. Measurement must be meaningful. The qualitative nature of PEA means that metrics are frequently not attached to it. However, while this is true, there is a fear that over-burdening PEA with metrics will reduce it to another situation where implementers are a slave to the tool and meeting pre-designated targets.
  4. PEA needs to be integrated into programming. We often see “siloing” of sectors (i.e., health) and practitioners, focused only on that sector, ignoring the “political” factors surrounding it. As a community, we need to realize the benefits that PEA provides in working around/with the political forces.

Ultimately, PEA better positions us to develop innovative solutions to complex, local development challenges. The international development community and those we serve can benefit immensely if we start thinking a little more politically.