Jan 10, 2020

What We’re Learning about Thinking and Working Politically in Practice: Some Takeaways from a GDI-Chemonics Learning Event

Debra Ladner , Senior Knowledge Management Specialist
Artwork by Mark Korsak

For many people, the principles of “Thinking and Working Politically” (or TWP for short)  sound like common sense. We know that the implementation of development interventions does not happen in a vacuum. Whether we’re working to build critically needed infrastructure, to improve the enabling environment for business, or to increase access to justice, producing meaningful results takes more than funding and strong technical solutions. The types of changes we’re talking about can have profound affects on access to resources and opportunities – creating winners and losers. Therefore, they’re likely to trigger a contestation of ideas, interests, power, and incentives among actors with a stake in the process.

In a nutshell, TWP argues that politics matters, from national-level reform processes to village-level negotiations and intra-institutional wranglings. In this context, working effectively requires deep knowledge of the political landscape, strong local leadership and continuous processes of learning and adaptation.

While these ideas may be intuitive, that does not mean that putting them into practice is easy or straightforward. So how can we “walk the talk” – that is, think and work politically in practice, in our day-to-day work?

On December 11 and 12 we were delighted to co-host, with our partners at Chemonics, a learning event focused on that very question. Chemonics has shown leadership in this space through the establishment of the Center for Politically Informed Programming. I personally admire the Chemonics team – not only for their commitment to advancing this agenda, but also for their humility and openness about how challenging it can be to operationalize these ways of working. At the December conference, we had a robust and honest discussions about the daily practice of TWP. Here are some of the things that I took away from this discussion. 

Thinking and Working Politically Doesn't Mean Just One Thing

One thing that was quite clear during the conference is that TWP can't be boiled down to a single approach. The fundamentals of TWP are clear. But in practice, there is more than one face of TWP, depending on the context, the nature of problem being addressed, the interests of key actors, and a host of other factors. 

This suggests that we need to develop a more granular understanding of the situations in which we may find ourselves working (politically). What it means to work politically will vary, depending on the stakeholders involved and the kind of reform we are tackling. The practice of thinking and working politically will look different depending on whether we are working on water sector reform or working for women’s empowerment, building markets or attempting to strengthen health systems. And TWP in a situation characterized by the presence of powerful spoilers may look different from TWP in a context where the constellation of actors lacks a single veto player, but also lacks strong incentives for actors to cooperate.

This variation is not a problem for TWP, but rather the very reason for the approach. TWP provides a powerful framework in which we can search for solutions in diverse contexts. At GDI we are working to better understand these dynamics and variations – through a deep and broad library of case studies, for example, and through GDI’s taxonomy of delivery challenges, which adds granularity to the challenges that we face across the development sector.

The Danger of a Single Narrative - and the Importance of Building Trust

In a now-famous TED talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks movingly about the dangers that can adhere to a reductionist approach to understanding places like her home country of Nigeria. She identifies an all-too-human tendency: to identify and privilege a single story, one flat and one-dimensional narrative about people, places, situations. Once a single preconceived narrative has been identified and internalized, it can shut out new information and alternative views of the world.  

There is a danger for development practitioners here, and it is one that efforts to think and work politically should seek to grapple with. If we go into an intervention believing that we have the whole story and know the answers already - that is, fixed on a single narrative - we risk misidentifying problems, making mistakes, missing opportunities, and closing ourselves off to needed information. Fortunately, there is a remedy here. In a nutshell, it is to listen with humility, be open to new information and perspectives, and acknowledge the limitations of our knowledge. This allows us to deepen our understanding of the complexity of the contexts in which we are working.

But how can we get others to talk openly with us? Particularly in the kinds of complicated situations where TWP is most acutely needed, it's not a given that counterparts and partners will automatically feel comfortable speaking openly and sharing information. Building a space for open dialogue takes time. It requires real attention to relationship building. It requires empathy - to listen to others, and to try to see the world through their eyes. All of these things contribute to building trust – a prerequisite for sharing information and working together productively.

Learning from Each Other and Keeping the Conversation Going

One more thing that I appreciated about the conference was how it brought together a diverse set of voices. It included representatives from outside the TWP community, and outside the development sector, in a conscious effort to learn from perspectives beyond the “usual suspects.” By doing so, the event was able to draw unexpected insights. Speakers and participants drew from diverse realms: from science and spirituality (some participants came from NASA, while others spoke of the importance of looking inside oneself to discern intuitions), to the private sector, where the notions of starting lean and learning quickly from failure are well-established.

I found this stimulating because it offered a chance to learn from other disciplines, and to gain new insights from voices that we don’t always have a chance to hear from. Ultimately, it is through these exchanges of experiences, and through iteration and experimentation, that we can continue to improve implementation in even the most challenging environments.

Of course, it helps to be open to learning new things. So, I’d like to conclude by turning this reflection back to you, the reader. How have you been thinking and working politically? And where have you been drawing unexpected insights and inspirations?

Art Credit: Mark Korsak