Global Development Institute Blog

by Sarah Hunt.

Over the past year training donor agency staff in Political Economy Analysis (PEA), I have found the topic inevitably means facilitating a debate. The overt aim of training is to introduce practical tools for carrying out Political Economy Analysis. But, from the outset, talking about politics in development means engaging with ideas of change – and this touches not just on the contexts where donor agencies work, but on the internal systems of donors themselves. In my experience, practitioners value the space to reflect on these issues.

Development practitioners, even outside governance portfolios, all have a grasp of how and why the politics matters for development interventions. Beginning with a reflection on political economy concepts, starts to generate a basis of shared understanding. Building a collective, systematic approach to analysis is a central aim. But delving into the ‘political’ in development provokes deep debate about the way change happens, about the dynamics of particular country and sector contexts, and about how donor agencies work.

Channelling these discussions towards an agenda for action is the principal challenge. Demonstrating the potential of PEA is critical in order to overcome the tendency for discussions of politics to become a dismal consideration of constraints to development. Introducing and explaining the range of available tools and technical guidance for carrying out PEA is helpful only to a point; practitioners want to know the value added of yet another framework to be used in programming.

The growing body of research on PEA provides useful inputs. The 2012 report on the political economy of development in Africa has a provocative message for practitioners. In the words of one training participant, it ‘shakes our assumptions’ about good governance and the use of best practice and universal blueprints in development interventions. This report also has useful messages not just on the role of incentives, collective action problems and working with the grain, but also on  the challenge to take the message about how development happens to voters and pressure groups in the North.

Shaking assumptions is not sufficient: participants want examples not just of good PEA, but also of the impact on decision-making. New case study evidence developed by ODI – presented at a recent event – provides insightful examples of how politically smart, locally led development, driven by iterative, adaptive, problem-solving analysis can meet the demands of working and thinking politically. This new research begins to address a gap in evidence and offer insights for a range of contexts and programmes. From a training perspective, finding the middle ground between acknowledging the uniqueness of each context, and promoting the applicability of PEA based on lessons from other examples, can be tricky.

There is more to do to package this type of learning for practitioners. Beyond advocating flexibility and space for experimentation, there is a need to respond to the needs of donor agencies with large programme aid budgets in rapidly changing African contexts. For example, one participant challenged me:
“Give me evidence of when a first-best option was abandoned in favour of a second-best option as the result of Political Economy Analysis”.

Presumably, he also wanted an example where this proved to be the right thing to do. Learning from the past presents concrete examples of where going against the grain simply does not work. For example, recent ESID research evaluating public sector reform in Uganda identifies the persistent difficulties in moving from form to function – and the associated political challenges. More specifically for donors, evaluations ofGeneral Budget Support in Uganda and Tanzania, highlighting reforms that worked ‘with the grain’, contrasting with those that went against the grain, and underperformed.

Systematically using this type of learning to develop politically smart programming options – which deliver results – remains outstanding. Applying PEA tools and political knowledge in workgroups reveals theunderlying tensions facing development practitioners in really ‘thinking and working’ politically.

  • Practitioners, especially in-country, are acutely aware of the political context. Yet making the leap to using collective Political Economy Analysis as a filter for programming and not just for informing context analysis and risk management remains a challenge.
  • For working with governments, moving from ‘form to function’ – away from a focus on blueprints and best practice, and towards the gritty mechanics of implementation – is risky and still largely untested. Donors cannot run government agencies; at best they can influence change processes from the outside.
  • At the point of ranking options, internal incentives and conditioning become clear. Agencies and advisors are reluctant to abandon dominant ways of working. Problem-driven approaches can help drive more creative thinking, but agencies are still limited by internal management systems and home constituency constraints.
  • Donors are also intermediaries: would they allow their subsidiaries, such as NGOs and government partners, to plan and manage their programmes in this way?
  • Finally, achieving the balance between what David Booth describes as ‘principles of what is right and doing the right things’ will depend on a number of factors beyond the specific context. As highlighted inrecent ESID research, these all relate to the political economy of the donors agency – guidance from HQ, leadership and management choices, relations with other donors.


To deal with these tensions, I believe that donors need at least to invest more in internal reflection and documentation of how PEA-type analysis already – albeit for the large part informally – guides programming options and ways of working. This has started already: using this knowledge alongside training could mean the implications of thinking and working politically, and the barriers to change, can be mapped more clearly.

Sarah Hunt is a Lecturer in International Development at the Institute for Development Policy and Management,  University of Manchester. Sarah’s research examines governance and the political economy of aid and development, with a particular focus on the politics of poverty reduction in Latin America.


This post was originally published at on June 17th 2014