What Does it Mean to Work Politically in Development?

Adrian Leftwich gives a great description of what it means to work politically in the development field in a recent publication Politics, Leadership, and Coalitions in Development for the Developmental Leadership Program:

There is understandable caution and reserve about the idea of ‘working politically’, or for donors trying to address ‘the political dimensions of development’ – and for good reason. The phrase itself is easily misinterpreted as insensitive interference, as an invasion of sovereignty and a disregard for principles of ownership and endogenously driven developmental processes. It may sound like ‘regime change’. Given those many cases of bullying or intervention by conditionality of the international community in developing countries, there is good reason for such caution, as the very idea of working politically might seem to suggest a flagrant violation of the principles of Accra and Paris.

To make clear that this is not the meaning or intention, a preliminary definition may be useful. Working politically in development means supporting, brokering, facilitating and aiding the emergence and practices of developmental or reform leaderships, organizations, networks and coalitions, in the public and private fields, at all levels, and across all sectors, in response to, and in concert with, initiatives and requests from local individuals and groups. It means investing in processes designed to support the formation and effectiveness of developmental coalitions, sometimes over long periods, committed to institutional reform and innovation by enhancing not just technical skills (the conventional domain of capacity building) but also the political capacity of organizations in areas such as negotiation, advocacy, communication and the generation of constructive policy options. It may involve supporting processes which lead to ‘political settlements’ whether these be at the macro-levels or in specific policy sectors (for example education or agriculture).

Working politically can be about very prosaic but important matters: helping groups campaign for waste management systems or feeder roads; or it may involve ‘strengthening broad-based and democratically run national education coalitions, with active membership across the country, to enable local voices and experiences to influence national-level policy and practice’ as in the case of the Commonwealth Education Fund (CEF), funded by DFID but managed by Oxfam, Save the Children and Action Aid. It may involve rethinking and re-working scholarship and higher educational support programmes so that they supplement a technical and skills focus with strategies that help to build networks, encourage the understanding of collective action problems and the importance of the provision of public goods.

Working politically will take different forms in different countries, contexts, issue areas or sectors. It will require deep and detailed knowledge of the country, the sector, the issue area and the ‘players’; it will require respectful and sensitive understanding of the local political dynamics and cultural norms; it will require long-term exposure to the country or issue concerned; it will require more social scientists and a well-trained, politically savvy workforce, both local and international, with the capacity to ‘read’ the politics, and knowing when and how to seize opportunities.

Working politically, in other words, directs attention, support and facilitation to the agents of reform and development – the leaders and the organizations – so as to invest in the local processes that will help resolve collective action and other problems through the work of alliances and coalitions and hence drive the formation and consolidation of the locally appropriate, feasible and legitimate institutions that are most likely to advance development outcomes.

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Seth Kaplan

About Seth Kaplan

Seth Kaplan is a Professorial Lecturer in the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. He teaches, writes, and consults on issues related to fragile states, governance, and development. He is the author of Fixing Fragile States: A New Paradigm for Development (Praeger Security International, 2008) and Betrayed: Politics, Power, and Prosperity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). A Wharton MBA and Palmer scholar, Seth has worked for several large multinationals and founded four companies. He speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese and Japanese.