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Politics, governance and development: time to move from theory to practice

Written by Marta Foresti

By the Politics and Governance Team

Actions to combat global poverty and insecurity are most effective when informed by good understanding of the political context in which they are delivered. They are least effective when they neglect or choose to ignore political realities. These are widely accepted principles, increasingly supported by robust research and evidence, but applying them in practice remains difficult. In other words, despite this body of knowledge, we still see development support provided in ways which does not account for existing political conditions and processes.

In recent years a number of development organisations, led by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), have significantly invested in politics and governance research and the communication of its findings. As a result, evidence-based political insights  are more available and better disseminated than ever before. Lessons from experience are also increasingly being systematically reviewed and shared by practitioners in different countries. Yet translating findings into practice remains a considerable challenge for donors and other international actors.

There is an urgent need to identify the different elements of this problem in order to start identifying solutions: this is the main aim of a high level policy debate organised by ODI’s Politics and Governance programme.  Over the coming days donor agencies, think tanks, NGOs, academics and practitioners will come together to discuss whether enough has been done in research and by experienced development practitioners to articulate the policy implications of the politics of development and aid.  Some of the key questions we will be discussing include: what are the incentives and political imperatives within aid agencies at different levels that prevent uptake in practice? Which of these problems are tractable and what specifically can be done to address them?

ODI’s recent research and policy work suggests that donor agencies themselves need to change if they are to take the politics agenda forward, and that research and evidence can suggest concrete ways to do this. Research on donor support to political parties suggests that, to be effective, international agencies need to identify complementary areas between diplomatic and development actors, moving beyond the typical division of labour between political and technical/developmental roles.

Similarly, findings of recent political economy analysis in a range of countries and sectors provide some concrete recommendations on how to work effectively with the political realities of developing countries. An ODI study of the roads sector in Uganda, for example, suggests that external actors can be most effective at mobilising influence to enable otherwise blocked organisational transformations. In these cases, donors can play a key role as brokers of otherwise missing dialogue among key players and as facilitators of countervailing networks of influence.

As a number of countries rethink their approaches to development assistance – from the UK’s Coalition Government to the US, currently reviewing its Foreign Assistance Act – this a particularly timely moment to examine what needs to be done differently. We will publish a report from the forthcoming ODI debate in early 2011, which will provide public analysis of the issues discussed. In the meantime, please feel free to use the comments section below to give your own thoughts on how best to deal with the politics of development and aid.