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Applied political economy analysis: Five practical issues


Written by Daniel Harris, David Booth


The last decade has seen an explosion of interest among operational development organisations in more and better ways of understanding the countries and sectors in which they operate. Aware that their efforts have often been compromised by ill-informed or unsophisticated assumptions about country context, agencies from the World Bank to local NGOs have been convinced that what they need is applied political economy analysis.

One upshot of this interest has been a proliferation of acronyms and labels representing particular agencies’ first efforts in this area. This has created the appearance of a complex and highly diverse field of activity. The wide range of concepts and frameworks in use can be off-putting to practitioners who are not yet familiar with the field. However, this is largely a false impression. Organisations naturally seek brand recognition for their particular approaches. In reality, however, the differences among the frameworks are limited to small variations around a common analytical core that guides users to investigate how power is exercised, how decisions are made, and how incentives and disincentives are brought to bear on specific organisations and individuals. The labels do not matter and, for most practical purposes, the diversity of available frameworks is unimportant.

Five things are more important:

·       Different models for integrating political economy analysis into operations.

·       How political economy exercises vary in scope and purpose.

·       The appropriate timing of political economy work.

·       Defining quality and the necessary skills and expertise.

·       Achieving and monitoring uptake into programmes.

This note focuses closely on these five issues. It draws on more than a decade of practical experience with applied political economy in development work and aims to provide basic guidance for newcomers to the field.

Daniel Harris and David Booth