This paper is a contribution to ongoing debate about the need for donor agencies to think and work more politically. It presents seven cases of aid-funded interventions that show how donors have been able to facilitate developmental change ‘despite the odds’. The central message is that donor staff were successful because they adopted politically smart, locally led approaches, adapting the way they worked in order to support iterative problem-solving and brokering of interests by politically astute local actors.
The call for politically smart, locally led approaches highlights the changes that donors need to make to their own thinking and practices in order to act as effective facilitators of development change. They need to be politically informed and astute to assess the scope for change, and to make good choices regarding issues to work on and partners to work with; and they need to allow local actors to take the lead in finding solutions to problems that matter to them.