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Thinking and working politically: Reviewing the evidence on the integration of politics into development practice over the past decade

Working paper

Written by Ed Laws

Working paper

This paper provides a critical review of the evidence on thinking and working politically (TWP) in development. Scholars and practitioners have increasingly recognised that development is a fundamentally political process, and there are concerted efforts underway to develop more politically-informed ways of thinking and working. However, while there are interesting and engaging case studies in the literature, these do not yet constitute a strong evidence base that shows these efforts can be clearly linked to improved development outcomes. Much of the evidence used so far to support more politically-informed approaches is anecdotal, does not meet the highest standards for a robust body of evidence, is not comparative (systematically or otherwise), and draws on a small number of self-selected, relatively well-known success stories written by programme insiders.

The paper discusses the most common factors mentioned in the TWP literature as part of the account for why politically-informed programmes are believed to have been able to succeed in areas where more conventional programming approaches may have fallen short. It then looks at the state of the evidence on TWP in three areas: political context, sector, and organisation. The aim is to show where research efforts have been targeted so far and to provide guidance on where to focus next. In the final section, the paper outlines some ways of testing the core assumptions of the TWP agenda more thoroughly, such as:

• Systematically comparing a broader range of programmes in different sectors and organisational contexts, to draw firmer lessons about how incorporating politics impacts programme implementation and outcomes in different situations.

• Using a wider range of research methods to evaluate and support findings, such as building in counterfactuals to demonstrate variations in results across different programme approaches.

In addition, future research could usefully focus on developing a more complete picture of the systemic bureaucratic and political obstacles to TWP in donor agencies, and potential strategies to overcome them. 

Ed Laws and Heather Marquette