Fragmentation of the Thinking and Working Politically agenda: Should we worry?

29th August 2016

Recently, I’ve read many articles and heard from many colleagues who are concerned about the apparent competition between the Doing Development Differently (DDD) network and the Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) community of practice.

Dave Algoso and Alan Hudson have made the case on Duncan Green’s blog that there are in fact nine separate initiatives all pushing in roughly the same direction. In a hilarious comparison, they argue that international development reform advocates may be heading for a Monty Python “People’s Front of Judea” scenario, where rebel factions are too engrossed in their disagreements with each other to combine in mutual opposition to Rome.

Both [TWP and DDD] share a sharp critique of rigid, pre-planned program design and have strong words for the standard ‘good governance’ agenda.

Should we be worried? TWP and DDD are part of a much wider response to fundamental problems in the assumptions guiding development assistance. The people involved in the TWP and DDD movements have responded to those problems with similar conclusions, though they have taken quite different paths and are appealing to different audiences. While there is some overlap in the people involved, the DDD community was co-led by a group of researchers at Harvard who were focused on large-scale programs designed to build state capacity, particularly those funded by the World Bank and other multilateral development banks. The TWP group was largely driven by people from bilateral donors and INGOs who were reacting to the internal factors that discouraged aid programs from grappling with political challenges. Both initiatives share a sharp critique of traditional aid programs’ reliance on external, best practice ‘solutions’ and rigid, pre-planned program designs. Both groups have strong words for the standard ‘good governance’ agenda.

I would argue that the creation of two separate groups is absolutely natural, and probably useful. DDD is appealing to a set of actors who have more difficulty talking about politics, including the World Bank. TWP is appealing to donor officials and practitioners who may have more scope for engaging with politics, but who need to challenge the simplistic and technocratic assumptions that tend to underpin development assistance.

They are closely related, of course – in fact, I would say that 80-90% of the recommendations from DDD and TWP are the same. But their differences are quite helpful at times. For example, it is much more effective to frame the challenges of large-scale technical assistance projects (especially those supporting government ministries) by using the DDD framework, to encourage more iterative and entrepreneurial approaches to reform. However, when we’re trying to support multi-stakeholder reform efforts around important economic or social issues, the TWP approach is much more useful. It helps us think about obstacles to reform and who we should support in the reform process.

So I disagree with the fragmentation narrative – but there is an important point to be made about definitions. A major, ongoing challenge for both communities has been defining what we mean by politically-smart programming and, similarly, iterative and adaptive programming. It’s very common to hear program teams and partners talk about how they have used TWP approaches and then offer examples that sound very traditional.

In the past few years, for instance, I have read several proposals for building multi-stakeholder coalitions for reform that really look a lot like old-school NGO advocacy projects. But what exactly is the difference? Civil society strengthening and advocacy programs have long supported actors to engage in political dialogue and to pressure elites and governments to support reforms. Yet these approaches often fail because the ‘coalition’ is mostly made up of like-minded actors from marginalised communities and NGOs. They have no connections to people in positions of power and overwhelmingly use confrontational approaches to influence policy. We know that this approach on its own is rarely sufficient, especially when there is no one on the ‘inside’ who can translate outside concerns into politically feasible proposals for change.

In their FP2P blog post, Dave and Alan list nine initiatives, including DDD and TWP, currently being used in the push to reform international development practice. Some seem to be apples and oranges. For example, the Smart Rules initiative is an internal DFID effort to open up more space for programs to operate in flexible, politically informed ways. Similarly, the Collaborating, Learning, and Adapting initiative at USAID is an internal process to carve out more space for iterative program designs, and to link US-supported programs to other development initiatives. It is difficult to draw comparisons between them and initiatives such as DDD and TWP, which have created open networks of donors, researchers, and aid practitioners who support broad aid and development reform agendas.

…there is certainly scope to get better at defining what we mean by politically smart, iterative programming – but there may not be one definition we can all use. 

Some seem even further removed from TWP and DDD.  For example, the Global Delivery Initiative is closely linked to the Science of Delivery agenda at the World Bank. GDI advocates experimental, iterative approaches for development programs – but within the broader objective of finding universal solutions for development challenges that can be applied anywhere. This initiative seems to me to be moving away from aid delivery that responds to local country contexts and the political and governance challenges that are unique to particular countries. It’s very hard to reconcile universal best practice concepts with iterative, politically smart programming – basically, they are pushing in opposite directions. These differences go well beyond the People’s Front of Judea vs. the Judean People’s Front vs. the Popular Front of Judea.

In conclusion, there is certainly scope to get better at defining what we mean by politically smart, iterative programming. But I don’t think we should assume that there will be one definition that everyone can use. This is a broad movement with many audiences, so we need to tolerate some separate tracks and slightly varying approaches. My suggestion for development practitioners and donors would be to consider the subtle differences between them, and use them to your advantage. 

Image: Fragments (Photo: Antii Kyllonen, Flikr)



Varja Lipovsek

09th September 2016 at 08:49

Briefly, a comment from a practitioner organization looking to enhance our own adaptive and politically-savvy development work. It's optimal to have choices, and I don't mind at all if what's on offer is a mixture (not only apples and oranges, but give me aubergines too), so long as there is plenty of credible information about the drivers & purpose of each of the different approaches and initiatives, their comparative strengths, etc. And, importantly some notion of what the application of these initiatives resulted in: who is tracking the 'success rate' of these? I very much welcome Alan & Dave's attempt to name them together in one place, and categorize them, as a starting point to articulating their similarities and differences. The analogy with various Judea fronts focuses on ideological differences - but from our perspective, we want a bit of ideology (looking for broad alignment) but a whole lot of practical and tactical know-how and experience. Optimally, we would create a marketplace of ideas and approaches to adaptive development and learning, where we also ought to be comfortable with the fact that some of those ideas might be better or more widely applicable than others, and some might end up fading, or being absorbed by others. So, who else is peddling their goods?


Alan Hudson

07th September 2016 at 22:58

Thanks for picking up the thread of the blogpost that Dave and I put together, Thomas. Three quick points in response:

1) We agree that the existence of multiple conversations about related things is not necessarily a problem (and perhaps the reference to the People's Front of Judea suggests an antagonism that isn't there!). But we do think that there is a risk of duplication and fragmentation, and that there is value in maintaining the connections amongst the various conversations to guard against that.

2) We agree that the TWP and DDD conversations have significant overlap, but would maintain that all 9 conversations that our blogpost mentions have a common core - they are all fruit, even if not all apples - which is adaptive learning (see our Learning Plan for more on this). Linking up the conversations can help with efforts to clarify that common core and can also capitalize on the complementarities e.g. DDD is a bit quiet on politics, something that the TWP community might help with. We've recently set up the AdaptDev Google Group to help connect the conversations.

3) On our reading, the Global Delivery Initiative is not - despite the language around 'science of delivery' - about finding one-size fits-all solutions. Or, put differently, while the Global Delivery Initiative is about identifying common functional challenges, and gathering evidence about how they've been addressed, it's not about finding or promoting blueprint solutions.

Here's a blogpost on our learning plan:

And here's some info about the AdaptDev Google Group!forum/adaptdev

Thanks again for continuing the conversation!

Leave a comment

The views expressed in Opinions posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of DLP, the Australian Government or DLP's partner organisations.



Thomas Parks

Thomas Parks

Thomas Parks has worked in development assistance for 15 years, specialising in governance, political-economy, and conflict in Southeast Asia. As Regional Director at The Asia Foundation (2006-2013), he managed the Foundation's programs addressing conflict and governance reform, with a focus on fragile states and subnational conflict areas. He designed and led the large research program that produced The Contested Corners of Asia: Subnational Conflict and International Development, and co-authored Political Settlements: Implications for International Development Policy and Practice

Read more

Related items

Parliamentary strengthening: the IDC report

Having presented evidence to the UK's International Development Committee, what of the final report?

Opinion by Tam O'Neil9th February 2015

Cancer and the links between medicine and development

Guest post for From Poverty to Power

Opinion by Chris Roche15th April 2015
Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal26th April 2016

Overcoming premature evaluation

Guest post in From Poverty to Power

Opinion by Chris Roche15th November 2016

Don't give up on government

The World Bank launched its flagship World Development Report (WDR) this week, which boldly redefines how governance and policy interact to yield good or bad development outcomes. People are rightly praising the report for rejecting best practicesembracing adaptation and endorsing a focus on politics.

Opinion by Dan Hymowitz3rd February 2017

'Sticky’ change: What international development can learn from adaptive management

One of the most significant failings of international political assistance has been the tendency to focus too much on institutional structure and process, and not enough on culture and behaviour.

Opinion by Greg Power2nd December 2016
Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal24th November 2014

Politics shape services; and services shape politics

How governance and sector specialists can help each other understand the politics of service delivery

Opinion by Richard Batley19th June 2014

Anti-corruption in Bolivia: fighting greed – or attitudes?

Unsurprisingly, when people are asked about corruption, they say they are against it. But that doesn’t tell us what they really think about it, or what they do when confronted with it.   

Opinion by Nieves Zúñiga29th June 2015

From functional governance to sustainable peace: Making the space to reflect, learn and adapt

Last month, UNDP co-hosted a Global Meeting in Jordan on supporting core government functions in fragile and conflict-affected settings. It brought together over 60 colleagues and practitioners from the UN system, World Bank, donors, and government representatives from around the world.

Opinion by Aditi Haté 22nd February 2017
Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal29th March 2016

Uncounted: has the post-2015 data revolution failed already?

Counting matters. As the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi report puts it: What we measure affects what we do; and if our measurements are flawed, decisions may be distorted…. [I]f metrics of performance are flawed, so too may be inferences we draw.

Opinion by Alex Cobham12th May 2015

Gender and power: six links and one big opportunity

Donors have recently made great efforts to understand power in partner countries. Yet they have largely ignored one of the most pervasive power relations – gender.

Opinion by Diana Koester21st May 2015
Opinion by Heather Marquette10th November 2014

How does politically informed programming shape development outcomes?

Many well-intentioned development programmes founder in the face of resistance from entrenched elites who feel threatened by a potential loss of power and resources. Resources intended for the poor and disadvantaged benefit the rich and powerful. In response, development practitioners and academics have become keenly interested in the political factors that shape development outcomes over the past ten years.

Opinion by Mark Robinson29th January 2016

The curious case of Indian autocracy and what it tells us about 'thinking and working politically'

Today marks the fortieth anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s declaration of a national emergency in India, which led to an 18-month period of autocracy. Civil rights were suspended, political opponents and journalists were arrested without the right to trial, censorship was imposed, elections were cancelled, non-Congress state governments were dismissed, the constitution changed.

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi25th June 2015

Do anticorruption messages work? Findings so far and what they could mean for Papua New Guinea

Anticorruption posters and billboards are common sights around the world. Most anticorruption programs now include an awareness-raising element. The hope is that anticorruption messages – whether shared via posters, radio or TV, for example – will inspire citizens to refuse to pay bribes and to report any corruption they encounter.

Opinion by Caryn Peiffer23rd March 2017

DLP political settlements workshop: reflections

Serendipity, perhaps. I joined the Political Settlements Research Programme at the beginning of June; my first formal engagement was on June 17, at the Political Settlements Workshop organised by the Developmental Leadership Program. It was quite an induction day.

Opinion by Astrid Jamar22nd July 2015

Adding gender and power to the TWP agenda

Thinking and Working Politically presents development to us as an endeavour embedded within power structures. This is so important.

It helps us see clearly that we need to understand domestic politics to deliver development outcomes. Who are the players? Who makes decisions? Who will stand to lose from a proposal and how can they block progress?

Opinion by Sally Moyle6th August 2015

Fragmentation of the Thinking and Working Politically agenda: Should we worry?

Recently, I’ve read many articles and heard from many colleagues who are concerned about the apparent competition between the Doing Development Differently (DDD) network and the Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) community of practice.

Opinion by Thomas Parks29th August 2016

Do donors have realistic expectations of their staff when it comes to 'thinking and working politically'?

Is learning to ‘think politically’ like learning a new language? 

Opinion by Heather Marquette9th June 2014

Security and justice – the mismatch between policy and practice

What hinders more politically nuanced security and justice programming?

Opinion by Shivit Bakrania21st July 2014

Innovation: transactional or transformative?

Innovation has become a popular word in international development. In Australia today, Bjorn Lomborg helped to formally open DFAT’s development innovation hub innovationXchange, which is designed to ‘identify, trial and scale up successful approaches’. Other donors, including the US and the UK, are also promoting innovation through initiatives like the Development Innovation Ventures programme.

Opinion by Chris Roche23rd March 2015

International donors - aiding or abetting?

In September 2012, lawyers representing an Ethiopian farmer announced that they planned to sue the UK government for its role in human rights violations in Ethiopia. The farmer, named in court papers as “Mr O”, alleged that the Ethiopian government’s “villagisation” programme had involved the forced resettlement of thousands of families including his own.

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi10th September 2015

Development cooperation and fighting corruption: thinking differently

Everyone associates Brazil with football and the World Cup. Brazilians pouring out onto the street last summer to protest the competition being hosted in their country was last thing many of us expected to see.

Opinion by Heather Marquette24th June 2015

Indonesia and the political settlements trap

When your office is in Jakarta, you get a lot of time to day-dream in taxis while going from hotel to office and back again. I am just back from a couple of weeks working there and I marvelled at the traffic, the tech-savvy population and the profusion of swanky hotels. On one long journey I got to musing about the challenges facing Indonesia’s efforts to shift itself upwards in the World Bank’s country classification database.

Opinion by Graham Teskey17th July 2015

Inclusive political settlements: who and what gets included, and how?

DLP hosted a day-long high level introductory workshop on political settlements in June. This post is the first of a series inspired by the workshop and written by researchers, policymakers and practitioners. Here Alina Rocha Menocal discusses current research and thinking on the usefulness of a political settlements approach.

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal13th July 2015

Identifying rebels with a cause (and effect)

The Developmental Leadership Program will host its 2016 Annual Conference at La Trobe University in Melbourne on 8 February. Its theme is ‘Power, Politics and Positive Deviance’.

Opinion by Chris Roche1st December 2015

Different development: walk the talk

Spent the day at a ‘Doing Development Differently’ event recently and, while it offered a great opportunity to meet and hear from fascinating, dedicated, thoughtful people, I came away somewhat disheartened. Why? Because:

Opinion by Gillian Fletcher14th April 2015

Gender analysis, and thinking and working politically – bridging the gap

Guest post on Devpolicy  introducing panels at this week's Australasian Aid Conference

Opinion by Chris Roche14th February 2017

What do we do on Monday? Political settlements in theory and practice

The political settlements framework can seem a distraction to some practitioners, many of whom have been thinking and working politically about development for a number of years. They find the term difficult to define with any precision and, in any case, quite unnecessary. In the real world, progress towards better understanding of and engagement with the political conditions which help and hinder development has been ticking along nicely, independently of the academic debates.

Opinion by Edward Laws15th July 2015

Politics, risk and development: three takeaways

Last week was a big one for the Australasian development community, particularly for those interested in the politics of development. The Australasian Aid Conference at the Australian National University (10-11 February) included a packed session on 'Putting political thinking into development practice'. And DLP’s Annual Conference at La Trobe University focused  on Power, Politics and Positive Deviance.

Opinion by Chris Roche19th February 2016

Anthropology and elites: 'Studying up', politically

Some strikingly parallel questions are being asked in my own discipline of anthropology and by those examining how donors and practitioners can think and work politically with developing communities.

Opinion by Paul Robert Gilbert10th March 2016

The practicalities of change - positive deviance and land reform in Vanuatu

This guest post by Anna Naupa draws on her Adrian Leftwich Memorial Lecture, presented at the DLP Annual Conference 2016: Power, Politics and Positive Deviance. It is the perspective of Anna Naupa and not that of any organisation with which she is, or has been, affiliated.

Opinion by Anna Naupa13th April 2016

Resources and reflections on gender and thinking and working politically

Next week's meeting of the Thinking and Working Politically Community of Practice will focus on gender at an opportune time. It follows a spate of interesting papers, blog posts and talks about the relationship between 'thinking and working politically' and gender issues. 

Opinion by Chris Roche12th June 2015
Opinion by Orlanda Ward7th March 2017