How does politically informed programming shape development outcomes?

29th January 2016

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. The approach, often called ‘thinking and working politically’ (TWP), tries to understand the political obstacles that get in the way of developmental reform and successful practical interventions.

However, taking political obstacles into account in programme design is easier said than done. This is why a community of practice has recently emerged from this upsurge of interest in TWP, designed to learn lessons and develop practical guidance for development practitioners who may be sceptical of the value of such an approach.  

The development literature has long shown that the capture of development benefits by rich and powerful groups is centred on the extraction of rents and economic surplus in pursuit of narrow self-interest. More recently, a range of case studies has begun to document the political factors that influence development outcomes. Some use political economy tools to analyse the power dynamics that shape policy decisions and programme implementation. Political economy approaches, of course, analyse the decisions of those who hold political power in the context of their economic interests and the unequal distribution of material resources. These case studies reveal a rich array of political factors that can frustrate efforts to improve development outcomes in favour of the poor and disadvantaged.

Despite the resurgence of interest in political economy analysis, we lack a rigorous evidence base that shows a consistent link between the politically sensitive design of development interventions and any resulting positive outcomes. Much of the evidence used to justify a politically informed approach is anecdotal; it lacks a systematically comparative approach and the little evidence we have of the success of TWP is based on a few cases, many of which have an inbuilt selection bias. There has been little effort to consider whether any initial positive results have been sustained – although this is hardly surprising, given the relative newness of this approach.

Even so, the absence of such evidence weakens the appeal of political economy analysis for development practitioners, especially those who have to make decisions about policy choice and budget allocations. Decision makers need to know whether analysis grounded in political analysis will help them use scarce development resources better and reduce the risk that funds will be misused and diverted.

Our new working paper suggests an analytical framework to help build the evidence base on ‘politically informed programming’. The overall aim is to understand how and why some development interventions adopt a politically informed approach, and what the effect of TWP may be for the implementation and outcomes of development programmes.

We take it as a given that politics matters for development outcomes; our focus here is on how incorporating politics into programme design and implementation affects outcomes. The framework distinguishes between four levels of analysis: political, sectoral, organisational and individual.

  • The first level, political context, considers how the political system, leadership and the nature of the political settlement in a given context affect development programmes
  • The sectoral level considers how characteristics of specific sectors (such as health, education, or water delivery) influence programme implementation and impact
  • The organisational level looks at how features of an implementing organisation can support or hinder politically informed programming – features such as flexibility, adaptability and autonomy, or type of organisation (government, donor, NGO)
  • Finally the individual level illuminates the role played by individuals in programme success when they think and work politically – particularly the behaviours, incentives and motivations of decision makers and frontline staff responsible for service delivery.

We believe such a framework will make it possible to compare and contrast development interventions systematically across a range of political contexts – including both fragile states and democratic environments – and in a limited number of sectors.

Our hope is that this type of in-depth analysis can help address the current methodological and analytical gaps in the existing literature and fill gaps in the current debate around TWP in development programming. A better evidence base on politically informed programming will, we believe, prove central to moving ‘thinking and working politically’ from the margins of development policy into mainstream development programming. In the process, the adoption of this approach by development practitioners should help them understand political risks and ensure that resources for the poor do benefit the poor in practice.


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.


Mark Robinson

Mark Robinson

Mark Robinson is Global Director, Governance at the World Resources Institute based in Washington, DC. His career in international development spans more than 25 years. He has held a number of leadership and management roles, most recently at the UK Department for International Development (DFID), where he led a large group of governance and conflict professionals and served as Deputy Director of the Research and Evidence Division.

Read more


Heather Marquette

Heather Marquette

DLP's Director, Dr Heather Marquette, is Reader in Development Politics in the International Development Department, University of Birmingham. She is also Academic Director of the GSDRC. A political scientist by training, she has extensive international experience in research, policy advice, consultancy and training on the politics of development, governance, corruption, political analysis, and aid policy.

Read more


Niheer Dasandi

Niheer Dasandi

Niheer is a Research Fellow with the Developmental Leadership Program, based at the University of Birmingham. His research focuses on politics and development, particularly on the political economy of aid, links between inequality and poverty, the process of policy reform, and political-bureaucratic interactions.

Read more

Related items

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal24th November 2014

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
Opinion by Heather Marquette10th November 2014

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
Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal29th March 2016

Climate change and adaptation in the Pacific Islands: watering down women's security?

How women leaders are challenging a narrow adaptation agenda.

Opinion by Nicole George7th March 2014
Opinion by Heather Marquette9th March 2015

Education, development, and the problem with consensus

Why rethink the international consensus on 'quality basic education for development'?

Opinion by Michele Schweisfurth7th April 2014

Authoritarianism, democracy and development

What does the evidence say?

Opinion by Tim Kelsall27th November 2014

Being 'there': reflections on fieldwork in the DRC

Fieldwork in fragile places part 1: the security dilemma

Opinion by Suda Perera5th November 2014

Masculinity and sexual violence in India

Will the shocking Nirbaya case shift attitudes?

Opinion by Martin Rew16th September 2015

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

International donors - aiding or abetting?

The 'donor's dilemma' is discussed in a new DLP paper.

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi10th September 2015

Being 'there': Bermuda Triangulation

Fieldwork in fragile places part 2: data difficulties

Opinion by Suda Perera6th November 2014
Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal26th April 2016

‘Crows who come in search of dollars’: NGO legitimacy in conflict zones

Do political dynamics affect NGO legitimacy more than performance?

Opinion by Oliver Walton19th August 2014
Opinion by Caryn Peiffer5th February 2015
Opinion by Dan Hymowitz3rd February 2017

Research methods and marshalling messy data: Dear Diary

The benefits of an old-fashioned research diary

Opinion by Suda Perera2nd September 2015

Cancer and the links between medicine and development

Guest post for From Poverty to Power

Opinion by Chris Roche15th April 2015

Adding gender and power to the TWP agenda

Why bring gender into Thinking and Working Politically?

Opinion by Sally Moyle6th August 2015

Overcoming premature evaluation

Guest post in From Poverty to Power

Opinion by Chris Roche15th November 2016

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

The value of the political settlements framework

Opinion by Edward Laws15th July 2015

Security and justice – the mismatch between policy and practice

What hinders more politically nuanced security and justice programming?

Opinion by Shivit Bakrania21st July 2014

Politics, risk and development: three takeaways

Reflections from two conferences

Opinion by Chris Roche19th February 2016

Innovation: transactional or transformative?

Given the fascination with 'innovation' in the field of development, it's time to discuss what the word might mean.

Opinion by Chris Roche23rd March 2015

Identifying rebels with a cause (and effect)

'Power, politics and positive deviance' is the theme of DLP's 2016 annual conference.

Opinion by Chris Roche1st December 2015

Corruption: is the right message getting through?

The unintended consequences of raising awareness of corruption

Opinion by Caryn Peiffer12th August 2015