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Beyond a Buzzword: What Thinking and Working Politically Looks Like in Practice

| 4 Minute Read
Democracy and Governance | Center for Politically Informed Programming
Solutions Labs
What does TWP look like in program implementation? In this blog post, Sharon Van Pelt, Elizabeth Sanchez, and Santiago Villaveces-Izquierdo delve into the importance of regularly using TWP-PEA to pause and reflect.

Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) is all the buzz these days, with political economy analysis (PEA) being included in tenders, and project designs across sectors. But what does TWP-PEA look like beyond design, as an integral part of implementation?

During program design and even start-up, PEAs can provide recommendations while acknowledging context complexities, actors and their playing fields, challenges, and openings for change. Conducting a PEA is a one-time effort that informs the objectives, results, and logic that shape a context-aware program. In contrast, TWP-PEA during program implementation is an internal process that fosters a shift in the team´s mindset, working culture and operations. It does so by systematically interlocking management tools with operational and strategic decisions built around evidence-based information that captures context complexities and emergent programmatic opportunities. TWP-PEA helps guide a program’s action plan and embed adaptive management into the DNA of the project, in turn, promoting more effective and sustainable programming.

Why Does TWP-PEA Matter?

The TWP approach recognizes that power and politics are equally as important as the technical components of a project. After all, it is the influence of local political forces that determine whether technical solutions will be accepted or rejected. Politics are not static, which is why flexible, iterative program design and management is necessary and must be grounded in deep contextual knowledge. Using the PEA field research methodology allows implementers to gain this knowledge by examining local power relations, formal and informal institutions, ideological underpinnings, and incentives influencing the behavior of local actors. Together, TWP and regular PEA helps staff identify entry points for implementation, windows of opportunity for collaboration, and potential blockers of reform in complex environments.

TWP-PEA as a Way to Implement, Not Just a Study

Applying TWP-PEA within a program acknowledges both the context where the program is happening as well as the program objectives, results, and the basic set of activities defined by the contractual agreement with the donor. A TWP approach using PEAs sits at this intersection, compelling the team, from the chief of party down, to systematically and periodically capture and respond to emerging opportunities and navigate through roadblocks within program objectives. It is an on-going process of thinking and reflecting on the most effective course of implementation to achieve program objectives and results within the changing political dynamics, and capturing that knowledge in adapted work plans, monitoring and evaluation, reporting, etc. This requires program operational and management procedures as well as new staff capacities and tasks from what a traditional development program approach might entail.

Politics are not static, which is why flexible, iterative program design and management is necessary and must be grounded in deep contextual knowledge.

The TWP-PEA process should start at program inception, building common knowledge and vision among all staff, starting with in-depth training for staff on the whole PEA process: its reach and scope, its implementation and implications in management, monitoring and evaluation, strategic decision-making process, and activity implementation. This training acts as a doorway for senior management to lead the process of TWP-PEA customization and also provides an opportunity to both build ownership of the process within the team and identify the most adequate staff to spearhead the implementation of the process. Thus, it cannot be wholly contracted out to a third party; overall leadership must rest with program senior management to ensure the organic insertion of TWP-PEA into the full life of the project, with the allocation of adequate time and resources.

PEA Phases in Implementation

Four distinct moments characterize the adoption of a TWP-PEA approach within a program:

  • Design phase
  • Implementation phase
  • Adaptive management kick-off phase
  • TWP/PEA iteration phase

All phases are informed by and inform the program’s contractual obligations and effective delivery of results, creating a positive loop through which the program learns how best to adapt and deliver under the changing interests and dynamics of local actors and institutions.

Using TWP-PEA in Colombia to Strategically ‘Pause and Reflect’

Chemonics has been working in several projects to apply TWP-PEA at the project level. For the USAID/Colombia Justice for Sustainable Peace Program (JSP), Chemonics initially proposed rolling out four iterations of PEA throughout the life of the project. Initiating the first PEA in October 2017 — within the first three months of implementation to inform design and start-up — was met with some misunderstanding and frustration from local staff. Local teams initially saw TWP-PEA as additional work and not part of their ongoing tasks. It would take time and joint discussions to show staff the value added from TWP-PEA.

Over the course of the initial PEA and into the review of its findings and their programmatic implications, staff began to see TWP-PEA and adaptive management not as abstract concepts but as useful tools to make politically-informed decisions in real time. USAID’s active participation in the overall PEA process helped build greater trust and understanding leading to the joint agreement that work plans and monitoring, evaluation, and learning (MEL) plans are indeed living documents and need to be flexible and will change as the context dictates.

Since then, the JSP team has adopted and is actively implementing their common commitment to TWP-PEA via ‘pause and reflect’ opportunities, including: (1) quarterly meetings of all staff with a specific time set aside for TWP-PEA discussions; (2) a two-page section in each quarterly report about ongoing “everyday” PEA, how PEA considerations are affecting implementation, and suggestions for changes to the work plan and/or MEL plan; and (3) regional learning exchanges on common areas of interest or challenges. The team has completed their first quarterly analyses and are undertaking very focused political analyses on how the recent presidential elections results may affect current activities as well as Year Two work planning. The MEL specialist feels empowered and has taken ownership of a PEA baseline assessment, supporting program leadership to ensure that future PEAs are a regular part of the JSP MEL system.

With the contextual knowledge gained from TWP and applied PEA, national and regional staff have fostered alliances with unforeseen partners that had not previously been recognized or valued. This has put JSP in a better position to identify and take advantage of new strategic and operational opportunities, and to better respond to the needs and evolving dynamics of the local context.

TWP-PEA: The “So What?”

Given the complex and fluid environments of most development programs, it becomes even more important to embed TWP into programming and ensure politically informed, flexible, and responsive implementation. Integrating TWP-PEA into programs incorporates donor frameworks with practices, but it also tailors project activities to local dynamics. Ultimately, this gives project objectives a higher likelihood for success and sustainability.

About Sharon Van Pelt

Sharon Van Pelt is the former lead for Chemonics’ Democracy and Governance Practice.

About Elizabeth Sanchez

Elizabeth Sanchez is an intern for the Democracy and Governance Practice.

A professional headshot of Santiago Villaveces-Izquierdo.

About Santiago Villaveces-Izquierdo

Santiago Villaveces is a democracy and governance expert with nearly 25 years of experience in conflict and post-conflict settings in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Baltics. He is an expert in strategic planning and foresight, project design and implementation, thinking and working politically (TWP), political economy analysis (PEA), and political settlements analysis. He has…