Practitioner Insights: political economy analysis for climate change

Is political economy analysis for climate change worth it?


Tackling climate change requires digging deep into the murky world of power and politics. Climate change is viewed very differently, within and across different countries and regions. How climate change is addressed is shaped by the interests of different groups and how they exercise power. Certain political parties may favour market based tools to reduce Green House Gas (GHG) emissions, for example, while others are ideologically opposed to them. Equally, forests play a hugely important cultural role to ethnic groups which consider them sacred, and this informs whether and how they support measures to protect forests

Donors are increasingly designing climate change programmes that recognise the fundamentally political nature of the subject and posit a political economy analysis as the key tool to integrate political thinking into programme design and delivery. Programmes often rely heavily on political economy analysis (PEA) as a key mechanism to define the specifics of the programme, and to monitor its success and impact. OPM has been implementing one of DFID’s largest programmes of this kind in South Asia, Action on Climate Today, a five-year programme supporting governments in 10 national and sub-national locations in the region to adapt to the impacts of climate change. This programme uses PEA at every stage. Going through this process has highlighted some key lessons about the role (and the limitations) of PEA within a climate change programme, and how it can be usefully applied from a climate change perspective.

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What we’ve learned from the ACT programme

PEA is not the ‘be-all and end-all’ of thinking- and working- politically.Often technical support programmes are designed to be, ‘politically informed’, adapting and responding to changing local political realities. Unfortunately when implementation starts, being ‘politically-informed’ becomes equated with simply doing PEA. In reality, other mechanisms are more important than PEA for ensuring a programme is sensitive to the local context, primarily drawing on the expertise of the local team and, where possible, sitting them with the government partner office.

Working politically means prioritising, planning, implementing and assessing in a politically informed way. It is often strategic to provide initial limited support on issues where there is strong political interest and demand, and then transition to more sensitive issues where demand for support has to be generated. In the ACT programme, have also experimented with reserving some of the programme budget to respond to ad-hoc and politically salient requests for support from the government, without detracting from the overall programme strategy.

PEA findings are not a surprise if a programme is already alert to local politics. Sometimes team members need to be convinced of the value of PEA, and whether it will tell them anything new. However, the PEA process (and getting inputs from external actors) usually ends up being a much-appreciated opportunity for the collective team (including those far removed from the local reality) to reflect on whether the programme’s strategy is appropriate. The write-up is also a key document for new staff members, and for any external consultants starting work in the location.

The methodology for a PEA for climate change is not obvious. It took nearly a year, and numerous pilots and revisions, to develop the methodology for doing the PEA. Given tackling climate change requires action by every sector of the economy, and all levels and parts of government, the potential breadth of the PEA is overwhelming. We also needed to strike a balance between studying the issues the programme was interested in (e.g. the State Action Plans on Climate Change in India), but not missing those issues that should be on our radar. Each year we also modify and improve how we do the PEA: for example we are piloting an improved stakeholder analysis mapping tool.

PEA should not just be internal. However politically astute a team are, external views are crucial to collect a diversity of views and at a minimum to validate the team’s approach. We use Key Informant Discussions to get a range of inputs, and also publish a summary version of the results from across the locations to encourage a wider public discussion on the political economy of climate change in the region.

Formalising the link between PEA and the design of the programme is worth it. Carrying out a PEA is relatively straightforward, but using the results to inform the work of a programme is much more difficult. This usually happens informally, through the discussions that take place with the team during and after the PEA process. However, formalising and documenting the link between the PEA and programme design is a challenge. ACT is trying to do this, by presenting the results at management meetings and highlighting areas of disconnect with the programme, and including in the PEA a section on the implications for the programme, and how the team have decided to respond (or not).

Be careful when linking PEA and Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). Within ACT we see the Context Assessment as a potential source of information into measuring the impact of the programme, but operationalising the link between the PEA and M&E is more difficult. The PEA is carefully designed to not focus on ACT, nor the impact that the programme is having. These processes measure and relate to different things, and it is important that any analysis involving both PEA and M&E does not conflate the two, side-line the nuances between them or falsely attribute the cause of change.

The use of PEA within ACT is still a work in progress. We constantly question and challenge ourselves to make the process more useful and better integrated within the programme itself, and have adapted and used the methodology for another climate change programme, focused on mitigation. We hope to work with other donors and organisations to share practical and honest lessons about how to make PEA less of a donor requirement and more a valued tool for achieving impact. These findings are a useful starting point for any practitioner looking to use, or develop the use of, PEA.

Key takeaways

  • Conducting Political Economy Analysis is only the start of Thinking and Working Politically.
  • Understanding the local context and dynamics should be an ongoing process throughout the project, focusing on the context as a whole and not just on the narrow focus area of the project, nor on the project impact.
  • Political Economy Analysis can serve to inform people external to the local context, but focus should be on how to integrate the findings into programme adaptation.
  • To best understand the political context it is important to draw on external knowledge as well as using the day-to-day knowledge from the project team to, validate and enrich the understanding and, crucially, intelligently inform project adaptation.

Elizabeth Gogoi is a consultant within OPM’s Climate Change Portfolio and based in the New Delhi office. She has over ten years of experience working with governments in south Asia, Europe, and the US on climate change and energy policy.

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