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Three lessons from facilitating government led political economy analysis

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Vanessa Fullerton discusses the lessons learned from recent experience in conducting a government led political economy analysis

Political economy analysis (PEA) is a routine element of the design and implementation of development programmes. It provides an understanding of the political landscape, which is crucial to enable change through a development programme. These analyses have become more prominent in response to the growing realisation that development programmes have primarily focused on technical solutions. While purely technical solutions may work well in certain contexts, they do not necessarily translate into other environments. Political economy analysis provides the much-needed counterbalance, by providing a basis on which to interrogate political realities and develop solutions anchored in those realities.

PEA is generally approached from an external perspective – as an outsider looking in. In a recent project, our Public Sector Governance team conducted a PEA for an ongoing programme designed in accordance with the doing development differently approach as part of the Myanmar Education Quality Improvement Program (My-EQIP), a joint initiative of the Government of Myanmar and Government of Australia.  Unlike traditional programme design, where solutions tend to be donor-driven and, to a large extent, identified up-front, this approach is explicitly (recipient) government led, and focuses on locally identified implementation priorities. While traditional PEA was undoubtedly useful as part of the initial concept design, in the ongoing programme, the concept of a PEA conducted by externals sat uncomfortably with the government-led design. We therefore wanted to identify how the concept of ongoing PEA could translate into a programme in which the ministry was firmly in the driver’s seat. Could concepts of political economy be adapted to enable and empower government officials to analyse their own operating context, and adapt their policy implementation accordingly?

We began by designing a toolkit for a facilitated approach to the analysis and shifted our terminology from the understandably sensitive language of ‘political economy’ to ‘organisational constraints’. In addition to tools for PEA, we utilised concepts from problem-driven iterative adaptation, change management and capacity assessments. We worked with ministry task teams to drill down into blockages they were facing at the institutional, organisational, and individual levels. Task teams used this process to help plan for upcoming work.

Communicating unfamiliar concepts in an accessible way presented challenges. It required us to cut out jargon and get to the core of what we were trying to do: understand why things happen the way they do and what can be done to overcome challenges that prevent implementation. This included identifying issues that needed to be circumvented for contextual or political reasons, to enable adaptation. Once simplified the potentially threatening concept of ‘political economy’ became a pragmatic tool. Ministry personnel found the exercise provided a framework to articulate their issues and provided a forum to discuss.

The programme’s government-led approach aims to be used on an ongoing basis by ministry officials to diagnose implementation blockages. Long term success of this approach would see governments leading their own PEAs without the need for external support. However, involving external actors as facilitators can provide the space for reflection that is often elusive in day-to-day work, and can encourage constructive dialogue allowing individuals a voice outside of hierarchical structures. Additionally, although policy implementation challenges are highly context-specific, external actors can bring perspective and experience from other projects and countries.

What we have learnt:  

  1. Lose the jargon. Break down the concepts into their essential components, and explain them in an accessible way. Use everyday settings to make concepts accessible, like families getting together for the holidays or food shopping.
  2. The value is in the facilitation – don’t get too hung up on the theory. Obviously, the approach needs to be underpinned by a sound theoretical framework. However, viewing yourself as a technical expert misses the point. The value you provide is facilitation – creating the space and the structure around which people can interact, reflect, and come together to tackle problems.
  3. Start small and grow. Rather than trying to unpack the workings of an entire ministry, or diagnose implementation of the entire policy, start by focusing on specific issues that ministries are currently working on. Over time, this builds the pieces of the big picture, but is a less intimidating starting point.