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Theories of Change: The Importance of Thinking Politically

GPSA Knowledge Platform forums Discussions with Experts Theories of Change: The Importance of Thinking Politically

This topic contains 10 replies, has 6 voices, and was last updated by  Brendan 5 years, 6 months ago.

  • Author
  • #1445

    United States

    Funders and practitioners working on issues of transparency and accountability (T/A) are increasingly aware of the political dimensions of this work. Indeed, the principal challenges faced by internal and external actors seeking to promote improved T/A are rooted in the relationships of power and politics between citizens and state actors. This calls for approaches that more explicitly account for the dynamics of power and politics both in their analysis and Theories of Change (Thinking Politically) and in how they seek to promote social and political change (Working Politically).

    This forum will be devoted to a discussion of how organizations are thinking and working politically, and how external actors, including funders, can best support these approaches. To frame this issue, I draw upon a short Think Piece I recently developed (attached), as well as insights coming from the TALEARN community of practice (more information here). I outlined many of these ideas in a recent GPSA webinar.

    Thinking and working politically takes many shapes and forms, depending on the organization, objectives, context, external support, etc. But at its core, I do think it incorporates many of the following elements, to varying degrees:

    * Analysis of power and political dynamics (Theories of Change that reflect political challenges/opportunities, networks and ‘ecosystems’ of actors and institutions, incentives and interests, etc.)
    * Organizational approaches (flexible, adaptive, multiple approaches, building relationships, enabling collective action, etc.)
    * Learning (reflection on experiences, culture of critical inquiry, learning capabilities and processes, linking learning to practice, etc.)

    Fundamentally, it involves what Jonathan Fox calls ‘strategic’ approaches to accountability.
    Please feel free to share your experiences, perspectives, success stories, challenges and resources on Thinking and Working Politically for T/A. Questions to reflect on include:

    * What are the political dimensions of your organization’s strategic objectives around greater accountability?
    * How does your organization think about and analyze issues of power and politics?
    * How does the work of your organization reflect this analysis?

  • #1446

    United States

    The Think Piece outlining several ideas and directions for thinking and working politically in transparency and accountability can be found here.

  • #1462

    United States

    To get the ball rolling on this topic, I wanted to share a case study from the Asia Foundation, based on the work of the NGO Pattiro in Indonesia. A short paper describing the case study can be found HERE.

    What is interesting to me about the work of Pattiro in this case (which is related to anti-poverty more generally, not specifically social accountability), is the careful analysis done of opportunities to engaged with different actors inside and outside of government, including the executive (mayors), legislative (local parliament), government bureaucracy, media, and diverse citizen’s organizations. Depending on the nature of the local political situation, Pattiro developed different kinds of coalitions, alliances and relationships, and adopted different strategies to accomplish their objectives. This requires a nuanced understanding political realities, and the flexibility to adapt their strategy as circumstances changed and opportune moments for change emerged. I think these are important ideas for thinking and working politically in the context of transparency and accountability work as well.

    What ideas from the Pattiro case reflect the way your organization is working? What new ideas might you apply to your work?

    It would be great to hear some examples of how different organizations are thinking and working politically under different contexts.

    • #1497

      Charlie Ngounou – Cameroon

      Hi Brendan,
      The file from Asia foundation seems unavalaible.

      from the summary you give above, their case in local settings might be interesting for me as we failed dramatically in a transparency and accountability project we launched with some local governments here in Cameroon. Instead of looking to the apparent causes rapidly given like “we did not manage change and so on”, I have been working to understand the underlying causes of our failure, so as to avoid this result in the coming future… since we have got another project at hand and the terrain of implementation has not changed.

      • #1498

        United States


        Thanks for noting the problem with the link, the working link can be found HERE (or in case not, the address is:

        Thanks also for sharing your own experience with these challenges. As you analyze the efforts you are undertaking with local governments, the following questions might be useful. They were developed by Albert van Zyl (from the International Budget Partnership), and I added a few as well. We have been using them as a framework for thinking about Theories of Change in the TALEARN commmunity of practice.

        1. What is the overall goal of your organization or initiative as specified in the ToC
        2. What kinds of evidence and contextual analysis have you used to inform your ToC?
        3. What are the activities that your organization is undertaking to achieve those goals?
        4. How will your efforts improve government responsiveness? (ie. which political decision-makers are you targeting through your activities and why do you think your activities will sway them?)
        5. What are the political challenges that obstruct government responsiveness?
        6. What external factors or actors are important to your organization’s ToC? What do you need from them and what are the potential challenges to them playing this role?
        7. How do you incorporate learning and adaptation into your ToC? How has the ToC shifted over time to incorporate analysis and lessons learned?

  • #1499

    South Africa

    Hi all, I would like to share a brief summary that I wrote about a recent webinar on advocacy strategy adjustment. The webinar was titled “How to Adjust Your Advocacy Strategy When the Government Fights Back or the Context Changes” and the attached summary includes links to the webinar recording as well as the presentations of both presenters. The presenters were Yogesh Kumar, the executive director of Samarthan, and Albert Van Zyl, the manager of learning and knowledge development at the International Budget Partnership.

  • #1501



    Thank you for creating this space for us to share further after your excellent webinar.

    When reading your paper a few initial thoughts struck me: power, rights and time-frames.

    I sometimes find the term political economy approach itself can be quite intimidating. I like how you frame it as an approach, rather than a tool. It is essentially a way of constantly thinking, questioning, framing and planning what we do, on a daily basis. In doing this, two concepts I have found useful is to think and discuss are ‘power’ and ‘rights.

    Who has power, what form is it in (visible, hidden, invisible), what level (local, national, global) and what kind of space (closed, invites, claimed). I have relied heavily on the work of John Gavanta (formally IDS) for this and I particularity like the power cube. IDS have a great online resource dedicated to this which helps to plan workshops, carry out analysis and act. It recognizes that everyone (or every thing in the case of institutions) is a power broker, whether its deliberate or accidental, malignant or benign. I particularly like how it helps us understand power as resistance, which can be so common in SAcc initiatives.

    As you rightly present thinking politically as an approach, another complimentary ‘approach’ come to mind a human rights approach. Again I find this a useful way of thinking politically. A human rights analysis helps to frame a relations as rights holders and duty bearer, and have clarify on the various roles and responsibilities. I think some in the SAcc sector have traditionally spurned a human rights approach as its seen to be advocacy based adversarial process, but this is not always the case. The human rights framework can, and should be presented as a powerful tool for governments themselves to map and communicate progress in progressively realizing rights.

    Also, you touched on the idea of ‘time’ at a few points in your paper. In understanding political processes we also need to be realistic about time-frames. Despite our best efforts, we seem to always be over-ambitious in what we hope to achieve in what are very short time-frame (3 years as an average funding span of a project). I like to think it’s because our human nature is to be optimistic and ambitious, but I also suspect it’s driven by a desire and need to win and justify funding. Michael Woolcok, here in the Bank, thinks and writes about this too, and his observation really strike me as quite sound and commonsense. He talks about ‘small development’ as opposed to ‘big development’ “Small Development advocates focus not on building systems in the medium run but on compensating for the failure of systems in the short run” and on time “The key point is that doing some vitally important tasks in development may take two or more generations even under the best of circumstances, and that otherwise technically sound projects can be unfairly deemed to be ‘failures’ if their performance at any given point after implementation is not assessed against informed expectation”.

    These are just some initial thought and responses to your paper, I look forward to ‘talking’ more.

  • #1502

    United States

    Thanks Jessica and Olive for your contributions to this discussion.

    I saw the webinar on the work of Samarthan and I think it does present a concrete case of what thinking and working politically looks like, in terms of flexibility, addressing power relations, and unpacking ‘political will’ and the ‘calculus’ of government decision making.

    Indeed, cases like that of Samarthan highlight the importance of the great points made by Olive on power, rights and time-scales. I agree that a politically-informed approach must grapple with multiple dimensions of power. My sense is that Political Economy Analysis deals with power issues in different kinds of ways. There is a great piece by David Hudson from the Developmental Leadership Programme on looking at Political Economy Analysis vs. a more explicitly political analysis (

    On the rights issue, I think Olive raises an important point. Accountability issues are fundamentally about citizen rights, yet rights-claiming may not always be an effective or viable strategy, as the Samarthan case demonstrates. Intermediary actors have to have a very nuanced understanding of power dynamics and other local contextual factors to help citizens address rights issues. I think some of Duncan Green’s work at Oxfam points in this direction (for example, on water issues Also the Mwananchi programme on social accountability in several African countries has produced some insights on these issues (see my brief blog post on this

    Glad to have more perspectives on what some of these issues mean to other organizations on the ground!

  • #1550


    Hi Bredan,

    Thanks for raising this issue and quite a number of interesting points.

    I think, for the success of organisations working at the level where SEND-GHANA finds itself, the issue of thinking politically should have in the first inspired the birth of such organisations or at worse the programmatic evolution that the organisation goes through to promote T/A. The corollary is working politically. I am going to use our experience to illustrate these points.

    On thinking politically, we have always been guided by what politics offers in terms on T/A in reality and what it can offer if an approached that on one hand assist citizens to claim their rights is pursued, and on another hand the power of duty bearers is given the needed recognition so that public officials are ‘cajoled’ into joining efforts that typically should be executed by non state actors. The cajoling exercise is pursued through the use of deliberative methods and dialogue to seeking the consent of the powers that be to partner in development. We use partnership building by blending the rights approach with the dialogue approach while drawing inspirational available legal frameworks that define the niche for citizens to demand transparent and accountable governance.

    But due to the issue of power which often permits duty bearers to disregard the issue of becoming more transparent and accountable, it is often important to seek the political will (from politicians who seek to win the power from the other side), no matter how long, tortuous and frustrating the journey may be. Here is where a better understanding of the power dynamics has been helpful! For instance civil servants who often advice the political elite do show a bias against CSOs and their incentive for the government to be seen as responsive to citizens is very minimal. So building alliance with them is often not productive as they can frustrate efforts. But for the appointed duty bearers who appreciate the maganitude of the power from the other side (elections) it serves thier interest, at least to be seen to be responsive hence it is better to engage them to commit a whole ministry to an agenda set by CSOs. Then the commend chain is trigered Once the end of the tunnel is reached and the approach of giving recognittion to power is followed implicit commitment to be more transparent, accountable and responsive .

    so once you get here this is where you work political to secure the cooperation of people who had earlier oppose. What we so is to request for a representative from the government side (power) to be part of the groups that we work with. They eventually get sensitised and their world view reformed to serve as conduit between power holders and power givers.

    • #1561

      United States

      George, thanks for sharing your perspectives on how your organization understands and grapples with issues of power, politics, political will and responsiveness. You usefully highlight the importance of understanding the different actors that are relevant to your work and what possibilities exist for collaborating with them (or not), grounded by a systematic power analysis.

      Given that actors are not constant, nor are their interests, incentives, ideas and power relationships, this calls for the kinds of flexible and responsive strategies that Florencia and her colleagues have emphasized in their recent GPSA note and that we I discussed in a recent GPSA webinar.

      I think the challenge remains to demonstrate how politically-informed, flexible and adaptive approaches are contributing to meaningful and sustained improvements in government responsiveness and accountability. So if you have a particularly compelling success story, please share with us!

  • #1559


    Hi all,

    The collections of GPSA and TALEARN short notes linked here provide additional conceptual, quantitative, and qualitative food for thought.

    We are making an effort to get beyond common phrases like context or politics matter to specific, priority questions and exercises to distinguish proposals, projects, campaigns, interventions and funding decisions that build on these ideas from those that do not. Challenging, but hoping to move the conversation forward!


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