Centring context: recent shifts in political economy analysis

9 July 2024
SERIES Political philanthropy 7 items

Many philanthropic donors and implementing partners aspire to be contextually grounded in their work. This is especially important for the growing group of donors interested in deepening their understanding of governments and their partnerships with them

We know that identifying and seizing ‘windows of opportunity’ is a crucial element of successful government advisory relationships. 

The lessons learnt from political economy analysis (PEA) approaches can inform how donors do this in ways that are light, agile and useful in maximising the impact of government advice. 

Over the past two decades (and perhaps even longer), PEA approaches and experiences have been accumulating and evolving. 

As part of a learning partnership on advisory support to governments, the OTT team recently reviewed approaches to PEA in the international development space. 

In this article, we highlight five ways that PEA approaches have changed over the last decade and explore five lessons learnt along the way.

Five changes in PEA 

1. Less of an ‘event’, more of a process 

While a ‘foundational’ or ‘baseline’ PEA report is still commonly recommended and produced, interest in other forms of quick and ongoing analysis has grown. 

The purpose, as Pact outline, “is not to generate analysis for analysis’ sake” but to inform decisions and strategies to achieve results in shifting political and economic climates. 

This has led to much more attention on the process of ongoing approaches to working politically and integrating this into day-to-day organisational and project realities. 

2. Politics presents both an opportunity and a barrier 

As the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s (FCDO’s) latest guidance points out, PEA approaches increasingly focus on the opportunities in the context, rather than just the barriers or blockages. 

As the Developmental Leadership programme observed, “Politics isn’t the obstacle…it’s the way change happens”. 

Yet this is still an ongoing process – in the evidence-informed policy space, for instance, we still very often see politics listed under ‘barriers’. Actually, it should be seen as a cluster of factors that can act as barriers or opportunities – sometimes both at the same time! 

Efforts by organisations like the Centre for Democratic Development (CDD) in Ghana are moving the sector towards a more nuanced understanding of the politics of evidence use. 

3. More focus on gender and equity

There has been recognition that some earlier PEA models were effectively ‘gender blind’. Later models place much more emphasis on gender and equity

Incorporating this lens brings its own challenges but also reveals new insights. This learning brief shares reflections from think tanks in Ghana, Uganda and Pakistan on designing and implementing a gender- and equity-responsive approach to PEA.

4. Increasing interest in ‘localisation’

There is increasing interest in how national actors are using PEA to understand and respond to their own contexts.

This stands in contrast to some of the earlier PEA models, which were sometimes seen as ways for ‘outsiders’ (namely, northerners) to understand southern contexts. 

The thinking and working politically (TWP) community’s recent profiles of locally-led approaches in Colombia, Mali, DRC and Uganda are illustrative of this growing recognition of the expertise of national actors in navigating the political contexts that they’re embedded in and know intimately. 

This is a theme we’re particularly interested in at OTT, leading us to ask the following questions: 

  • How does the concept and implementation of PEA change when it’s done by and for those embedded within the context? 
  • What about the differences between conducting a PEA as a donor and conducting a PEA as an implementer? 

These categories often (but not always) map onto North-South locations. Locally, a PEA may not be necessary. Local researchers are, after all, part of the political space and involved in broad and deep discussions about the multiple processes and forces that shape their systems

5. ‘Thinking politically’ and ‘working politically’ is not the same thing

Thinking politically doesn’t necessarily equate to working (or ‘acting’) politically.  

For PEA professionals, working politically requires embedding or applying PEA to everyday operational and organisational realities – giving rise to the term ‘applied PEA’. 

This includes combining and linking context analysis to other planning and strategy processes – such as needs assessments, stakeholder mapping and monitoring, and evaluation and learning (MEL) and communications strategies – and then making decisions based on the results.

But working politically also involves affecting local power structures with their corresponding benefits and, of course, costs.

Five lessons learnt

When engaging with governments, being contextually aware is key, especially for philanthropies who are venturing into more explicitly political spheres for the first time. Here are five lessons that we’ve learnt along the way.

1. Beware ‘analytical maximalism’

Consider different options of analysis depending on the time available and remember that PEA is not purely a research exercise – it’s meant to inform decisions and actions. 

For example, ESID takes a ‘fractal’ approach to PEA: they start with questions for a one-hour conversation, these can then be expanded into a one-day workshop, and then into a one-month analysis. 

Furthermore, experiences from USAID-funded human rights initiatives that have used PEA and those from Pact over the last decade have showcased ‘thinking and working politically’. 

This broad range of experiences have included foundational or baseline PEAs as well as lighter and more agile real-time forms of scanning, quick consultation and analysis aligned with decision points. 

Moreover, experiences from INASP have described the practical details and lessons learnt from experimenting with a participatory, light-touch approach to PEA in a non-governmental organisation (NGO).

2. Operational ‘nuts and bolts’ matter 

As in the uptake of any research or analysis, an understanding of timing, planning and other operational realities matters. 

If the analysis comes at the wrong time, doesn’t involve the right people, or focuses on questions that aren’t a priority to the eventual users of the analysis, the ‘windows of opportunity’ to act on it can be lost. 

Adaptive and flexible programming approaches facilitate applied approaches to PEA as they provide opportunities to adjust to shifting contexts. These need to be accompanied by resources to enable ongoing monitoring and to support changes in direction.

3. Don’t underestimate the value of high-quality conversations 

The lessons learnt from implementing context analyses have suggested that it’s often the conversations that are most valuable, both in gleaning information and in triangulating and critically examining differing perspectives. 

These conversations don’t always need to be formal, structured interviews with external experts. A thoughtful, well-timed discussion and debate between different perspectives within the organisation, based on questions grounded in contextual realities, can be just as valuable as a standalone ‘product’.

4. Rapid, ongoing context analysis can help to navigate political transitions/crises 

For example, a human rights programme in Tanzania was able to use context analysis approaches to pivot in the wake of President Magufuli’s death and the new political landscape of President Samia Hassan. 

But this needs to be built into the approach. 

For example, a ‘politically sensitive, fluid context’ in Mali was created after two coups and a significantly changed security situation. 

This meant that a youth peacebuilding initiative needed to be intentional about using context analysis to track changes in this dynamic context rather than capturing a static ‘moment in time’. 

5. Use context analysis tools to intentionally redress knowledge inequities

Purposefully mapping stakeholders with less power or influence and critically examining why they’re excluded can highlight important power dynamics, such as gender. 

These power dynamics may be masked by PEA approaches that focus on current rather than potential holders of power. 

Ensuring that diverse staff are involved in analyses and that the perspectives of marginalised groups are reflected in the content can help context analysis to contribute to social and economic justice agendas. 

It can also help to mitigate the risk of re-inscribing existing power imbalances.

As PEA approaches have evolved, practical lessons have emerged. These can inform philanthropic actors interested in working with governments in contextually responsive ways.