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What is ‘politically smart’ development assistance?

‘Politically smart’ development assistance combines political-economy knowledge with more responsive, adaptable and contextually relevant operations. There is less reliance on aid conditionality and comprehensive institutional reform, and more emphasis on the need to build on local motivation and capacity, responding flexibly to events and opportunities as they arise. This includes removing any design `straight-jacket’ stemming from program design tools that encourage prescriptive approaches.

Isn’t TWP just another aid fad?

‘Thinking and working politically’ is neither a silver bullet nor a passing fad; it reflects a new resolve to learn from years of well-intentioned but often unsatisfactory aid practice, grounded in mistaken assumptions about the ability of external actors to drive complex processes of change by supplying finance and technical advice. The ambition should be to tailor aid programs to the growing body of evidence about how change happens and what kind of approaches work, and to strengthen the evidence base through better piloting, monitoring and evaluation.

I’ve heard a lot about TWP in small governance reform programs, but can it apply to large sector programs too?

Progress is needed across the broad spectrum of aid programs – from large ‘traditional’ sector programs, to small and nimble reform initiatives. The next critical challenge is to influence the practice of larger-scale programs that necessarily require greater structure and planning. This means integrating a political lens, allowing greater room for manoeuvre during implementation, and consideration of governance constraints in all development assistance programs – from health and education, to infrastructure and climate change.

Is the goal about radically redesigning development programs?

Our goal should be to encourage political awareness in all aid programs, while creating space for a significant expansion of programs designed specifically as politically savvy reform initiatives. Indeed, it is probable that only a modest percentage of ODA funded initiatives will be fully iterative, adaptive and flexible – and these initiatives will be mainly in areas of policy, institutional or governance reform. However, TWP is not a ‘governance’ solution to be applied only to a narrow set of institutional issues (public financial management or civil service reform for example). On the contrary, TWP is an approach to improve delivery of any aid program that involves reform and behavioural change – it is as relevant to better delivery of health services or economic policy reform as it is to an anticorruption initiative. TWP takes the naivety out of institutional relationships by understanding that change happens as a result of decisions that invariably have a political dimension.