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Thinking and Working Politically: An Expert Interview with Lisa McGregor

It is increasingly evident to international development practitioners that in order to achieve locally-led sustainable results, we must understand how the underlying local political economy impacts the design, implementation and adaptation of development interventions. Applied political economy analysis (PEA) has emerged as a key methodology in better understanding the local context and operationalizing adaptive management by identifying key actors, incentives, and opportunities for change. We sat down with RTI’s senior governance specialist Lisa McGregor, who during her time at the U.S. Agency for International Development worked on and later led the team that developed, tested and refined USAID’s approach to applied PEA, to learn more about how applied PEA can contribute to sustainable cross-sectoral development programming.

Q: What is Political Economy Analysis (PEA) and how can it help inform better development programming?

A: Applied PEA is a structured way to examine power dynamics and the political, social, and cultural forces that influence development outcomes within a local context. These forces are often out of our control, but applied PEA provides project teams with a methodology to not only consider the political economy factors influencing development, but also helps them to understand how to respond given the constraints and opportunities. It is a way to operationalize how we think politically about our development work across sectors and enables learning and adaptation to achieve more sustainable development outcomes. We like to use the analogy of a hippo partially submerged under water; PEA helps you understand what’s going on under the surface, where problems might be lurking, where there are opportunities to get around those problems, and how to take realistic, politically feasible actions to move forward or adapt project activities.

I think the following quote from one of our project staff that recently participated in an applied PEA really reflects the way this methodology can positively impact development outcomes.

I’ve been thinking about these political economy issues my entire career in the WASH sector and now I have a methodology to do something about it.

Q: How are you approaching PEA through your work at RTI?

Previously, the approach to PEAs tended to be very academic, and once the reports often sat on someone’s bookshelf collecting dust. More recently, the development community shifted its mindset around PEAs to focus on how to turn this analysis into action. USAID has championed and helped drive this shift within the Agency, which has greatly influenced  RTI’s approach to applied PEA.

Thus, applied PEA has become an integral part of proposal development and startup for many of our project teams.  We’ve found it to be an important problem-solving tool as new obstacles and challenges arise during the lifespan of a project. Over the past two years, our internal investment in PEA has allowed us to grow a team of skilled home office PEA practitioners to support project teams in conducting the analysis, developed applied PEA training materials, conducted applied PEAs for our projects in Senegal, Nigeria, Haiti, Zambia, Uganda, Tanzania, and the Philippines and shared lessons learned across projects to improve our approach. RTI has also taken a leadership role in a thinking and working politically (TWP) community of practice (COP) based in DC that is connected with a global TWP COP in the U.K.  We work together with implementing partners and USAID to encourage the expanded use of applied PEA and TWP in international development programming and share lessons learned and examples.

When conducting an applied PEA, we first hold a workshop with the project team to initially identify the issues and stakeholders.  In each applied PEA, the project team undertakes the analysis while home office staff support the process.  The workshop is followed by discussions with key stakeholders to understand their perspective on the applied PEA topic, whether each is a champion for change or may resist it and gather suggestions on how to improve the situation. It’s vital when doing this process to compare findings between stakeholder discussions and ground-truth it with project staff who often have deep insight into the local context.

At RTI, we have developed a number of approaches to applied PEA in our projects. This includes conducting a baseline analysis for two to three weeks depending on the complexity of the topic and geography; embedding applied PEA into other technical assessments such as value chain analysis; incorporating elements of applied PEA into staff meetings, pause and reflect sessions and site visits; and combining  applied PEA with conflict analysis and/or a gender equity and social inclusion (GESI) assessment.  We have also infused a GESI lens into each applied PEA approach to ensure that the views and priorities of women, youth and marginalized populations are closely considered. This often changes the understanding of the issues and potential solutions. We also strive to ensure that the applied PEA team includes diverse team members.  

Q: What are some key learnings about the process of PEA?

Although we have conducted applied PEAs in many different contexts, we have identified several key learnings and best practices across our projects.

First, we found that conducting applied PEA close to the beginning of the project accelerates learning, expands project staff knowledge of the context and increases programmatic dividends. For example, a staff member who participated in an applied PEA in Nigeria reported that he “learned more about the specific applied PEA topic in two to three weeks than two years of being part of the project.” Second, it is critical that the skills are embedded in the project staff with home office staff supporting and facilitating the process.  Third, incorporating applied PEA questioning into the workplan and quarterly reporting was key to increasing accountability and operationalizing the TWP mindset amongst staff. Fourth, we found it was helpful to designate a “PEA champion” within project teams to lead and document ongoing applied PEA efforts.

Across our projects, we also found that engaging with local counterparts through the applied PEA exercises helped signal to local stakeholders that we were serious, invested in their success, and here to listen to their issues and suggested solutions. This helped to strengthen partnerships and local investment. The applied PEA process also helped to document issues and bring them to the attention of the local government and donor.

Q: How can we apply what we are learning from PEAs to adaptive management and collaborating, learning and adapting?

PEA and adaptive management are closely entwined because you use applied PEA to better understand the local context, and then work to adapt the project based on those findings. For example, when we conducted a PEA for the USAID Senegal Governance for Local Development (GOLD) project, we found that although the project was working effectively with the local communes to improve governance, they were limited in their ability to impact long-term change as the project did not have a national component, which limited interaction with key national stakeholders. Using this finding, the project team made recommendations to USAID on activities that could improve connection to national level stakeholders and between levels of government.

Although PEA is a governance tool, it is highly effective when used across sectors.  Every  sector has governance challenges and potential solutions although sector staff may use different terminology.  We have found that it is often more eye-opening when used in other sectors to help project teams to better understand the context and use the findings to design or adapt activities. 

Lisa McGregor is a senior governance specialist and applied political economy analysis expert on RTI’s governance and economic development team. She leads RTI’s practice in applied PEA and integrating governance across sectors. Previously, she worked with the Democracy, Human Rights and Governance Center in Washington, D.C., and USAID’s Kenya/East Africa Mission.

Disclaimer: This piece was written by Lisa McGregor (Technical Director, Governance and Applied Political Economy Analysis Expert) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.