Insights and Analysis

Thinking and Working Politically: A Way Forward on SDG 16

February 17, 2016

By Debra Ladner

SDG 16 recognizes that peace, justice, and accountable institutions are critical to sustainable, transformative, and inclusive development. It sets out ambitious targets on a range of issues from reducing violence and corruption, to combatting trafficking and organized crime, to ensuring legal identity for all. In doing so, SDG 16 provides a long-awaited and powerful mandate for donors and implementing organizations to develop a coherent focus on these critically important issues. By placing governance problems front and center in the international community’s efforts to end poverty, SDG 16 represents a high-water mark for a trend that has been building steam for years. This means that issues such as politics, power, and institutions cannot be left by donors or their implementing partners for someone else to “sort out.”

While this is a positive and welcomed development, we have to acknowledge that achieving significant, transformative results on SDG 16 by 2030 is a tall order. The mixed track-record of past donor-supported governance and rule of law projects is a sobering reminder of this. Despite their best intentions, historically many grand state-building and institutional strengthening projects have fallen short of their intended goals. If we are to make real progress on SDG 16, this naturally leads us to ask two questions: Why is it so difficult to bring about meaningful change on the issues SDG 16 covers? And, what can we do it about?

Why is it so tough to achieve results on the issues covered by SDG 16?

SDG 16 seeks to address some of the world’s most complex and intractable problems. The problems highlighted by SDG 16 persist not only because they involve complicated technical issues, but also because they are intensely political. In many cases, the best technical solutions are well known, yet they don’t take root. As most aid practitioners know, change is unlikely to occur unless shifts in context shake up power structures, or those with power are willing to put their political capital on the line. This is especially the case for issues such as corruption, exploitation, violence, and illicit financial flows, which often persist because they serve the interests of powerful groups and actors. Inevitably then, any change will generate “winners” and “losers” – who, if we are not careful, might find ways to derail progress or make the situation even worse than it was before. As a result, addressing the problems covered by SDG 16 often means working in highly political, contested, and unpredictable spaces. In this context, we are likely to find that we don’t have all the answers up-front when we design our programs, as the interests and motivations of powerful actors can be difficult to read and tend to change over time. Achieving durable results in this dynamic and messy context will take new ways of thinking and working that push the boundaries of standard industry approaches and practices.

What can be done?

If we hope to end violent conflict, address injustice, and build effective and accountable institutions by 2030, development assistance must take greater account of politics and complexity. We can’t leave politics for someone else to “take care of.” This means doing more than just “adding a political economy analysis and stirring.” It requires building strong, trust-based relationships with highly motivated and dynamic individuals to ensure that solutions are locally owned and locally driven. It also requires continually tracking shifts in the influence, alliances, motivations, ideas, and interests of key players and change agents and using that information to adjust our program strategies. This way of working requires a shift away from traditional pre-planned approaches to aid, which assume that change can be chartered along a linear path and that solutions to difficult problems can be known up-front at design.

Fortunately, a number of alternative approaches have been articulated that we can learn from. A recent meeting of the OECD Governance Network (GovNet) spent one day looking at Thinking and Working Politically, an approach driven by a community of practice with which The Asia Foundation has been closely involved. In addition, William Easterly has called for more searching (as opposed to planning) approaches; Matt Andrews has laid out a model called Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA); Jaime Faustino describes the practice of Development Entrepreneurship (DE); David Booth and Sue Unsworth advocate for an approach they describe as politically smart and locally led; and ODI and Harvard have put out a manifesto on Doing Development Differently. While each of these approaches offers a unique perspective, they all emphasize greater flexibility in program implementation, allowing strategies to adapt and evolve in response to shifts in context and new information. In practice, this means that we need to be humble, embrace uncertainty, and be open to experimentation and learning by doing (and sometimes failing) as we implement.

For the past three and a half years, The Asia Foundation has had a unique opportunity to be very deliberate and systematic in its efforts to put these principles into practice through an institutional partnership with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). The Partnership has aimed to experiment with and generate new knowledge and insights on innovative approaches to development assistance that can achieve high impact on the types of tough development problems that SDG 16 aims to address. To this end, the Partnership has released a number of papers that share our experience, analysis, tools, and perspectives on what works and what does not when it comes to working politically in practice. If you are interested in getting a more nuanced appreciation for what development entrepreneurship looks like in practice, check out “Aiding Institutional Reform in Developing Countries: Lessons from the Philippines” on what works, what doesn’t and why. And, for more information on how to monitor and drive highly iterative, politically-informed approaches, please check out a recent paper called Strategy Testing: An Innovative Approach to Monitoring Highly Flexible Aid Programs.

We hope that by collaborating with other like-minded organizations and getting better at bringing an understanding of politics and complexity thinking into our programs, we can help make SDG 16 a reality.

This article was first published on the OECD’s blog, Institutions and Stability.

Debra Ladner is The Asia Foundation’s director of Program Strategy, Innovation and Learning, based in Bangkok. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.


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