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Thinking and Working Politically: Navigating the Political Realities of Policy Reform

May 23, 2024

By Jaime Faustino, Nicola Nixon

The Asia Foundation is celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2024. For seven decades, we have partnered with change-makers from government, civil society, the private sector, and academia to solve some of the greatest challenges facing Asia and the Pacific. To mark this milestone, we are sharing a series of highlights showing the scope and impact of our contributions past and present. We are committed to building on these achievements in the decades ahead.

A rice field with a small farm house.

A rice field with a small farmhouse in the Philippines. From land reform to school accessibility and beyond, Coalitions for Change has practiced the political art of the possible. (Photo: Karl Grobl / The Asia Foundation)

For many years the dominant philosophy in international development was that complex development problems required smart technical solutions, and that the correct way to support developing countries was to import policies, systems, and institutions that international experts had deemed “best practices” in developed countries.

Development practitioners eventually began to acknowledge that they were failing to achieve the leaps in growth and prosperity that these “best practices” had promised, and that local political realities often stymied even tried-and-true international expertise.

The Asia Foundation recognized this challenge and worked with local partners, leading universities, development think tanks, and other international NGOs in pioneering a new approach to designing and implementing development programs—one that grapples head-on with local context and the messy political realities in which laws are made, resources are allocated, and policy reform either lives or dies.

This approach became known as “thinking and working politically” (TWP).

TWP emphasizes that effective development strategies require a close reading of local social, political, cultural, and historical dynamics; that they must adapt to the web of interests in the policy environment; and that they must prioritize local leadership over imported solutions. The Foundation’s unique contribution to this revolution in development practice has been to cultivate the entrepreneurial drive, skills, and vision that make local leaders and coalitions uniquely capable of navigating these challenging political contexts.

In the Philippines, the Foundation has applied these insights with remarkable success through its flagship Coalitions for Change (CfC) program, a partnership with the Australian government.

With its relatively stable presidential democracy, high rates of electoral participation, a burgeoning private sector, and a vibrant media and civil society, the Philippines seems poised for upper-middle income status. Yet, poverty and unemployment remain stubbornly high, the distribution of wealth is strikingly unequal, especially in rural communities, and the daily minimum wage is barely sufficient to feed families. These inequalities are reinforced by complex political dynamics—including patronage, corruption, weaknesses in political parties, and populism—that hobble effective policy reform and public service delivery.

To navigate this complex space, Coalitions for Change uses a “development entrepreneurship” approach that engages savvy local leaders, thinking and working politically, to identify and catalyze essential policy reforms. These development entrepreneurs weigh the likelihood of successful reform against three criteria: that a new policy will change the incentives and behavior of stakeholders and lead to better outcomes (impact); that these changes will endure beyond the term of the project (sustainability); and that the desired reform can be introduced in the context of existing political realities (political feasibility).

Foundation program staff work with these local leaders to identify critical development challenges and test potential policy solutions, balancing technical assessment with political economy analysis adjust their strategy to changing circumstances. The CfC team and their coalition partners track emerging information, engage key stakeholders and decision-makers, analyze policies, and monitor the shifting political winds. Through continuous review, reflection, and iteration, CfC builds consensus on the “current best” technical solutions and the most politically feasible policy measures to achieve them. CfC mobilizes cooperation among stakeholder groups and works with local actors in government, the private sector, and civil society to see the reform to completion.

CfC partners have achieved milestone policy reforms that have helped transform the economic security and quality of life of communities across the Philippines. These reforms have strengthened government services and inspired confidence in the ability of government, business, and civil society to work together for reform.

In one notable success, partners gained approval of a combination of legislative and policy measures that simplified the Philippines’ historically dysfunctional land titling system. New rules and registration systems brought a tenfold increase in the number of secure land titles issued each year. With their titles secure, property owners could now get credit to invest in their homes and lands, increasing the market value of their securely titled property in a virtuous cycle.

An elementary school classroom in the Philippines. Coalitions for Change discovered that an astonishing 90 percent of the Philippines’ 46,379 public schools lacked proper title to their land, frustrating new construction and sometimes leading to eviction. (Photo: Philippines Dept. of Education)

The impact of these reforms has extended to public infrastructure. Schools, hospitals, and health centers built on untitled lands or threatened by rival claims have secured clear title to their properties. New administrative titling rules have enabled national and local governments to invest in infrastructure and other improvements and enter joint ventures with private-sector partners. These developments have, in turn, improved public services.

There were laws requiring accessible infrastructure in Philippine public schools. The money was in place. Why was it not getting built? The coalition made a straightforward proposal: add accessible infrastructure to the list of school facilities monitored by the Department of Education.(Photo: Advocates of Inclusion)

Similar reform efforts advanced with support from CfC have dramatically improved active transportation infrastructure, with the creation of 800 kilometers of dedicated bike lanes and the establishment of pedestrian walkways in major cities nationwide, greater public attention to the safety of cyclists and pedestrians, and the myriad benefits that flow to the environment and climate risk reduction.

Other CfC initiatives have improved the collection of cigarette taxes to fund public healthcare services, improved police emergency response, and expanded nationwide internet access by admitting new competitors to the telecom sector.

Cyclists riding the new bike lane along Guadalupe Bridge. With cyclists flooding the streets in record numbers, CfC adopted a multipronged approach to promote new government policies favoring bike lanes. (Photo: Leandro Mangubat / The Asia Foundation)

The Asia Foundation experience across Asia and the Pacific demonstrates the effectiveness of politically informed programming. Reform initiatives by our local partners have contributed to better public services, the inclusion of marginalized groups in public decision-making, better access to justice, greater women’s voice and leadership, and greater inclusion of youth, indigenous communities, religious minorities, people with disabilities, and transgender populations in the design and delivery of essential social services.

The successes of Coalitions for Change and thinking and working politically rest in large part on the knowledge, skills, and confidence of local partners and Foundation program staff, working in close collaboration. They are encouraged to experiment, learn from success, failure, and all points between, and adapt their programs to changing circumstances. Today, The Asia Foundation’s thought leadership role is recognized by donors and implementing partners, and our specialists share their lessons and experience through research, case studies, training curricula, and practitioner gatherings throughout Asia and the Pacific and beyond.

Nicola Nixon is The Asia Foundation’s senior director of governance, and Jaime Faustino is strategic advisor to Coalitions for Change. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected], respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.


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InAsia is a bi-weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia’s development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of renowned experts, InAsia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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