Nonprofits & NGOs

Putting Politics Back Into Development

Why the international development community cannot ignore the role of politics in creating sustainable social change.

I arrived in Kabul in September 2004 as the advocacy coordinator for CARE Afghanistan. I assumed, out of naïve arrogance, that my efforts would contribute to the development of the country. It didn’t matter that I had never been there before, didn’t speak the language, and didn’t understand the culture.

In the decade since, I’ve gained a little humility but at the price of nagging doubt—doubt about the role of the international development community in creating change in countries where we work.

We in the aid community have influence and power, especially when it comes to funding and implementing social programs. Resources flow primarily north to south, and not the other way around. This insulates us from the costs of our mistakes; in fact, it leaves us free to keep making the same mistakes.

Einstein described insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. We assume that our funding and technical expertise can transform the countries where we work, whether we’re fostering democracy, or improving social indicators around education and health. Yet in countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, sustainable change remains elusive. For every success story like Liberia, where a nascent democracy is hopefully taking root, there is a countervailing example like South Sudan, where independence was soon followed by civil war.

Creating systemic change is fundamentally a political process insofar as it involves power—who has power, how those in power act, and especially how those in power allocate resources. You can't build a functioning health system, much less a functioning democracy, unless the people and institutions in charge act to make it so. Or, more accurately, are convinced to do so.

Yet we in the international development community often do our best to write the messy world of politics out of the equation. Instead, we take political issues over the allocation of power and, by rhetorical slight of hand, turn them into technical problems. We don't talk about politics; instead, we focus on democratization, or governance, or anti-corruption, or civil society capacity building. And then we present ourselves as the necessary technical experts to address these issues.

This places us center stage vis-à-vis both the people we are trying to help and the political systems we are trying to change.

If we accept that international development issues are fundamentally political, we must accept that we are not the experts. Politics are inherently local, based on context-specific histories and networks. Outsiders will almost always know less about the relevant power dynamics than people who live inside those systems. Therefore, while we can claim credibility as technical experts, however tenuously, we cannot claim credibility as political experts.

There’s a similar arrogance lurking within our field’s dry terminology. For instance, we speak of empowerment as though power is something that we bestow or at least abet. Again, we cast ourselves in a central role.

As Gloria Steinem explained 30 years ago: “Power can be taken, but not given. The process of the taking is empowerment itself.” By washing our hands of politics, we also wash our hands of the fact that while political change is not necessarily violent, it is always predicated on pressure and an implicit threat.

To be clear, international aid in its current form is not useless. Development and humanitarian programs save tens of millions of lives each year—a woman survives childbirth, an infant doesn't suffer malnutrition, a child learns to read.

But to move forward, we need to view our work through a political lens. First, we cannot take a denatured, ahistorical view of development, where change results from technical interventions alone. We also can’t assume that change will occur in a 10- or 20-year timeframe—especially knowing the long, tortured processes that led to existing liberal democracies.

Second, understanding that systemic change flows from political change means accepting that we must be, at times, peripheral players. It also means accepting that technical expertise is necessary but never sufficient; it only truly succeeds when the political stars align. Long-lasting change happens only with the support of those in power, and no amount of technical advice will change their basic political calculations.

Finally, we need to be realistic about outcomes and impact. We need to live with ambiguity; we will struggle to measure the change we seek to catalyze—not only because of the timeframes involved, but because these systems are so complex as to make attribution for any specific development difficult, if not impossible. Just because we wish something to happen doesn’t mean that it will. And even if a long-sought change does occur, it might not have resulted from our efforts. We should embrace new methods of measuring impact, while understanding that no system can provide all the answers we seek.

I struggle with doubt about what we can accomplish, but I try not to give into cynicism. The international development community can help—we just have to be realistic about what we can do.

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  • K Snyder's avatar

    BY K Snyder

    ON June 12, 2014 03:26 PM

    I agree with your sentiment of our arrogance and the effects of political change. I also would have the international development community revisit the power of positive deviance which Jerry and Monique Sternin (Tufts) happened upon with Save Our Children in Vietnam. Community directed internal solutions are sustainable. We, as outsiders, can help to facilitate the solution that is driven by the locals granting them a say and a stake in their future.

  • Great piece and good analysis.  I wonder however if the real-politic is that development is necessarily de-linked from recipient power-politics because that is the only way to access donor finance.

  • BY Nora Lester Murad

    ON June 13, 2014 12:28 AM

    This is true: “ aid in its current form is not useless. Development and humanitarian programs save tens of millions of lives each year—a woman survives childbirth, an infant doesn’t suffer malnutrition, a child learns to read.” The question is, would these lives need to be “saved” if the global economic/political system didn’t continue to steal people’s resources, rights and agency?”

  • Interesting take. Have you come across a way of operationalising ‘systemic approaches’ to governance such as that you’re trying to affect? Whilst I’m aware that programming constraints demand us to be so, I think it’s important not to be siloed into ‘governance’ etc. and to think of politics as very much ‘small p’ and look at the political economy - the incentives - determining development outcomes if we are to change them in the long term. The M4P framework from enterprise development has been gaining a lot of traction recently in enabling environment, health, and WASH work as a kind of ‘beyond markets’ approach to systemic change and I wonder if it could be applied more squarely in the sphere of political change.

  • BY Jennifer Lentfer

    ON June 13, 2014 11:56 AM

    I cannot agree more that within the sector, too much is being lost in the abstraction and over-technicalization of this work. And as such, the needs of donors often overshadow needs of local groups and individuals, thereby retarding or even preventing real change for real people.

    Some of the larger international NGOs working out of a rights-based approach have begun to recognise the importance of supporting local organizations and social movements to be sovereign. But despite the speak of “rights” we continue to witness Southern organizations or “partners” being assessed and rebuilt into more professional organizations that lose their character and represent only the interests of the community that align with funding or Northern NGO guidelines.

    This, too, is a political problem.

    Development practitioners need to operationalize a deeper respect for what is local and indigenous (the experts in local systems and political dynamics), giving way to a subtlety of practice to give thoughtful and careful support where it is needed. This is sometimes the most difficult, and least technical thing to learn.

    Therefore, to those of us in the aid, philanthropy and social enterprise industry I ask: Do we question the sources of power in “D”evelopment enough in our day-to-day work? Do we acknowledge and challenge the policies and practices that marginalize and demotivate people, especially local activists? In all of the seemingly mundane acts of planning, coordinating and monitoring projects, do we acknowledge the deep and profound difference between social change and service delivery? And if the development industry, as a whole, remains divorced from this, are we missing the whole point?

    In a rapidly changing world, perhaps here’s an impact measurement we should put more effort into—the ability of funders to operate in a responsive manner to local needs and priorities, politics and all.

  • Kanio Gbala's avatar

    BY Kanio Gbala

    ON June 17, 2014 02:07 AM

    This is great perceptive analysis. I however urge that the argument is taken further than just identifying that local political actors can be the real champions and/or spoilers to a place where international development ‘pressures’ them to act as champions. In other words, INGO’s, foreign governments and donors can play a central and less apolitical role in determining that local actors promote democratic development agendas. This can happen either through conditional funding of government’s programs or outright naming and shaming. Nonetheless, great observation.

  • BY C Moloney

    ON June 17, 2014 05:41 AM

    Great article. I was at a conference last week in Dublin where international NGOs discussed the role of power relations and politics in shaping the impact of governance programmes. There was a similar consensus that, despite growing rhetoric around the need to take context into account, development agencies continue to fail to take politics into account. One of the main messages from the discussions was that international NGOs need to incorporate more power analysis into programme design and implementation processes. It was good to see that many of the organisations emphasise partnerships with local actors, thereby ensuring a stronger connection with the local political context. I have some thoughts from the conference over on my own blog (

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