Political Economy Analysis (PEA) is…
Although often billed as a mapping of events and institutions, it is really people who shape both. (Although there are times when even the best intentioned people are unable to overcome the effects of a poorly conceived programme or an inappropriately designed institution.) So, however billed, a PEA is essentially about the motivations and incentives which surround key people; and their interaction with the world around them. These motivations and incentives might be relatively formal – known political affiliation; salary; opportunity; corruption; profile; status; etc. Or they may be much more informal such as family and clan affiliation and the need to (be seen to) deliver advantage for others. PEA is, therefore, about why people do what they do. And the why can change in subtle and hard to notice ways, sometimes delivering substantial – and unexpected and sometimes unwelcome – changes in the what.
But by understanding the motivations and incentives which play on key actors, it is often possible to shape a programme’s engagement or message to deliver benefit. Seeing programme ambition through the lens of its counterparts is key to how it makes a difference.
…a process not a product
But the motivations and incentives which shape the environment within which key choices are made are dynamic – and not in any way static. Following the external factors which affect the environment – and the behaviour of those within it – helps a programme to sense change in the air and to predict (or, perhaps more accurately, guess) how key interlocutors may adapt their behaviour.
In this respect, the practice of political economy analysis is a continuous process of identifying change and calculating how that change can be influenced – often by programmatic means. It follows, therefore, that programme teams should always simulate the effect of their choices on others in order to avoid unexpected and/or unwelcome outcomes. This requires a strong interface between strategy teams and their associated programmers. The two disciplines should make choices informed by each other’s insights and experience.
This is not to suggest that there is not value in a formal PEA product – employed, for example, as part of the analysis underpinning an inception report. But if the value of this product is not to be measured merely in crude terms such as weight, length or word count, it should be specifically focussed on the targets of the programme; and should avoid nugatory or self-serving content. (There is a tendency to “arm” programmes – particularly during inception phases – with lengthy PEA texts which consume resources to produce and read and which provide little by way of operational guidance to decision makers.) It should also avoid the temptation to employ a top down approach which seeks to bend programme reality to a theory of change developed in the abstract.
But there are political risks associated with drawing up and writing down a political economy analysis. There is a danger that key but fragile relationships could be harmed if the analysis is ever divulged; and a risk that that the analysis generated by a programme fails to “fit” the world view of the donor. Censoring – self or otherwise – a political economy analysis risks trapping programmes teams between the vanities of a donor and the insecurities of partners. In this respect, seeing PEA as a process helps to mitigate the political risks associated with them as the activity can be portrayed as ongoing learning, rather than one of judgement and pronouncement.
…an art not a science
There are very few “right” answers in political economy analysis. At their very best, PEA is a guide to interpretation of events and behaviour. This requires an acknowledgement that they are often as much about “feel” as they are about facts. (For example, the original – and factually established – causes of a grievance or a conflict are often lost in the mists of time, and a new set of more self-serving motivations and incentives have colonised the original ideology. Under these circumstances, an account of historical events is of general interest but does little to explain current behaviour.)
…better crowd-sourced than constructed by a lone wolf
The development and use of PEA is essential to making programmes effective. But, being based as much on “feel” as on facts and being all about the motivations and incentives which play on the behaviour of people, is often a matter of perspective. Ensuring the PEA approach in use by a programme is as appropriate as possible means ensuring that it both draws on a range of sources – “diversity of reception” – and is not skewed by personal and/or political bias. Whilst the task of coordinating PEA may fall to one person on a programme team, or perhaps a small group, it should not be left to perspectives of that individual or small group. PEA should draw on and be informed by a wide range of views and ideas, most easily available from within the programme community – the programme team and its partnerships. To a large degree, political economy analysis should be “brokered” from within the team and led by them, although it should not be allowed to become a lowest common denominator.
Often, PEA work is carried out by an external actor. Although such an external actor can bring a wealth of experience to the process and the ability to ask what might seem obvious questions, the eventual analysis needs to be owned by the programme team. Wherever possible, the role of the external actor should be to facilitate the generation and application of analysis from within the team – to carry it out “with” them and not to deliver it “to” them.
…is a tool for asking better questions rather than getting a definitive answer
So, in essence, PEA is not about getting answers at all. But about improving the questions that a programme team asks of itself as they attempt to integrate their goals with the realities which they encounter in their working and private lives. By having better questions, teams will be better placed to identify a set of potentially better answers.
“I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
Deep Thought, the computer designed to calculate the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything in Douglas Adam’s book the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, after seven and a half million years of working on the problem.