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Political economy analysis requires donors to think differently and to do things differently - Interview with Sue Unsworth

To kick off this discussion on political economy analysis we have prepared the interview below with Sue Unsworth, the lead author of the EC background paper on “Using Political Economy Analysis to Improve EU Development Effectiveness”. In this interview she reflects on her experience over the past thirty years as a development practitioner, and how she has come to view political economy analysis as being essential to understanding and supporting development.

The interview covers fundamental questions about how development happens and how donors can best support this. We expect that her views will provoke reactions and comment and look forward to the coming debate.

Key points raised in the interview

Sue begins the interview by stressing the importance of asking questions about how development happens and the role of donors in the process:

“I think that for most of the time I was working as a development practitioner people didn’t stop to ask themselves what assumptions they were making about how development happens. There was a kind of implicit assumption that the problem was lack of finance, or lack of technology or organisational skills. And, the question about what sort of local political processes were involved in nurturing development and providing the incentives for development was something that was simply never asked.”

Political economy analysis helps to address this fundamental question by drawing attention to the political processes of bargaining at work between different interest groups in a particular country or sector context.These bargaining processes are crucial to finding ways to ensure collective action in areas that are fundamental to development, for example providing basic security, organising trade and delivering services.

Sue Unsworth has played an important part in developing tools for political economy analysis and advocating their use by development agencies.She considers that the ideas are becoming more prevalent amongst aid donors:

“Ten years ago no one was talking about politics and political economy. Those words simply weren’t in the donor vocabulary. These days virtually every donor is undertaking some form of political or political economy analysis.”

However, new ways of thinking about development have not necessarily led to changes in the way that development agencies operate:

“I do think that political economy analysis is changing the way donors think about development. But, I think it has had less impact on what they actually do. Partly because they are driven by very strong bureaucratic and domestic political incentives to show short-term results, to pursue quite a normative agenda, and to demonstrate that large amounts of technical and financial assistance can make a big impact.”

In making the link from analysis to action, Sue points to the ways in which using political economy analysis can improve the effectiveness of development assistance. First, better understanding the local context can help donors to avoid doing inadvertent harm. Secondly, it can help to identify opportunities for donors to engage in ways that work with locally-driven political processes and where there is overlap between the EC’s objectives and the interests of local actors. One promising initiative based on these principles is the EU FLEGT, which Sue discusses in the interview.

Sue stresses that political economy analysis is relevant across EU development cooperation, not just aid programming, but also policy dialogue, trade cooperation and other external instruments. As such it may not necessarily provide a whole new menu of activities for developments agencies.However, it does raise many challenging questions about how donors are engaging, and whether this is consistent with locally generated processes of change.

“Political economy analysis doesn’t necessarily mean that you do a whole lot of different things. It also means that you do a lot of things that you are already doing differently.”


COMING NEXT. In the interview Sue talks about the discussion paper and frameworks for country and sectoral political economy analysis that were piloted in Zambia. The papers and pilot tests will be presented in future posts.

LETS START THE DISCUSSION. In the meantime please do let us hear your views on the interview.Sue Unsworth and I are ready to take part in the discussion.


Gareth Williams, 10 October 2011

DISCLAIMER: The accuracy and contents of this post are the sole responsibility of the author and do not represent the official position of the European Commission.

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last update
10 October 2011

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