Achieving policy impact with political economy research: frameworks, applications, and lessons learned


by Danielle Resnick | October 7, 2019

The feasibility of achieving policy reforms relevant to agricultural productivity, food security, and rural transformation often depends on tackling political economy dynamics. Conflicting interest group pressures, norms and biases of policymakers and donors, and institutional dysfunction often undermine the implementation of evidence-based policy recommendations. While this is implicitly understood by many researchers within CGIAR, they often are unsure about how to rigorously incorporate a political economy perspective into their analysis and how to effectively navigate political economy dynamics to pursue improved policy outcomes.

Consequently, researchers from 12 CGIAR centers came together for a two-day workshop on September 11-12, 2019 to learn about existing political economy tools, share their ongoing projects, and identify opportunities and constraints to having policy impact with political economy research.

The workshop kicked off with a series of overarching presentations highlighting prominent donor approaches to political economy. This included the World Bank’s Problem-Driven Development approach whereby political economy is invoked to help explain why an extant policy persists despite sub-optimal outcomes for citizens. In addition, Sarah Swift presented USAID’s Thinking and Working Politically through Applied Political Economy Analysis approach to policy reform. This involves considering who wins and loses from the status quo and why, situating proposed policy reforms within the broader institutional context, explicitly mapping risks and assumptions, and then designing and implementing technically sound but political savvy interventions.

Eric Raile from Montana State University then shared research aimed at providing analytical rigor for two oft-used political economy concepts: political will and public will. The operational approach he and colleagues derived for measuring the concepts was then applied to understand why political and public will for the adoption of climate-smart agriculture practices and policies emerged in Senegal but not in Uganda. I then discussed the Kaleidoscope Model of Food Security Policy Change, which highlights 16 necessary and sufficient conditions that are typically correlated with policy reform at different phases of the policy cycle, from agenda-setting to evaluation. The example of differential implementation of land governance reform in Nigeria provided an empirical application of the Model.

Colleagues also presented an exciting array of ongoing research on the political economy of seed systems, natural resource governance and conflict, and business-state relations in the food sector, with applications to countries as diverse as Ghana, India, Kenya, Myanmar, Senegal, and Uganda. The diversity of presentations revealed a rich range of political economy methodologies, both qualitative and quantitative, and theoretical approaches. Nonetheless, a number of common observations emerged at the end of the two days.

First, the role of framing and narratives plays a critical role in both shaping the policy agenda as well as stemming reforms. By using political economy analysis to determine who is against reform processes and what they are interested in, narratives can also be mobilized to shift their positions and aspirations. Secondly, informal practices and systems — including seed systems, dairy markets, and land markets — often co-exist with formal ones.  It is critical that political economy analyses take this dualism into account in order to get the full picture of who has power and how they utilize it. Third, applied development researchers, such as those in the CGIAR, need to be cognizant that they play a role in the political economy of knowledge production, and must be honest about their own biases in the issues they investigate and the recommendations they ultimately offer.

Danielle Resnick is Senior Research Fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and leader of PIM’s research on Political Economy and Policy Processes under Flagship 2: Economywide Factors Affecting Agricultural Growth and Rural Transformation.

This workshop was one of the three events aimed at strengthening the social science capacity in CGIAR supported by PIM in 2019 – along with the Seeds of Change Conference and the XVII Biennial IASC Conference.  

Call for proposals: The political economy of food system transformation

See the event announcement page for the full agenda and more information.


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