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Political vs. Technical: A False Dichotomy

Antonio Lambino's picture


The interview posted above was conducted last June, during a learning event jointly organized by the World Bank Institute’s Governance Practice and CommGAP entitled “The Political Economy of Reform: Moving from Analysis to Action.”  The event’s primary objective was to bring together relevant expertise and take stock of experiences from around the world on the ways in which political economy analyses have been and can be made more operationally relevant.  In the interview, Claudia Melim-McLeod of the UNDP Oslo Governance Centre starts off with highlighting a critical issue in supporting change agents on the ground:

Technical assistance, although important, is not enough… we have to be politically savvy to be able to deliver results not only in terms of development effectiveness, but also in terms of what our partners expect us to do.

Melim-McLeod, a democratic governance advisor, elaborates on this point by stressing what seems to be a widely shared belief in development regarding the overdrawn dichotomy between the technical and political dimensions of reform:

... one of the most important lessons to keep in mind is that there isn’t real a tight cut-off between technical work and political work in program formulation.  We tend to think of that as two processes with a beginning and an end in themselves.  But what we find on the ground is that after the political negotiation phase for a certain project is over, then we still have the political implementation phase.  And with every step of project implementation, we have to always be conscious that the actors on the ground have different interests… they are people who have gains and losses to be had from every project … and we have to be aware of them…

Following this line of argument, I would like to offer a corollary consideration.  While it is certainly the case, as reflected in the quote above, that political and technical work intersect in fundamental and instrumental ways, political drivers permeate technical work, perhaps similar to the way in which efforts toward objective journalism on any issue involve various forms of bias.  It seems reasonable to argue, therefore, that there is no such thing as pure technical work, in the same way that pure objectivity in journalism is a fiction.

Conversely, to effectively understand and navigate sociopolitical environments, some researchers have drawn upon an array of methods that are based on what are essentially technical research tools.  For example, The New York Times recently reported on neuromarketing techniques that draw on medical research technologies, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging [fMRI] and electroencephalopgraphy [EEG].  Persuasion research has included designs that measure physiological changes when participants are exposed to various political stimuli.  Sociometric studies have sought to illuminate the paths through which information diffuses into communities and networks and the sources of influence within and among social groups. 

So with regard to individual and group persuasion often necessary for moving toward successful and sustainable reform, we know that there is a body of technical research literature we can consult.  This is not to say that there will always be a direct correspondence between the available literature and the sectoral area of interest, especially if one searches for studies carried out in developing countries.  But there is certainly a knowledge base that can be potentially helpful.

In terms of large scale persuasion, one dominant trajectory of public opinion research delves into collecting and analyzing survey data with large numbers of respondents.  The conviction that the needs and preferences of constituencies matter in reform can thus be complemented by techniques that provide reasonably generalizable snapshots of the information, attitudes, and opinions held by members of various publics.  Technical considerations include the proper design of survey instruments, sampling, measurement of error, statistical significance and, if one has access to longitudinal data, covariation over time.  Added to this can be reasonable arguments against alternative theories based on knowledge of the applied literature and the particular context being investigated.

Technical and political dimensions co-exist in any reform context.  These dimensions interact and can, perhaps counterintuitively, reinforce each other in productive ways.  On one hand, change agents will be more aware of the political biases embedded in technical work.  On the other, reformers can use technical approaches to manage political risks more judiciously through the reduction of uncertainty.