Knowing your audience

Political economy in practice: thoughts on managing and conducting a political economy study on disaster-risk management in Indonesia

By 28 August 2013

During the last ten years or so, there has seen a marked increase in the interest among development organisations in more and better ways of understanding the countries and sectors in which they operate. This has lead to the spread of a wide range of political economy analysis frameworks among development professionals and researchers, including the frameworks described in this blog. As noted by Daniel Harris, political economy analysis frameworks help to identify gaps in knowledge and check assumptions, they helps organise knowledge into stories that explain outcomes and identify potential entry points for interventions to facilitate changes of and/or within the political system.

In this blog I want to describe the process of conducting a political economy study commissioned by the Australia-Indonesia Facility for Disaster Reduction (AIFDR) and conducted in October – November 2012. The study is an input to the design the new AusAID’s disaster risk management (DRM) programme which is set to start in 2014. My aim is to describe how the research process unfolded and why. The audience I have in mind are programme advisors, programme and project managers, and consultants who design, commission and implement political-economy studies for planning purposes.

To organise my thoughts I use three of the five practical issues highlighted by Harris and Booth in their paper Applied political economy analysis: Five practical issues.

Issue 1: managing political-economy analysis for programming and design

Harris and Booth (2013) argue that there are different ways to conduct political-economy analysis studies and to integrate them into programming and design. Studies can be almost entirely in the hands of external consultants or seek to involve the agency as part of the analytical team or be a mix of the two.

The study conducted for AIFDR falls somewhere in between the two typologies: I conducted it in close collaboration with three other consultants who did parallel studies that also provided inputs into the design of the new DRM programme: an organisation assessment study of the Indonesian National Disaster Management Agency (Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Bencana – BNPB), a social inclusion study in DRM, and a public financial management study of the DRM sector by. All studies received support from an Indonesian research assistant and there was constant interaction with the AIFDR team.

A key decision point at the beginning of the study was whether the four consultants (including also myself) would work as a team or not, even though they looked at different aspect of the DRM. The decision was that they would. This was justified to avoid the complex management logistics involved in visiting two provinces for field work, one on the east of the country and one in the west. A second reason was the recognition that the four studies complement each other and that for the consultants and team working together in most interviews would allow a closer sharing and discussion about emerging issues and findings and allow for on-the-spot reflection.

Issue 2: different scope and purpose of political-economy studies

Political-economy studies can have different scopes. Harris and Booth (2013) describe a spectrum that stretches from problem-specific political-economy analysis to studies that are much larger in scope and that can cover whole sectors. The terms of reference of the study conducted for AIFDR included familiar objectives of sector-wide studies: to map the key actors in the Indonesian DRM sector at different administrative levels, suggest and/or confirm suitable programme partners, describe potential barriers to development of the DRM sector and describe drivers of change (and/or entry points) in the sector, etc.

During the initial meetings with the AIFDR team, we discussed whether the objectives set out in the terms of reference were specific enough to produce findings that would be useful for the programme design. So it was decided to identify a clear problem and make sub-national governments and communities the starting point of the analysis:

‘Communities are at the forefront of response to disasters. Reducing the mortality rate resulting from disasters requires resilient community members, that is, community members who have adequate knowledge of the risks and ways to respond to disasters. However, government services and institutions, particularly on preparedness to disasters, do not reach communities satisfactorily. Moreover, there are limited ways to assess and provide feedback on the quality of the services that reach communities.’

Once this was agreed the analytical framework was developed combining two political-economy analysis approaches that have been developed by programmes at the Overseas Development Institute: the politics and governance approach by the Politics and Governance (POGO) programme and the knowledge, power and politics approach by researchers at the Research and Policy in Development (RAPID) programme.

The combined approach used in the AIFDR study involved the following stages:

  • Stage 1 – problem identification: the aim was to identify the key problem as the starting point of the analysis.
  • Stage 2 – analysis of systemic features: looking at the problem identified in Stage 1, this stage explored the relevant features of the DRM sector, such as norms, traditions, and social structures of Indonesian society in the provinces we visited during our fieldwork.
  • Stage 3 – analysis of key actors: working with the AIFDR team, we identified the most relevant actors to be interviewed in relation to the problem identified in Stage 1 at the different administrative levels, starting from villages and moving up to districts, provinces and the national level: e.g. community and village leaders, representatives of local NGOs and district and provincial line agencies involved in DRM activities, as well as district and provincial elected officials. At the national level we met representatives of donors institutions as well as ministries involved in DRM.
  • Stage 4 – analysis of incentives: looking at the results of stages 1 to 3, we analysed the incentives of the different actors and what shaped these incentives.
  • Stage 5 – analysis of the use of knowledge in decision-making and policy processes: this part of the analysis consisted of a sub-set of questions which examined the sources of knowledge that inform decision-making and policy processes in DRM at different administrative levels: e.g. knowledge that is research-based, practice-based, or held by communities, and the incentives in place to promote the use of knowledge and research evidence in policy decision-making.

Issue 3 – timing of the political-economy study

Was the study for AIFDR conducted at the right time? Harris and Booth (2013) maintain that political-economy studies can be carried out to inform planning, they can fit into a mid-term or end of intervention assessment, or they can be conducted as ex-post analysis (preferably compared to a political-economy study conducted before the intervention). The political-economy study conducted for AIFDR was timed to coincide with the development of the concept note and programme design document for the new DRM programme that the AIFDR team has been developing in partnership with the Indonesian Disaster Management Agency (or BNPB). In other words, it helped to confirm and/or reject some of the assumptions that the design team had made about the DRM sector in Indonesia.

The main lesson I take from the study conducted for AIFDR is the importance of investing some time at the beginning of the research process to go through the ToR with the client and identify a problem to put as a starting point of the analysis. I found this very helpful in providing a direction and structure that help to provide useful suggestions to the programme design. This was possible due to the flexibility, openness and a willingness on the part of the AIFDR team to become involved in the definition of the study approach, as well as the refining and tailoring of the objectives and questions included in the terms of reference.

A second lesson is about the process of bringing together two analytical approaches developed by ODI teams. The two approaches can go hand in hand. They are enriched by the additional information they are able to gather and provide a fuller picture of the policy process and roles of key actors, as well as the extent to which knowledge is used (or not) in those processes to generate and contribute to evidence-based decision-making at both national and sub-national levels.

As the interest in political-economy analysis increases in the development sector, I think that there is also the need to document experiences in the ways these studies can be conducted. This blog is my contribution to that discussion.


Written by Arnaldo Pellini, ODI Research Fellow ( 

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