Finding political solutions in complex settings
“Beyond our ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing, there is a field. I will meet you there.”
As a peacebuilding practitioner, I have come to appreciate that finding peaceful and sustainable solutions is a dynamic process, where the goal posts are always moving and ways forward are rarely static. Yet, despite the challenges, the optimist in me believes that opportunities for building politically feasible solutions are everywhere. I believe no matter where people lie on the political spectrum, or their ethnic, religious or economic background there is always common ground to be found, where interests are aligned and values are in sync. This is where competing forms of power can find acceptance of one another and where sustainable solutions can be found.
At Dialectiq we believe finding politically feasible solutions involves two key ingredients: 1) a nuanced understanding of the context i.e of the relationships and power dynamics at play and 2) the collective effort of a wide range of local actors to use their power, influence, and behaviours to find a common ground and bring about positive change.
As a practitioner I found that whilst many context analyses improved our understanding of the structural gaps in governance or the factors driving violence, many questions often remained unanswered. Does the analysis improve local actors’, policymakers’ or practitioners’ understanding of different competing interests? Does it help unravel how power is being exerted, or how the formal and informal networks are affecting development? Do stakeholders have a shared understanding of these underlying problems?
There has been much debate of the current approaches to conducting a context analysis. Whilst an in-depth Political Economy Analysis (PEA) may provide valuable insights into the structural challenges underpinning conflict, recent reviews suggest these types of analyses often fail to unpick the underlying power and relational dynamics. This inability to get to grips with these incessant power plays undermines the ability to translate analysis into practical activities. This means programmes are often designed without due consideration of the challenges caused by deeply rooted socio-economic and political dynamics.
In the search for more relevant solutions, an increasing amount of literature has been exploring the dynamics underpinning political and socio-economic transformation. Initiatives such as the Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) community have been championing a greater focus on analysing the inner workings of politics such as power, interests, agency, and the subtleties of building coalitions and how they can help harness opportunities for development. However, when it comes to practice, there are very few tools that can effectively help unravel the complexity of, and support, politically-smart programming.
The realities of finding politically feasible solutions
Dialectiq can support organisations to explore different ways to overcome some of these challenges. Dialectiq is an online platform that allows development and peacebuilding practitioners to analyse complex relationships through an innovative analytical framework and translate the complex data gathered into clear visuals. These visualisations present actors’ interests, types of power, the effect their relationships are having on peace and development outcomes, and the variables that shape their relationship. The focus on relationships allows the analysis to bring to light particular entry-points for change that help local actors and partners design politically feasible and operational activities.
NB: these figures are for illustrative purposes only and are not based on real data values.
These clear and practical visualisation enable users to quickly generate entry points by, for example, 1) identifying relationships that are having a significant negative effect on programme outcomes and designing activities that can transform a relationship between relevant actors 2) identifying relationships that have a positive effect on programme outcomes and designing activities or identifying actors that can help scale up their impact or 3) identifying actors with a positive interest in achieving peaceful outcomes and exploring how the team can build an effective relationship between them.
The web-based tool has already helped practitioners, policymakers, and local actors to explore together different interests, power dynamics and relationships in contexts and on issues as complex as political reconciliation in Palestine, governance reform in Pakistan, and mapping actors for change in Iraq. As a result users of the Dialectiq software have been able to develop a common understanding of how change can happen.
In each of these contexts, the Dialectiq team has supported programme staff and local partners to examine relationships and the dynamics underpinning their programme outcomes using Dialectiq’s 6-step process.
Below we highlight three key lessons learnt when applying Dialectiq’s analytical process to different programme contexts.
- Stakeholders’ interests are pushed and pulled by a number of different factors; they are rarely fixed and can change with the context.
The 6-step process encourages users to collectively explore the interests of each stakeholder in a predefined development or peacebuilding programme. The analysis asks users to determine if actors are interested, indifferent or actively against the programme objectives, what are the factors shaping these interests and how easily they could change. By examining interests in this way we found, for example, that while some economic actors were initially perceived as having limited economic interest in the programme outcomes, after further exploration the users found that the programme would be highly beneficial to their social standing and political ambitions. Users also concluded that whilst some political actors may be perceived as undermining the programme, these interests were malleable and with certain shifts in the context or the attitude of other political leaders, their interest towards the programme could change.
- Stakeholders exert or gain power in different ways and power is not always where we think it is
The Dialectiq framework guides users to assess the power of each stakeholder along the following categories – economic, political, information management, authoritative, social, and coercive. When users examined stakeholders’ power in these different ways, we found in one instance that actors, previously perceived as politically influential, lacked the power to control the flow of information and had very little influence over social norms. We were also able to understand how marginalised youth groups may have lacked the ability to shape political decisions but nonetheless were able to influence social dynamics and, through social media and their extensive networks, affect the flow of information. Exploring power along these different categories challenged many of the users’ perceptions of actors’ strengths and weaknesses as well as the role they can play in shaping political solutions.
- Relationships between stakeholders can affect the programme outcomes in different ways.
The process also asks users to examine the variables that build or undermine trust in a relationship and explore whether these factors are having a positive or negative affect on the programme outcomes. In each context we found slight variations in types of variables, however they were predominantly consistent across these categories – Flow of Information, Conflicting /Common interests, Conflicting/Common Values, Institutional constraints and Regulatory constraints. During this exercise, we found that looking through this relationships lens helped users explore the motivations underlying actors’ behaviours and the different effects. We found for example that relationships between powerful political actors were having very little effect on the programme because of the lack of spaces and channels for them to communicate, as well as the conflicting political interests that prevented them from reaching an agreement. We also found that as users discussed the issues of competing economic interests they were able to study the areas where actors had social or political interests in common. The analysis enabled users to explore how institutional issues such as weak management systems at the local government level were affecting their relationship with central government, and undermining the programme outcomes. We also discovered simple things like improving the communication lines between two actors could greatly transform a relationship and improve the chances of achieving certain programme outcomes.
As a result, users were able to ground their analysis in the reality of their context and explore very practical issues affecting the programme. This ability to translate analysis into activities coupled with the online function of Dialectiq, allows users to share their analysis with other local actors and donors. This helped the users to build a common understanding of the underlying interests and power dynamics, which enabled them to design shared strategies for overcoming developmental challenges.
These common strategies are being used to formulate theories of change, inform monitoring reports and support stakeholders along a shared learning journey. This can helps users to support locally driven processes, where local actors take ownership of building relationships and facilitating a process of change.
The online function also means the platform can be continually updated and that strategies can be developed iteratively as the context changes. Therefore as we explain in the next blog, by building Dialectiq into programme management cycle and DMEL, users can develop more adaptive programmes that are focused on building politically feasible solutions.
 From conflict analysis to peacebuilding impact, Lessons from the People’s Peacemaking Perspectives project, Conciliation Resources, London, 2012.
 Wilton, P. Do we need to put the Politics back into Conflict Analysis?, Care Insights, 16th September 2014,