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Seeing the world differently: Political economy analysis and sustainable land use


From Brazil to Indonesia; on issues from food production to mineral extraction, companies constantly wrestle with the challenge of getting things done in complex and difficult situations. The ‘business as normal’ processes of political engagement clearly don’t work, and a new approach is needed: welcome to the world of political economy analysis (PEA), writes Dr Peter Stanbury-Davis, in a guest post.

Here’s a podcast about these issues.

Traditional processes of political engagement – lobbying, for example – often fall short in emerging economies because they fail to reach below the surface of what goes on. They fail to engage with the much more complex – and often rather messy way – in which power is wielded, or understand that ‘normal’ is very far from anything we in the developed world might expect.

What PEA does is do dig deep into the nuts and bolts of how power and authority affect economic choices, and to use this understanding to inform how one should go about getting things done. Whilst the term ‘political economy analysis’ might sound rather academic, the process is in fact a ruthlessly practical one. The aim is not to create a dry analytical analysis, but to develop an understanding of the realities of a location, which can inform how actually to get things done. It is a process used by development institutions such as the World Bank (the PE process of which was developed by the author of this paper) and explores three key dynamics:

• Incentives: Who are the key stakeholders, be those individuals or groups, who have an influence or interest in what is going on? And what makes them tick – what do they really want?

• Institutions: What political and other institutions and networks affect the way in which these actors interact with one another? Some of these may be formal ‘political’ institutional arrangements; others may be more informal and opaque.

• Events: What contextual factors impact on the way in which these actors and structures work at the moment? How might changes in this context lead to increasing tensions, or to a situation where change can more readily be put in place?

To date, this is not an approach that has been widely used by the corporate sector. It is therefore rather interesting to look at how some current and recent challenges facing companies might appear when viewed through a PEA lens.

Brazil and the Amazon forest fires

Over recent weeks the stand-up row between President Bolsonaro and much of the rest of the international community over fires in the Amazon has been the subject of immense political and media attention. The business community has also been caught in the cross hairs – agricultural producers have been accused of contributing to the problem, and leading fashion brands like H&M and Timberland have suspended their supply chains from Brazil. Applying a PEA lens to the situation can identify issues that really need attention if companies are to be able to manage this, and other similar situations, effectively.

A recent Buzzfeed article reported on a visit their correspondent had made to Apui, a town in the state of Amazonas. Local labour rates, the article reported are typically around $18 per day, but developers were prepared to pay $60 per day to clear forest land. The article quoted one of these workers, Luz, who said ‘he was proud to have accepted the money to put his two children through college who was using the money to put his children through school.’ That is a huge incentive, but only by addressing incentives like these can companies and others who really want to make a difference in the Amazon make any headway. Indeed, companies such as Timberland refusing to buy from Brazil may actually make the situation worse by reducing the opportunities to ordinary Brazilians of legitimate jobs.

Questions also arise when one looks at some of the institutional challenges. Both Germany and Norway have cut their funding of the Amazon Fund which, it is claimed ‘has contributed $827m to forest preservation funds’ since 2008. What is less clear is how effective the Fund has been in addressing some of the societal root causes of de-forestation. A PE analysis would suggest exploring how effective the Fund has been in finding ways in which poor people in the Amazon region can earn a living in ways that do not involve damaging the forest.

Why IPOP went pop

PE analysis can also cast some light on the demise of the Indonesian Palm Oil Pledge (IPOP), which collapsed in 2016. 20/20 hindsight is a wonderful thing, but a PE specialist could identify some key issues which undermined the initiative – issues that future such ventures might usefully learn from. One of the reasons for IPOP’s demise were accusations that it undermined smallholder farmers; an argument that was itself denied by smallholder farmer groups. This situation suggests that more work might have been done to understand the internal dynamics of farmers’ groups, and their relationships with key political figures. It is not unusual for business groups in developing countries to represent the interests of key vested interests, rather than the interests of their members. In this case, there were obviously differences between the groups and some of their members which were not identified in advance. To the detriment of IPOP and its survival.

It is also possible to question how well understood were the incentives of the different Indonesian ministers involved in the Pledge. It may be that ministers involved wanted to be able to portray themselves as being strong, decisive, and promoting the country’s interests in a key industrial sector. If this were the case, it makes it easier to understand the adverse reaction to the fact that IPOP’s launch took place in New York, and to IPOP’s offer to help ‘strengthen and adjust government policy’ to be more effective in tackling de-forestation. Both of these actions could quite easily be used by ministers’ opponents to present those ministers as being lackeys to international interests. In this case accusations that the international companies were acting as a cartel, and that the IPOP was driven by foreign interests make complete sense.

None of the issues raised here are definitive – the potential range and depth of issues defies proper attention in such a short article as this. Nevertheless, it seems clear that there would be much companies could gain from looking at the situation in challenging places in a more robust way.

Political economy analysis, anyone?

Here’s a podcast where I discussed these issues with Peter recently.

Dr Peter Stanbury-Davis has spent most of his career working in some of the world’s more challenging environment, to help clients to reconcile the realities of local environments around the world with good corporate governance. He has worked all over Africa, including Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, for clients as diverse as The World Bank, Anglo American and Shell. For more details visit, email, or call +44 7802 421191