LSE research has made a significant contribution to policy reform advocacy in the Philippines, shaping important development programmes’ understanding of the political context.
What was the problem?
Over the past decade, a growing number of practitioners and policymakers in the development sector have become interested in ideas about “doing development differently” and “thinking and working politically” in development. One example is the Thinking and Working Politically (TWP) Community of Practice, whose meetings and publications have included senior representatives from leading development agencies.
This approach considers what it takes for campaigns for policy reforms to be effective given the domestic political context within which they must operate. TWP requires in-depth analysis of the institutional arrangements, practices, and political circumstances of the country, and advocacy for policy change, not just implementing development programmes on behalf of governments or non-governmental organizations (NGOs). One size doesn’t fit all to make policy work.
What did we do?
In his research on Philippine politics, Professor John Sidel has analysed the opportunities for and constraints facing reform advocacy within the context of the country’s “oligarchical democracy”, in which the complex interplay of private business interests and personal political ambitions requires careful mapping and close monitoring.
His research has shown the importance of identifying constellations of interests stretching across government agencies, Congress, business, and civil society, and pf building coalitions across these groups in order to overcome resistance to reform from political elites and the oligarchy.
In ongoing research, he has worked with Coalitions for Change (CfC), a development programme in the Philippines which has pursued a self-consciously political approach to development work through reform advocacy. Sidel’s analysis of developments in Philippine politics has provided contemporaneous political contextualisation for CfC’s work.
Since CfC was set up in 2012, Sidel has been engaged in “action research” through in-depth investigations and analysis of its reform initiatives. This entails interviews with government officials, legislators, congressional staffers, NGO activists, and academics in the Philippines, as well as close reading of programme materials, government documents, journalistic reportage, and academic literature.
From this he has produced a series of in-house reports recommending particular strategies in pursuit of the organisation’s reform agendas. His published case studies and co-authored 2020 book have also documented the processes and outcomes of CfC initiatives, including in land governance reform; addressing school classroom overcrowding; and airport development.
Since 2016, one focus of Sidel’s research has been the politics of transportation and infrastructure in the Philippines. His research began with a careful mapping of the institutional arrangements and economic interests determining the current situation, including traffic congestion in Metro Manila, and the imperative of reorganising public transport amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. His analysis provides a coherent framework for understanding the opportunities and constraints facing advocates of transport reform.
Beyond its impact on CfC’s initiatives, Sidel’s work has also explicitly argued – and illustrated through example – that the effectiveness and impact of reform advocacy campaigns can be subjected to rigorous forms of qualitative analysis. His research, using careful process-tracing and counterfactual analysis to establish the precise nature of CfC’s role, has shown that reform advocacy campaigns can lead to impactful policy change in developing countries. However, these campaigns require operational autonomy, technical expertise, and political intelligence, and are highly contingent on effectively navigating political circumstances.
This analysis has yielded three key insights. Firstly, that when CfC has acted in an autonomous, iterative, adaptive, “opportunistic”, and “entrepreneurial” mode, its initiatives have been most effective. However, when its activities have been relegated to a more supportive role, “backstopping” a pre-set reform agenda emanating from outside the programme, for example from the Philippine government, its work has been far less effective.
Finally, while CfC has been more effective than “traditional” development programmes in achieving policy reforms, it has also built on the achievements of some conventional programmes. This suggests the two different modes of development assistance can complement each other.
Overall, Sidel’s research has provided not only a rigorous and richly contextualised analysis of reform initiatives in the Philippines, but also an analytical framework that can be used by other reform advocacy programmes across the Global South.
Professor Sidel’s research has made a significant contribution to the CfC programme in the Philippines by shaping its understanding of the political context for its work, advising on tactics and strategy, making decisive interventions on specific reform initiatives, and drawing lessons from successes and failures.
CfC, funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and undertaken in partnership with The Asia Foundation (TAF), is an AUS $68 million programme designed to implement innovative ideas about doing development differently. CfC has sponsored campaigns for reforms across a diverse range of policy areas in the Philippines.
In 2012, Professor Sidel was invited by the Australian Embassy and TAF to help shape the new programme’s understanding of the political opportunities and obstacles they faced at national and local levels. In 2014, Sidel was appointed to its Programme Strategic Panel. His expertise was integral to shaping the programme, and he has had direct impact on CfC programmes covering road and infrastructure investments, electoral reform, tax reform, and urban transport initiatives.
Sidel’s research has also underpinned wider CfC efforts, which have assisted the passage of new laws and introduced new practices into the work of the Philippine government. To date, these include: measures for addressing overcrowding in public schools; enhancing accessibility of election polling places for disabled people; reforming land governance; securing government funding commitments for Manila’s airport; and introducing more transparent, participatory, and evidence-based procedures for decision-making on investments in local roads and infrastructure.
TAF's senior adviser for programme strategy has attested to the positive impact of the programme:
“CfC has achieved dramatic success in a wide range of sectors in the Philippines on reforms previously thought to be politically impossible, and it has done so in each case faster, cheaper, and with greater sustainability than would have been possible using conventional project modalities.”
Sidel’s papers and book, Thinking and Working Politically: Coalitions for Change in the Philippines, have provided independent analysis of one of the most experimental and innovative development programmes in the world, and are cited as an example of best practice. The book is used as a standard text at the Overseas Development Institute and in the United States Agency for International Development, while his work on CfC informs other international aid programming, including within the World Bank and the United Nations. Sidel’s research has thus provided much-needed evidence that reform advocacy campaigns can be effective and analysis of the political circumstances that shape their success.