Using Action Research and Learning for Politically Informed Programming

Michael O'Keefe et al.


This Research Paper outlines preliminary findings about how action research can help build more politically informed development programs. It discusses action research being undertaken by the Pacific Leadership Program, the Coalitions for Change program in the Philippines, and DLP.

This approach combines theory and practice to support development practitioners to think and work politically to bring about positive change. It involves recurring constructive engagement with practitioners and it rigorously documents, contextualises and explains the processes and outcomes of programs as they unfold –and the resultant changes (or not). It aims to help development practitioners and their partners understand more clearly the contexts in which they are operating, the consequences of their practices and policy decisions and how national and sub-national change is actually occurring.

Key Findings:

  • Findings suggest the need to think about this research and these programs in a more comparable way from the outset in order to draw out valuable lessons to help the ‘next generation’ of programs.
  • Politically informed programming requires extensive on-going empirical knowledge and analytical skills of how local change actually occurs. It requires understanding complex and evolving political and power processes, identifying affiliations and interests of diverse political actors, exploring windows of political opportunity and anticipating political outcomes and their implications.
  • Politically informed programming entails engagement with political processes that are highly contingent to national and sub-national power structures, and are almost always fluid and contested. This involves iterative adaptation based on regular re-evaluation and re-calibration of tactics and strategies.
  • It requires development practitioners to better understand and establish causal linkages between their own practices, the political processes in which they are engaged and the outcomes and implications of their work.


  • The emerging action research approach should be integrated fully into whatever programming cycle underpins the donors’ approach to politically informed programming. Three broad components (phases) to a programming cycle are generally followed while noting that different development agencies may have unique detailed variations: Analysis of context, identification and design of program (including modality choice); Implementation; and Monitoring and Evaluation.
  • Careful consideration will need to be given to the incorporation, design and implementation of action research at each of the three phases for politically informed programming. It should be noted that while the long term goal of politically informed programming is to promote transformational change, the short to medium term output and process level results are also valuable and are likely to represent value-for-money.


O'Keefe, M., Sidel, J., Marquette, H., et al. (2014) Using Action Research and Learning for Politically Informed Programming. Research Paper 29. Birmingham, UK: Development Leadership Program (DLP).