Mobile phones and magic bullets

November 5, 2009

Eight introductory powerpoints on development – please plunder

November 5, 2009

Why demanding 'political will' is lazy and unproductive

November 5, 2009
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I find myself getting increasingly exasperated by the term ‘political will’. Let me explain. The standard NGO shtick, whether on development, environment or pretty much anything else, is a three parter
a) description of the problem
b) clever proposal for solving the problem
c) call for leaders to show ‘political will’ in adopting the proposed solution

the standard view

the standard view

A talk on climate change I attended recently followed this pattern, with some consumer action thrown in on point c. What’s wrong with that? After all, leaders are there to solve problems and some show more determination (‘will’) than others in doing so.

My concern is that a default to ‘political will’ gets us of the hook of actually examining what is either driving or blocking the proposed reforms, and what to do about it. Change happens in many ways other than the ‘political will’ of leaders (or for that matter mass campaigning) – for example, technological and demographic change, long term shifts in attitudes and beliefs, the rise and fall of different business sectors, coalitions and alliances of very dissimilar groups and organizations, or the power of big shocks and events – disasters, wars or elections. This interplay can make change more or less likely, rendering ‘political will’ either effective or useless. Mandela triumphed because of a number of factors – the end of the Cold War, strength of international opposition to apartheid, domestic forces within South Africa – as well as his own extraordinary willpower.

If you consider political capital rather than will, any leader is going to be more likely to back winnable changes than blatantly lost causes. The nitty

where's the power analysis?

where's the power analysis?

gritty of advocacy must start with that kind of ‘power analysis’, to establish how to make a given demand can be made winnable. That means investing in political literacy, rather than being satisfied with vague exhortations to ‘political will’. The trick is to use this understanding to improve your chances of successful influencing, so we observe mobile phone usage rising exponentially and think how we can use this to drive greater equity or accountability.

The role played by political will for NGOs and other social movements reminds me of ‘good governance’, as deployed by governments and international institutions like the World Bank or DFID. They also set out the problem/solution format, but then default to ‘good governance’ as the magic wand that will guarantee implementation – no power, no politics, just good governance. Words that fill a vacuum where political analysis should be.

So next time you hear someone (including me) banging on about ‘political will’, ask them for their power analysis: what might make the speaker’s proposals more/less likely? Who are the drivers/blockers to those reforms? Then you can decide if they have actually thought it through.

12 comments

  1. Whilst not sufficient, political will is surely necessary for making change happen.

    I agree that merely calling for political will is not enough. That is why organisations such as RESULTS go further and actively work to generate the political will required to end poverty. Our network of volunteer activists, in seven different countries, build relationships with decision-makers and the media that have resulted in real shifts in policy and funding.

  2. Well, this puts me in mind of the current controversy about professor Nutt and UK drugs policy (especially your Venn diagram)…..perhaps you’d care to comment on that????

  3. I wonder whether NGO strategists have much familiarity with the academic literature on social movements? Admittedly, anybody should be wary of drawing strong conclusions from social science research, given the methodological limitations. But, there’s a limited amount of work on the effects of protest (see, for example, Marco Guigni et al 1999 How Social Movements Matter) that could be a starting point for addressing the questions you raise. These academics talk about how social movements mobilize resources, take advantage of the ‘opportunity structures’ that different political systems offer, and the rhetorical choices made by NGOs, etc to frame appeals to the wider population.

  4. I’m in Bangkok for a conference on the global economic crisis, so sorry John, I am spared having to interpret the latest UK political meltdown. Phew.

  5. Well, I have the same concerns about the use of terms like ‘political capital’, ‘social capital’ and the like. What do you mean really when you talk about political capital? What is political capital? some asset that can be revinvested to multiple value? Where does it come from, and how is it maintained? like ‘economic capital’, from whom the term has been borrowed, does it have limits to its reinvestment? how is it stored?

    I know using terms like this has been popular since Puttnam butchered Pierre Bourdieu’s more interesting (still flawed) concepts of other forms of capital, but it’s another nebulous concept that requires much more thought.

    For sure, though, power analysis is central; but equally importantly, it’s the determinants of how power is used. In some countries statistically small groups have managed to strategically use what power they do have to have disproportionate power in influencing policy; but different relations govern implementation. Knowing who has power isn’t much use unless you also understand the terms on which their power is conferred to them.

  6. Good piece!
    Agree about the power analysis and the lazy use of “will”, however maybe we should be speaking in plainer terms.

    For example – “you lot have been elected to lead, now lead”.
    On climate change which I’ve followed for a decade the stock response of the UK Government has been “no-one tells us this is an issue on the doorstep, therefore we won’t do anything about it”.

    This suggests to me that although there have been structural and societal blockages to achieving change one of the main gaps has been an unwillingness by the political class in the UK to make the “difficult choices” they are so keen to talk about. The steps they have taken over the last year or so they could have taken 5 or 10 years ago and they would have been just as unpopular and just as achievable.

    I’m not keen on the “great leader” idea but really what we need is a bit of vision and leadership – is this the same as “political will”?

  7. Your interpretation of “political is excellent. To reach their goals, politicians used convincing speeches and also for that purpose a savy description of the probem is needed;so does a reachable solution of the problem. I believe the electorate needs to act smarter because politicians/governments are getting worse than better and that today public officials simply use contemporary politics. For the last three decades, we have experienced the up and down of governments as well as bouncing charts and we, the public are headed downward the hills.

  8. Great article!

    I wrote my honours on exactly this topic! I was so sick of the magic wand of ‘good governance’ that i had to write something!!!

    I think this problem is just as prevelent within the developed world. Many who want action on climate change (like myself) simply call for political will, rather than asking what underpins this will!

  9. While I agree with this piece as regards to power analysis, I have to say that it is not complete. Although it lacks, political will is necessary. I think that we can start by looking at the limitations of both and find ways that they can complement each other. Why not looking at an integrated approach at solving problems that use power analysis and political will at the same time?

  10. We can hope for political vision and leadership but we need to build the conditions for such leadership with solid campaigning to shift the views of the opinion formers in democratic societies. I think the call for “political will” is a cry of frustration directed in part at the political leaders and in part at our own inability to be sufficiently influential. Politicians can (and sometimes do) take leadership positions, stepping out beyond their electorates on a platform that may not be widely supported but they can only take a few of these stances before they burn their electoral bridges. Our job is to make their leadership on these issues more sustainable. How we might do this is part of the power analysis we need to be engaged in. Thanks for a good post.

  11. Well said Duncan. But don’t stop here. For power analysis, add a process of building or sharing power. Include a process and platform for developing this political will at the grassroots level and on up.

    For example, in the U.S. we have big hoo-has over health care and climate. Instead of legislative blueprints for change, which will always threaten established interests of one kind or another, we need a platform or process by which to explore the alternatives in depth. In an atmosphere of urgency, criticism, and either/or linear thinking, it is tough to shift beliefs, which is needed to shift power. So the key step is creating a different environment, such as dialogue or consensus-building.

    The NGO sector has expended trillions, and the problems get worse. Many seem OK with this.

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