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
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
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.