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Whose Will Constitutes 'Political Will'?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In discussing governance reform efforts that have not worked, the phrase 'political will' comes up a lot, usually in the formulation 'lack of political will'. But it appears that the phrase is so elastic it is becoming meaningless. So, what really is 'political will'? Or, better still, whose will constitutes 'political will'?

In international development, 'political will' tends to mean this: we got the government to agree to a program of reform, either to accept a grant or take a loan designed to pay for the program. The leading government official involved in the process is known at 'The Champion'. Soon enough, in most cases, 'political will' means 'we have a champion in place'. This is what I call The Lone(ly) Champion Syndrome. Comes implementation and problems crop up. Is 'The Champion' influential enough to see the reforms through in the specific context? Is 'The Champion' even going to survive in office long enough to be helpful? As a colleague of mine likes to say, the champion at the beginning of the reform effort is not likely to be the champion at the end...assuming you still have a champion.

According to Lori Post et al., 'political will can be thought of as support from political leaders that results in policy change' [page 114, Governance Reform Under Real-World Conditions). This makes sense. You need enough support from political leaders in the specific context to bring about policy change. And I would add that you need enough support from political leaders in order to sustain the change, especially given the near-certainty that counter-reform efforts will be launched once vested interests see what you are trying to do.
With regard to each reform effort,  the following question needs to be posed and answered: With regard to the change we seek, whose will constitutes political will? This will depend on the fact situation; and it is one of the reasons it is so important to conduct political economy analysis and keep up a good flow of political intelligence. The task for the planned, deliberate communication intervention then becomes: what can we do to make sure that we have enough support from political leaders to bring about and sustain policy change? As Matthew Andrews says, the real solution is 'political engagement that focuses on expanding space for change...'(page 105, Governance Reform Under Real-World Conditions).

Securing political will is always, and will always be, a tough row to hoe, but the starting point is a clear-eyed view of what it really is.

Photo Credit: Flickr user left-hand


Submitted by Harry Blair on
"Political will" is surely one of the more elusive terms in the international development community. Sina captures much of its ambiguity well in his posting. In addition to what it is, we might also ask where political will comes from. In some cases it originates with an individual, generally situated somewhere within the state apparatus (best if at a high level) who becomes the "champion" that Sina refers to. But political will can also stem from civil society advocacy that puts enough pressure on the state to develop the political will needed to bring about action. The civil rights movement in the USA had champions over many decades, and they made some progress (e.g., Eleanor Roosevelt and the Marian Anderson singing controversy of 1939, recently commemorated on its 70th anniversary at Lincoln Memorial this past Easter in Washington). So there was some political will in high places that helped. President Truman's desegregation of the US military in 1948 offers another example. But it took another 20 years and a huge, sustained civil society effort to accumulate the pressure needed to strengthen political will sufficiently to pass the landmark civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s. So it was a combination of political will on the inside and civil society on the outside that moved civil rights along over the years, with each reinforcing the other. More recent examples abound (e.g., environment, women's movement). Analyzing the synergy involved and crafting ways to support it should be a critical focus of CommGAP.

Submitted by Joy Franklin on
Please give me the exact meaning of Political Will. Thank You Joy Franklin

Submitted by Johanna Martinsson on
Joy, Lori Ann Post discusses Public Will and Politcal Will in Chapter 7 of the Governance Reform book (available for free download on this blog). Here's an excerpt from the chapter: "In contrast, political will is demonstrated by broad leadership support for change, which often results in policy change. Hammergren (1998) characterized political will as “the slipperiest concept in the policy lexicon,” calling it “the sine qua non of policy success which is never defi ned except by its absence”(12). Although the term is ubiquitous among interest groups, exactly what securing political will means is rarely specifi ed. Because of this general lack of specifi cation, theorists and researchers often focus on aspects of government willingness or engagement and refrain from using the term political will. For example, Andrews (2004 and chapter 6 in this book) uses a three-factor model that characterizes reform space on a particular issue as the intersection of authority, acceptance, and ability on the part of involved groups. For this discussion, political will can be thought of as support from political leaders that results in policy change."

Submitted by Tosin Lafe on

Thanks, Sina and Johanna. I have been using the word 'political will' for so long and do not really understand it. After reading the blog and Johanna's comment, i found out my understanding of political will has always been in the context of support from political leaders. I guess people who do not work in the context of reforms in developing countries might tilt towards other definitions of the word.

Submitted by Thein Kyaw on

Not only Politician & Administrates but for every citizen.

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