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.
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