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Are Policy Networks Insiders or Outsiders?

Sina Odugbemi's picture

As readers of this blog will have realized, we have been watching with keen interest the effort to reform the health care system in the United States in order to pull out generalizable lessons for reform efforts elsewhere. As you must also know, over the month of August that reform effort ran into some turbulence, with lively town-hall meetings, and the rise of a blocking coalition. The outcome remains in the balance as I write.

Now, other students of the process have offered one explanation of the current challenges faced by this particular reform effort. They say that much of the effort concentrated for a long time on the Inside Game, that is getting the United States Congress to act, and keeping the discussion within authoritative state institutions. According to these observers, reformers ignored the Outside Game...building a reform coalition within the broader society, and shaping public opinion. That supposedly gave opponents of reform the chance to build what they hope will be a  blocking coalition, frame the reform effort negatively and so on. These observers believe that the Outside Game is now on, but some damage was done.

Defining Problems for Effective Coalition-Building

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Technical specialists like to name social problems using the language of their disciplines, and of whatever narrow policy community they belong to. What they often forget is that to secure broad support within the relevant political community how you define the problem that you are asking society to focus on and do something about matters. It matters a great deal. In fact, it can be the difference between getting the attention of legislators and broad publics or having your issue ignored.

For a live example consider the current efforts to implement health-care reform in the United States, something that presidents have been trying to do for about 50 years. Let's ask: What's wrong with America's health care system? What needs to be fixed? In other words what is the definition of the problem?

Conservation versus Correction: I have Burke on My Mind

Sina Odugbemi's picture

The outbreaks of political turbulence around the world have prompted me to re-visit Edmund Burke's masterpiece, Reflections on the Revolution in France ( 1790). In the work, Burke attacks the French Revolution. I remember that when I had to write a term paper about the work in a class on the History of Political Thought in graduate school, I fully expected to hate the Reflections and to debunk it. But it amazed me, and impressed me. First, its eloquence is overpowering. Even now as I leaf through my old copy, the grandeur of the language still moves the spirit. Second, you cannot but be impressed by the prophetic power of Burke's analysis of the French Revolution. For he wrote the Reflections in the early days of the Revolution, yet he was able to correctly predict its path - the deepening violence, the collapse into dictatorship. Now, as a school-boy fan of the French Revolution that got my attention.

Why Uruguay?

Silvio Waisbord's picture

Again, Uruguay shows that when civil society intelligently promotes coalition-building and finds sympathetic allies in government, media reform is possible. On June 10, the Congress passed a bill to reform the Penal Code and the Press Law. The new law will abolish libel laws and subject national legislation on communication issues to criteria enforced by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. The bill is likely to be approved by the Executive.

This achievement is another landmark of recent efforts towards media democracy in Uruguay. During the past two years, legislation on community broadcasting, access to public information, and national archiving of information was approved. The passing of community broadcasting law in December 2007 represented a major success. The law assigns one-third of radio frequencies to community, non-profit stations. It defines community stations in terms of the nature of their goals (“social mission”) and ownership (“collective properties”) rather in terms of reach or geographical location. It stipulates the existence of the Consejo Honorario Asesor de Radiodifusión Comunitaria, a multi-sectoral committee with significant representation from civil society that oversees the bidding process and monitors the performance of stations to ensure that they meet social goals. The passing of the “freedom of information” law in October 2008, and the elimination of libel and contempt laws are other positive advances. This is encouraging if we consider that, like in the rest of the region, the dominant media system historically conformed with the norm of media policies in Latin America: state patrimonialism and collusion between governments and large business.

Benthamite Lessons from a Scandal

Sina Odugbemi's picture

It is important not to let a scandal go to waste. If you follow world politics, then you must know about the recent events in Great Britain. According to the Financial Times, 'For the past two weeks, Britain has been in a state of stupefied anger at the ingenious ways in which elected politicians have used their expenses system to milk the taxpayer'. As a result, says the same report, 'public fury over scandalous expenses claims has pushed lawmakers, in fear of losing their jobs and their reputations, towards constitutional reform'. (Financial Times, May 23/May 24 2009.)

Now, I am a student of the constitutional thought of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the British utilitarian philosopher and jurist. Thus, as I have followed the scandal  Bentham's words have been ringing in my ears. For, one of the great battles of Bentham's long life was the reform of parliament. But Bentham was a universalist. He was confident that his ideas for constructing a form of government that would provide 'securities against misrule' were universally applicable. Bentham believed that government should be as open and as transparent as possible. This is his Panopticon principle, all round transparency with very few exceptions. Note that a request under the Freedom of Information Act got the scandal under discussion going.

Quote of the Week

Antonio Lambino's picture
"And it should be realized that taking the initiative in introducing a new form of government is very difficult and dangerous, and unlikely to succeed. The reason is that all those who profit from the old order will be opposed to the innovator, whereas all those who might benefit from the new order are, at best, tepid supporters of him. This lukewarmness arises partly … from the skeptical temper of men, who do not really believe in new things unless they have been seen to work well. The result is that whenever those who are opposed to change have the chance to attack the innovator, they do it with much vigour, whereas his supporters act only half-heartedly; so that the innovator and his supporters find themselves in great danger."

- Niccolo Machiavelli (1532), The Prince


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.

Regional Movements for Media Reform

Silvio Waisbord's picture

Much has been said lately about the prospects for global institutions to promote media democracy and good governance. The jury is still out, however. How can a diversity of trasnational actors, including intergovernment bodies, donors, UN agencies, civic groups and business, be effective? Are all actors equally positioned? If national governments retain power over key decisions shaping media environments, how do global actors manage to influence opportunities for media pluralism and participation?

Latin America offers an interesting petri dish to examine the germination of regional movements promoting media pluralism.