Improving the odds of success when the topic is sensitive

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ImageAfter donors released a pair of studies in Vietnam last month, an interesting internal discussion ensued.  Although the reports dealt with fairly “sensitive” issues—corruption and transparency in land management—both were welcomed by counterparts in government. 

The study on Corruption Risks got right to the heart of a problem that can spark outrage among Vietnamese, while a companion study on Information Disclosure put real numbers on just how difficult it is to get information, even in the presence of specific legal provisions calling for transparency. In spite of their content, both studies were well-received: the corruption study was even published by the official state publishing house. Furthermore, the launch was widely covered in the press, despite being launched on an unusually heavy news day, the closing day of the Communist Party of Vietnam’s national Congress.

“Corruption” itself is not a taboo subject in Vietnam. On the contrary, public discussions of the topic take place on the floor of the National Assembly and in other fora such as the semi-annual “Anticorruption Dialogue” which in November focused on corruption in land management. What surprised some, however, was the degree to which the studies were welcomed by our counterparts.

So how does one deliver a “sensitive” message? Several of us* chimed in, but interestingly we all emphasized different parts of the puzzle. We don’t profess to have all the answers, but we did come up with some practical ideas for preparing and communicating analytical work in sensitive areas.  These principles are not entirely different from the principles one would follow for any analytical work—more on this below—but I think there are some nuances when it comes to particularly sensitive messages.

It all begins with the…

Assemble a team that brings together local expertise and recognized figures who know the political, as well as the technical, context.  While some understanding of the political context could come from getting the right interviews—the modus operandi of Bank teams everywhere—a much more direct approach is to bring that expertise right into the team. For the corruption study, well-known and respected Vietnamese researchers were core members from the outset, participating in the case studies, contributing to the drafting, and participating in the launch. Far beyond providing political context, the inclusion of local experts on the team helped improve the quality and credibility of the reports. Moreover, a multi-donor approach can also bring fresh ideas and diverse perspectives—indeed, the corruption study was initiated by the Danes.

With the right team you need the right objective and that is to establish the…

Mixing empirical facts and careful examination of the current regulations helps make for a piece that is hard to dismiss. The corruption report drew on case studies and survey data to complement the analysis of the legal environment.  The study on transparency was based on careful checking of the extent to which documents that are legally required to be public information are actually available to the public.  The surveys showed the extent of the corruption problem; the case studies showed how it operates, the transparency study showed that existing laws aimed at preventing corruption were not being implemented, and the legal analysis showed the source of the rents. 

Assembling such evidence is one thing, finding the right way to convey the message is something else entirely. To do that, you need the right…

Maintaining a constructive and evidence-based tone is essential. Assertions do not get you far and non-constructive criticism will lose your audience even faster. Clear analysis of the problems and recommendations for improvement receive much better receptions. Recognition of the constraints policy makers face and the progress that has already been made can earn the policy maker’s respect.

To say that non-constructive criticism can lose the audience does not mean we should remain silent.  But we do need to build …

Keeping counterparts fully briefed from the outset helps avoid surprises.  Even the best study can come out wrong if it catches counterparts off-guard. The key anticorruption bodies and the relevant ministry were included in the process from the inception, facilitating the provincial case studies, and their comments on both the research plans and drafts helped hone the message. Importantly, this is not the same as an “official endorsement,” as this would be difficult for officials to provide in a timely manner for any report, much less one on a sensitive topic.  But having the opportunity to comment in their personal capacities was important for preparing our counterparts for the report before it was released. 

A training course on early diagnosis of COVID-19 in Hanoi, Vietnam. Photo: Anh Thuy Nguyen/World BankWorking with the official publishing house, as we did with the corruption study, lends a degree of legitimacy to the report and ensures that it lands on the right desks.  They do not, however, accept manuscripts wholesale. Some patient persuasion on key terms and messages was needed, and some compromises were also called for in places, but all within reason. And many of their proposed edits were improvements—they even suggested the cover photo which I quite like.

These principles sound like common sense and could arguably be applicable to any piece of analytical work the Bank or any other donor provides. Quality, dialogue, ownership, dissemination—these are all terms you would find in the evaluations of the many good practice examples for analytical work.  When the topic is unusually sensitive for the client, as many governance issues are, some twists on the old formulae can help.  Rather than just consulting with experts, bring them onto the team. Rather than putting counterparts in the untenable position of providing a formal endorsement, find a way to build ownership while maintaining the right distance.
In the end, we have to admit that there is always an element of chance.  Building trust between the donor community and government counterparts has been a gradual process—such dialogue would not have been possible five years ago—and perhaps the timing for these studies was just right.  But as Louis Pasteur said, chance favors the prepared mind. Following good principles cannot guarantee success, but can improve the odds.

Those who joined the virtual discussion that sparked this blog post were Soren Davidsen (from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs) who co-led the preparation of the study on corruption; and from the Bank, Maria Delfina Alcaide, Huong Thi Lan Tran, and Deepak Mishra. For the other team members see the individual reports.


Jim Anderson

Lead Governance Specialist, World Bank

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