Thursday, 28 May 2015


Influencing Policymaking: Framing Recommendations Beyond Evidence

Valerie G. Traore
Executive Director, Niyel

The impact of an argument lies both in the foundation of an argument as well as in the compelling way in which it is presented.

On the one hand, we have activism groups that are strong at communicating their position and stances to decision makers, some without sufficient evidence to back their claims. But on the other hand, we have Think Tanks and other researchers with the clear evidence to warrant a review or shift in policy making but are unable to make policy makers listen.

As this is mainly a forum for the second group, let’s focus on three key approaches that can be taken to make evidence more compelling and lead to being taken into account in policy making.

A little while ago we, Niyel, worked with three organisations that focused on a specific aspect of a solution. One group in Ghana was focused on research, a second in Senegal was focused on gaining parents support in order to pressurise decision makers to invest more in teacher training and the third in Mali, focused on developing and testing a methodology that proved efficient in helping students learn to read better and faster.

The key to gain support was that the research was sound. But once that was done, presenting it in a way that was compelling was necessary. The manner in which this data was presented was a bit difficult to digest. It showed that in Senegal, students in their third year of schooling could only read 18 words a minute. It is hard for most people to really understand what that means unless you time yourself. Which is exactly what we asked people to do, the volunteers, decision makers, even the ambassadors we had got to join the initiative. What everyone agreed with was that 18 words a minute simply meant that these children could not read.

To begin the conversation about a need for a shift in policy, both the problem and the solution need to be understood. First is to frame the arguments for these recommendations in a language that is simple and clear. Facts continue to be vital in influencing policy however, how one writes the fact is just as important as the fact itself.

For example, writing two in every 10 teachers believe that students who are sexually harassed by their teachers or fellow pupils are to blame for the incidences is a lot more effective than writing 283 of the 12, 464 teachers who took part in the study believed that students were responsible for the harassment by teachers and fellow students.

A global concern is the business and human rights practices of extractive industries. Much of it has been raised through stories by communities around the world. The message for the advocacy work on getting the regional economic community to better regulate extractives had for a long while remained in numbers- numbers of displaced, impact on the environment and revenue losses. As important as these were to highlight, they did not elicit emotion and as such were not very compelling. With several organisations and through coordination by Oxfam, we developed a series called Mining Stories that highlighted the impact of gold mining in West Africa through individual women and men that lived in and around mining sites. Each of these stories showed the impact that mining had on jobs, the herding of cattle, noise pollution, compensation practices and displacement.

Illustration is the second crucial factor in communicating research for greater policy engagement. People remember stories, faces, names and voices a lot better than just numbers. We feel more responsible for people if there is a sense that we know who they are and that beyond the numbers are fellow humans that could be our relatives or friends. Is there a specific person or community whose story can illustrate the problem that the policy recommendation is trying to solve, or showcase the success that policy recommendation would have, if implemented?

The third consideration is the human factor in policy making. People in decision making positions make choices, not just on the basis of fact but also out of their own value systems, their political affiliations as well as how certain choices are likely to enhance or undermine their position.

With this in mind, it is important to frame a policy recommendation in a way that is attractive for the decision maker. By asking ourselves what are their interests, their fears and their motivation, helps in identifying which evidence is more relevant to dispel their fears and motivate them.

For example, the Senegalese government finally passed an anti-tobacco law that had been sitting in the drawers for over five years despite the fact that the same government has been receiving budgetary support from the tobacco industry. In the past, lawmakers have been reluctant to lose out on revenue, coming from the industry, but, as research has shown over the years, there was a need to increase tax on tobacco and tighten tobacco laws.

Several organisations in a coalition called Listab, are fully aware of the influence of religious leaders in the Senegalese society including on political leaders, took the route of working closely with religious leaders from different faiths. When the religious leaders had taken the issue very seriously and made public statements on their support for the law, policy makers were faced with the hard choices of either supporting the tobacco industry or condemning these religious leaders. In the Senegalese context, the choice is clear. The law was passed unanimously in March 2014.

Policy influencing is not a neutral process. For every recommendation research provides, there is a counter recommendation from lobbyists, activists, corporate interests or other researchers. Developing a compelling argument with the target in mind is key to pushing one’s agenda.

No comments:

Post a Comment