Lessons learned in advocating for development policy reform

The book, "Room for Maneuver," was launched on Tuesday by the Asia Foundation with the support from the Australian Agency for International Development. It tackles the inherent political nature of reforms, especially in the development sector. Photo by: Lean Santos / Devex

Talking about improving development is not just about bringing programs to the people and volunteering on the ground.

It’s also about making sure that these efforts are implemented in an environment that allows progress and spurs sustainability that ultimately makes a positive effect on all stakeholders — donors, implementers, government and beneficiaries. But how do you provide this kind of environment to make development efforts timely, effective, and appropriate?

For development expert Andrew Parker, through appropriate development policy reforms — and underlining that development is an arduous and lengthy process which operates in a changing environment that requires the participation of all sectors of society, including national governments and lawmakers, not just the aid community.

The case of Medecins Sans Frontieres, for example, shows the relative dependence of aid and development pursuit to political whims when it was banned by the Myanmar government to operate in a state home to many members of the Rohingya, a stateless Muslim ethnic minority.

This inherent (and inevitable) political nature of reforms, especially in the development sector, is the central theme of “Room for Maneuver,” a new book about social sector reform in the Philippines launched on Tuesday by the Asia Foundation with support from AusAID.

“It is important to start by stressing that if social reform — anywhere in the world — is about meaningful and often hotly contested issues, it will always be political and highly contentious,” explained Parker, social development adviser at the Australian Embassy in Manila and co-editor of the book, who offered a few tips for those planning to push for and advocate development policy reforms:

1. Policy reform is a lengthy process that requires patience and flexibility

Despite the urgency of some development issues in the international community, many countries are still either at the process of updating their policies addressing these concerns or, for some, just crafting them — a small step in the whole development reform process. Parker said advocates should have patience and flexibility in pushing for development reforms given its non-linear process: “People involved in reforms need to have an awful lot of patience [and flexibility]. You have to be in there for the long-haul. It’s very rare for social sector reform to finish [in a short-time], especially with contentious and controversial policies.”

2. Reforms need to be technically, financially and politically possible

The feasibility of reforms also needs to be ensured, meaning that it should be technically, financially and politically possible. One of the problems in development reforms, according to the British expert, is the failure of advocates to account and accomplish all three fronts due to narrow technical consideration, lack of funders despite the existence of several donor agencies and, of course, political support. “It’s easy if you come from one discipline or another [in pushing reforms], but you need two parts of the story and you don’t get where you need to be if it’s not possible [in all three],” he noted. “You have to make the case for the reform you want to achieve.”

3. Coalitions and networks are indispensable despite diversity in objective

Just like in any other advocacy, policy reform needs support and support can come from coalitions and networks that agree to partner and adhere to the same objectives of advocates. For development policy reforms, these coalitions and networks may include local and international NGOs, donor agencies and multilateral institutions, to name a few. “There should be people willing to be mobilized and support the reform. If you want reform, you need to be able to have support, ” explained Parker, adding that finding coalitions can also become a complex issue given the reality that not all stakeholders may adhere to the same exact views, so compromise and having dedicated and passionate leaders are vital.

4. In pushing for reforms, framing of the issue matters

One of the most important facet in pushing for development policies, not just reforms, is in framing the issue because it sets the precedent on how well (or bad) policymakers and the international community will receive and discuss the issue. An example is Australia’s so-called “PNG Solution” that redirects boat-riding asylum seekers to be processed and possibly resettled in Papua New Guinea. The policy prompted the United Nations to warn Australia that this neglects its international obligations to refugees — something that takes out the human angle in a story framed and peppered with foreign policy implications. “What’s your story? Why is it important to other people?” Parker said. “It is important how you [frame the issue] and make the pitch.”

5. There should be willingness to fail

Failure is relatively a sensitive issue when it comes to development programs and initiatives especially within the established members of the aid and development community – something that, according to Sam Chittick, a World Bank advisor who stressed it’s a necessary ingredient in development work. “There should be willingness and openness to fail,” he explained. “There should be acceptance [from development actors] that not all development programs would achieve its goal and there will always be failures.” Parker added that it is also about aligning the stars and connecting the dots. Development reform advocates should also learn how to take a step back, look at the bigger picture and try to understand the whole process of reform and development work and not limit themselves with the specific issue they are pushing for.

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About the author

  • Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a former Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. He previously covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics.