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Six Things to Know to Facilitate Policy Change in Africa

“We need to change policy!” 

I have heard a variation of this statement hundreds of times over the last five years working as a process facilitator and consultant on development programming across Africa. Just last year, while facilitating a Learning Event on African Agricultural Policy, a clearly exasperated international expert had this ominous warning “we are in midst of a policy reversal, because African countries are increasingly choosing poor policies already failed in the 1970s and 1980s!”

Why is it so difficult for researchers, non-state actors and development workers to efficiently influence policy change? To put this question from the perspective of the policymaker: Why do governments often grapple with choosing and maintaining the "right" policies even when it seems so easy to everyone else? 

Almost everyone has a policy experience of some sort. Here are six lessons I have gleaned over the years. Hopefully, they will help you navigate the well sailed, though largely uncharted, agricultural policy landscape in Africa:

  1. Being neutral helps. Policy makers are famously suspicious. Their default approach is to assume that anyone asking for a policy change has a direct, and usually personal, interest in the outcome. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as indeed, actors should have a stake in better policies. However, the most successful policy interlocutors are those who profess no particular self-interest. Their interest is “the best policy.” When policymakers realize that you are neutral, they pay more attention and place a premium on your views. At the end of the day, policymaking is the art of balancing diverse interests in order to achieve an optimal outcome – where no one is too worse off because others are better off. Declare and demonstrate your neutrality. Express, dispassionately, the pros and cons of different options and allow the policymaker to understand the multiple interests in the matter. 
  2. Yes, use evidence, but it is not just about the evidence. Most policy people will say that evidence matters. In policymaking the evidence is used to assess the potential differential impacts of a proposed course of action. Use rigorous, credible and consistent evidence. Be honest when the evidence available is contested or unclear. But to think that evidence is all that matters in policy making is to believe in fool’s gold. Policy is first and foremost about interests. If the overarching interest of the most powerful stakeholder category is at odds with the evidence, then evidence be damned! One must understand the complex set of interests that compete to determine policy. People are also likely to interpret policy in different ways and subsequently implement it differently. Consider the emotional, social and cultural influences that might impact policymaking. The policy reversal in Africa that we referred to earlier is driven by populism and emotion rather than evidence-based analysis. 
  3. Remember, it is not your decision to make. Often I find myself in the midst of policy cross-fire where groups insist on a specific policy plan. The successful policy interlocutor should always be aware of her limits. You have not been elected. It is not your decision. It is detrimental for your credibility and future interactions to stake everything on a single argument. Learn to back down from lost policy battles. Learn to give and take. A little win is better than a total loss. Policies can and usually do change. Live to fight another day.
  4. Acknowledge the complexity that policy makers and bureaucrats face. One of the most powerful, yet underutilized, virtues in policymaking is empathy. Be empathetic to the policymakers. They probably face multiple pressures (from all sides), and the weight of decision-making is heavy. Try to understand and express their dilemma. By doing so, they will begin to trust and confide in you. You might, then, be able to help them, logically and neutrally, analyze the options. This makes their decision easier. An important post policymaking step is going back to reaffirm and declare the decision as the best one. This helps to reduce cognitive dissonance, self-doubt and second thoughts.
  5. Policymaking is a continuous, unending cycle. Policymaking does not start and end: policy facilitators should recognize that things change and policies need to be reviewed, revised or replaced regularly. This is why most policy people talk of the best policymaking as a cycle with plus-or-minus five steps: (i) agenda setting, (ii) data collection & analysis (evidence), (iii) dialogue & decision, (iv) implementation & innovation within existing policy and (v) M&E (policy impact analysis). In my experience, dialogue and implementation are difficult steps. This is where most careful effort and delicate support is required. All too often original policy intent gets lost in the chaos, cacophony and misinterpretation that sometimes characterizes these steps. 
  6. Be prepared to engage for the long term. Policymaking is, by no means, an in-and-out process. One must be prepared for long, meticulous study, multiple multi-stakeholder dialogue and, sometimes, reversals. A case in pointthe development of harmonized seed policy in east and central Africa has required the alignment of multiple countries and a multi-year support process. Yet, it is by no means completed and will most likely require more consultations, meticulous implementation, monitoring and reviews. 

What’s your policy process lesson from Africa? Please share thoughts and/or examples in the comments section. I promise to respond and engage.