Finding the Holy Grail...

Yesterday I found the holy grail of development. It was on the wall of a dhaba (small chai shop) on a fork in the road in the Himalayas with monsoon rain streaming down outside.  

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It’s a policy.

Policy? The Oxford English Dictionary defines policy as :

A course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organization or individual.

and gives its derivation  from Greek politeia ‘citizenship’, politēs ‘citizen’, and polis ‘city’. Significantly it is related to individuals  with a say in their community (citizens) and groups of such individuals ( a city). 

I like to think of policy as rules or priniciples a group of people apply to themselves through their own rule-making systems. Most obviously that is laws of nations or states. But  a community decision  on how water is allocated in a Cambodian agricultural village is a policy. So too joint decisions on how a family shares  food, a church deciding to accept gay clergy, a school making condoms available to students, village elders allowing women to speak in their meetings. All are policies. .    

 Chai and morning paper- but no smoke. All his chai will now be drunk in  shadow of a new policy. 

Chai and morning paper- but no smoke. All his chai will now be drunk in  shadow of a new policy. 

 My wife and I had ridden mountain bikes out to where a little dhaba nestles in a fold of the Himalayan foothills, a place we sometimes stop, stick our feet up, enjoy the view and talk about life.  We sipped coffee, munched on biscuits and rested tired legs. Rain pummelled down. Then I saw a 'No Smoking" sign on a window. I'd never seen it before. No Smoking! Wow!

India is brewing a time bomb of lung cancer, cardiovascular diease and a host of other health issues due to its high smoking rate. Now India, or at least Uttarakhand (my state) has applied a rule to itself that smoking is not permitted in public eating places. This is not an outside NGO decrying smoking, this is not a local NGO trying to address a health issue  to an oblivious government. This is a government, a body the population has chosen to make its rules for them, waking up and choosing to try to change Indian’s behaviour and attitudes to smoking. 

What was the genesis of this policy- who did what? Was the decision based on (incontrovertible ) scientific evidence against smoking? How did government react to the inevitable push back from cigarette manufacturers? Why? (especially when bribes were likely to have been offered). Were individual personalities significant? Did a champion push for this? Was there lobbying within government? Pressure from outside? Did they consider just health statistics or economic analyses on loss of earning and health care costs? How is loss of revenue on taxing tobacco justified? Did anyone make a moral argument about the duty of government to protect its citizens? I'd love to know. 

One sign will not end smoking. What is different here is that this is not about encouraging a change of behaviour. as grotesque pictures of oral cancers on cigarette boxes have tried (ineffectively ) to do. This legislates against it  (In certain places). Even if that legislation is not enforced this is a watershed. From here increasing bans on where cigarettes can be smoked, increasing taxation on tobacco and positive anti-smoking messages are all possible. After a lag, rates of smoking in India will reduce, a culture will change. Fantastic. A group of people has, via those they chose  to make their rules for them, made a rule to reduce a behaviour everyone knows harms individuals and families. This is great. 

While Kaaren and I talked an overweight man sat munching a fat drenched bread pakora. A group of conservative hindus in white kurtas and red pasted foreheads drank chai, talked and left. A shepherd carrying a milk can sheltered from the storm.No-one seemed to notice the sign. Then young man pulled out a cigarette,walked to the door of the dhaba and lit up under the eaves. Out of the rain but just outside the dhaba. The world has changed. A culture that once embraced cigarettes is beginning a long slow journey to a healthier place. 

 Poicy change analysed on two axes. There is no need for an NGO to limit itself to one or two quadrants.  (Start and Hovland 2004)

Poicy change analysed on two axes. There is no need for an NGO to limit itself to one or two quadrants.  (Start and Hovland 2004)

In their excellent ODI paper from 2004 Daniel Start and Inge Hovland analyse policy change, showing that different types of strategies can get the policy ball rolling in different contexts. They divide strategies into four quadrants divided by two axes- a continuum from evidence to values and another from co-operative to confrontational strategies. Government may be amenable to lobbying say on its tax policy  but to change its carbon based economic development strategy activism (confrontational strategies from outside) may be more effective. On free universal healthcare an NGO may have to choose whether to support  activism or try to build relationships inside government and bring change as advisors or lobbyists. It might be difficult (but not impossible) to do both.  Think tanks typically are most influenced by scientific or economic evidence while other issues (say abortion) may depend more on negotiation over values.  A smart NGO will build relationships with policy makers and  carefully choose a suite of tactics designed to get those power brokers to change the rules regarding their issue of concern. Different tactics may have a place during different stages- say moral arguments to get the ball rolling on health care and skill building packages for new immigrants later on economic analysis when the actual content of those packages is being considered. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.

A group of people making its own coherent and beneficial rules is surely the holy grail of development. Change agents have to be nuanced and nimble, tailoring their approach to each situation, sometimes perhaps to the individual (e.g. one minister might be most influenced by scientific evidence, another more amenable to moral arguments) Think of trying to get a Tibetan village deciding to not graze their goats on a succulent patch of grass so that Ibex and blue sheep (snow leopard’s natural prey) flourish, snow leopards thrive and tourists hoping to see them book home-stays and guided trips with young villagers. What should a conservation NGO do? The answer is a suite of strategies with everyone from Buddhist lamas to school teachers to the forest department to tourism operators and of course with village families, those who own goats and those who do not. The path to a new village grazing policy will be long and winding.   Economic arguments may help to show a government the value of ecological goods and services that would be preserved with conservation over the short term economic benefit of clear- felling trees but maybe activism is also necessary. Values based moral arguments might be used to end capital punishment- but the cost of keeping prisoners on death row and executing them may be significant too.  An NGO might try to stimulate  public protest demanding the release of asyum seekers and employ legal experts to show that the current policy contravenes the constitution. Collaborative work from inside might be the best way to contribute village elders gradually changing a gender exclusive policy, Scientific evidence my be used in support fo changing a fishing quota. Often a combinaton of tactics will be required- I am sure that was the case with the smoking policy in the dhaba . 

Whatever, for me policy is one of the highest forms of development. It is deep, sustainable and has wide reach. I believe NGOs should think more about influencing policy and gain skills in achieving that.  I believe funders should value policy above much more easily tracked and attributed outputs which have little effect on a society's long term trajectory. They should encourage their implementing partners to seek policy change and support them along long winding paths as they do. What do you think? .