Demystifying Political Will

By Patricia Cogswell and Alyssa Deffenbaugh

Have you ever seen a well-funded capacity building program with strong technical support struggle to get off the ground?  Or a program that initially had strong momentum but later stalled during implementation?  While multiple factors can cause fits and starts to programs, a frequent challenge that contributes to delays is the partner nation lacking “political will.”  But what is political will?  And why do we struggle to get it right? 

Political will is the intention of a leader, group, or nation to pursue a course of action for a political issue. Political will is critical to sustained change for any program and influenced by many factors, including but not limited to individual motivations (e.g., status, money, revenge, etc.), social-cultural dynamics (e.g., tribal or clan ties), and existing political structures (e.g., organizational hierarchies).  Accurately assessing political will can set the stage for success, avoid delays and additional costs, and help ensure program sustainability for the long term.

Quite often, when practitioners assess political will, we see that it has been oversimplified, leading to it being insufficiently or inaccurately assessed.  As examples, we see practitioners saying that it either exists in a partner nation or it doesn’t.  Or they may make assumptions that because one or more high ranking officials has demonstrated broad enthusiasm, that is sufficient to drive action across agencies, and levels, as needed, to reach the goal.    

So how can practitioners effectively assess political will in all its complexity?  In Guidehouse’s experience, the following provides a practical framework. 

Assess the political will of all relevant actors in relation to the program’s goals and objectives.  Practitioners need to understand political will among all relevant stakeholder groups, influential external actors, and the decision-makers in both.  For example, if the United States funds a foreign assistance program to strengthen a country’s border security, it is not enough that the National Police or the Army’s leadership seems enthusiastic.  Influential actors that could impact the program’s success may also involve the ministries of defense, security, and home affairs; national guard; intelligence; other government actors; as well as civil society groups. 

Identify the key actors’ goals and interests, as well as intra and interagency dynamics.  To continue the example above, the Army’s leadership may support strengthening border security, welcome assistance, and offer to dedicate troops and resources.  Organizational rivalries, however, may mean the National Police’s leadership may not be committed to strengthening border security checkpoints or sharing information and collaborating with the Army and other entities.  Informal power structures and spheres of influence also are key to understand.  Embassy and program staff on the ground are critical to building an accurate picture of these informal and formal networks, providing an understanding of how things work in practice.    

Assess behaviors, not just words.  Embassy reporting, field research, press releases, speeches, and other documents are commonly used to assess motivations and provide insight into the level of political will in key officials and agencies.  The actions of individuals, however, may not always align to their words, making it essential to examine behaviors.  Returning to our example, the Army’s leadership may repeatedly affirm to the U.S. Ambassador that the country has an aggressive border strategy, but operational data may indicate otherwise. 

Plan for conditions to change over time, routinely assess political will, and be ready to act.  Interests and commitments are dynamic, changing in response to the environment.  One way this occurs is through political transitions of power, which can present risk or opportunity.  If the program is seen as closely aligned to a prior regime, it may struggle to find new advocates.  In the alternative, a new administration may be open to new ways to combat long standing issues.  Under our previous example, despite claims to having a strong border strategy, the Army may have insufficiently resourced troops along the border due to corruption within the leadership.  A change in the army command structure due to power transitions could bring new leaders who are committed to properly resourcing troops and a willingness to partner with the National Police, local communities, and others to jointly strengthen border security efforts.  

Reassessing political will on routine cycles or when events occur that shift the stakeholders involved is key.  To best make use of this information it is critical to have a decision-making process in place attuned to these potential inflection points and plans for how to mitigate adverse consequences or take advantages of the opportunities when they arise.

While it takes time and effort to properly assess political will, the investment is worth it.  It enables practitioners to better design, implement, monitor, and evaluate programs.  Utilizing a practical assessment framework demystifies political will, enabling more consistent and straight forward planning.

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