Political will in the making


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Foresters have a long and venerable tradition of blaming problems they don’t know how to fix on lack of political will. This implies policy makers cause the problems and should solve them, preferably with a new law, policy paper, or program. If such policy documents already exist, foresters complain no one implements or enforces them.

Real world policy doesn’t work that way. What foresters fail to realize is that political will reflects the constantly shifting balance of power between many groups. No one monolithic set of policy makers sits around and decides whether they are ’willing’ to make appropriate policies. In practice, thousands of people in a wide range of public and private organizations each decide what to say, do, and fund. Policy is the net result. This tangled heap of opinions and events leads to decisions and actions that pull in opposite directions and inevitably implies alliances, compromises, contradictions, and conflict. Some people have more power than others. But usually no single group can simply impose its will on all the rest. Foresters often fail to make their case heard in the political arenas that count. Yet they can be more powerful than they often realize.

Every once in a while though, perhaps surprisingly, this process actually makes things better. ’Policy that Works for Forests and People’, a collection of studies sponsored by the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), explains what it takes to make that happen. To find out, multidisciplinary national research teams in Costa Rica, Ghana, Indian, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, and Zimbabwe documented the processes that led to what they considered promising policies. These included things like: incorporating small holders into Costa Rica’s reforestation incentive scheme; setting up a unit in Ghana’s forestry department to assess local capacity for forest management and experiment with new roles for foresters; and redirecting Pakistan’s forestry efforts away from public forest reserves to farmers’ fields.

Based on this material, study coordinators James Mayers and Stephen Bass conclude that:

Where foresters put their minds to it and work with other groups they can change policy and shift the balance of power.

Technocratic plans and programs rarely lead to enlightened and effective policies.

Dynamic individuals who are committed to change can often break through institutional inertia.

Many promising policies look beyond public forest estates and national parks to include a broader mix of farm and forest options.

You can only make progress if you are willing to experiment and learn from the results.

Policy communities based on regular contact between representatives of key stakeholders can catalyze positive change.

More productive negotiations result when local groups receive legal support, funds, and information so they can fully participate.

To move forward, people must have a vision that motivates them.


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Further reading

If you would like to receive a free electronic copy of IIED’s overview summary or summaries of any of the six country reports you can write Kathryn Nehemiah at mailto:kathryn.nehemiah@iied.org (Please specify which summaries you would like to receive.)

To receive information about how to purchase the books produced as part of this series, you can send a message requesting it to: bookshop@iied.org (The web site for the Policy That Works initiative is: www.iied.org/ptw while the IIED bookshop is: www.iied.org/bookshop)