Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Political will – does anyone actually know what it is? A development practitioner takes time out to investigate

by Camilla Lindstrom

I recently joined IDS to undertake a PhD which will investigate political will to pro-poor development in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. With a background working for the Swedish international development cooperation agency Sida and the UN system, you may wonder why a practitioner like myself is investing all this time and effort into such an academic exercise as undertaking a PhD.

But to me it represents a great opportunity to reflect on real and pressing problems that I have encountered during my working life and which I never got the chance to explore in-depth while working in the ‘development industry’.

Political systems seem unrelated to political elites’ willingness to improve the situation in their countries

Having worked and lived in countries as varied as Lao PDR, one of the world’s few remaining one-party communist countries, Zambia and the conflict-ridden Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), I have often reflected upon the political will of the elites.

Why is it that some countries, irrespective of whether they are democracies or not, seem to have the political will to improve the situation in their countries whilst others don’t? What are the factors behind it? Is it the elite’s view of the poor? Does it have something to do with how strong the civil society is in a given country or does it have something to do with the institutions and the political set-up?

It was the lack of political will (or the elusive political will)...

To my surprise there was not much research looking into the concept of political will, even though it is constantly mentioned in the literature by academics and donors alike. I myself have lost count of the number of times I have used this concept to explain to colleagues and superiors back at Headquarters why a certain reform process was not moving forward or why a project had not produced the desired results.

Unfortunately most donors seldom look deeper into the reasons behind this perceived lack of political will, and as a consequence avoid getting involved in the political issues. It feels safer to focus on technical solutions to political problems, but by doing so donors miss an important opportunity to constructively engage with recipient governments.

There are some exceptions though: One researcher that has made a substantial contribution towards a better understanding of the concept is Derick Brinkerhoff who has examined the role of political will in relation to anti-corruption reforms, and who has also written a paper where he is untangling ownership and political will in fragile states. The research programme ‘Elites, Production and Poverty’ has also done interesting work on the political will of states to support the development of productive sectors. But in general the literature is consciously vague and political will has been referred to the sina qua non of policy success while never being defined except by its absence (see for example Post et al. in ‘defining political will’).

DRC and Rwanda – perfectly contrasting cases in the narrative of development

But now, at last, I have the chance to explore the concept in-depth, and will hopefully make my own contribution to this paucity of research.

I have decided to focus my research on the DRC and Rwanda as these will provide me with two contrasting case studies. Both countries have had a troubled past (and present!), with colonolisation followed by recurrent violent conflict post-independence. However, while one is praised for the will of its leaders to reduce poverty over the past two decades and is sometimes referred to as a development patrimonialism state (see for example the African Power and Politics Programme), the other is constantly blamed for lacking the necessary political will to do so, and finds itself at the bottom of UNDP’s Human Development Index year after year.

Theoretically, this study will provide an original contribution to the concept of political will and hopefully enhance our understanding of key factors that are creating incentives, as well as disincentives for the political elite to undertake pro-poor reforms. I also hope that it will help donors and practitioners to reflect more critically on the concept of political will, thereby having a better chance of improving the politics of poverty reduction.



  1. Demanding ‘political will’ is lazy and unproductive, and the term shd be banned. More on

  2. The opening line of my recent IDS dissertation was one of my favourite quotes, often attributed to FDR: "Don’t ask me to do it; make me do it".

  3. Camilla Lindstrom28 November 2013 at 12:36

    Thanks for pointing out the interesting discussion on political will at Oxfam blog. I do believe we have the right to ask political leaders to show at least some political will to address problems in their countries, such as addressing the lack of access to social services. It might be naive to ask for it, but not lazy. What is lazy though, as pointed out on the Oxfam Blog, is not to try to understand the incentives and disincentives that political leaders face when contemplating the implementation of a certain reform. CSOs are guilty of this as are bilateral donors - it makes life easy for us as we have something/someone to blame. Hence, I fully agree that there is a need for CSOs and donors to conduct in-depth power analysis and to analyse the incentives and disincentives of the political leaders before coming up with idealistic ideas on how reforms should be done.

  4. Camilla, the Hunger And Nutrition Commitment Index ( produced at IDS tries to operationalise the concept of political commitment/will in the context of government action on hunger and nutrition. Do have a look. I look forward to discussing further in due course.

  5. Camilla - I was really interested to read your blog post about your PhD research. It sounds like an interesting project and definitely a topic which will benefit from further research. My own research has been in the area of trade negotiations, where the issue of political will or lack of it inevitably surfaces during trade rounds. It is also highly relevant at the moment with the WTO's Bali Ministerial Conference taking place. See the link attached ( and the comments from Roberto Azevedo, DG of the WTO, who puts the current situation in the WTO down to political will! Please keep us updated about your progress.


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