Monday February 26, 2024

Policy contexts and conflict

December 27, 2021

The challenge of devising good policy is heightened by the conflict that can come from the conflicting interests of policy influencers. In such contexts, effective negotiation and conflict resolution skills are critical for progress in the policymaking process.

The challenge of putting together good policy is getting progressively difficult with time. One key driver of the difficulty is the complexity of the policymaking environment. The complexity comes from a variety of factors including the number and nature of policy influencers that are able to exert pressure on policymakers. In situations of pervasive contentious competition between policy influencers, actions by the policymakers and the competing influencers can either worsen or ameliorate contention and conflict.

Policy influencers include the traditional policy actors, such as political parties, and Big Business focused on furthering its economic interests. Also, powerful foreign countries playing ‘great power’ politics have had a checkered history of influencing policy environments, directly or indirectly, in a number of countries. For instance, some powerful Western countries have significantly influenced the trajectory of political and economic development of many developing countries on account of the policies of mercantilism, colonisation and imperialism.

In addition to these traditional policy influencers, in contemporary times, there are many instances of a potent policy-influencing role having been played by powerful civil society organisations, such as large local NGOs and rights-based groups.

A political framework that has elements of decentralisation or forms of federalism can result in multi-level governance structures. These are more complex than centralised decision making structures and making policy can involve substantially more contention and negotiation. In Pakistan, the 18th Amendment has put in place legislation that supports devolution of many of the federal government’s powers and responsibilities to the provinces.

In contemporary international politics, we can see the effects of globalisation on governance structures. The multiple levels of governance that exist within a state have in some cases been extended to the global level. One infrastructure that enables such supra-national levels of governance comes from the international legal regimes that countries are signatory to. These include the International Charter of Human Rights, Abolition of Forced Labor Convention, the Financial Action Task-force (FATF), etc. FATF placed Pakistan on its grey list in 2018, and then negotiated a 27-point compliance agenda for Pakistan that involved instituting new laws and policies.

The policy influencing can also come from international organisations and inter-governmental organisations. These include the UN, the World Bank, the WTO, the ICJ, the IMF, etc. A recent case-in-point is the sixth IMF review of the Extended Fund Facility for Pakistan in October and November 2021 that included discussions on various areas and policies such as the budget deficit, the Nepra amendments, payment of arrears to the independent power producers, anti-money laundering steps, etc.

The networks of certain groups can extend beyond the national level to the global level and to international support and advocacy groups. We see this with causes such as child rights, women rights and human trafficking. We also see this international connection with organisations supporting certain professions such as international support organisations for freedom of the press, human rights, etc. Recently the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) lent its voice to ask for justice and security for Pakistani journalists.

An increasingly powerful contemporary influencer in the policy arena is disruptive social protest. While we have seen these sorts of protests in the past in Pakistan by political actors such as political parties, in contemporary times we are seeing more unplanned and spontaneous protests. These spontaneous protests can include a group or community blocking roads to highlight a violent heinous crime, for example, the killing of Hazaras in Balochistan in January 2021 resulted in protests and blocked roads in several cities in Pakistan.

The larger the number of powerful policy influencers the more the complexity of the policymaking process, especially when there are directly conflicting interests between different influencer groups. The conflict of interest between powerful influencers can result in highly contentious and uncertain policymaking environments.

The conflict aspect to policymaking is a key characteristic of many contemporary policy environments. There are many tools and behaviours that can help ameliorate and resolve conflicts. One behaviour that can pay dividends by not intensifying the conflict is staying away from making threats. Threatening the other side can result in a similar reaction and a consequent escalation of the level of conflict. The recourse to coercion and the belief that ‘might is right’ can be culturally entrenched and therefore hard to change. Often authoritarian political structures and feudal and tribal social structures have traditionally used such measures.

Similarly launching into ‘ad hominem’ attacks can derail the discussion from objective facts of the issue to very personal and emotional areas. These sorts of approaches can be seen being regularly used by competing policy influencing groups on the television in the evening current affairs talk shows in Pakistan.

Another potent conflict provoking attitude is the ‘us versus them’ mentality. Here, everything with ‘us’ is perfect and beyond question and every single thing about the opposing sides is flawed and devoid of merit. The ‘us versus them’ attitude also focuses on difference and detracts from finding similarities or points of convergence. This attitude stifles finding positions that are middle-of-the-road and of mutual benefit.

Finally, it will be of great benefit if the groups or the policy influencers in competition are cognizant of the fact that fairness of any one group’s position can be skewed by biases and righteousness can sometimes be entirely driven by arrogance. Here being a good listener and having the ability to empathise can help appreciate the other’s point-of-view and eventually resolve conflict.

The contemporary contexts in which policymaking takes place are complex and the complexities are heightened by the plurality of policy influencers and their diverse policy positions. The contention between conflicting policy positions can often derail the smooth progress of the policymaking process. Effective policymaking in these contexts will require skills in negotiation, conflict resolution, and avoiding arrogance, threats, personal attacks, and ‘us versus them’ attitudes.

The writer is a policy analyst and former head of a university-based policy centre in Islamabad.