TNRC Blog Thinking and Working Politically

Image representing TNRC's four focus areas: wildlife, fisheries, forests, and finance

Targeting Natural Resource Corruption

Harnessing knowledge, generating evidence, and supporting innovative policy and practice for more effective anti-corruption programming

Targeting corruption in environmental crime and natural resource governance: How can Thinking & Working Politically
help to unlock political will?

This blog post is the foundation for an upcoming TNRC Learning Series webinar with Heather Marquette. Heather is Professor of Development Politics at University of Birmingham and is currently seconded part-time to the United Kingdom government’s Department for International Development (DFID) Research & Evidence Division as Senior Research Fellow (Governance and Conflict). She has been a major voice in evolving debates on ‘Thinking and Working Politically’, from Whitehall to the World Bank, and beyond. Heather has worked in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa and India, and is the author of many publications.

The brick wall of ‘political will’

Environmental crime is big money and bad politics. The size of the market is very hard to estimate, but illegal wildlife trade (IWT) alone has been estimated to be worth up to $20 billion per year, a figure that puts it in the same zone as the IMF’s nominal GDP for Papua New Guinea, higher than the annual GDP of 76 other countries.

Lack of “political will” for reform and action is often cited as the core of this problem. “Thinking and Working Politically” (TWP) can assist practitioners to unpack and understand the problem of political will, while also offering avenues for working toward reform that may prove more successful than narrower “technical” reforms (i.e., reforms that focus mainly on changing formal rules, with less attention to if and how those rules get implemented). This blog post explains the background to TWP and how it can help conservation and natural resource management practitioners to address the complexities of corruption and environmental crime more effectively.

The illicit market has long attracted organized crime working in collusion with corrupt officials and politicians who act as enablers undermining natural resource governance. This happens all over the world, from American high school students filming toxic waste being dumped by politically connected mafiosi; to extremist groups such as al-Shabaab, DRC rebel groups and the Taliban using billions of dollars in revenues from illegal timber, charcoal, fishing and so on to fund violent and criminal activities; to “sand mafias” in India destroying habitats and local hydrology to feed the global demand for cement, protected by the police, business people and politicians. So many possible examples, so much destruction and despair in their wakes.

For many years, activists, scientists and reformers have decried a lack of political will to seriously tackle environmental crime, with efforts often undermined by corruption and collusion between politicians and criminals. WWF’s Heather Sohl has blogged about how “a shift in political will to focus on the solutions [to IWT] that matter could make all the difference. It’s time for wildlife criminals to face higher risks and efforts, and receive lower rewards.” The UNODC explains that “high-level political support” is a prerequisite for tackling corruption in wildlife management. But many acknowledge that it’s more complicated than just saying “we need more political will” or expecting governments to uphold existing high-level commitments.

"Corruption and environmental crime share some key features. Both are largely hidden activities, which makes them hard to measure and, as a result, hard to always know for sure which interventions are working and which aren’t."

Partly this is because of the complex relationship between natural resources, the environment and people’s livelihoods, and the particular political characteristics of the sector. John Sellar talks about how political will is tough in this space because many states may support fighting some environmental crimes but not others, with the illegal (and legal) trade in timber and fish often being big parts of their economies. Ed Laws talks about a “political interference” problem in Tanzania where local politicians block interventions to protect elephants because of worries about conservation efforts hurting local livelihoods. This tangle of international markets, local livelihoods, business and politics can hide other sorts of dynamics as well. Simone Haysom, for example, flags the role of middle-class South Africans in the poaching trade across the border into Mozambique and how they’re often protected by their political connections, who may justify their actions because they’re ultimately helping their poor constituents. And if this all sounds challenging, this is before we even begin to talk seriously about the role of corruption in all of this.

Corruption and environmental crime share some key features. Both are largely hidden activities, flying under the radar of authorities, which makes them hard to measure and, as a result, hard to always know for sure which interventions are working and which aren’t. Both have complex supply and demand chains, where demand—from consumers of illicit goods, from public officials demanding bribes—is often just as much, if not more, about complex social norms, grievances, real and perceived needs and poorly understood desires and incentives as it is about bad guys breaking laws. And both often come up against a brick wall called “political will.”

What do people mean when they talk about ‘political will’ when it comes to anti-corruption in natural resource governance interventions?

People tasked with designing natural resource governance interventions often face a “double black box”: corruption and political will. Political will has become a global shorthand for explaining why reforms succeed or fail. The phrase “we can’t do anything here because there’s no political will” has become like a resigned shrug to end a difficult conversation.

But—as I’ve argued elsewhere with colleagues—this leaves political will as an almost useless black box. A black box is “a system or object that changes outcomes: things come out differently to how they go in. At the same time, its inner workings—what’s really going on inside—are opaque.” The label “political will” doesn’t tell you anything about what actually needs to happen. Hidden inside the black box are the actual motivations of individuals who are believed to lack political will. No one ever says, “I lack political will to do this,” so how do we know what their reasons for lack of action are? And if we don’t understand what’s going on in the black box, we can’t design effective interventions.

Derrick Brinkerhoff has defined political will as “the commitment of actors to undertake actions to achieve a set of objectives…and to sustain the costs of those actions over time.” What we rarely hear about when it comes to anti-corruption interventions in particular is that actors face real costs. Fighting corruption is really about taking power and resources away from some people and giving them to others. This redistribution means coming up against vested interests and surging demand. It means telling people to stop doing things they may not think are wrong or that they may feel justified in doing. Some of these people may be quite scary, violent even, like those who recently killed “Amazon Guardian” Paulo Paulino Guajajara who was protesting illegal logging in Brazil. For politicians and bureaucrats all of these are real costs that they need to face in order to tackle corruption. No wonder political will is a challenge, when you focus on the costs and not just the (hoped for) wider benefits.

This flips the search for political will on its head. The main reason we need to unlock the black box of political will may not be to make our interventions more effective; it’s also about the duty of care we owe those who do the fighting part of “fighting corruption.” We can’t work as if political will doesn’t matter, and we can’t abandon work that’s only half done—potentially leaving committed but isolated reformers to pick up the pieces. The trick is to better understand what’s in the black box in order to develop better strategies about what to do next, whether that’s mitigating risks, nudging different behaviour, accepting when “active political won’t” is a legitimate response to challenging circumstances, or rolling up our sleeves to begin battle with vested interests alongside our partners.

So what can I do about political will? Please tell me there’s a magic key!

This is where “thinking and working politically”—or TWP, as it’s often called—comes in. ODI’s Alina Rocha Menocal—co-chair of the global Thinking and Working Politically Community of Practice and Senior Democracy Fellow at USAID—has talked about this being fundamentally about taking politics seriously, “thinking and working differently in ways that are politically aware/savvy.” When we talk about the black box of political will or corruption, the T in TWP is about analysis (formal or informal), or trying to understand what’s going on inside the box. The W is about working politically, devising strategies for how to work differently based on our (new and improved) understanding of the political landscape and, ideally, what’s politically feasible.

Though a lot of people talk about a “TWP approach,” I don’t think of it like that. Instead, I see thinking and working politically as a way to keep the understanding that everything is political front and centre. In this, I’m inspired by the late Adrian Leftwich—the first person that I’ve found who wrote about TWP in a public document and who talked about the “primacy of politics” where “the central and dominant variable determining…developmental success or failure.” TWP, then, is about how people bring the primacy of politics into their work. It isn’t something that only aid people do. It’s not even something that only policy makers do. My dad—a carpenter and fisherman—thinks and works politically better than anyone I’ve ever met when he’s navigating the tricky waters of local fisheries management in my home state.

"TWP has helped local reformers get from political won’t to political will by using analysis to develop strategies that enable
different ways of working."

Research shows how TWP has helped local reformers get from political won’t to political will by using analysis to develop strategies that enable different ways of working. Cases include, for example, research looking at how a donor supported local civil society in better holding the Nigerian government and oil companies to account, to understanding how government agencies in India and China have “bundled” climate change with other priorities in order to make change happen, to understanding how civil society groups have worked together to adapt their approach to increasing civic participation at the sub-national level in Kenya in order to help tackle corruption in a way that’s both technically and politically feasible. Through this we’re learning more and more about how TWP—by local actors, sometimes supported by external actors and sometimes not—helps make progress on specific problems.

However, TWP has one more trick up its sleeve, and that’s around anticipating and assessing risks, identifying bear traps, limiting unintended harms, thinking through human rights and complicity issues, etc. As an incredibly experienced aid practitioner and diplomat once said in a TWP Community of Practice meeting, “TWP should be firstly about not f***ing things up.” Given that fighting environmental crime can carry significant reputational risk, we need to better understand how thinking and working politically can help our work become more effective, of course, but how it also can unlock difficult conversations about the political risks we take and the decisions we make every day. I’ll come back to this.

I’m sorry to say that TWP isn’t a magic key that will miraculously unlock political will and deliver A+ results on every intervention, but it’s hard to see how we can move beyond seeing political will as a barrier to reform without it. It doesn’t need to cost much, if anything, if it just means bringing teams together to “talk politics” regularly to make sure interventions are politically-informed. This means having people on the team who know the context really well and can “parlez-vous politics” (see this and this). When it comes to designing and implementing interventions, though, TWP needs ways of working differently beyond regularly “sense checking,” and this means looking at new ways to work. As the TWP Community of Practice has explained, it needs strong political analysis, insight and understanding; detailed appreciation of, and response to, the local context; and, flexibility and adaptability in program design and implementation. And this means dipping into the “TWP alphabet soup.”

Find out more in the next blog post in this series: How can I integrate ‘Thinking & Working Politically’ into my day-to-day programming on natural resource governance? Coming April 2020.

Image attribution: © naturepl.com / Jen Guyton / WWF; © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; © Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK; © Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus