How do social movements present evidence for policy change? Insights from Kenya, Bangladesh and Latin America.

This is a blog on a session from ‘Evidence and the Politics of Policymaking: Where next?’, a Symposium from the Institute for Policy Research and Centre for Development Studies (CDS) at the University of Bath, September 14-15 2016. Highlights and recordings from the Symposium can be found here.

By Silvia Storchi

A panel of the recent CDS/IPR Symposium on “Evidence and the politics of policy making: where next?” addressed the role of social movements in influencing policy change by bringing together very different experiences of this process.

Dr Patta Scott-Villiers, from the Institute of Development Studies (Sussex), explained how food riots, which occurred in Kenya between 2008 and 2013 as a result of the maize price tripling price, were the expression of dissatisfaction and already existing grievances against the government. This developed into colourful marches and riots, named the “Unga (maize) revolution”. Dr Scott-Villiers argued that these marches presented the government with evidence of grievance, and were a threat of potentially wider violence on the streets. The political reaction involved repression of the protesters but also some measures of appeasement by the government, such as some provision of subsidised maize and reduction in fuel tax. However, politicians also took advantage of the situation by undertaking populist measures in the form of “flamboyant” but occasional handouts enabling them to gain publicity for themselves. This therefore fell very much short of any recognition of the right to a decent living. She interestingly argued that this type of “gesture politics” in the response was also indicative of the social movement activity which was also gestural and that the actions of each side mutually constituted each other in this way. While the riots were ultimately blocked by both violence and the resignation of the protesters, she argued that, nevertheless, the protesters had experienced a sense of political power and proved to themselves that even those at the bottom of the social order could use their voice to express their discontent. This changed the protesters themselves and their notion of the social order.

Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, from the think-tank Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) in Bangladesh, explained how the CPD took advantage of the upcoming elections in 2004-2005 to engage a broader public debate in discussion of government policy proposals in a context in which there was little policy discussion in the political debate. They mobilised an extensive series of public town hall discussions to develop a document entitled Vision 2021 setting out a series of progressive policy proposals.   He noted four key learning points from that experience: first, that timing is critical as there are moments where people are ready to listen and civil society initiatives need to take advantage of them; second, that any work undertaken builds on a wide array of past knowledge and the track records of the people involved – their credibility to convene such discussions is vital. Third, that much civic activism is based on rhetoric and values but that this is not enough and evidence is necessary – though not sufficient. Finally, the initiative declared closure when the Vision 2021 document was produced and it could claim a win at that point – and it is important to be able to do that.   While politicians did adopt Vision 2021, civil society was not then involved in implementation.

Dr Ana Dinerstein, from the Department of Social and Policy Sciences at the University of Bath, discussed the question of how the demands of social movements are understood and “translated” into policy. She argued that social movements in Latin America are mainly, but not entirely, shifting their collective action from “claim-making to an articulation of alternative practices” in the context of a range of left-wing and populist governments being in power, and that these changes are not reflected in social movement theories and in the policy-making process. Instead, she suggested that their claims are not only made through protest and resistance but also through “prefigurative” practices which are “creating the future already in the present” constituting an “experiential critique” based in everyday life. Indeed she argued that there is a widening gap between grassroots movement activities and public policy that should not be ignored any longer, asking “what would an adequate translation be?” She concluded that co-construction would positively direct policy making towards a process of learning by doing but that this is only a starting point. The notion of co-construction naturalises the problematics of a capitalist state based on private property while social movements’ initiatives are already “de-naturalising” this system and offering possibilities for a different social order, by, for instance, inventing new forms of property.

Dr James Copestake encouraged a broader discussion by asking how orderly and smooth the process of translation should be and what can be done to achieve this. The broader debate focused, on the one hand, around the need for stronger, more professional and structured social movements to promote a better engagement with governments and avoid the misrepresentation of “angry people with banners”. However, on the other hand, Charles Lwanga-Ntale, of the Humanitarian Leadership Academy in Kenya, argued that it is the role of the researcher to create tools for the appropriate understanding of what the spontaneous nature of social movement activities are expressing rather than trying to organise social movements. Indeed, as the presentations on this panel showed , moments of disorder and protest can create a space for people to challenge the system and think differently, as these are the initial moments of prefiguration.

The range of experience discussed highlighted the way in which institutional and social context affected the processes through which social movements interacted with the state using different forms of evidence. From the chaotic riots of Kenya where social movements are still limited and the gesture politics that they reflect, to the politically engaged social movements of Latin America which were in turn de-linking from the state, and the more structured activities carried out by a Bangladeshi think-tank, the cases illustrated the specificities of the way social movements engage with and bring evidence into policy debates.


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