Bridging the “Political Will” Gap

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Bridging the "Political Will" Gap

NEW YORK—Imagine the perfect leader, with impeccable motives and the brilliant plan needed to save humanity. What prevents her or his intentions from coming to fruition?

“Political will,” specifically its absence, would be the answer offered in many United Nations circles. Few assertions elicit more head-nodding in meetings about current affairs. The term functions as both a diagnosis and a shorthand for problems ranging from the inertia of bureaucracies and self-interest of politicians, to the brevity of election cycles and constraints of funding arrangements.

Although these challenges are real, the term ‘political will’ can become a name for the gulf between a great idea and its implementation, but stops short of a strategy to bridge that gulf. In response to a perceived lack of will, useful strategies are often generated: coalition-building, solidarity, mobilization. Yet attributing impasse to a construct so overarching easily obscures the central why of a given situation. Why do decision-makers choose a particular path? Why is bureaucracy structured the way that it is? What are the forces that inhibit implementation?

A critical first step in solving any problem is defining its features with precision. Considered in brief here are a few dimensions that must be addressed to galvanize political will.

Among the most elementary of these dimensions is scientific understanding. Sometimes there are simply problems which humanity does not yet understand deeply enough and for which it has not yet devised solutions. In the realm of climate change, for example, evidence suggests that new technologies will need to be invented to secure promised reductions in emissions.

Social barriers involve questions of power, identity (both personal and collective), as well as norms, traditions, and priorities. Not infrequently current social realities are complicated by past—and often continuing—patterns of social exclusion, exploitation, and prejudice. Moreover, many conceptions of power today assert that change necessarily produces “winners”’ and “losers,” a construct that is often counterproductive.

Economic forces emerge from the tremendous financial interests underlying the current system. Many elements of the global order, organized according to the maximizing logic of the market, have prioritized self-interest at the expense of the common good. The incentives that result, both intentional and emergent, can inhibit meaningful change in countless ways and entrench outdated or unjust arrangements.

Conceptions and structures of governance can make it difficult for leaders and policy-makers to introduce approaches which could upset a supportive constituency. This is particularly true when oppositional arrangements lead to inflexibility and, again, perceived notions of winners and losers. Structural elements of political systems, such as election cycles or the boundaries of constituency groups, can also hinder constructive action.

Limitations related to capacity, whether technical (like infrastructure) or human (like knowledge) can increase the political will necessary to implement a given proposal. Both relate to the ability of a population to perform necessary tasks and pursue desired ends. Though different measures are required to overcome capacity gaps in these two areas, both are exacerbated by poor allocation of, and access to resources, both material and intellectual, on local, national, or global levels.

Challenges of integrity arise as leaders, policy makers, and others respond to the influence of corrupt or corrosive social forces, on the one hand, and the capacity and nobility latent in every human being, on the other. Justice versus advantage, principle versus expediency, concern for the common good versus self-interest—choices like these confront individuals and institutions at all levels, and influence the shape and progress of society. Whether understood in moral, ethical, or spiritual terms, questions of integrity are vital but also challenging, insofar as they address not just what we do, but who we are.

Finally, there are conceptual barriers, or limits to our thinking and imagination. Consider assumptions we have about what is true about ourselves and the world, the narratives we tell ourselves about why things are the way they are, and the paradigms that knit together elements of our reality and place them in relationship to one another. These define the parameters of what is considered possible or outlandish, what is measured or overlooked.

The inherently self-interested and materialistic construct of homo economicus, for example—disavowed in rhetoric but still widely influential in policy—rejects altruism as a force that could be systematically leveraged in society, and defines it instead as an unreliable personal preference. New conceptual constructs will help us to open alternative, creative avenues for achieving collective well-being.

Challenges in each of these areas will need to be overcome for lasting progress to be made on any global issue. Real-world experience is demonstrating, for example, the increasing interdependence of the human family. How will economic systems need to be refashioned to reflect these evolving realities? What capacities will have to be developed across entire populations to advance an increasingly global civilization? What new possibilities will we have to expand our collective consciousness to consider, and what convictions about what is impractical will need to be left behind?

This rudimentary analysis is but one lens through which we can begin to analyze the implementation gaps so often labeled a matter of “political will”. What is most important, regardless of approach, is to unpack and explore the concept together. This is a first step towards better understanding how to overcome these barriers and allow the ideas of thoughtful people of goodwill everywhere—including the perfect leader with the brilliant plan—to leave the realm of rhetoric and enter the field of endeavor.

-- Daniel Perell, Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations

Originally published on the Baha'i International Community Site.