How unpopular policies are made: Lessons from Bangladesh, Singapore, & S.A.

In December, in a post titled #Decrim: A call for evidence-based policymaking, I referred to work which I had done with Ingrid Palmary investigating the making of South Africa’s 2013 Trafficking in Persons Act. This project formed part of a larger project, funded by the Migrating out of Poverty Research Consortium (MOOP), which included three case studies. The first being our one on the processes and decision making which led to the creation, passing, and implementation of the TIP Act. The second case study was conducted by The Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit (RMMRU) at the University of Dhaka in Bangladesh, and is an analysis of the Domestic Workers Protection and Welfare Policy (DWPDP), which was approved by the Bangladeshi government in 2015. And the third was undertaken by the Asia Research Institute (ARI) at the National University of Singapore and investigated the mandatory weekly day off policy for migrant domestic workers (MDWs) introduced by Singapore’s Ministry of Manpower (MOM) in 2012.

The three case studies are obviously all quite different. They explore different contexts; different kinds of policy; and different political structures. However, what Ingrid and I were able to do in this working paper*, which has just been published, is explore the similarities and differences that could go some way in helping us to better understand policy making in post-colonial settings.

To be clear, a lot has been written about policymaking and policy processes. However, most of this has centred on understanding policy making in European and North American contexts – for example 84 % of studies using the Advocacy Coalition Framework to analyse policy making between 1987 and 2013 were conducted in Europe and North America.

But aside from trying to address this gap in the literature, the work highlighted three important things to bear in mind when trying to advocate for policy change in these contexts.

The first is that when trying to make interventions in the policy making process, being able to either harness or successfully address ideas and panics about morality, and women, is powerful. For example, the anti-trafficking movement in South Africa was helped enormously by its ability to use pre-existing normative ideas, which many South Africans have, about sex work and the inability of women, particularly poor women of colour, to make decisions about their own lives and, particularly, sex lives. Whilst I certainly don’t agree with these ideas or this tactic, it is important to acknowledge that this is a reason that many, what I would call, socially conservative causes are able to gain traction.

Secondly, building coalitions and relationships with those involved in policy making is important. Social and political capital go a long way when trying to convince policy makers of your cause. Policy makers often have their own personal agendas – this was clear in both the case studies focused on domestic work. Policy makers where, by-and-large, also employers of domestic workers and, therefore, more sympathetic to maintaining the status quo than incurring additional personal cost through implementing policy which gave more rights to domestic workers. Building coalitions and relationships with other organisations and individuals, both locally and internationally, who agreed and sympathised with the efforts of civil society in Singapore and Bangladesh was incredibly important in the fight for the two policies.

And finally, more work needs to be done to build the trust of policy makers and the public in research, whilst insuring that they maintain a critical perspective and understanding of the limitations of the research with which they are presented. In other words, we need to improve research literacy so that people are better equipped to figure out whether the evidence and (alternative) facts with which they’ve been presented are sound (this is obviously something which many people are advocating for in the age of Trump). And, so that people, who aren’t familiar with how research and universities work, are better placed to understand what peer reviewed research is able to bring to the policy making table.

*A working paper is quite different from a journal article: 1. They’re not peer reviewed; and 2. They generally report on an entire project, whereas a journal article would advance a particular argument drawing on some aspects of the project and possibly other work that the author(s) has done.

#Decrim: A call for evidence-based policy making

One of the biggest reasons that has been given by the South African state for the continued criminalization of sex work has been that decriminalizing sex work would fuel the trafficking industry in the country. The problem with this reasoning is that it relies on assumptions about trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation that we have very little evidence to support. And, what’s particularly concerning is that these assumptions have effected the making of anti-trafficking policy in South Africa.

Let’s be very clear, the trafficking (recruitment, transport, and coercion) of anyone, regardless of purpose, is completely apprehensible and should be criminalized. BUT, it should also not be confused with sex work. Sex work is actively chosen by people as a livelihood, whether it be for economic reasons or simply because they enjoy the work.

Through research that Ingrid Palmary and I have done over the last two years, as part of the Migrating out of Poverty Research Consortium – tracing the development of the Trafficking in Persons Act of 2013 – it has become apparent that myths and misconceptions about trafficking and sex work drove both the emergence of an anti-trafficking movement in South Africa and the development of the Act.

A good example of one of these myths was the panic that emerged just prior to the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa about the fact that thousands of women and children would be trafficked in to South Africa for the purposes of sexual exploitation at the hands of soccer-loving tourists. This, thankfully, did not happen. But what’s concerning is that this panic was simply another panic in a long list that emerge prior to major sporting events and which never come to fruition.

Unfortunately, most of what we ‘know’ about trafficking is not evidence-based. But what’s concerning about our findings, is that these myths were and are accepted at face value by policy makers. It’s one thing that ordinary people are unable to effectively interrogate what they read, a global phenomenon. But it’s another thing entirely when our policy makers embrace the post-truth/ post-factual world and fail to sufficiently interrogate the information with which they are presented and upon which they make policy.

As it currently stands, the fight for the decriminalization of sex work and against trafficking in South Africa, and globally, seems to be one in which we won’t see the triumph of evidence-based policy making. Rather the triumph of conservative ideas, which advocate for the continued policing of women and men and their decisions in respect to their sexuality.

If we are serious about human rights, specifically the rights of people in deciding what to do with their bodies and not be exploited or trafficked, policy makers need to do a better job of taking into account the evidence-based case for #Decrim.

**

This blog is part of a really great blog carnival initiative by Change: Centre for Health and Gender Equity. See here for other great blogs on the importance of #Decrim!

If you’d like to know more about the importance of and case for decriminalizing sex work, specifically in relation to the fight against trafficking, the New York Anti-Trafficking Network have produced a great video on the topic. Bhekisisa have also produced a great video on the importance of decrim in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

 

 

Exploring the migration profiles of primary health care users in South Africa

An article that I wrote with Jo Vearey, Mphatso Kamndaya, Helen Walls, Candice Chetty-Makkan, and Johanna Hanefeld has just been published with the Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health!

Titled Exploring the migration profiles of primary health care users in South Africa**, the paper does just that. Based on a survey that we did with 229 patients at six clinics based in three districts, the paper argues that the idea that nationality accounts, exclusively, for patients’ bad experiences at clinics, is incorrect. The length of time that patients have spent in an area and the length of time that they’ve spent accessing health care at the facility in question mitigate or aggravate their ability to access health care far more than their nationality. This means that our health care responses not only need to take into consideration cross-border migration and cross-border migrants, but also inter-provincial and intra-provincial migration and migrants, who, in fact, make up a much bigger portion of the South African population than cross-border migrants do.

Aside from this being my first published journal article, this was also the first quantitative work that I’ve ever done. So the process involved a lot of learning and necessitated a lot of support from Jo and Mphatso. But, here we go!

 

**It’s open access, so enjoy!

‘A kind of freak accident’ / My MA found it’s way to the M&G

So I’ve been making a bit of a song and dance about research communication, what it is, and how you’re meant to do it. And then, on Saturday evening a friend texted me to say that I’d been quoted in the Mail & Guardian. After much ‘wait…what’ emoji sending and the locating of a copy of this week’s M&G, we found on page 13, in an article about VFS and the Guptas, a quote from my Master’s research report.

I was more than a little surprise. Everything, and I mean everything, that I’ve been thinking about research communication had made me think that it would land up being a Sisyphean task. I would plot and plan how best to communicate my research and ultimately getting nowhere. And you, dear reader, would read blog post after blog post about how people just won’t engage with research. And then, out of nowhere, an obscure piece of academic writing (because that really is what a thesis is) that I wrote about 18 months ago gets used in the M&G.

My hope in the universe restored, I contacted Phillip de Wet, the journalist who had quoted me, to find out how he’d found the quote/thesis. I’m not quite sure what I was imagining he’d say. I suppose part of me hoped that he’d have some ‘lesson’ for me to take forth and use in my further research communicating. Instead:

‘Think of it as a kind of freak accident, perhaps; considering how little (of) what we publish is drawn from research, pretty much every instance is…’

giphy

*The M&G is behind a paywall these days unfortunately, I can’t even access the article electronically.

Post workshop / feeling overwhelmed by research communication

I feel like I may have created a bit of an impression that I actually know what research communication is and am really good at it. Let me put the record straight: that is not the case.

When I first set up the blog, I wanted to get a baseline for how well I have been communicating my research pre-blog so that in a year or two I can see if the blog has led to any improvements. So I sent out a Google Forms survey to friends and family with a couple of questions, for e.g.: where do I work; what does my job entail; what is my research about; what was I doing in the UK a couple of weeks ago.

The good news finding from my survey is that I can only improve…

Although friends and family are arguably not the primary audience I am trying to communicate my research to, they are a good place to start. Let’s face it, no one else is reading my blog yet!

I must admit, however, that thinking about who my primary audience is, is a little daunting. Largely  because they’re the same group of people that I need to use as research participants. My research around policy process – who influences policy, how is policy influenced, etc. – requires interviewing, working with, and critiquing policy makers, key stakeholders, and CSOs (Civil Society Organisations – what we now call NGOs I’m told). But these are the exact same people I need to communicate my findings to and who I hope will learn from my research. And let’s be honest, this is going to require a level of tact and subtly that I do not have!

So while I’m feeling suitably more au fait about writing press releases and facilitating workshops, successful research communication is going to require a lot more.

#sex #slavery / ethical considerations in research communication

We’ve just finished day 2 of the workshop, and I’m pretty sure the facilitator thinks I’m the most annoying person in the world. What?! I’m enthusiastic!

I’m really enjoying the workshop, but am a bit concerned that we haven’t once spoken about the ethics around research communication. We’ve discussed in depth the use of social media, but ethical considerations have not been given the same consideration.

From my experience, once you’ve developed a research proposal you send it to an ethics committee who assess whether you have sufficiently engaged with the ethical implications of your research and will provide for your participants’ needs. By, for example, providing them with an outline of the research and your contact details, and the details of support networks and care providers if you are talking to vulnerable people or asking personal questions.

While, to my knowledge, research communication is not subjected to the same degree of scrutiny, as researchers this is definitely something we should be thinking about. The most effective way to communicate your research may be to use an image of a participant, but is that ethical? Perhaps it may be to use the moral panics around women and children, #sex and #moderndayslavery, but is it ethical to indulge that panic even momentarily and even if it gets people to read your research? We’re being told to communicate our research as much as possible, but every study has its limitations, and those limitations are seldom acknowledged in our dissemination where we focus on the findings and evidence – because that’s what people/policy makers want – but surely that’s problematic?

But perhaps I’m being too difficult, maybe all of these things are ok. There’s so much terrible information and bad evidence out there, if you have to appeal to people’s love of panic or breeze past your study’s limitations what’s the harm really? At least people are reading your work?

 

Remember Kony 2012? / The importance of research communication

I’m currently at a three day science communication and engagement workshop facilitated by Dialogue Matters and organised by the British Council, Newton Fund, and ASSAf (Academy of Science in South Africa). In honour of my involvement in this event and because I might (secretly) enjoy blogging, I’ve decided to do a short three part series on science communication and my experiences of it to date.

Some of the research that I’ve been working on around policy process and the Trafficking in Persons Act has shown that South Africans, generally, are incredibly reactive towards any information that gets shoved in their faces. We don’t tend to be proactive and find information out for ourselves, we wait for information to come to us via Facebook or Twitter and then, without verifying it, repost or retweet and come to bizarre conclusions about the world. Anyone remember Kony 2012? This is largely what happened with the moral panic* around trafficking in South Africa – those who shouted their ‘facts’ loud enough and presented them in a glossy enough way were believed and were able to make trafficking – a phenomenon of which there is no evidence in SA – part of the national conversation.

So there’s definitely a need for those of us doing methodically sound research to do a better job of telling people about it so that we can avoid or defuse moral panics. Some have also, however, suggested that it’s an obligation of those doing research to communicate it better, or at all. Philosophically, I agree. But on a practical level part of me wonders whether we can expect a bunch of socially awkward academics, in a time of budget cuts, increasing class sizes, and decreasing research funds to find the time to do more with their research findings.

Luckily for me, I’m on a fully funded position with no teaching load, and plenty of time to blog!

 

*For those interested:

For more on moral panics see Cohen, S. 1980. Folk devils and moral panics: The creation of the mods and rockers. Oxford: Martin Robertson

‘Societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; socially accredited experts pronounce their diagnoses and solutions; ways of coping are evolved or (more often) resorted to; the condition then disappears, submerges or deteriorates and becomes more visible. Sometimes the object of the panic is quite novel and at other times it is something which has been in existence long enough, but suddenly appears in the limelight. Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folklore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way the society conceives itself.’