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.