It’s a question without easy or simple answers. Policy makers come in different forms and types, and gaining their attention depends on many variables — such as a country’s political system, governance processes, level of bureaucracy and also timing.
I revisited this question this week when speaking to a group of young (early to mid-career) researchers from across South Asia who want to study many facets of global change. They were brought together at a regional workshop held in in Paro, Bhutan, by the Asia-Pacific Network for Global Change Research (APN) and the National Environment Commission of the Royal Government of Bhutan.
Titled as the ‘Proposal Development Training Workshop (PDTW)’ and held from 14 to 16 December 2016, PDTW aimed “to raise awareness of APN among early career scientists and practitioners, and to increase the capacity to develop competitive proposals for submission to APN”.
The workshop involved two dozen researchers and half a dozen mentors. I was the sole mentor covering the important aspect of communicating research.
I urged researchers to try and better understand the imperfect, often unpredictable conditions in which South Asia’s policy makers operate.
Researchers and activists who would like to influence various public policies. Everyone is looking for strategies and engagement methods. The policy cycle cannot run according to text book ideals when governments have to regularly cope with economic uncertainties, political upheavals and social unrest, etc.
Imagine what keeps your policy makers awake at night, I suggested. Are they worried about balance of payment, disaster responses or a Parliamentary majority? How can research findings, while being evidence based, help solve problems of economic development and governance?
I also suggested that researchers should map out the information behaviour of their policy makers: where do they get info to act on? Is there a way research findings can be channeled to policy makers through some of these sources – such as the media, professional bodies and international development partners?
I suggested two approaches to communicating research outcomes to policy makers: directly, using own publications and/or social media; and indirectly by working with and through the media.
Finally, I shared some key findings of a global study in 2012 by SciDev.Net (where I was an honorary trustee for nearly a decade) which looked at the different contextual settings within which policy makers, the private sector, NGOs, media organisations and the research community operate to better understand how to mainstream more science and technology evidence for development and poverty reduction purposes.
On September 11, I moderated a plenary session on Right to Information (RTI) in South Asia: Staying the Course on a Bumpy Road.
It tried to distill key lessons in RTI implementation from India and Pakistan, especially for the benefit of Sri Lanka that has recently adopted its RTI law. Such lessons could also benefit other countries currently advocating their own RTI laws.
Here is the synopsis I wrote for the panel:
Right to Information (RTI) in South Asia:
Staying the Course on a Bumpy Road
In June 2016, Sri Lanka’s Parliament unanimously passed a Right to Information (RTI) Act, making the island nation the 108th country to have a RTI or freedom of information (FOI) law. That leaves only Bhutan in South Asia without such a law, according to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) in New Delhi.
Sri Lanka’s RTI law was preceded by over two decades of sustained advocacy by journalists, social activists and progressive lawyers. But the struggle is far from over. The island nation now faces the daunting task of ‘walking the talk’ on RTI, which involves a total reorientation of government and active engagement by citizens. As other South Asian countries know only too well, proper RTI implementation requires political will, administrative support and sufficient funds.
This panel is an attempt to address the following key questions:
How do India and Pakistan fare in terms of implementing their RTI laws?
What challenges did they face in the early days of RTI implementation?
What roles did government, civil society and media play in RTI process?
What key lessons and cautions can their experiences offer to Sri Lanka?
Can South Asia’s RTI experience offer hope for other countries pursuing RTI laws of their own?
In this session, experienced RTI activists from India and Pakistan will join a Sri Lankan policymaker in surveying the challenges of openness and transparency through RTI.
Dr Ranga Kalansooriya, Director General, Department of Information, Ministry of Parliamentary Reforms and Mass Media, Government of Sri Lanka
Mr Venkatesh Nayak, RTI activist; Programme Coordinator, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), New Delhi
Ms Maleeha Hamid SIDDIQUI, Senior Sub-Editor and Reporter, Dawn, Karachi, Pakistan
Moderator: Mr Nalaka Gunawardene, Science writer and media researcher who is secretary of the RTI Advisory Task Force of Ministry of Mass Media, Sri Lanka
I held up my life-saving inhaler that I always carry around wherever I go, and am never more than a few feet away from. This is not theatrics, but drama in real life. Almost exactly a year ago, I was rushed to hospital at night for nebulisation. I don’t suffer such attacks too often, thank goodness, but I also don’t want to take chances — as I can never count on good air in my home city.
And I’m far from being alone. Wherever I go, I find increasing numbers of fellow asthma sufferers: we gripe and groan, but only a few among us realise that our lifestyles, choices and apathy contributes to the worsening quality of our air.
Almost every South Asian city today is reeling under severe air pollution and gridlocked urban traffic congestion. Colombo, a medium sized city by South Asian standards, has the (slight) advantage of the sea breeze flushing out part of its polluted air — but Greater Colombo is still struggling with polluting fuels, outdated vehicle technologies and rising numbers of private vehicles leading to massive congestion. Air quality levels vary considerably as we travel to the interior of the island, but some provincial cities now have mounting air pollution problems.
This is why we collaborated with CSE, which has a long track record in knowledge-based advocacy for clean air in India and other countries of developing Asia, to organise this event. It was an open forum where air quality experts in Sri Lanka and India engaged Sri Lankan journalists and broadcasters on the status of Sri Lanka’s air quality and what it can learn from the neighbouring countries.
In my remarks, I said: “The quest for clean air in developing Asia is much more than a simple pollution story. It has many layers and complex links to government policies, regulation, industrial lobbies and technology options.
I added: “Our big challenge, as professional story-tellers, is to ask tough questions, seek clarity and then connect the dots for our audiences. At stake is our health, prosperity and indeed our very lives. Air pollution kills, slowly but surely!”
I’ve just spent a week in Rome, and felt entirely at home enjoying the hot and humid summer days and clear blue skies. The latest experience has reaffirmed my impression – formed on several visits over two decades – that Italy isn’t a part of Europe at all. It’s really an extension of South Asia.
Hanuman, the super-monkey who features prominently in the Indian epic Ramayana, is said to have carried whole chunks of the Himalayas and dropping them off in far away places. Perhaps, unknown to the chroniclers, Hanuman did some freelance transplanting in the Mediterranean.
The similarities are uncanny: Italians and South Asians have too much in common. Generalisations are dangerous, I know, but then, I’m a South Asian – we do it all the time (and get it right about half the time). So here goes…
For a start, we are both expressive people, and we have no compunction in being loud in public places. Understatement is for the polite (and dull) British; we prefer to exclaim and exaggerate. We also gesticulate wildly when we speak – there is probably an extra nerve linking our mouth with our arms.
We are opinionated and argumentative, often passionately (and needlessly) so. We can rarely agree on any matters of private or public interest, yet, almost miraculously, we manage to get by without coming to blows. Well, at least most of the time…
Heirs to rich and diverse culinary traditions, we South Asians love and cherish our food – as do the Italians. We have our rice, chapatti and roti. They have their infinite array of pastas, pizzas and lasagnas. Our youngsters may fancy an occasional hamburger, but no American fast food can ever compete with our myriad aromas and flavours perfected literally over millennia. We take pride and joy in our food, and break bread with family, friends and strangers. Given a chance, we’ll spend half our waking hours eating.
Next to food, we have an abundance of laws, rules and regulations – too many, if you ask me. But we take our laws with a pinch of salt, or more. We happily and frequently bend them that they sometimes actually snap. Then we’d say Mamma Mia or Aiyo, and just move on.
Just look at the roads, and Italy’s similarity with South Asia is immediately clear. No other western European country comes close to Italy for the sheer chaos factor. We all drive as much with our horns as with the accelerators. We curse and yell at others on the road. Our streets are crowded, noisy and messy. We ignore traffic lights, speed limits and zebra crossings. Cyclists and pedestrians move at their peril.
This completely stuns the more orderly nationals like the Japanese and Swiss, who are puzzled how we don’t have more accidents on our roads (it puzzles us too). Partly because we all try to drive like James Bond, but more because too many of us are using privately owned two, three or four wheel vehicles, we often end up going nowhere at all. Some of our big cities now have traffic almost 24/7. Ancient Romans would be impressed by how much time we spend on our roads, an invention they perfected.
It’s not just Fiats, Ferraris and Marutis that move ever so slowly as we march towards progress. If anything, the wheels of our governments are even slower. In Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes chronicles her frustrations with the local bureaucracy when she bought and renovated an abandoned villa in the Tuscany Valley. Any South Asian who has tried to engage their own governments – on property, taxes or anything else – can well and truly empathise with her experience. In these days of global warming, glaciers probably move (recede) faster than our bureaucracies.
No wonder, then, that we just love to hate our governments in Italy and South Asia – we never tire of complaining about our politicians and bureaucrats. Strangely, however, we do little to overhaul the sick system. We often put up with our bungling, lying and sometimes stealing public officials. Worse, we idolise some of the biggest offenders despite their staggering lapses or excesses, and keep re-electing them!
Ah yes, we love our elections too. Until recently, Italians used to change their governments with such regularity – it has had 62 governments in the 64 years since the Second World War ended. While no South Asian country can match this record, thank goodness, few elected governments in South Asia complete their full term. And we share with Italians a fondness for coalition governments in all their variations and vicissitudes.
Come to think of it, is there anything surprising that Italian-born Edvige Antonia Albina Maino, better known as Sonia Gandhi, is today the most powerful woman in South Asian politics? As head of both Indian National Congress and the ruling coalition, she manages a menagerie of political animals.
Our obsession with politics is amplified (and some say exploited) by our cacophonous media. Our newspapers, radio and TV titillate, enthrall and occasionally inform their audiences. Many follow their own peculiar definitions of the public interest — which includes gleefully venturing into private lives of public figures. If Italians originated the term paparazzi, the South Asian media have turned it into a fine art. Our modern pantheons include a motley collection of show biz and sporting personalities, a few of who fall from grace frequently enough to keep our industrial gos mills turning day and night.
This same nosy media somehow manage to miss out or actively avoid probing the conduct of many public officials controlling very large amounts of public funds. It’s perhaps too simplistic to say corruption, cronyism and nepotism have become deep rooted in our countries. We have institutionalised these processes so much that they have become part of our political and business landscapes. The correct euphamism for these practices is public-private partnerships.
If you think all this makes us a sleazy, unethical and uncaring lot, you’re sadly mistaken. Please be informed that Italians and South Asians are both very religious. In fact, we take our faiths very seriously indeed, and practise it with such passion that some spoilsports might call us fanatical.
It doesn’t matter in the least that we worship at different altars – Italians at their soccer stadiums, and we at our cricket grounds. Our faith is equally intense and unwavering. When you make fun of our history, governments, laws and mannerisms, we’ll laugh heartily with you. But if you dare to criticise the performance of our national sporting teams, you will immediately find what fundamentalists we really are.