Policy déjà vu – all over again

5 Apr

It might be a function of my advancing years, but I have noticed a set of policy-driven debates coming around again. These were debates that occupied scholars and policy-makers twenty years ago and they are now back again. Here are a few examples:

Example 1:
The UN and World Bank has commissioned a major piece of work on preventing violent conflict.

This is a very laudable exercise, but it comes 20 years after a major Report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York entitled Preventing Violent Conflict. The Carnegie Report made quite a splash as it convened leading experts from the then fledgling field of peace and conflict studies and was extraordinarily timely. This was a decade dominated by mass violence in the former Yugoslavia, and central and west Africa.

Example 2:
The United States Institute of Peace has launched a small grant competition (perhaps its last if Donald Trump gets his way) that is interested in comparative lessons from peace processes.

Again this is very laudable, but there is also a sense that it is covering ground that has been well trod before. The peace processes and transitions of the mid and late 1990s sparked a blossoming of scholarship comparing peace processes, much of which was focused on lessons learned. Here the literature from John Darby, Chester Crocker, Pamela Aall and many others comes to mind.

Example 3:
DFID (the UK’s Department for International Development) seems to be using the phrase ‘what works?’ in a lot of its programmes and projects. This was mandated by central government some years ago and seems to have been mainstreamed into everything they do. Again, this is worthwhile question especially given the pressures to show value for money. But the ‘what works?’ question has been with us for a long time.

What might explain this revisiting of research and policy agendas that were well covered twenty years ago? A number of explanations come to mind and the most convincing explanation probably lies in a combination of the explanations.

A first explanation relates to a lack of institutional memory in organisations. Many organisations have taken steps to enhance their institutional learning. Yet, institutional learning is not quite the same as institutional knowledge retention. It would be fair to ask if many of those working in organisations like the UN or World Bank have knowledge of the earlier literature.

There is also the cult of the new, whereby there is a bias towards more recent publications. Certainly this is well proven in academia whereby authors tend to cite newer material.

A third explanation is that the context – especially the international context – has changed in the two decades + since the mid-1990s. Configurations and stances of international organisations have changed considerably since a time when international leaders and policymakers were coming to terms with the post-Cold War world.

A final explanation might be that some problems are indeed intractable and elude answers. In social scientific terms, these are deemed ‘wicked problems’. Every so often someone becomes emboldened enough to attempt to answer them and so starts another round of research.

The most telling aspect of the ‘new’ research agendas will be if they come up with answers that are radically different from research that was conducted twenty years ago.

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5 Responses to “Policy déjà vu – all over again”

  1. Steven Schoofs 05/04/2017 at 12:09 pm #

    Thanks Prof MacGinty for your observations about policy-driven research déjà vu. I think that Mark Duffield’s work gives us some more clues as to what exactly spurs on the latest iteration of research. For Duffield, research/policy entails a strategic discourse that serves to mobilise/justify interventions by ‘strategic complexes’ of different actors.

    In this particular conjuncture I would think that your three examples fit a pattern of defensive mobilisation in the aftermath of Trump’s election, which signals difficult times ahead for “liberal peace”. Hence, i wouldn’t assume that these ‘new’ research agendas are necessarily concerned with finding genuinely news answers to old questions and dilemmas. Rather, I would approach the ‘new’ research first and foremost as a preemptive action to preserve/re-position the international aid enterprise in a changing world.

    Anyway, just a thought and your observation certainly merits further reflection!

    • rogermacginty 05/04/2017 at 1:59 pm #

      Hello Steven, thanks for this. Yes, I agree. In my limited interaction with the policy community I often notice how well informed policymakers are. There are rare occasions when academics tell them anything new. So I think that a lot policymakers often seek ‘a level of comfort’ from academics that will reinforce and give legitimacy to what they already know.

  2. Eleanor O'Gorman 05/04/2017 at 7:26 pm #

    Excellent article and very well observed. I and other colleagues who were on the policy carousel 20 years ago have been pondering this but could not articulate is as well as you have done with the suggested explanations…. too much information may be an issue too with recycling of ideas because decision-makers and actors do not make or take time stop, absorb and reflect. Valuable resources are spent on increasingly complex evaluations that may shed some light and advance the How but these too are tomes that go undigested…..

    • rogermacginty 06/04/2017 at 1:26 pm #

      Hello Eleanor (I feel we should have met at conferences over the years, but actually have not), Yes. I do think there is a danger of too much information out there. My father used to look at disapprovingly at the newspaper and mutter “Paper doesn’t refuse ink”. In other words, there seems no limit to published outputs (many of which have a long life and accessibility because of the web).
      And possibly this is a sign of our age, when many of us on ‘on transmit’ rather than ‘receive’ …?

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