Within international development circles we often hear and read of Policy Platforms. The problem is that, though they are policies, they rarely have platforms at the centre of their proposed action. Too often they are prescriptions for how to approach an issue or problem.
What is the difference? A platform establishes a foundation through which the people most involved or affected by a development issue can debate, organise, and review to address that issue. A prescription outlines the funder or international agency view on what should happen to address the issue - the steps it will encourage people to take and the actions the funder or international agency will support.
A classic example of a distinction without a difference? Not to me. The difference between a platform and a prescription is in my view the difference between effective and ineffective development policies. As the economists now seem to agree, the key components for effective action are People, Ideas and Things - see the previous blog on this theme. The key issue for development is from which people and from where do the ideas come? This is the difference between a prescription (the experts) and a platform (the people most affected).
To exemplify, let's contrast the approach to two major development issues. You can hardly make a compelling case from two examples, but they do highlight the difference between prescription and platform when it comes to policy.
Significantly expanding the involvement of people participating in the governance of their countries is a vitally important development goal. The world has watched with attentive interest as the recent events have unfolded in the Islamic Republic of Iran. No matter what your view of the merits of the various cases made by the elements and factions in this struggle, everyone can agree that there are important participative government dynamics being played out. (Interestingly Iran is a country that has very little international development community involvement within the country and probably zero level of that minimal involvement is focused on participative government processes.)
What has happened in Iran is that the people of Iran found a platform upon which they could debate, organise, and review in order to raise the issues and take the actions they wish to take in their context. That platform is the digital technologies. Twitter has received the most attention for blame or praise depending on your perspective. But Facebook, YouTube, texting, Google maps, email, and a range of websites have been equally important - both as individual platforms and collectively.
These digital processes are neutral. They are, in an economist's terms, just 'things'. What gives them their vibrancy, meaning, and relevance are the people using them and the ideas they are sharing. And the proof of this comes from the negative. Those opposing the people expressing their ideas and organising through the digital technologies adopted as their first and still primary strategy efforts to close or neutralise these platforms. In and of itself this makes the point about the power of platforms.
Contrast the people-led, platform-based processes in Iran with the World Bank's most recent response to the global economic crisis as it affects the (so called) developing world - the economically poorest countries. Three quotes from the Guiardian newspaper (deliberate typo - Guardian fans will know why) highlight the problem and policy prescription as defined and prescribed by The World Bank:
Of course it is more complicated than that, but this is the essence of the approach.
The key people here are the World Bank and international financial community staff. It is their ideas. There is no platform being established here. This is a prescription - more money, more inter-agency coordination, and tighter regulation. No platform is being built for the people most affected by the economic crisis to debate, decide, and review their approach to their situation.
It is (a little) unfair to single out the World Bank. I could have equally taken other major international agency examples - see for example the issues around the Gates Foundation HIV strategy in India - a summary in Business India outlines the issues - but that would also have been unfair.
In response to the very scary global financial prognosis there have to be platforms that support the people most affected to debate their ideas and to organise and review around the ideas they define as the best. The same applies to other development issues, including HIV/AIDS and participative government.
Based on the learning from very significant precedents, including the two above, let's build more platforms and issue fewer prescriptions. We need to be builders, not chemists.