How can researchers and activists influence African governments? Advice from an insider

One of the highlights of the Twaweza meeting was hearing from Togolani Mavura (left), the Private Secretary to former Togolani MavuraPresident Kikwete (in Tanzania, ex-presidents get a staff for life, not like in the UK where they have to hawk themselves round the after dinner speaking circuit). Togolani has worked across the  various policy levels  of the Tanzanian goverment, and his talk reminded me a similarly witty presentation by the UK Foreign Office’s Babu Rahman. Here’s some highlights:

‘Government is not homogeneous – people think differently in every office, every ministry. You guys are asking yourselves how do you get buy in: How to take pilots to scale? How to translate best practices into impact? You wonder ‘what the hell, here are the facts, why are they not responding?! Here are some tips:

Know the System:

You need to understand who holds the key –  Activists spend a lot of time trying to convince the wrong guys. There are those you need to convince, but some officials or politicians just need to be informed, since they have no decision-making influence – you just need their nod.

Which pathway to follow is another catch – parliamentary, thinktank, lobbying officials or civil servants – it depends on the particular policy that you are proposing. Some policies can only be imposed on the executive by the parliament; others emanate from the civil service; for others, you just go to the political party. The National Executive Committee of the ruling party in Tanzania has policy-making powers and can direct the government to act, so get your idea into the party manifesto ahead of the elections.

If, after years of trying, the government has not bought your idea, it is probably because:

– your idea or proposal is good but not good enough compared to those submitted by others

– you have not addressed the core interest, the self-interest, the ‘nerve centre’ of the individual policy makers or core interests of the respective institution e.g. your proposal may render that particular institution irrelevant or threaten their source of revenue

– your idea may just be ahead of its time. In 2010, there was a suggestion for free Universal Primary Education, but Tanzania UPEthe government said it wasn’t possible. In 2015, it adopted free UPE up to Secondary School – the time just hadn’t been right earlier on.

For example, take Twaweza’s idea for paying teachers ‘cash on delivery’ of results. From the policy maker’s point of view, teachers are not just teachers; they are a political pressure group. If you introduce something and it goes bad, the government could fall. It is risky to do experiments on teachers’ welfare. The proposal also needs to be particularly convincing because it has to be scaled up across the country. Tanzania is a unitary system, not a federal system, so any programme has to be introduced in all parts of the country. And if it goes wrong, it can boomerang and trigger an electoral backlash for the party in power.

Learn to see through their eyes:

Government has its own ways of looking at things. Officials are wired to manage stability and predictability and are averse to disorder and instability. Budgetary process is institutionalized and centralized. Individual decision makers and institutions have no freedom to alter the budget passed by the parliament. Therefore, any proposal that you bring which has budgetary implications is likely to be rejected. It is wise therefore to spell out how it can best be financed. Policy makers are humans, and some of them have prejudices – if your proposal has a load of foreigners behind it – they will say ‘the whole idea is alien’!

Messengers are very important. A civil servant will disclose to someone they feel comfortable with. You need to know what they are thinking, know the other side. That gives you the leeway to build something that gets support from both sides.

Use their data:

Governments run through lots of myths. Many of their positions and beliefs are outdated, but have been passed down through generations until they lose their true meaning and become dogma, protected by phrases like ‘this is how it is done around here.’ Like those ‘reuse with an economy label’ signs on government envelopes – that was put on there during some economic crisis in the 60s or 70s, but it’s still on the envelopes!

Data and evidence can overcome such myths, but try and use government data – policy makers are more comfortable when you use data they know and trust. Don’t worry much about the sharpness of the data.  Even if the numbers are not as good as your own, or other independent sources, it’s not a big deal. Yours isn’t a debate about whose statistics are right, but how to influence change. The devil is not in the numbers, but in the narratives!

Timing is Everything:

Master the importance of timing. The Government has its own internal clock and internal calendar. It has moods too. It will buy certain proposals in the run up to elections; others in its first term (if they help get it re-elected); still others in the second term (for its legacy).

The Chinese character for 'crisis'
The Chinese character for ‘crisis’

All governments go through crises at times. For the lobbyist, crisis is an opportunity. There is no better time to lobby for your cause than when the government is struggling to recover from a scandal. Governments are like humans, after a crisis you want to hear good news. It is looking for something to announce, some good news to divert attention from the scandal. That is when to go to politicians with your idea, but the proposal should not be the same subject as the scandal –  it should be a distraction.

Get smarter at Lobbying:

You need to up your game on the art of lobbying. It’s no good just presenting a document with lots of data. That’s not enough. Policy makers are overstretched and overwhelmed. Parliament, donors, politicians and people all want a piece of them. Out of around 500,000 civil servants in Tanzania, maybe only 1-2,000 are actively engaged in the policy-making process. They are overwhelmed by papers. If they do not heed to your wonderful proposal it is not because they are dumb, clueless or indifferent, simply, they are over stretched. You need to find other, creative ways to get their attention and harness their interests.’

Great stuff. It’s interesting to compare this with Babu Rahman’s talk – Togolani seems to place much greater emphasis on understanding the inner workings of policy making, whereas Babu focussed more on punchy, clear presentation. Any other differences?


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5 Responses to “How can researchers and activists influence African governments? Advice from an insider”
  1. Hi Duncan,
    I was looking for an explanation why the Tanzania government changed its mind on Free Universal Primary and Secondary education. It would be great if you could get back to your audience or Togolani Mavura. Was it evidence, donor policy alignment, an idealist position by a minister/president/party charman, mimicry or pressure from electorates? The phrase below hides a lot of information from the public.

    [“your idea may just be ahead of its time”. In 2010, but the government said it wasn’t possible. there was a suggestion for free Universal Primary Education. In 2015, it adopted free UPE up to Secondary School – the time just hadn’t been right earlier on.]

  2. As a consultant working with Twaweza, I had the good fortune to see Togolani’s presentation myself, and it was indeed fascinating. But I think it’s also worth looking at what was not mentioned. And to ask why?

    The media, for example. It’s fairly obvious, I think, that most policy makers would prefer policy making (and influencing) to be done behind closed doors. But there are times when this approach is used to keep researchers happy that they are being listened to, while at the same time policy makers have no intention of acting. And there are times when media coverage of an issue gets it onto the public agenda or forces policy makers to take it more seriously.

    The media can be tricky to worth with. Journalists misrepresent research all the time, and the media is often highly politicised with each newspaper and broadcaster pursuing their own pre-set agenda. More tricky still is the fact that critical media coverage can harden policy makers’ attitudes against you. But the media can also force policy makers to engage with an issue, or to recognise the strength of public opinion and thus the potential political costs of not taking action.

    Policy makers would prefer advocacy to take place in private, but that doesn’t mean we should always agree.

  3. ‘You can do beautiful research, if it does not involve government from the beginning, if it has not involved other stakeholders from the beginning, then its uptake will be seriously limited.’

    Fascinating to read this. Thanks for sharing!

    In late 2017, EHPSA (a DFID and SIDA funded ”evidence in action’ programme focussing on HIV prevention: commissioned INASP to examine factors
    affecting the way evidence is used by policymakers in HIV prevention policymaking in eastern and southern Africa. So, it asked a similar question to the one that you posed to Togolani, but framed differently, and in the sensitive context of HIV prevention. The findings – presented via infographic, evidence brief and reports – may be found at Not surprisingly, there were some common findings to Togolani’s insights, particularly around the messenger and messages, and ensuring that policy-makers have a sense of attachment to the research and data through early engagement. There were also some specifics arising from the sensitivities of working in HIV prevention for groups such as MSM (men who have sex with men) and adolescents for whom sexual activity runs counter to deep rooted values. In particular, policy-makers acknowledged that personal values may be brought into consideration, and spoke of the importance of astute framing of the issues – taking a public health approach has traction, appealing to universal rights may be more tricky.

  4. Gawain Kripke

    i find the comment about using data that policy-makers are comfortable – and that they own – to be really important. This insight comes up again and again from different sources. Bringing in new analysis, with foreign or unfamiliar data, creates an obstacle to policy makers. How do they rationalize this with their existing data and analysis? How can they justify ignoring their own in favor of yours? Why would they?

    I think this points to a big potential flaw in some big initiatives in the development sector to generate and utilize a lot of new data. If the policy-makers don’t own it, it won’t matter. Even if the new data and analysis is MUCH BETTER, MORE TIMELY, MORE DETAILED, etc.

    To be effective, it seems necessary to a) use their own data as Togolani suggests, or b) co-create new data and analysis, which is a bigger and more time-consuming enterprise.

    I think the question of who owns and creates data and analysis ends up being as important as what the data and analysis say. At least if the goal is to have the data and analysis generate policy change of any kind.