International Geneva actors, and other communities aiming to implement the Sustainable Development Goals, need an approach that helps to filter information, grasp complexity, and make decisions despite uncertainty – this is the purpose of evidence-based thinking.

The GSPI event series on evidence-based thinking in practice aims to support exchange and learning on challenges and practical approaches for evidence-based thinking across Geneva’s policy and research communities. Our first event had shed light on the importance of evidence-based thinking, and highlighted barriers and pragmatic strategies to achieve it nevertheless.

One of the barriers is related to the fact that evidence-based thinking takes place in a social and political context that features power dynamics. The purpose of our second event was to discuss this reality, and explore how researchers, policy-makers and practitioners can navigate and factor in power dynamics and politics in the path towards evidence-based policies.

On Tuesday October 1st, twenty-eight participants from diverse backgrounds attended GSPI’s event on Politics & Power in Evidence-based Policy.

After a set of welcoming remarks by GSPI Executive Director Nicolas Seidler and moderator Louise Gallagher, three experts shared their insights on the role of power in evidence-based policy.

Anja Kaspersen, Director of the United Nations’ Disarmament Office in Geneva (UNODA), shared her experience as a former diplomat and from her current position, which involves providing evidence to member states. She emphasised that diplomats are often tasked to push for agendas rather than wait and update their priorities in light of new evidence. She portrayed her work as that of a ‘professional translator’, one that ensures that people with diverging views and powers understand each other and can find compromises.

Ms Kaspersen also advanced that scientists do have power and should use it whenever they can. One example is the Biological Weapons Convention which was largely driven by scientists who were closely in touch with policy-makers.

Lastly, together with her colleague Scott Brummel, she presented their current work on analysing the formal process around Lethal Autonomous Weapons (LAWS). The idea is to uncover and reduce human biases in topical negotiations using automated analyses of public input documents by member states. Their goal is to progressively understand how UNODA and other UN agencies can better provide evidence-based support to member states.

Phil Gass, Senior Policy Advisor at the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), expressed the view that science and facts do not carry much weight if politics and power hinder policy change.

He presented the insights IISD collected in an effort to map power dynamics in Indonesia. Power-mapping is a method that enables to understand power networks and identify the leverage points to create policy change. In this case, IISD was able to uncover some of the power dynamics behind political blockages regarding renewable energy. IISD identified that the people who support renewable energy are the ones with the least amount of power or engagement level, despite their large number size.

His colleague, Chris Beaton, argued that power-mapping can be thought of as the first step in the dialogue that opposing parties should have to create change. For IISD, this type of analysis and the resulting advocacy strategies allow them to use evidence in a more effective way to foster policy change.

Finally, Moira Faul, Deputy Director of the Public-Private Partnership Center at the University of Geneva, presented her on-going work in network analysis to better understand policy networks and partnership dynamics.

Featuring a case from her recent research, she showed the significant differences that can exist between maps of multistakeholder partnerships on paper (formal), and how they look in practice when understood through interviews (informal). While the former one showed actors with equal relationships and power, the latter displayed a much more centralized picture with donor states and multilateral institutions as key actors holding more power.

Interestingly, Dr Faul also explained that the more central the actors in a given network, the less they believe about the importance of power, and conversely. Moreover, she explained the role of nodes at the intersections of network clusters, playing a gatekeeping and brokerage role and thus in a position to decide when and why different clusters can connect, and how evidence can flow.

There seemed to be a general consensus among the participants that politics and power are a reality that not only needs to be better understood, but also factored in by a wider range of actors beyond lobbies and advocacy organisations. This is particularly true for scientific actors and think tanks aiming for their knowledge to have an impact in the world. This is also something that policy actors need to acknowledge and address if their goals are to promote stronger evidence-based policies able to address complex challenges identified under the umbrella of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Interested in receiving information or to make suggestions about our next events? Reach out to us at contact@gspi.ch or subscribe directly to our newsletter to stay informed.


Event agenda

16:30 WELCOME, Nicolas Seidler, Executive Director, Geneva Science-Policy Interface

16:40 DISCUSSION, Introduced and moderated by Dr Louise Gallagher, University of Geneva

  • Dr. Moira Faul, Deputy Director,  Public-Private Partnership Center
  • Phil Gass, Senior Policy Advisor, International Institute for Sustainable Development
  • Anja Kaspersen, Director, United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs