How can ethnography assist international organisations in understanding the impact of their research on local policy? As part of a small expert group I recently launched a report for the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) where we analysed the processes, practices and circumstances that facilitate or hinder the influence and uptake of ACIAR commissioned research within Lao policy contexts.

My key contribution to this research activity was the identification of determinants of policy-making and research impact in Laos through literature reviews (English and Lao) and ethnographic observation.

This was the first ethnographic study of policy makers in Lao PDR, and by Lao ethnographers, and involved

  • training of local research assistants in ethnographic methods;
  • interviews;
  • group observation of consultation meetings;
  • close analysis of how representatives present their views in the National Assembly; and
  • autoethnography on previous experiences and on the experience of doing this fieldwork itself.

As part of the literature review, we
• identified the thoughts of Chairman Kaysone Phomvihane as an important touchstone for the principles and concepts of policy-making in Lao PDR;
• translated many of these and coded them in NVIVO, an important step towards making more of the thoughts of Chairman Kaysone available to people who read in English;
• expanded the Lao literature review when COVID-19 lockdowns meant we could not conduct the planned ethnographic fieldwork in person, to keep the research moving forward; and
• found that newspapers were a rich source of reporting.

Most important findings

The Concept of nanyobay The Lao-to-Lao dictionary definition of nanyobay is very similar to the contemporary meaning of policy in English. According to Maha Sila Viravong’s dictionary, it can be defined as ‘The method or way things are to be done in a certain process’, similar to the meanings attached to policy in English. However, there is a second use of nanyobay in everyday speech. In this sense, policy means something similar to ‘special treatment’ and might even look like corruption to others, or be deemed socially damaging. Yet it also has a positive sense of something like compassion or loving-kindness. In Chairman Kaysone’s speeches, synonyms for nanyobai are support and encouragement. The divergence between nanyobai 1 (nanyobai as policy) and nanyobai 2 (nanyobai as assistance) can cause misunderstandings in Laos. One interviewee warned ACIAR researchers that if they used nanyobai carelessly in village level work, it may raise expectations that the project was there to offer some special one-off assistance. In other cases, nanyobai 1 and 2 merge in common usage, for example, in a speech by PM Phankham on returning migrants, the claims that ‘this is the government’s policy’ was both a statement that he was taking a compassionate view of the migrants (nanyobai 2) and a statement that the government policy position on the migrants was to accept them (nanyobai 1). In our interviews and literature review, it became apparent that any talk of nanyobai 1 (policy goals and processes) was almost always illustrated in terms of nanyobai 2, i.e. the government helping the people. For instance, one other employee of a Department of Policy and Legal Affairs said: ‘If there is no problem, there is no nanyobai,’ indicating that policy is understood always as a response to an on-the-ground issue. This can be contrasted to the Australian usage of ‘policy’ to mean the impossibility of helping someone. For instance, in Australia it is common to hear ‘Sorry, that is our policy,’ which is a semi-polite (but also dismissive) way of saying: ‘I can’t help you/my hands are tied,’ as if non-help could be justified by referring to something higher and impersonal: policy in the sense of a depersonalised and rational measure that cannot make exceptions. Nanyobai does not communicate this meaning it has in Australia of non-help; policy is about addressing problems, policy is usually urgent and reactive, the exceptional measures taken in order to offer the help needed.

The importance of consultation Our ethnographic observations of policy making processes confirmed that consultations, meetings, and group approaches to identifying and addressing problems were very much part of the lived fabric of policy processes in Lao PDR. Consultations were a core part of development the Forestry Strategy 2035. One of the prime authors of the strategy said that the process began with a review of the previous strategy, a review which ‘involved many parties.’ We also heard in interviews that wide consultation is the preferred means for any research project. This style of research was much preferred to a model where researchers plan and execute a project in isolation, and only afterwards sought to contact wider stakeholder groups, such as policymakers. One policy maker said in an ethnographic interview:

“Sometimes, they do an entire research project and they do everything, even the policy recommendations, and then they come to us.” He said this with a tone of surprise, as if suggesting this is not collaborative enough. It is an “citkagum nueng seu”, a one-off activity, implying that it is not enough to base a policy on.

Emulation and outstanding results Reporting in Laos often takes the form of ‘good news stories’ of someone or a group doing things well and succeeding. This contrasts with much research and policy work, where the first step is to identify a problem and then solve it. In the emulation model, by contrast, research and policy is about identifying what works, and publicising the good news and inviting others to come and visit in order to learn more and emulate. ACIAR research that provides good news stories and demonstration sites that people can visit may chime with an existing political culture where emulation is an entrenched part of the political philosophy. It is notable that both project areas included in the study with most policy impact in Lao PDR (fisheries and forestry) also shared in common a demonstration site. In the case of the fisheries, this was located in a village that was very involved in the project, including hands-on involvement in experimental work. Not all policy movement is from the top down. There is also an important lateral, peer to peer movement, where ‘outstanding and excellent’ examples are reported widely and copied. Reporting often takes the form of ‘good news stories’ of someone or a group doing things well and succeeding.

Policy Churn The reality of conducting our project involved participating in a setting where policy change was all around us. Interviewing policymakers, we often found ourselves interviewing people who were not certain how long their departments and jobs would last, or who had changed roles two or three times in recent years. During the period of our research, the funding and mandate for research in Laos was undergoing significant change. The Ministry of Science and Technology was abolished, and its component parts divided to relevant Ministries. Research institutes were relocated to the Ministry of Education, with the one percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) earmarked for research also allocated to that ministry. The changes were ongoing as we were writing this report. Policy churn contributes to busyness. The policymakers we spoke to were uniformly busy. Some of our interviews were interrupted by calls and visitors. We argue that busyness is not a trivial matter: instead, it is a key characteristic and constraint of policy-making in Laos. It shapes policy, and it shapes the uptake of research in policy. Busy policymakers may feel they do not have time to reach out to scientists to ask for help, and researchers may feel they do not have time to research. Perhaps it is not the length of research reports, but the busyness of people, policymakers included, that is the true barrier here? In relation to our research question, the phenomena and negative impacts of policy churn are worth taking seriously, as they raise the question of whether organisations are indeed best advised to encourage researchers to pursue ‘policy impact’ in the sense of changing policies and thus contributing to churn. Alternatives to consider might be that researchers aim to demonstrate their ‘leadership’ on certain issues and ‘influence’ over certain outcomes or show through their research how some good can be extracted from existing policy (working at the level where implementation is problematic), rather than a narrow focus on changing policy.