“I work on policy, which means…?”

My work these days is focused on policy.

A few years back, I would not have imagined myself going into policy research. At that time, I was a reticent researcher; concerned that I would leave behind the world of folks who do things in order and enter the world of folks who sit around by themselves to think about things. From that concern, it was unthinkable that I would someday focus my thinking energies on ideas and proclamations that might not ever happen. Or at least those were my perspectives on research and policy. At the time, I would have placed policy research high on the list of things that should probably not even be things.

More recently, I have come to see that policy might just matter. Persons with disabilities participating in my research in Mongu and Kalabo districts spoke repeatedly and in-detail about the need for effective Social Cash Transfers. Policy affects budgets and it affects jobs; its high-level influence enables some possibilities while suppressing others.

There is one particular challenge that dogs my work on disability policy in Zambia: what counts as policy?

One policy researcher colleague of mine promotes a wide definition, stating that “policy is anything that a government chooses to do, which inherently includes the things that a government chooses to not do.” Obviously, this definition is broad; yet in some ways it feels too narrow.

This government-focused definition would not encompass the pro-disability inclusion hiring policies of foreign-owned supermarkets in Zambia. Taken literally, the definition would not include the policies of influential non-governmental organizations or international organizations (i.e., the UN, UNICEF).

Even within the policies of the Government of Zambia, identifying those that relate to disability is not straightforward task. Some of these policies are very obviously about disability, with one of these named “The National Policy on Disability.” Meanwhile, a policy on higher education that makes scant or no reference to disability – this is policy that certainly matters to Zambians with disabilities, but is it disability policy?

Of course I will make systematic, intentional, and rational decisions about what I consider to be disability policy. Indeed, it is for that reason that I am humbly declaring my uncertainty on this matter: I am looking for opportunities to learn from others and discuss these choices.

Fortunately, through the generous interventions of colleagues of colleagues, I have started to make inroads into the Zambian disability policy community. But I can use a wider network. If you are someone who knows about policy research and loves to talk about it, be sure to get in touch!

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