What is policy, how is it made and what are the ethical dilemmas faced by policymakers?

What is policy? 

Policy refers broadly to a set of actions designed to address an issue or achieve specific outcomes. It is often seen as being about allocation of resources – deciding who gets what and how it is paid for.  

The UN states the importance of policies being ‘integrated’ and defines policy for sustainable development as the following: 

An integrated policy is one that maximizes benefits to the three dimensions of sustainable development – economic, social and environmental – not as a sum, but each in its own right.

Policies exist in a range of contexts, from the national and international levels to local governments and sport clubs. In sport and development, the term is often used to refer to decisions made by governments, intergovernmental organisations and sports federations – those who tend to have the influence to affect the sport and development sector more broadly. However, the meaning and the implementation process for policy varies greatly depending on the context. 

The term ‘policymakers’ is wide-ranging. In different contexts, it can refer to the board members of an organisation, government ministers or the management team of a sports federation, for example. This section will summarise the role of different actors in creating and implementing policy, from the local to international level. 

Of particular importance to sport and development are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). They are a set of 17 global goals which a broad range of actors aim to achieve by 2030. They provide a framework for national policies that will help achieve these goals and improve the lives of citizens around the world. They are designed to be implemented in all countries, regardless of their level of development, and the results in different countries will be accumulated and measured against global targets. The SDGs are vital to the sport and development sector, and many organisations have taken steps to realign their work to focus on achieving these goals.  

How is policy made?

While the exact process varies between countries and contexts, the basic process for policymaking follows a similar pattern: 

  1. Recognition: The first stage involves calling attention to the need to address or prevent a public issue, often through legislation or other actions. Government officials and advocates work to ensure the issue becomes part of the national agenda.
  2. Formulation and adoption: Once a solution to the problem is proposed, policymakers formulate a draft of the policy. This process is different in every country, but generally members of government work together with other stakeholders to agree upon legislation and/or plans that will be put in place.
  3. Implementation: Depending on the policy, it is up to national and local governments, civil society actors, other stakeholders and communities to see that the policy is carried out effectively.
  4. Evaluation: Finally, it is necessary to ensure that the policy is achieving the proposed outcomes, which can be difficult to measure. Typically, social policies remain in place for a long duration, but can be amended or terminated if they do not effectively address the original problem or if this original problem has been solved. 

Ethical dilemmas in policymaking

When a new policy is designed and implemented, it can be accompanied by an ethical review intended to anticipate potential challenges and ensure minimal risks to the population affected by the policy. As policies are context-specific, questions often revolve around cultural differences, for example how certain ‘values’ are defined. Countries in the Global North are sometimes accused of ‘cultural imperialism’ because of perceptions that development policies impose western values on other parts of the world. 

A related ethical issue is that policies in sport and development tend to be driven by actors from the Global North, despite most projects being implemented in the Global South. There is not always sufficient attention paid to ensuring that voices from the countries those policies most affect are prominent in discussions, which also raises questions about whether development policies adequately meet the needs of countries they are intended to serve. There may also be a divide between policy and practice, which needs to be rectified.

It is also important to consider where resources are allocated. Recently, the allocation of funding to international development has formed part of the national debate in many countries. Some politicians, members of the public and media outlets argue that public funding would be better spent ‘closer to home’. Others view development spending as a responsibility and the ethical thing to do. These debates become particularly prominent following financial crises. 

Some countries, such as Australia, have reduced the percentage of GDP spent on international development. Others, such as the United Kingdom, have sought to reshape their development policy by focusing on countries and approaches perceived to be in ‘the national interest’. Opponents of such policies argue that they lessen the impact of development work by no longer focusing on where the need is greatest.  

Related, policies have to decide which areas receive more attention. Should the priority be gender equality, reducing malnutrition or combatting communicable diseases? Making these decisions requires a complex and comprehensive ethical review. As Dr David Bromell writes, “public policymaking almost invariably involves an interweaving of information, interests and ideologies—or facts, values and theories of social dynamics and social change.”

In sport and development, some people argue that efforts and funding would be better spent elsewhere: why set up a football project following a natural disaster, when people don’t have enough to eat? Advocates of using sport find themselves frequently in a battle to persuade policymakers of its value. 

They may find themselves having to repeat those arguments, as a country’s acceptance of sport and development might fluctuate depending on who is in government, as might a sports federation when its management or board change. The closure of the United Nations Office on Sport for Development and Peace (UNOSDP) in 2017 shows that this kind of unpredictability can also affect intergovernmental organisations. 

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This section was developed in partnership with The Commonwealth.