Insight Note

Where There’s a Will There’s a Way: The Role of Political Will in Creating/Producing/Shaping Education Systems for Learning

Key Points

  • In this Insight Note, political will is defined as “the extent of committed support among key decision makers for a particular policy solution to a particular problem.”
  • There are three necessary conditions for a meaningful prioritisation of learning in education systems:
    • First, the highest authorities of a state must have the political will to prioritise learning.
    • Second, the highest authorities of a state must define learning goals as universal goals and want to get every child learning, as opposed to regarding education systems as selection or filtration systems that cater only to a few high-performing students.
    • Third, the highest authorities of a state must employ a long-horizon view to reap the long-term benefits of a learning-oriented system.
  • Depending on the political context, there are different ways in which political will is formed, as citizens’ power to hold their state to account varies. As a result, the responsiveness of states to their citizens’ priorities varies as well.
  • This Insight Note introduces a typology to distinguish between different political contexts with distinct processes of political will formation. This typology can also be used to describe the different ways in which political will may be fostered in contexts where it is lacking.


Image of Carmen Belafi

Carmen Belafi

Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford


In past decades, the world has witnessed a massive expansion of schooling in low- and middle-income countries. At the same time, the world did notwitness a massive improvement in learning in school (Pritchett, 2013). Recent evidence actually suggests most developing countries experienced a significant deterioration in learning (measured by long-term trends in literacy) per year of schooling since the 1960s (Le Nestour et al., 2020).

Why is it that governments did not demonstrate similar commitment to learning as they did for schooling? Recent studies emphasise that there is no ‘politicsof education’ as the politics of schooling must be fundamentally different from the politics of learning. As has been recognised since the 1970s (Boli-Bennet and Meyer 1978; Boli et al. 1985), a politics of schooling must explain not why countries are so different, but rather why they are so much the same in access and increase in grade attainment, even across very different national income levels and political regime types (i.e., both democratic and autocratic states expandedschooling). In sharp contrast, a politics of learning mustexplain why some countries do so very well while othercountries, even at similar levels of national development,do so very badly (Pritchett and Sandefur, 2020; Bruns et al., 2019; Hickey and Hossain, 2019; Levy et al., 2018; Pritchett 2018).

Vietnam is a striking case in point. Vietnam’s PISA performance showed Vietnamese students performing better than those in the UK or the USA. It is very hard to explain Vietnam’s achievement of high and equitable levels of learning in terms of level of income, the characteristics of the students going into schools (Glewwe et al., 2021), or the standard correlates of performance identified by PISA (Dang et al., 2020). A large multi-disciplinary team of researchers has been working on the question of why Vietnam has been so successful for years and, when pressed, one researcher’s answer was: “because they wanted it.”This Insight Note is very much a struggle to take “because they wanted it” seriously as key to the politics of learning.

“Because they wanted it” challenges the widespread maintained assumption that low learning outcomes can be traced back to technocratic], resource, input, programme design, or implementation problems, which, if solved , would lead to improvements and that these problems can be solved at a ‘management’ level. “Because they wanted it” highlights the importance of political conditions and dynamics that create binding constraints to education reform, to improving learning outcomes, and to aligning education systems for learning (Bruns and Schneider, 2016; World Bank, 2018). Pritchett (2019b) underscores this important difference by distinguishing between the proximate determinants of learning (such as time on task and teachers’ presence/absence from the classroom as an observable indicator within the education sector itself) and the political and policy determinants that represent the deeper causes of high teacher absenteeism. Viewing teacher absenteeism as a management failure alone rather than a result of an overall system failure, dysfunctionality, or incoherence can lead to ineffective policy recommendations that do not take into account the political, social, and historical dynamics in which the education sector is embedded (ibid; see also Bruns and Schneider, 2016).

This Insight Note argues that political will is a decisive factor in explaining both the homogeneity in the expansion of schooling and the heterogeneity in the expansion of learning, and introduces three takeaways as necessary conditions for a meaningful and sustained prioritisation of learning:

  1. The highest authorities of a country have the political will to prioritise learning.
  2. The highest authorities of a country want to get every child learning (as they define learning goals as universal goals).
  3. The highest authorities of a country adopt a long-horizon view to reap the benefits of a learning-oriented system for the long haul.

That said, there are good reasons why many disdain appeals to ‘political will’ and why political will is described as “the slipperiest concept in the policy lexicon” (Hammergren 1998: 12).1 My purpose is not to invoke political will as a deus ex machina or an exogenously given characteristic of a country like its latitude. I explore what political will is (and who needs to have it), how one can identify it, and how it arises in different political regime types. To make “because they wanted it” a workable and useful insight, we need to dig deeper into questions such as: “How do some countries come to want to and others not?” and “What, if anything, can be done to foment the wanting to?”

As will be shown, the standard RISE Systems Framework is only partially capable of explaining how the political willof the highest authorities of a state is formed. Therefore, an additional typology of political regimes is introduced to distinguish between different modalities of rule and state-society relations. This typology not only helps in separating different ways in which political will is formed, but also outlines different pathways for how political will may be fostered, depending on the type of regime.

The Insight Note is structured as follows: Section 2 defines the term ‘political will’. Section 3 hones in on the three key points and offers empirical examples of political will and prioritisation of learning. Section 4 discusses the formation of political will in different political contexts and highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the RISE Systems Framework in capturing the different modalities of political will formation. Section 5 introduces a typology of political regimes that can help guide analysis on how political will is formed in different regime types and how interventions to create political will may have to look different depending on the type of political system. Section 6 concludes.

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  • 1Other authors commenting on the vagueness and lack of analytical merit of many definitions of political will include: Thomas and Grindle, 1990: 1164-1165; Corrales 2006: 36-37; Levy 2018: 22. For a discussion of political will as a binary vs. continuous concept and political will as an individual-level vs. group-level concept, see Post et al. 2010. Persson and Sjöstedt 2012 discuss two additional problems of common definitions of political will: Circularity (i.e. lack of success in reform efforts is explained in an ex-post analysis by the initial lack of political will, not distinguishing between being unwilling and unable to implement successful reform) and voluntarism (i.e. attributing political will and political behavior to the political actor alone, without taking into consideration the opportunities and constraints of the political and social context and the influence of other stakeholders in the system).


Belafi, C. 2022. Where There’s a Will There’s a Way: The Role of Political Will in Creating/Producing/Shaping Education Systems for Learning. RISE Insight Series. 2022/043.