The drivers of political will

There is little empirical evidence regarding the drivers of political will. In the late 2000s, several authors started to address this gap and tried to unpack the concept in order to understand it better. For example, Malena (2009) disaggregated the concept into three elements, defining political will as the sum of political want, political can and political must. For power holders to commit and act in favour of a certain cause they need “to want to undertake a given action, feel confident that they can undertake that action and feel that they must undertake the action”.  

Political will is therefore closely connected to implementation capacity and what may look to outsiders as a lack of political will to advance certain reforms may actually be a symptom of insufficient government capacity. At the individual level, for example, a central component of political will is the policy makers’ assessment of whether or not he or she would be able to successfully implement the sought reform. The political calculus is “best not to try if we are not sure we have the means to make progress”[1]. This means that even if politicians are interested in passing reforms, a lack of abilities, skills, resources or mechanisms to do so are likely to result in a lack of political will to push for these reforms. Therefore, state actors need confidence in their abilities and the will of other important stakeholders to cooperate in the implementation of the reforms. This suggests that, in many circumstances, creating political will become a task of developing government capacity.  

There are other factors that also play a role in building the political will of policy makers to undertake certain reforms (see Brinkerhoff 2000: 241-242).  

Individual factors

At the most basic level, the willingness of political actors to support anti-corruption reforms is linked to their personal beliefs, aspirations, motivations and values. Some actors might be intrinsically motivated to fight against corruption, while others will have to be convinced.

Organisational factors

Organisational mandates, culture, established practices and procedures also influence political will and political actions of individuals who act on their behalf. Organisational-level factors can have an impact on the political will of the individuals therein.

Relational factors

Although political will is often related to the will of state power holders, many governance reforms, such as anti-corruption reforms, also require the participation of citizens and civil society. Therefore, pressure exercised by these group on power holders will also have an effect on the political will of state actors. Creating political will for anti-corruption reforms in a context where citizens are disengaged or where the relationship between the government and the civil society is characterised by mutual distrust or hostility is particularly difficult.  

Societal factors

Where there is a legacy and/or remnants of authoritarianism or dictatorship and where the notions of democracy and active citizenship are still being consolidated, building political will is particularly challenging. In such contexts, real decision-making power sometimes lies outside formal government institutions and in the hands of an elite that seeks to serve its own interests rather than the well-being of society as a whole. Generating political support for anti-corruption reforms in situations like these is extremely difficult because public officials benefiting from corrupt deals will resist the call for more transparency and accountability.  

There is a broad consensus that political will is closely associated with the quality of governance[2]. Since poor governance goes hand in hand with a culture of impunity, public officials feel little obligation to be accountable to citizens and citizens have limited expectations that their elected leaders should be accountable to them. As a result, in such environments, public officials face little pressure to change their behaviour. Moreover, the most fundamental problem in such situations is that these unaccountable elites must essentially police themselves. Political will therefore requires a minimum standard of governance that has at least a certain degree of participatory, responsive and transparent decision making and a respect for the rule of law. If corruption is endemic, the chances of political will emerging and sustaining these reforms are very low.


  • [1]

    Brinkerhoff, D.W. 2010. “Unpacking the concept of political will to control corruption”, U4 Policy Brief, Bergen: Chr. Michelsen Institute

  • [2]

    Brinkerhoff, D.W. 2010. “Unpacking the concept of political will to control corruption”, U4 Policy Brief, Bergen: Chr. Michelsen Institute and Fritzen, S. 2006. “Beyond ‘political will’: how institutional context shapes the implementation of anti-corruption policies”, Policy and Society, Vol 24, No. 3


Roberto Martínez B. Kukutschka


Marie Chêne, Finn Heinrich, PhD, Transparency International, Carmen Malena, CIVICUS



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