In Nicaragua’s Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), there is no single experience of childhood.
For a child in seaside Prinzapolka, a highlight of daily life might be playing on the town’s sandy beaches. In rural northern Wangky Maya, the picture of home might be mother and sisters standing over a smoking wood stove in the yard. Children may spend their after-school hours helping split firewood and carry well water home; others might join friends around the neighborhood church for a pick-up soccer game or help with a small bread baking business run out of the family house.
Equally diverse are the constraints affecting these children’s lives: economic weakness in RAAN, poor physical infrastructure, lingering effects of conflict and natural disaster, and sociocultural complexity. Almost one-third of RAAN children suffer from chronic malnutrition and poverty affects 34 percent of children up to 17 years of age—nearly twice the rate of poverty in and around Nicaragua’s capital, Managua.
For policymakers in RAAN keen to draft a comprehensive policy to protect children’s rights, this reality presents a challenge: how to design a policy that can account for the diverse array of circumstances and needs facing the children of the region?
Empathy is a good place to start.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Channeling empathy into the policymaking process means intentionally seeking a deep understanding of the lived experiences of those a policy will affect to inform how that policy is designed.
Previously, we’ve written about how operationalizing empathy in international aid institutions can support more successful development programs. When applied to the policymaking process, an empathetic approach helps ensure: 1) the process is collaborative, grounded in regular engagement between policymakers and constituents; and, ultimately, 2) the resulting policy is both inclusive and appropriately tailored to the local context, able to serve as an effective framework for guiding programmatic interventions.
Together with UNICEF, we implemented this approach to help channel empathy into the policymaking process in RAAN. Some of the concrete steps we took included:
Our work in RAAN was a first step toward an approach to policymaking that channels user research and individual empathy into contextualized policy interventions backed by political investment. But the process illuminated key challenges that will require further exploration to develop this approach.
First, how can an empathy-based policymaking approach be made more accessible and less overwhelming? This approach can be time- and effort-intensive.
Partnerships have the potential to ease the burden, but significant iteration will be required to determine the sweet spot for cooperation and stakeholder involvement depending on the environment and political interests.
Second, how can the results of empathy-building user research be channeled into sound policy?
There is no “off-the-shelf” formula to pull from here. Policymaking is, ultimately, a political activity and greater empathy is not necessarily a guarantee for more politically palatable solutions. In RAAN, this approach cultivated a shared experience for institutional factions with contentious histories, allowing them to work productively together. But this might not have been the case in another context.
With this in mind, the challenge is now to further explore the strong potential of greater empathy in policymaking to help manage and channel political interests in regions worldwide, while serving those whose needs are being overlooked. If we are able to continue working toward a more sophisticated approach to policymaking in different contexts, we will succeed in truly valuing those for whom these policies are built.
Above Photo: A RAAN policymaker builds the story of community member archetype the research group created. Archetypes helped to put a human face on research findings during Reboot’s recent work in Nicaragua.