Backgrounder: Avian ‘flu: the politics and policy processes of a global response

Framing policy: the case of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI)

The central focus of this project is an analysis of policy framings and the way different actors, networks and interests coalesce around these. The project asks what are the dominant framings of the problem – and what responses do these result in? Through an assessment of the responses of different international bodies – including the FAO, the WHO, the OIE, as well as donor organisations – the project will ask how effective, equitable and resilient is the emerging international response.

Where are the areas of doubt and dissent?

The project will start though an analysis of documents and statements, supported by a set of interviews with key players. This will outline the core narratives of policy, defining the contours of the (official and unofficial) debate.Through an analysis of key terms, assumptions and problem-solution framings, the research will ask: where are the areas of doubt, contest, dissent and uncertainty? Through this process the central actors and networks will be identified.

The research will ask who are the main actors at the international level and how do they line up around different narratives? And how, in turn, do ‘scientists’, different ‘national’ players, corporates etc, interact in these networks? Deriving from this analysis key politics and interests, defining the political economy of the debate, will be assessed.


The following is a list of potential themes – under 4 general groupings – which are being pursued:

1. Policy framings and institutional mandates

  • Agriculture and health systems and (bio)security – defining the issue at a global level, examining different framings of the issue from different actors/networks
  • Sectoral framings and responsibilities – competition over boundaries. How institutional and sectoral territoriality – notably between WHO, OIE and FAO -affects both the framing of the issue but also the definition of responsibilities.
  • International agencies: mandates and the politics of coordination. A focus on the mandates, responses and activities of the key trio of international agencies, and how they have/have not managed to coordinated a global public response.
  • System shifts and sustainability – big farming, small farming. How the debate about a zoonotic disease is linked to wider discussions about livelihoods and farming systems, adding a new dimension to debates about the sustainability and broader pros and cons of different farming futures in different parts of the world.
  • Scapegoats or geese: wild birds as threat. Identifying who or what is the problem – migratory birds, backyard poultry farms, large industrial units etc, etc. – has been a key element of the policy debate. How has this debate emerged, what scapegoats have been identified, and how has this affected the unfolding of the policy process (and the formation of interest/lobby groups)?

2. Risk, uncertainty and future scenarios

  • Risk, uncertainty, hazard, susceptibility – policy judgements. How discussions of these terms are framed, and how a low risk-high (potential) impact, associated with deep uncertainty/ignorance, is judged by science/scientists and in international policy debates.
  • Scenarios and impacts – futures possible. Much of the global debate has been centred around often dramatic scenarios of potential impact. The parallel with the 1918 flu epidemic is often repeated. But how are such scenarios constructed, where are the uncertainties, what are the assumptions?

3. Dynamic disease ecologies and epidemiological models

  • Changing ecologies of disease and changing landscapes of vulnerability. How growing understandings of disease ecologies (of avian flu and similar diseases) is influencing our understandings of likely impacts, particularly when disease spread is seen in relation to changing patterns of vulnerability (e.g. through HIV/AIDS in Africa).
  • Science of control and surveillance – local epidemiologies, global models. Global response has been based on a particular – and necessarily limited – understanding of epidemiological dynamics. Response strategies, including considerable investment in surveillance, are based on these. But how realistic and relevant are these, given the local epidemiological contexts where avian flu exists.
  • Focusing efforts – origins, outbreaks or impacts. Where should global efforts be focused? Should, as the modellers suggest, emphasis be put on the origin areas, aiming to stamp out spread at source? Or should we expect spread and control outbreaks as and when they occur? Or should we be investing more in areas where susceptibility and impacts are highest, if the worst case scenario emerges?

4. The politics of a global public response

  • Drugs and vaccines: global public goods or private profits? The tamiflu and generic equivalent story, and how a global response is dependent on compliance by sovereign states and cooperation with private companies, all with different motivations.
  • To vaccinate or not to vaccinate? The classic stamp out vs vaccination debate, and how histories of (European) countries influence diverse and inconsistent policies around the world.
  • Global public policy, national concerns and international mandates. As a potentially global epidemic, with major ramifications beyond borders, avian flu is very much an international issue, but what of national concerns and priorities? How have these been dealt with in the global response?
  • Public responses – scares, anxieties and the role of the media. The media coverage of avian flu has been extensive, but how has this had an impact on policy, in terms of framing the issue, creating scare stories and presenting science to the public?
  • Big men and small birds – formal systems/policies vs actual policy practice and implementation. What have been the on-the-ground responses in practice? Do these match the global action plans? What are the assumptions about how policy gets implemented in such global plans, and what factors may fundamentally undermine these (such as politicians’ poultry businesses)?

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