Saturday, 11 September 2021

9/11 & Hope

So we all have a story of where we were. In my case sat agog inside my office reception in Farringdon, London. Crowds outside peering in at our large screen on the wall, broadcasting what we knew even then was history. The revolution was in the end televised. “Go home” said our manager “it’ll be us next”.

I was 25. Working out what I wanted to do with my life. For much of the next two decades I spent in the peacebuilding world. Peace, it seemed to me, was what we needed. The world at large had other ideas. Or did it?

Just as much of the world’s attention is understandably focused on Afghanistan, and the story of Iraq, Syria and terror attacks; I find optimism and hope in some of what I’ve had the privilege to see in the intervening years. Of individuals capable of finding it within themselves to forgive, to reach out and to build futures with those who had themselves often actively tried to kill them.

Like Grace, in Rwanda. She’d hidden in her family’s kitchen cupboard while her family were slaughtered by the Interahamwe militia in 1994. Fifteen years on she was establishing a new business with a man from the tribe and village who’d perpetrated that killing.

Like the old woman sitting under a tree in Western Nepal, at the end of her garden. Where she’d last seen her daughter kidnapped by armed Maoists during the civil war in 2004. Five years on she was still sitting under that tree. She knew she’d never see her daughter again. But she’d become a peacemaker to whom people would come to see, mediating disputes.

Teacher John's house

Like Teacher John in Turkana, NW Kenya. A harsh, arid place racked by armed violence carried out with impunity, particularly against girls. John spoke four languages and could have lived comfortably. Instead he lived in a mud hut and invested his money in a new school building so that girls could live while they studied, so they wouldn’t be at risk by journeying to school. He and his wife must have thought of what they were sacrificing as they used hot coals at the door by night to keep out the snakes.

Or like the young women from Herat, Afghanistan, who proudly presented plans for their villages as part of a governance programme designed to build stability and service delivery. Confidently describing the lack of trust anybody felt in the programme but determined to try to build a better future for the men, women, girls and boys of that beautiful part of Afghanistan.

These are people that represent the best of humanity. Their strengths and committment are beyond what most of us posess. And if we are to move collectively on from where our world finds itself now, then we need to find and support these individuals. Who quietly work in often remote places, overcoming psychological trauma and material hardship in the hope for a better future for us all. They, I hope, are the future now. 

Thursday, 31 December 2020

Building back better: a dose of humility

Covid has been a sobering experience, revealing the frailties of our social fabric and laying waste to the most vulnerable among us. Without engaging in a counsel of despair, I think one of the lessons for us is that to overly rely on the State to guide human behaviour simply won't work. It may also be the case that the social frameworks that were in place before, are perhaps not with us any longer. And that part of our building back better in the West might involve re-learning those aspects of social control that underpin our responsibilities to each other, and the resilience to respond to crisis, from parts of the World where they remain strong.

The problem

To share an anecdotal experience. This afternoon I stood in a supermarket and observed an elderly man standing with a basket of food, waiting for a checkout. Around him bustled shop workers, many without masks, and several shouting to their colleagues. Shoppers, including a young man with no mask, brushed physically past the elderly gentleman, rolling their eyes because he was in their way. And throughout the store, while the majority were wearing masks, many repeatedly removed them and showed no inclination to engage in distancing of any kind. Earlier today an intensive care consultant described such people as having “blood on their hands”. He’d seen the inevitable result of the behaviour I’d just witnessed in the ICU wards. 

So what’s going on? Thoughtlessness or a lack of something intangible, that might otherwise have altered behaviour?

I can’t help thinking of the stories I grew up with, of stoicism and communal support withstanding the onslaught of the Blitz. The images of St Pauls’ Cathedral, of newly homeless women making tea and others were echoed by my own grandparents in their own stories from that time. But I also think of some of the communities it’s been my privilege to work among during my own lifetime. In Turkana, Nepal, Afghanistan and elsewhere where communities have run their own affairs in the absence of a strong State and done so in a manner which would make the sort of behaviour I saw in the supermarket, and that we see in beach parties and other breaches highly unlikely. These are also places where the concept of 'positive deviance' often applies - where communities themselves have developed ways of dealing with challenges by innovating their own norms; be that cultivating land or looking after the elderly. No role for the State involved, nor for that matter international donors. Just ask Amina, from Dar es Salaam. 

Building back better?

It’s fair to say that the governance challenges witnessed in the West during the last few years undermine the idea that others should simply adopt our model of managing their affairs unquestioningly. There are other models out there and no doubt their relative merits will be hotly contested. But to me, that’s only part of the picture anyway.

We in the West will also do well to consider what we might want to learn from societies who have not relied on the State at all, be that either an authoritarian or liberal version, and have managed their affairs based on behaviours that do not encourage individualism, and the lack of empathy or responsibility that can entail, and which we have witnessed a great deal of throughout this pandemic with disastrous results. These are societies who have often managed to hang together in the face of challenges way greater than Covid, including armed conflict. Building back better will in my view need to involve a large helping of humility, and a willingness to learn from others. The vulnerable old man with his shopping basket deserved a great deal more care from those around him than he received. 

Sunday, 5 April 2020

Covid-19: peace positive?

C19 will change the world, but are there positives for peace and stability that might emerge from the carnage, and how might these be supported? Here are some emerging thoughts on how this, the pre-eminent shared challenge of us all, might just unlock conflict systems that have appeared intractable for generations.

Regional cooperation 

If C19 has taught us anything, it is that closing borders doesn’t work. There is not a single country that has been protected by doing this. Accepting that fact, and the inescapable reality that what happens in our neighbours and our neighbourhoods near and far will affect us in my view changes the dial fundamentally. Populations are in my view unlikely to respond to jingoism and ‘othering’ from elites if they can see they may pay the price at huge scale. Leaders used to whipping up sentiment may find they are in fact held to account for not working together with others.

Resolving conflict 

If there is growing acceptance that we need to manage conflicts, to make way for collaboration on a shared pandemic, then what structures will we need? Beyond the UN perhaps the model of the African Union’s capacity to exert soft and hard pressure might be emulated within other regional structures in Asia for example. The AU’s condemnation of coups and isolation of coup leaders have in some cases resulted in change, while the African Union Mission to Somalia has involved the use of hard power. Could it be that we emerge with strengthened institutional frameworks to temper the worst excesses of power?

A new economy 

Measuring ‘development’ by economic metrics alone is bunkum. In the most fragile countries, including those ostensibly making progress, the model is frequently highly unequal with elites controlling the most successful sectors, at the expense of others. But that model itself has now been exposed, as C19 cuts off demand in the West for goods produced elsewhere. Building back will require a much wider and diverse economic base, and that will need to include a broader section of the population. This arguably presents a real opportunity to encourage a more diverse and inclusive economic model that may pay dividends in terms of peace as much as growth.


It is unlikely that civil society in any country will accept business as usual once this pandemic has passed. A renewed push for greater accountability, responsiveness and transparency within governance systems can be expected, and potentially encouraged. That is as true in the West as the South and East, and represents a potential moment to renegotiate social contracts between citizens and states. More accountability generally means more peaceful societies.

Taliban anti-coronavirus drive in NE Afghanistan. New form of legitimacy? (unclear how machine gun helps v Covid)

The Black Death in 14th Century England stripped the then ruling elite of their main claim to legitimacy: namely, that it was divine will. This had been clearly dis-proven, in the eyes of the people, who proceeded to revolt. It is hard to imagine that the legitimacy of force or power alone, or narratives of supremacy will survive C19 intact. Renegotiating that legitimacy, combined with greater accountability, may open the way for far-reaching change in the balance of power that could in turn yield positive and peaceful results.

What now? 

None of the above is inevitable. But then, nobody knows what happens, now. It will take decades to know, and new generations to judge. But it is also inescapable that this is a pivotal moment in human development.

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Infinity and beyond: Governance in fragile states

Building State Capability
The eminent Building State Capability blog has a guest article by Paul von Chamier which re-appraises possibly the most important World Development Report in recent years on how change happens in conflict affected states, that of 2011. His take makes depressing reading, using as it does the basis of the game-changing WDR11 and applying an updated data-set from the last decade (quick re-cap: economic crisis, OECD downturn, Arab Spring, Syrian conflict and lots more) and re-testing the core conclusions against that data. You may recall WDR11 posited that change only happens in generational time frames for States emerging from conflict. Von Chamier’s findings echo this, but they go further. The below table applies the Bank’s World Governance Indicators and finds that in many categories of ‘positive governance’, while there are positive signs on political stability and voice/accountability for the rest FCAS are tagged as ‘infinity’: in other words at this rate they’ll never get there.

There will be lots of nodding among many of us at this, who have been pointing out for a long time that short-termist approaches to change manifested by three-year projects that seek to rapidly ‘transform’ factors that took generations in our own countries, let alone anyone else’s, will fail. However, I do also think this take on things suffers from a bit of log-frame thinking based on limited metrics, resulting in an unnecessarily bad prognosis. A counsel of despair is never the best starting point for anything. 

Von Chamier uses, in this blog, only the Bank’s governance indicators. Useful as they are, on corruption, rule of law, institutional effectiveness and so on they fail to capture what in my view is a nebulous and perhaps intangible factor but nevertheless critical, which is how human behaviour in the form of contestation and social movements (loosely defined) manifests. Note I said social movements, not civil society as such.

And while this article understandably uses data sets from the last ten years to augment the previous 20, perhaps it’s instructive to look at wider evidence stemming back centuries of human history and social change, which still has salience to contexts we see today. Struggles in England for the rights of citizens in the 15th century, parliament in the 17th, for the right of women to have the vote in the 19th and 20th, for equality on the part of many throughout that period and which still go on would suggest that our collective history, and thus our institutions, are shaped by how those groups pursue those agendas and how elites respond; in addition to other indicators that may portray a static picture. None of this is to dispute the core argument that change in societies scarred by conflict takes generations, nor is it to argue that things cannot go backward, but it is to say that there is an intangible human element that is often missed in this form of measurement and analysis.

So work from social scientists as far back as Charles Tilly’s on social movements in the 1970s through to more contemporary analysis by Douglas North and others, not forgetting scholars from some of the countries on our lists of FCAS in the Middle East or South Asia, would suggest that there is more to predicting rates of change; and that the answer of ‘infinity’ may therefore indicate that we haven't asked all of the right questions. 

For external actors this may have implications that also echo those reached in WDR11; the import of contributing to initial political stability, creating space for human security and over the long-term peacebuilding and statebuilding in parallel to build on the one indicator that does shine out in the governance dataset: voice and accountability; which in the story of human progress could possibly the most important metric of all.

To infinity or beyond? 

Monday, 23 December 2019

Peace in the Triple Nexus: a response

Development Initiatives have produced a thought-provoking blog on “the Nexus”; which sounds like an exciting new film for Christmas, but is instead a reference to the triple nexus idea of humanitarian, development and peace (HDP) programming; and the challenges of bridging what are sometimes contradictory strands together across institutional, disciplinary and political divides.

While their main conclusion is that peace funding needs to be scaled up in order for coherent HDP programming to be realised, I thought the article also risked repeating some of the conceptual barriers that still seem to bedevil the chances of achieving that coherence. So in an attempt to add some constructive criticism here are some thoughts.

The problem here, for me, is how peacebuilding itself is conceptualised. Here are the authors:
“HDP programmes tend to work from different departure points. For humanitarians this can broadly be characterised as saving lives; for peacebuilding, as stability and security; and for development as opportunities for addressing poverty”. 
Peacebuilding is not about stability and security; it is about a long term and inevitably convoluted, contested and complex journey towards establishing the basis by which conflict can be managed without recourse to violence. This will frequently include aspects of how resources and wealth are distributed, the extent to which economic growth is inclusive, and to which institutions are effective but also perceived as legitimate and, ultimately, how contestation can be carried out through peaceful means. And while stabilisation is very much an essential part of breaking what are often cyclical conflict systems, complete with their own political economies, you can’t divorce your initial response from the longer-term factors likely to impact on the potential for longer term peace. There are dilemmas and trade-offs throughout, which span the three HDP strands. Therefore locking ourselves conceptually into a “peace = security/stability” box undermines the real extent to which HDP is ever possible. Because *all* not only *some* programming is political.

This article implies essentially that of the three strands, only peace programming is political. The authors state:
“Peacebuilding in most of its forms is a political enterprise” 
They also, in reference to OECD DAC’s ‘3 Cs – Collaboration, Coherence, Complementarity – state:
“They could be viewed as a spectrum with the humanitarian-peace nexus at the lower end with a minimum expectation of complementarity; the development-peace nexus in the middle; and the more established and less contentious humanitarian-development nexus at the higher end between collaboration and coherence”. 
Taken together this is depressing stuff. The idea that humanitarian work is not political or is somehow less contentious is surely not borne out by experience on the ground. Injecting what are often huge amounts of resources into a situation that has frequently arisen out of violent conflict, and is thus charecterised by competing groups, will always be intensely political. It will and does create winners and losers. It will and does run the risk of becoming instrumentalised by elites, both from among the target population or their surrounding host communities or governments.

But the really depressing point for me here is about expectations: relegating the humanitarian-peace nexus to the ‘lower end’ with “…a minimum expectation of complementarity” (and presumably not therefore much in the way of coherence or collaboration) is likely to make those risks more, not less likely.

The authors do however highlight some of the learning that has emerged on Nexus programming elsewhere; including the importance of factoring in analytical lenses on conflict sensitivity, the identification of peace dividends alongside immediate humanitarian need and thinking about how the design of immediate responses help or hinder long term developmental and/or peace outcomes. I would think building on those insights would require thinking that reverses the expectations outlined by our authors and makes the case for looking at all three HDP strands at each and every stage. 

Like any conversation worth having this is likely to be a difficult and challenging one, in order to get to the nub of how actors from humanitarian, developmental and peacebuilding backgrounds could and should work in a collaborative, coherent and complementary way. It’s a goal well worth aiming for, and DI deserve real credit in opening some of these questions up to debate. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Innovative finance, conflict, ... and peace?

Can private finance unlock potential to help break cycles of conflict and build durable stability and peace? Pertinent questions posed in a thought-provoking article from Donata Garrasi from the Office of the UN’s Special Representative to the Great Lakes; and someone I had the great pleasure of working with during her time as the Coordinator of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding & Statebuilding.

The article highlights some recent scholarship from Georgia Keohane, Capital and the Common Good, and argues persuasively that if we were able to create and sustain FDI flows into the markets of fragile states in the form of social impact investments, supported by a screening process to ensure conflict sensitivity and human rights principles were not compromised, together with a knowledge platform to capture learning as we go; then this would represent a chance to generate both economic and peace dividends.

It’s a compelling prospect and it’s fair to say dogmatic arguments about private investment not being part of the development space are now largely in the past. Donors are rightly looking at innovative ways in which these public private partnerships could or should work and there have been strong proponents on both sides of the fence; Paul Polman arguably having been one of the more prominent business voices in recent times.

And yet. My main challenge to the thinking in this article is that it is so clearly written from the vantage point of the pinnacle of the UN system. For example, the Bretton Woods institutions’ creation at the end of WWII are cited thus:
“The intent was to use financial institutions to further economic development and prosperity and create global stability – the ultimate public good. In other words: economic development for stability; just what is needed today”. 
This is true to an extent. But the institutions were also designed to seal the new power dynamics that had emerged in the West following the conflict, as the world emerged from the colonial era into the new bi-polar world that would assume the contours of the Cold War soon afterwards.

The article cites the need for a ‘knowledge platform’:
“…that would bring together investors with a multi-disciplinary community of practice dedicated to enhancing investment in fragile countries”. 
It suggests the World Economic Forum or the OECD as hosts, and calls for visionary leaders from North and South to set the course. But we’re not short of visionary leaders, including from the South, and those who combine public and private sector spheres; such as these women from Bangladesh. Why do these platforms always have to sit in Northern institutions; be they set amid snow-topped Swiss mountains or Parisian boulevards? 

I listened to a fascinating podcast this morning, which focused on political settlements and why some peace deals fail or falter. Both Jonathan Cohen, of Conciliation Resources, and Jan Egeland, S-G of the Norwegian Refugee Council and longstanding architect and supporter of peace accords over 20 years, spoke powerfully about the gritty, grainy realities of why some fighters return to the gun. What united their perspectives was what happens when young men and women who have demobilised, taken the first tentative steps out of fighting, find that they have nothing to transition meaningfully towards, whether that is employment, a role with dignity or both. 

There's also a distinct absence in the article of any reference to the governance challenges likely to dominate any post-conflict environment. Endemic corruption, rampant elite capture and the routine use of violence as a means of sustaining access to resources are not issues that can be 'screened' for and dealt with easily, particularly if there are investments at stake. The level of trust this engenders was to me captured by visceral comments made to me by civil society activists in Liberia almost 7 years to the day, as they sought to support their own growth into long term peace through the New Deal. This is perhaps why investments of a less scrupulous nature are also a long standing feature of these environments.

As both Jonathan and Jan noted there are examples where economic growth has played an important and positive role, in providing alternatives for former combatants, marginalised groups and others; but this isn’t the uniform experience. Grounding conversations in how to generate economic growth that supports long -term peace to me means locating those conversations in those environments, where they can draw on the reality of the contexts being discussed. And with each of them being unique in their own right, it’s likely uniform approaches of the type normally associated with discussions emerging from the high peaks of finance are unlikely to have the traction they would need to succeed.

Clear-eyed conversations, grounded in gritty realities but with the ambition Donata rightly outlines for harnessing the power of growth – now there’s a winning investment..

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Peter da Costa: Teacher, mentor, visionary and friend

This morning I had the sad privilege of attending the memorial of Peter da Costa, along with some of his family and friends here in London. Taking place in the suitably grand surroundings of Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, we said goodbye to a teacher, a visionary and passionate advocate for the rise of Africa and all its people. With the word ‘all’ being the important one.

I’ve never written an obituary before, and by comparison to the heartfelt and beautiful contributions this morning it won’t compare. But many of you knew Peter as did I, as a co-conspirator, a colleague and a friend with whom we conjured up ideas and tried to find ways to bridge divides and try doing old things in new ways. For those of us trying to contribute to peace, to fairness and human progress he was in my view the sort of person humanity desperately needs more of, but of whom it has so few. Amid the sadness however, and Peter would be the first to say this, his ideas remain with us even if their progenitor does not. We can all build on them.

Peter was a man of amazing combinations. A fierce intellect, reflected in an academic record that broke new ground, combined with a deeply human, humble and empathetic approach. The happiest I ever saw Peter was when he was drawing ideas out of people who hadn’t had the chances he’d had, couldn’t articulate them in the same language, but did have the qualifications of experience and a willingness to share it.

A profound sense of pride, particularly in the younger people he worked with and whose potential he sought to bring out, particularly in the form of partners supported by the Hewlett Foundation, for whom he worked as an advisor. Yet this was often combined with a lack of tolerance for what he perceived as laziness, from whomsoever it came. I think in hindsight he couldn’t stand the idea of people not contributing what he could see they were able to, in the mission to which he was so committed.

But in that mission, which I would describe clumsily as Africa finally emerging as a continent among equals, with all of its people – women every bit as much as men – able to reach their potential, he exhibited another combination. A depth of kindness and non-judgmental empathy to those around him, together with a fierce lack of tolerance for corruption or the abuse of power, from whomsoever that emerged.

Peter understood and spoke the languages of different tribes in the development world. Technology. Political economy. Innovation. Data. Evidence. Power. Conflict & peacebuilding. That he could combine them and see new ways for them to work together was reflected in his many achievements. He broke boundaries and silos, persuaded governments, pushed through sheer stubbornness and supported initiatives that stood the test of time, such as the Africa Data Consensus. He was a revolutionary who sought to take people with him.

One of my last memories of Peter was standing in a Nairobi nightclub. Over the impossibly loud music, and thudding, floor shaking bass, Peter was trying to outline a thought on something to do with political economy. An absurd situation, and I’m afraid I moved the conversation on to football instead. He rolled his eyes, but with the familiar twitches of a wry smile. A microcosm of Peter – high expectations, a fearsome intellect, but all the while deeply human.

I thought of him earlier this week as I saw the sun come up over Hyde Park. It’s not enough to never forget Peter, he’d want more than that. Take his ideas and example forward. I know I’ll try to.