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.



Friday, 21 December 2018

Peacebuilding: Time to think and act Human?


What is peacebuilding? That nearly all of you will give slightly (or significantly) different answers to that is part of what I perceive to be a wider problem. You could just as well ask ‘what is development’ with the same result. GDP, or rights? Jobs or voice? So in this brief thought piece I will restrict myself to a narrower question, which is one I believe needs to be addressed if we are to become more effective in understanding the causes of conflict, and acting to build long term and positive peace.

My argument here is that in the last ten years peacebuilding has largely benefited from a process of professionalisation. That’s a process we’ve witnessed among practitioners in the NGO sector, as much as in the donor agencies themselves, with cadres of professionals emerging in both. But my worry is that in that process we have erred too much on the side of analysing conflict through lenses of political science at the cost of wider perspectives, such as anthropology, in our quest to understand how and why humans behave the ways we do. And that makes us less effective.

When I first started in peacebuilding back in 2008 the wider development sector was heavily dominated by economists, and their metrics. So progress was seen in primarily economic terms and not those, say, of human rights, voice, struggles and the differentiated experiences of communities, women or marginalised groups. The economist mindset is still very much alive, and people like me regularly argue with their proponents, but we do generally have a more holistic approach now which is welcome. Yet in that process of widening the disciplines and perspectives we use, I fear the political scientist has become the new economist, largely without intending to be.

And that’s a problem, in my view, on a number of grounds. Political science offers us strong and useful methods of understanding conflict and wider society, usually through the prism of institutions. But as a discipline it is massively dominated by Northern and Western viewpoints which make assumptions which simply don’t hold in many of the societies in which they are applied. Within academia this has provoked a backlash in which writers from the global South, such as Chatterjee, and several Middle East scholars have written powerfully to illustrate just how the theories of Hobsbawm, Anderson, North and others simply don’t help us to grasp why people behave in the way they do in large parts of the world, in this case South Asia and the Middle East.

Traditional Northern political science essentially holds that powerful elites win and then retain power by seizing institutions, and then setting the rules of the game in their favour, in perpetuity. And there’s a large degree of truth in that. But it tends to dismiss the idea that humans are also emotional creatures with deep spiritual attachments to land, ideas, communities and belief systems (famously by Ben Anderson's "Imagined Communities" thesis) which in my view shape their behaviours as much as, if not more than, rebelling to take power. So when you’re trying to understand a conflict that might take an ethno-nationalist form, for example, where conflicting groups self identify by ethnicity, in my view this is as much about those human characteristics as it is about powerful elites. The point is we need to understand both, and act accordingly. A lot of Sue Unsworth's work, which shaped much of DFID's later thinking, also hinted at this, in order for the elite-community bargaining work which she held as central to success, to take place.

As we look across what is sadly a growing number of conflicts worldwide, where many take on that ethno-nationalist form, this in my view is a pressing issue for us as a sector to get right, and it lies in the analysis we use and the theories we develop on the basis of that analysis. More anthropology, more Southern based persepctives and more balance with the new dominant theme is needed. Essentially in my view we need to think more about humans as they are, and not as if they were robots, controlled principally by elites, even in their own minds and conceptions of the world around them. How we might do this, will be the subject of my next piece!

Until then, let me end by quoting Phil Vernon, a peacebuilder from whom I learned a great deal during my time at International Alert. Phil is both a peacebuilder and a poet, and this evocative peace captures a sight that will be familiar to peacebuilding practitioners across the globe:

I come each day to clean the marble plaque,

place flowers beneath Azadin’s face, and pray

he rests in peace. The eve of the attack,

he begged my blessing which I proudly gave –

a mother's leave to die.

Low sunlight bathes

the bridge, the road, the bracken-covered hills

in warmth and welcome; piebald peaks arrayed

Against the sky stand friendly guard.

War steals

our children but it spares them all the ills

of longer life, and us from saving them.

I sit in simple silence simply filled

with comfort by his being near.

She spends

her evenings at the bridge contentedly;

the sunlight dissolves gently in the sea.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Nirmala: Nepal's wake up call for donors?


Nirmala was 13 when she was raped, murdered and left in the rice field that she walked across every day to go to school. She’d had to be stronger than her years, supporting her mother after her father left two years before. Teachers describe a bright and dedicated student who dreamed of supporting her mother and family to become independent and secure. Yet in a society where sexual violence is rampant and deep rooted practices sustain an oppressive environment for the vast majority of women Nirmala had learned she’d have to fight every step of the way. On that day in July, however, she wasn’t strong enough to fight. Her body lay in the field for at least a week before it was found. The police did nothing, literally, and there are widespread suspicions of some form of collusion.

Short-termism: a Donor disease

As gut wrenching as this story is on a human level, it should also make us angry. Many young Nepalis have been out of the streets protesting this week, and it is their fight to change their society which those of us who care about Nepal must hope they win. But it is also in my view a searing, damning indictment of much of what many donor agencies have been doing in the country for the last decade or so since the end of the civil war. And perhaps worst of all many of us have implicitly acquiesced with this, trying to squeeze peacebuilding into other sorts of projects rather than loudly making the case and challenging donors to justify their neglect of it.

So what’s been the problem? Well, a familiar yet lazy assumption that “conflict” is over; short term uncoordinated and technocratic projects; a misplaced faith in technology or data; superficial attention to gender and marginalisation, and a propensity to adopt one size fits all approaches have arguably combined to fail to meaningfully impact on a single root cause of what girls like Nirmala face every day. Such as 6 year old Puja Saha, who was violated and then desecrated. This horrific murder and the fallout over a botched, ineffective and possibly corrupt response by the police and authorities to it should lead to hard questions being asked of each donor agency: what they are doing in the country to support peace and development. And if they are not, then why not.

Residents of Bhimduttanagar in Western Nepal demand justice for Nirmala

Positive v negative peace

Nirmala’s family came from Kailalai in the West of the country. A former Maoist stronghold in the civil war, it’s where I first started work there over a decade ago. I remember the stories of forced land seizures, of hiding young men and children in the forests from forced abductions/conscription, but also of young women routinely violated, sometimes as a means of settling inter communal disputes. Two types of violence. Both very real. The old woman who sat quietly in her garden under a tree describing in a hollow voice the day her granddaughter was taken in a raid. She’d slept under the tree ever since, in the hope of hearing her return. At that time the war had only just finished and fighters with uniforms and guns no longer posed a direct threat. But the most basic understanding of peacebuilding will tell you that peace is not merely the absence of war, but the transformation of deep rooted drivers of conflict that are experienced and fester long into the future if left unaddressed, usually by the most vulnerable. Donor agencies in Nepal, however, ceased the vast majority of peacebuilding support a few short years later. War was over, they said. Time for us to move on. The vaunted truth, reconciliation and justice processes never really got off the ground.

Peacebuilders sometimes describe ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ peace. The former means that combatants with guns have gone, but some communities remain subject to violence or the threat of it, usually sustained by structural and social discrimination of various kinds. This begins to explain why the vast majority of conflicts are relapses of old. Positive peace on the other hand is when those underlying factors are being addressed in ways that allow all groups in society to feel secure, have the ability to pursue grievances through non-violent means and trust in the security, justice and governance institutions that are there to serve them equally. In Nepal, sadly, negative peace seemed to be enough for most of the donors.

Time to listen to evidence?

The future

Nepal has immense potential. Its’ history tells you that. If those of us who wish to support the country achieve that potential then it’s time to concede what the evidence from here and elsewhere tells us. Namely that peace requires long term investment: the game changing World Development Report of 2011 talked in terms of 30 years, for example. It takes generations to heal, and build trust. So donor projects with ridiculous claims of being ‘transformative’ over periods of 18 months or 2 years have got to go. They make little sense in terms of value for money, impact or basic common sense. We need to see long term programmes aimed at supporting the development of institutions capable of commanding the support of the communities they serve. Of supporting those champions within society who are challenging centuries of oppressive caste, ethnic or gender based norms that pose a direct risk to the lives of girls like Nirmala, often at great risk to themselves. And sustaining that work for as long as it takes.

If half the population is subject to routine violence or the threat of it, and marginalised communities remain under the yolk of entrenched structural and social discrimination then that is not peace. Nor, therefore, will it be stable or grow in a way that unlocks a country’s full potential, regardless of how much traditional development programming you engage in. Support for the current process of federalisation in the country, which in theory will bring governance closer to communities and thus more responsive is welcome, and great in theory. But it needs to be embedded in strong conflict analysis and long term, flexible initiatives that get to the roots of lingering violence, marginalisation and the corruption that sustains it. So let’s see less technocratic and short term isolated projects about data, technology or infrastructure and more long term and joined up engagement on what experience from elsewhere in the world (Kenya is instructive) tells us will be a contested and convoluted journey to a new dispensation of how government works, in order to avoid entrenching existing divides by default.

Nirmala was the future of Nepal. Her dreams and aspirations, together with evident ability, commitment and strength of character were ample evidence of that. Those out on the streets protesting will go back to their communities, many of them continuing to work in their own ways or as part of organised activism to change things for the better. They are the future too. 

Friday, 25 May 2018

Nepal, OGP & repeating the loops


It is said that the definition of madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. Earlier this week I attended an event which suggested there was a very real risk of another country falling victim to what seems to be a trend of this, unless something can be done to bridge a divide between the evangelists of the open data movement and those of us working on peacebuilding and conflict transformation in volatile and contested states.

USAID Nepal hosted an event at which the US Ambassador, who is a strong supporter of anti-corruption initiatives, made very clear the US Government’s desire for Nepal to join the Open Government Partnership, (OGP). Flanked by a panel including the Information Commissioner and representatives from civil society and Government, she spoke to a room packed to the rafters with the great and the good of public and civic life in Nepal. Supported by Victoria Ayer, a Board Member of OGP, the Ambassador extolled the virtues of open data which she claimed would lead to accountability and greater prosperity.

This is, to put it mildly, ambitious. Nepal is embarking on a process of federalisation which itself is highly contested and in some places has contributed to violence. It has also just witnessed an historic union of the two Communist parties of Nepal forming a seemingly impregnable central Government with a two thirds parliamentary majority. So the Left has the strongest hold on the centre of power for generations, while a contested process of devolution of power to local government beckons.


An historic merger
 None of this was mentioned. Not even once. In a conversation about governance. The only time the feel-good factor about how open data was going to change everything for the better was punctured was when a prominent civil society activist said that in her opinion the problem wasn’t a lack of data, it was a lack of honesty. The Ambassador herself quoted SDG16, which as she stated, is about "peace, justice and governance". That would suggest we should be talking about all three of those strands in parallel, not just one aspect of one strand.

So what does all of this mean? Do we simply roll our eyes and give up? No. But we need to have a much more holistic conversation about how change actually happens, rather than getting fixated on one aspect of a wider process or thinking that membership of an elite club will lead to manna from heaven. We already know data itself doesn’t lead to accountability. It’s about how power, politics, behaviours and attitudes shape human relationships. Indeed the lessons of OGP itself would point to the danger of assuming fragile and contested states make genuine progress in the way that the Ambassador predicts. A glance at Kenya’s stalled progress, Sri Lanka’s questionable advances, the Philippines’ descent into murderous State impunity and, of all places, Afghanistan’s almost total lack of movement would suggest some humility might be in order before making such claims.


Nepal is a beautiful, ancient country of enormous potential. But it is also highly fragmented along multiple lines, much of which is a poisonous legacy of civil conflict. It can and should make progress both on stability and growth, with the result that young Nepalis no longer have to become mistreated economic migrants to the Gulf, but can realise their own and their country’s potential at home. But for that to happen will require the development of strong, responsive local and national government structures in which contestation over resources, policies and priorities can be managed within institutions that are regarded as the legitimate fulcrum of a contest of ideas, without the need for violence.

So none of this is to say that open data, within or without clubs like OGP, doesn’t have a fundamentally important role to play. It is a critical part of deliberative decision making, informed by evidence as much as ideology or patronage. But for international actors wishing to support that, the overwhelming weight of evidence from within Nepal as with other fragile and contested environments points to the need to take a much more holistic approach to bridging the gap between statebuilding and peacebuilding to have any chance whatsoever of success. So despite the enthusiasm among elites for membership of clubs, I’m afraid we still need to talk about who’s voices are still not even part of the conversation.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Syria: Norms, Power & Responsibility to Protect

A man carries a baby who survived what activists say was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus


In 2005 the United Nations declared that we have a ‘responsibility to protect’. That is to say, if humanity watches people being brutalised, murdered or driven from their homes then there is a duty to intervene to protect those populations. It was forged against the backdrop of repeated examples of industrialised inhumanity, after each round of which the world solemnly declared “never again”. Until next time. So the intent was to break that cycle and to make those words actually mean something, strengthening global norms and building deterrence by instilling fear in would-be brutalisers minds that they would one day be held accountable.

You could argue that the recent bombing, therefore, in Syria is an example of R2P in action. A red line had been drawn in 2013 by Obama against the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, but which had not been enforced, after a vote in the British Parliament meant that America would have been acting alone. This latest use of poison was the trigger for what turned out to be an extremely limited and essentially symbolic show of force by the US, UK and France. Whether it has any effect at all, given that Assad has now essentially won the civil conflict, remains to be seen.

Ultimately this shines a light on the limitations of normative power against realpolitik. In the wake of the British and French intervention in Libya, ostensibly to prevent a massacre and under the aegis of R2P, several other nations, notably Brazil, tabled an alternative and slightly nuanced version, called Responsibility While Protecting. On one level this was about protecting against unintended damage, but in reality this was a limiting attempt to reassert the primacy of sovereignty and limit the role of Northern States. There would have to be an extremely high bar for any international power to intervene in future.

And that’s the contest we see in Syria. A largely impotent West seeking to engage in limited and militarily pointless actions to support a normative framework that holds little relevance to a powerful dictator, supported by Russia. It’s a grim sight for those wishing to break that ‘never again’ cycle. A quick glance at international impotence over the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar/Bangladesh, or the ongoing misery in the Democratic Republic of the Congo would suggest that this isn’t about to change any time soon. It seems to me that the contest over norms we would all want to see will take place within the very limited parameters of power, politics and geopolitics for a very long time to come. The people gasping for air in Douma will not live to see its conclusion, but its incumbent on the rest of us to work out the art of the possible, in an increasingly anarchic world.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Impressions of Afghanistan

I paid my first trip to Afghanistan this month. The organisation I work for, Saferworld, is now working with some very impressive local and international partners in the country to contribute to the enourmous task of building ways out of the conflict systems that have held Afghanistan in their grip since the 1970s, and arguably beyond. The sheer scale of that challenge constantly hits you. Shortly after my departure the Taleban this week carried out a series of attacks which targeted security forces and Shi’a civilians, resulting in another huge loss of life. It's that cycle that leads so many to essentially give up on Afghanistan.


Nevertheless this country has such huge potential, and it lies within its people. I was privileged to witness villagers from across the country who are part of a World Bank and Government of Afghanistan project to shape the governance of their areas, called Citizens Charter. The aim of the programme as the name suggests is to forge a new form of responsive governance whereby citizens themselves collaboratively shape action plans for their areas that are then funded through either that programme or by bilateral donors supportive of the project. I was lucky to spend some time with some deeply impressive colleagues from Oxfam in Afghanistan who are supporting this project across the country.


So there we were. In the gardens of the World Bank compound in Kabul. Itself within the green zone and with military helicopters constantly clattering overhead. The crème de la crème of the global elites in their Western suits and canopes watching Afghan villagers describe their challenges, hopes and vision for their areas. And it was quite inspirational. The beauty of the artwork on these flipcharts attested to the level of hope and importance invested in them by the Afghans themselves. And they didn’t just talk about access to water, to education and health as you might expect. They mapped where power actually lay and where accountability was missing. And where conflict drivers lay. That level of analysis reflects the way in which champions of this project within the Government of Afghanistan, who I was also privileged to meet, have also encouraged those villagers to talk about.


Later in that week I had a brief tour of Kabul and visited the famous “Television Hill”, so called after the TV transmitters that sit atop. In 1879 it was the scene of a bloody confrontation between British forces and Afghan tribesmen, and British forts still stand in Kabul itself. To climb that hill you drive through sprawling informal settlements, all of which are covered in the dust that seems to be everywhere in the city. You see piles of uncollected rubbish but also industrious families building houses. Looking down on Kabul you are struck again by the scale of the challenge but also the resilience of the people that inhabit it. With the enthusiasm I’d witnessed earlier and the ingenuity of the people on the side of this hill I haven’t yet joined the school of thought that essentially gives up on Afghanistan. It’s a place surely where the two approaches of governance reform and peacebuilding must surely come together and work hand in hand. That afternoon in the garden gave a glimpse of what was possible.