Thursday, 28 April 2016

The New Deal: all about poverty?!

Sarah Hearn has written a thought provoking article on the World Bank’s site which argues that the New Deal, of which she has just led an independent evaluation, is “…the basis for fighting extreme poverty”. As if that wasn’t enough she goes on: “…the New Deal could strike the definitive blow against extreme poverty in the next fifteen years”. In both cases, for added impact, the quotes are hyper-linked as ready-made tweets for the faithful to send out about the New Messiah.

I don’t think the New Deal is the new Messiah. In fact I think it’s been a very naughty boy in recent years. Beset with a lack of senior engagement or delivery by the very donors who brought it into this world in partnership with the G7+ Group of fragile states, who themselves have faced trenchant criticism from their own civil society for not having lived up to the commitment of developing a participatory approach to a new way of inclusive governance, the New Deal has suffered what Dave Algoso refers to as the ‘hype cycle’, which I applied to the New Deal here.

Not the Messiah
Hearn’s article seems to want to cheer-lead the New Deal back onto centre stage by aligning it with pre-defined agendas of ‘ending extreme poverty’ which was never the basis for the initiative. Which is a shame, because elsewhere in her article she makes a number of very valid and profound points that those of us who want to see real progress on conflict, peace, justice and governance need to reflect on. Here are some of the stronger take-aways for me:

Local accountability

Hearn rightly points out that “…solutions to conflict and poverty only work when they are nationally-owned and led”. She adds that one of the strongest aspects of the New Deal was that it established the principle of mutual accountability for progress against commitments: between citizen and State, but also between State and donors.

Leaving aside the dubious word ‘solution’ (conflict is never 'solved' it is a process of contestation which in and of itself is not a problem, it’s the violence when institutions fail that can be the problem) – the author hits the nail on the head. The FOCUS and TRUST principles established mutual accountability between citizens, States and donors for the first time in what should have been a binding framework which, even if some parties didn’t live up to their commitments was, in and of itself, a real marker of progress in the way the world responds to conflict.

Global progress

Which leads me to my second point. Hearn usefully describes the G7+ as ‘global norm entrepreneurs’. I haven’t come across this description before but it fits – and that is what is so potentially exciting about the New Deal; placing control in the hands of progressive partners in government and civil society in the fragile states themselves and for them to start to jointly redefine the routes out of conflict. This is real global progress and played a large role in the emergence of SDG16 on governance, peace and justice. Though the author omits to mention that global civil society, which included those drawn from fragile states, themselves played just as much an important norm re-setting role as their governments did in the years leading to 2015.

The author also notes the lack of progress by donors in meeting commitments to their G7+ partners. This has been picked up before, notably in this landmark review from 2014, and in the light of the European refugee crisis I suspect is a feature that will worsen. But right to hold them to account.

So far, so good. But...

No room for governance?

Hearn repeatedly states that the New Deal is about ‘ending extreme poverty’. No it isn’t. It is about assisting countries to break cycles of conflict that keep repeating because of factors like weak institutions, elite resource capture, endemic corruption, marginalisation, contested legitimacy and ham-fisted interventions by international institutions which often make things much worse. Like the World Bank, for example. It’s about redefining how citizens self-define as participants in that State, how they define the causes of fragility that undermine that State and by reaching a compact with political elites about how to address them. Yes, that might provide the basis for economic growth to take place which lifts people out of poverty – but conflict exists in a wide range of countries with a very wide range of economic circumstances. Who defines ‘extreme poverty’ anyway? Is that how those actors engaged in armed conflict define their struggles? Is that what citizens are saying that they want? Or is this an attempt to shoe-horn the New Deal into a ready-made set of mantras that passed their sell by date in 2015 with the passing of the MDGs?

The point here is not semantic, it’s serious. SDG16 requires us to think about governance as well as justice and peace. That is far more relevant than a discourse on ‘extreme poverty’ to the people it is supposed to support. Ask these people in Liberia.

Nowhere in this piece does Hearn mention the Open Government Partnership (OGP) for example, which some fragile states, including G7+ members, are starting to join. The idea that the New Deal is the main show in town for fragile states is daft. What we need surely is a coherent approach that brings open government efforts to improve transparency, accountability and anti corruption – usually dominated by civil society elites in capitals – with peacebuilding efforts usually taking place within traditionally marginalised populations who may in many cases have been engaged in armed confrontation for decades. Initiatives like OGP and the New Deal do not talk to each other at the moment, and that is a problem. There is much they could learn from each other, and together would stand a far greater chance of generating real progress in line with the holistic approach to peace that SDG16 sets out.

Jim Kim gets it

Earlier this year I watched Jim Kim issue a comment at the Bank’s Fragility Forum that startled many of his colleagues. He acknowledged that the Bank had been part of the problem in many fragile states and promised to be more coherent, more joined up and to end a technocratic and fragmented approach which mitigated against progress. Perhaps getting carried away he demanded to be told if any World Bank employee didn’t live up to that vision.

Articles like this highlight that we have a long way to go before we achieve that level of joined up thinking. And considering how long real change takes to happen, we don’t have a moment to waste.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Conflict, peacebuilding & open government: opportunities & threats

“Election victories bring legitimacy to new leaders and provide windows of opportunity for bold action … nevertheless ethnic armed groups … also enjoy significant, if contested, legitimacy, particularly among marginalised communities that often regard the State as alien.”
A key passage from an excellent review by Ashley South of the peace processes in Myanmar and the Philippines, and the daunting challenges they face now. This review is written from a political economy perspective and looks at the bargaining and deals that have or have not yet been done in both contexts. The comparative study makes a number of observations that to my mind highlight a set of challenges but also opportunities for a combined open government/peacebuilding approach to have greater traction on openness as well as long term peace. Ultimately this calls for a unified institutional approach to an SDG agenda that places conflict together with governance and justice in a way that will force us to confront this challenge. In my view not a moment too soon.

Don’t rush

South points out that as a peace process takes hold there is an increasing asymmetry of power which threatens vested interests on the part of non-State armed groups. Put bluntly they start to lose relevance. South states:

“While the current transition in Myanmar may prove an opportunity to reassess State-society relations in the country, it might also represent a turning point in influence for the ethnic armed organisations”.
Another way of looking at this, is that the elites at the top of armed organisations are at their most vulnerable as this process takes hold. A quick look at the overthrow of elites in other former armed groups that were attempting non-violence in the past makes this point. Not appreciating this, and rushing towards elections and/or new forms of electoral or otherwise political contestation before democratic institutions and armed groups themselves are ready for this, therefore poses huge risks. Timing and sequencing for governance initiatives, especially those under the ‘democratisation’ banner, is critical.

Build trust

South notes that in both Myanmar and the Philippines, the conflicts dividing society have lasted so long that there is now a lack of understanding on both sides of the other, particularly among the young. A lack of understanding by a majority population of the history, circumstances and grievances of marginalised communities is acutely dangerous if a governance approach is not itself informed and shaped by it. The “Open Government Partnership”, for example, is a title that implies one singular government with one State to which all citizens subscribe. If that is not the case and, furthermore, the people themselves do not understand each other's perspectives let alone universally self-define as citizens of that State, such an approach is doomed to fail or even do harm. Yet we do now have States joining OGP who face such challenges. The organisation I work for Saferworld is thinking hard about how to bring those approaches together to minimise harm and maximise potential. Because, amid the danger, there is potential.


I used to work in Sri Lanka just after the civil war. Not only did communities there not understand each other’s perspectives, in the case of younger generations they didn’t even speak the same language. English had been the official language which enabled Sinhalese and Tamil speakers to communicate prior to a war which erupted in 1983 and prevented most Tamil children born afterwards from learning it. To me it seemed symbolic of the challenge but also the chance to build: you can in the end learn to speak another language and, albeit in similarly lengthy timescales to learning a language, learn to understand and trust others too.

The potential presented by the entry of open governance initiatives into fragile contexts to create opportunities to support that process of learning to understand and trust through collaboration can be harnessed if the initiatives are designed in a way that is conflict sensitive, genuinely inclusive but also that do not shy away from difficult and intensely political issues. Otherwise you risk having a dialogue between international donors with privileged civil society and political elites that do not speak to the underlying grievances that at any time could re-emerge in favour of data-led projects that only scratch the surface. It’s worth remembering that the majority of conflicts are relapses of old.

Two themes seem likely to emerge from these initiatives in Myanmar, the Philippines but also Sri Lanka, Kenya and a wide range of other fragile contexts: federalism or some form of devolution on the one hand; and transparency/accountability on the other. Marginalised groups will tend to be interested in the former while relatively privileged majority groups the latter. Open government initiatives tend to avoid questions of devolution while peacebuilding approaches avoid transparency, beyond the superficial. Yet if they can be combined as part of the peacebuilding/openness deal then there could be very clear dividends for both. Devolution need not only be framed as answering a political demand from a formerly armed group but also as enhancing transparency for all groups in society, including the majority group, by bringing decision making closer to the people. Similarly enhancing transparency need not only be framed as something of relevance to the majority communities in society but also has the benefit of shining a light on the elites who for years have controlled the lives of marginalised groups in times of conflict.

An inclusive approach to peacebuilding and open governance – for example by ensuring the participation of all groups (defined by ethnicity, gender, geography etc.) – in determining political settlements as well as the themes on which a new era of governance is to be founded is going to be really, really hard. That’s why it hasn’t been tried before. But with the new era of SDGs that will compel donors and practitioners to come together to try them there are grounds for some hope. And the relevance of what we learn from this work will have implications way beyond post conflict states.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Panama Peril for Opengov

This was the week the open government movement lost a leader, and began to realise its own frailty. The implications of a global political crisis sparked by the Panama Papers revelations has already claimed one Prime Minister, but for the openness movement it is another political casualty that risks exposing the flank of a movement that to date has enjoyed glitz, glamour and relative safety. David Cameron’s disastrous week involved issuing no less than five statements followed by an awkward TV interview in which he revealed that yes he had in fact benefitted from an offshore secret tax avoidance scheme, but promised not to do it again. He increasingly resembles Blair in the latter years, as even St. Snowden calls for his head.

Personally I think £30,000 inherited from your father that you sold prior to becoming Prime Minister is spectacularly small fry. But my opinion doesn’t matter – he’s joined the ranks of the politically walking dead. And that matters. 

Days gone by: HLP on post 2015
Cameron has long been a vital source of support for the open government movement. From his time co-chairing the High Level Panel on Post 2015, where he placed anti-corruption alongside economic growth and peace as part of his ‘golden thread’ ideas – which in turn found their expression in SDG 16, through to ensuring a reformed DFID invested in governance and peacebuilding; and forging coalitions of progressive donor countries to support the Open Government Partnership (OGP) he has been a long-standing source of political and financial support for the movement to grow and thrive. That he did so against the wilder instincts of the right wing of his own party is to his enduring credit.

So his leaving the stage, along with Obama, matters. It opens up three main challenges which are each potentially terminal for the movement for openness: an increased ability of strongman elites to block progress, a withdrawal of funding for the movement and a consequent vulnerability to other external shocks.

Poised to strike 

Political elites reach and maintain power by being ruthless. Amid the Panama revelations last week we saw the ICC dismiss a case against the Kenyan Vice President over a lack of evidence resulting from witnesses recanting their evidence. Allegations abound of why so many witnesses suddenly decided to withdraw their evidence. Political prisoners reside in several OGP countries, while others have banned newspapers that print inconvenient articles. And you may remember Jacob Zuma, the current co-chair of OGP, once gave a speech attacking the idea of the Independent Reporting Mechanism of the initiative he co-chairs. He seems to have survived another corruption scandal this week too. My point here is that elites like this have got very different ideas about openness, transparency and accountability, and the movement needs as many supporters as it can get. Where are the Southern political leaders to replace Cameron and Obama? 

An independent reporting mechanism in action
Where’s the money? 

The harsh reality for the open government movement is that it relies on a fickle donor community to keep going. Many European donors have already scaled back their funding to deal with the political fall out of the biggest refugee flow streaming across the plains of Europe since 1945. That will worsen this summer. DFID has long been chief among donors supporting this work, but will it continue under new political ownership? Many will have noticed that Justine Greening has not rushed to Cameron’s defence. With the Opposition Labour Party in no state to win the next General Election it is hard to see any of the leading contenders to replace Cameron as Prime Minister regarding this as a priority. Particularly not this man.

That would leave USAID about to be overshadowed by the prospect of a demagogue, with the other major donors caught between an intolerant domestic electorate and an increasingly vocal political opposition to the idea of continued assistance.

External shocks 

The one thing we can predict is that the future is unpredictable. The impact of another 2008 scale economic shock, more horror from Syria or the re-opening of frozen conflicts will all have their impacts on the movement for openness and transparency. To my mind this underlines why OGP in particular needs urgently to step out of its comfort zones and adapt its approaches to take into account the fragility, power dynamics and conflicts that underlie so many of the symptoms it seeks to tackle. There’s no tech, or app for that, I'm afraid. Data needs to be understood in the political context which will shape the responses of elites and citizens alike.

Grounds for hope

Amid the peril, hope. I spoke to a grass roots leader of an activist network of women in Sri Lanka yesterday. They work across that conflict scarred but beautiful island supporting widows and other women in a fight for social justice that has been going since the nation’s independence. These are the people who will ultimately determine whether abstract international constructs like OGP or the SDGs actually mean anything. Where are their voices in those high level summits so beloved of donors and practitioners alike? To date they have consistently failed the Amina Test which I suggested as a metric for the Africa meeting of OGP last year. We need to hand power to people like Amina and listen to what she wants and can tell us a whole lot more. If we do that, then I think the movement can transition into a long lasting force for good that actually changes things. 

That doesn't mean the international voice of civil society isn’t important either. The global movement which grew into the Beyond2015 coalition consistently challenged the idea that openness, transparency and peace was a Northern inspired idea. The momentum that this movement captured offers a chance to maintain the pressure on all political elites which, if harnessed, has already show itself to be a powerful force that cannot be ignored.

Many people, including me, were profoundly sceptical as to whether the post-2015 campaigns would overcome the scale of the challenges before them. But they did. And they did so because of people like the Sri Lankan activist, the Tanzanian mobiliser, the South African children of struggle and their allies in the wider development movement. Those are the people who can succeed in the more difficult times ahead as the pushback begins in earnest.

Power and politics never went away. They were just sleeping.

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Payment by Results: past its sell by date?

Duncan Green has posted an excellent take-down of Payment by Results (PbR), the latest donor trend which is increasingly being used to impose conditionality on implementing partners. He quotes David Cameron himself, who believes this to be the best thing since sliced bread but draws in multiple other viewpoints to question whether this really is likely to improve outcomes. His main analysis is that this is a fad, does not particularly work and risks decreasing rather than increasing the effectiveness of aid. And then, bewildered, asks why on earth donors keep doing this.

To answer that last question and to think about how those of us at the sharp end navigate this trend I think it’s worth considering (a) the motives driving donors to do this, (b) alternatives to PbR that might meet those motives in a more effective way and (c) highlight that there are some grounds for hope that a more holistic approach might soon replace this very technocratic, transactional way of doing aid in future.


On one level you can see the attraction of PbR. There is sadly no shortage of wasteful spending within the sector and there is nothing whatsoever wrong with challenging that. For the UK it’s also worth reminding ourselves that the current Conservative leadership have consistently gone out on a limb to defend aid spending, frequently against attacks from their own side, so PbR is a helpful way of placating those for whom the idea of aid in and of itself is questionable. The power of sceptical MPs and the Daily Mail, together with public cynicism is a powerful force.

It also, as Duncan points out, transfers risk from the donor to the implementing agency. Or does it? While that may be the motive I would argue that this form of funding has aided the growth of another trend, which is the emergence of large global accounting firms who are increasingly awarded donor tenders. The reality is that a global firm can handle more financial risk than a hand-to-mouth I/NGO. Are we really sure that a global company driven by profit rather than other motives is better placed to actually deliver results, though?


A more radical solution to meeting the needs of sceptical polities and electorates, while dealing with risk, might be to totally re-shape the I/NGO environment. This is within the gift of the top 5 large donors alone. A fundamental and co-ordinated shift in their funding strategies would do it. How about deciding that they will only fund Southern programming which is run from the South, and which is clearly building a capacity base in the South rather than maintaining those in donor capitals? Some agencies have already seen that this might be on the way and are relocating accordingly. Perhaps we should go the whole hog sooner rather than later. The message to sceptics and electors is that we are building a long term capacity which is by definition closer to the problems they are trying to solve and is therefore better placed to navigate risk.

An alternative to PbR is surely Positive Deviance. This is an idea that has been kicking its heels since the late 1990s, just waiting for people to try it at scale. It is far more based in the reality of messy power, politics and conflict and is thus far better placed as a methodology to try to meet those challenges. It is also likely to be far cheaper to try to incubate localised approaches to political problems than the sort of top-down pre-cooked approaches which PbR encourages. Twaweza has already done some useful and pioneering work on this in East Africa, reflected in its current strategy.

Allied to Positive Deviance programming how about a dash of Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation (PDIA), which at last is becoming more widely accepted as a means by which we move from tick-box approaches to M&E towards actually setting out to LEARN and act on that learning at every stage. For the sceptics here we would therefore have a combined Positive Deviance & PDIA model – which is enabling local people themselves to put forward their own ideas about how to meet challenges, and to do so in a way that is flexible enough to deal with the most complex and challenging of contexts. Surely better than PbR – which sees development as some kind of series of transactions between a ‘purchaser’ (donor) and ‘supplier’ (aid agency). Looks good on paper. Looks silly in real life.

Grounds for Hope

I suspect the large statutory donors will be embarrassed into abandoning PbR. A number of the more agile and free thinking donors, notably the Foundations of this world, are pursuing far more innovative approaches. Ford Foundations Darren Walker has railed against the “tyranny of donors” – and PbR was the sort of thing he had in mind. Micro-management at its most tyrannical. He has adopted a version of funding which involves agencies themselves being incentivised to learn, experiment and innovate – and be held accountable throughout. If this model proves more effective, then it is hard to see how the more lumbering statutory donors can maintain the pretence that PbR is a worthy alternative.

That said, Mr Walker has also warned that the I/NGO world needs to be slimmer, fitter and involve far less duplication. For reasons that may be obvious, I/NGOs have preferred to concentrate on the first part of his message, and not the second.

The new SDG framework also gives grounds for hope that this sort of approach will soon be heading of into the annals of past fads. It is simply not credible to claim that you could pursue Goal 16 on peace, governance and justice by an approach which is characterised by a series of linear and results driven transactions. More flexible, innovative, locally driven and learning based approaches will surely prevail.

And lastly, we finally see the importance of dealing with power and politics being placed centre stage by the new SDG framework. I witnessed the extraordinary sight of Jim Kim and others, the very authors of technocracy, pledging to end that approach and adopt a new politically driven approach in order to tackle conflict and governance at the Bank’s Fragility Forum recently. While there is a world of difference between a pledge at a conference and what the Bank does at local level, it seems the tectonic plates are finally grinding in the right direction. As it becomes increasingly clear that PbR is an entirely inappropriate way to tackle complex, volatile and changeable contexts, I suspect it will not survive that tectonic movement for long.

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Openness in Fragile Environments: the art of the possible

How do you adapt opengov approaches to countries that are prone to violence, emerging from conflict and characterised by endemic corruption and the oppression of minorities? That was the question which around 20 people grappled with at a workshop at the opengovhub in Washington this week, and it threw up some interesting conclusions.

The workshop, hosted by Development Gateway, Global Integrity and my own organisation Saferworld, brought together 15-20 participants from the World Bank, bilateral donors and relevant DC-based think tanks and civil society organizations to discuss challenges, share experience, and outline what an open-governance inspired approach to supporting progress toward more effective governance in fragile states might look like. The crucial point here was that this was a gathering of two tribes: some hailed from the peacebuilding community and others from the opengov/opendata world. Amid the rich diversity of perspectives, one reassuring conclusion for me was a consensus that both groups had much to learn from and to contribute towards each other. To do so would require the humility to accept that here were areas we simply didn’t have all the answers to and the willingness to forge new ways of working to create the space for innovative new approaches that drew on the combined expertise, networks and relationships of both communities.

So why were we there? What’s the problem?

In the coming years there will be an increasing influx of opengov and opendata inspired programming in fragile states which have hitherto been largely avoided by this form of approach. This will happen because the SDG agenda says it has to, with goal 16 in particular stating clearly that there is an imperative to deliver better governance, justice and peace. In addition bilateral donors are increasingly allocating very significant portions of their overall investments to fragile states while the evidence from the MDG era points to the lack of progress the SDGs are likely to make if the questions surrounding fragility are not avoided, in the way they largely were by the old development order.We saw in Mexico that initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership are also increasingly venturing into fragile contexts, and are themselves a potential vehicle for SDG16. It's important for all of those reasons to get this right.

What did we think?

The discussion boiled down to two main recurring themes. First was the potential offered by the combination of combining peacebuilding and opengov approaches not only to avoid the real potential to do harm, but to build the potential to gain sufficient traction to demonstrably contribute to a country’s journey out of conflict and towards an era of greater transparency and responsiveness. Secondly, there were practical ideas about how to do this in practice.

Potential: flexibility, coherence & adaptation

The real value of combining these approaches was not just to be felt on the ground as practitioners became more sensitive to conflict and able to navigate complex environments, designing opengov programming in ways that took account of power, politics and marginalisation. No, it was also to be felt in the capitals of bilateral and multilateral agencies, who themselves are siloed in increasingly problematic ways. It was hoped that the structures of donor agencies and institutions, which specifically separate and encourage the specialisation of their staff into either conflict or governance would come to an end. A flexible approach capable of meeting the constantly shifting contours of fragile states would require nothing less and it was hoped that collaboration on the ground would encourage those in power at the apex of those institutions to remove those artificial barriers which would otherwise continue to divide what policymakers say they wish to see and what their staff are able to deliver within the constraints they are required to work under.

The other value was at one level conceptual, but with radical practical implications. Changing the terms of what was considered ‘progress’ or ‘success’ in fragile contexts. It is notoriously difficult, though not impossible, to measure factors like trust or legitimacy. Yet without them projects that are ostensibly about stimulating citizens to engage at all with governments, let alone hold them to account and participate in the design of their services, are doomed to fail. We have learned this repeatedly within the open government movement already – Twaweza is the oft-quoted example but sadly we are not short of others. That those lessons are even more applicable in states where large proportions of the population regard their governments with hostility or mistrust, and in contexts where those on both sides of the State-citizen divide have previously been involved in active armed confrontation with each other should be self-evident. Thinking carefully about how to capture and measure indicators of progress down the path of building bridges of trust, creating spaces in which all citizens feel safe and able to participate and creating the opportunity for elites to step outside narratives of conflict that have defined their careers to date will be critical precursors to the development of tech-enabled approaches that would otherwise only include those who are already able to exercise their voices.

So what to do?

The challenges were daunting. But this was where the meeting got exciting. Taking the standpoint that actually this sort of thing is possible, and drawing from case studies of small scale projects to date, this group started to come up with some realistic, achievable and practical changes.

Donors in particular needed to look at how they could change an approach to the procurement of suppliers which encouraged the balkanisation of organisations into niche specialisms that in turn mitigated against a coherent approach. This was likely to be an easier and more realistic to achieve than attempting a wholesale reorganisation of an agency to bring conflict and governance specialists together overnight.

Rethinking metrics for success and incorporating some of the insights offered by recent literature into how to judge progress. Bearing in mind that the majority of armed conflicts are relapses of old it would therefore be appropriate to conceive of success as less about a ‘product’ or ‘innovation’ as a single project, but perhaps as contributing to inclusive participation in a forum where the same old contests could be fought out, but peacefully rather than in conflict. So the improvement of a local authority’s means of decision making with data but the active support of a programme which enabled communities in conflict to cross those conflict lines in order to interrogate those decisions with the support of intermediaries such as citizen journalists, bloggers and established media might collectively be judged a success. The point being twofold: you need more than a ‘feedback loop’ as a simple transaction – you need resilient institutions capable of managing contestation both between State and citizen, and among the citizens themselves; and you have to take a holistic approach, rather than an a la carte cherry-pick of stand-alone projects.

Pilots, small grants and trust funds were all potential mechanisms which would allow donors, both statutory agencies and foundations alike, to invest in these approaches which carry inherently more risk. As they develop evidence and experience of what works in a particular context they also deliver comparatively higher value. So more of these forms of investment mechanisms were suggested as a do-able way forward, and would enable those donors to place an inherent value on learning in its own right, rather than a useful by-product.

What next?

There was violent agreement in the room. Nobody disputed the idea that bringing these approaches together was both necessary and potentially hugely valuable. To do so might better equip us to build trust, to better understand what citizens actually want and to gain the holy grail of local ownership, enabling formerly conflicting parties on both sides of the citizen-state divide to step outside of well-entrenched behaviours and start to move beyond them.

But nobody demurred from the reality that to do that effectively would require navigating complex environments in-country, and problematic structures among practitioners and donors alike. This wasn’t, therefore, the end of the discussion. That has only just begun. The convenors of this event will be working together again to develop this dialogue among practitioners, donors and individual thinkers and if you’re interested in being part of it, you’d be very welcome indeed.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

OpenGov: emotions, complexity, power & partnerships

Human beings are complex, volatile and often irrational creatures. That is all the more so in environments characterised by the use of violence, corruption and where the dominant narrative around them is one of ‘them and us’, often expressed through ethnic identity. The idea, therefore, that in our approaches to opening up government we can design interventions and structures that think about homogeneous ‘citizens’ engaged in transactions with a machine-like ‘State’, and that all we need to do is produce data and tools with which to use that data to improve that relationship is absurd.

A useful piece of research recently published by IDS underlines that point by examining people’s perceptions of those in power around them, the effect that has on their psycho-social state and the choices they make as a result. In this study, Jethro Petit has produced a powerful account of how existing power relations inhibit ‘citizens’ from acting on information and engaging with the State. But he goes further and illustrates the psycho-social impact of multiple forms of exclusion, reinforced by patronage and violence. Here’s a critical passage:
“…these multiple dimensions of poverty and exclusion took the form of stress, depression, despair and low self-esteem. Many people showed signs of undiagnosed and untreated trauma and mental illness generated by these conditions, in addition to more overt domestic and/or political violence. This stress and trauma affected people's disposition to engage in civil society or politics. 
Our Reality Checks exposed intimate and emotional effects of poverty and exclusion often missed by more conventional research focused on material or legal deficits”.
It’s a strong piece of research and one I hope gets the traction it deserves. It echoes what I was told by a teacher in Turkana, Northern Kenya last year in my own reality check:

“This is a forgotten school. And a forgotten place. Maybe because our village doesn’t have a strongman, that’s why they don’t listen to us”.
He was despondent, angry and frankly depressed. Getting him to even talk to me about opening up relationships with the new County level government there was an achievement in itself. That's the voice of a marginalised individual that is all too frequently missing from open government discussions and approaches. He's just as divorced from the reality of his own countrymen and women who are highly educated open data or civil society innovators in capitals as he is from his own government. How could either of them hope to understand what he thinks, feels and is likely to respond to? This is a case some of us have been making for a while now.

School governors in Turkana - citizens in need of data?
But it does beg the question: what to do? Perhaps not much in the case of SIDA who commissioned the research as they shrink their budget by 60%. But for the rest the answer to my mind is to be found in how we engage in fragile states where the features Jethro is talking about are most pronounced. Yet the literature usually referenced by those within the governance sphere has little connection with the body of work that has already been done on the psycho-social impacts of conflict and fragility and which points to some of the possible answers. So we need to widen our evidence base, widen the conversation among practitioners, and apply it to how we think about the ways in which structures such as OGP and others could better understand and respond to the complexity of real people. A good starting point is Sri Lanka, newest member of OGP, but the lessons we learn from fragile states are highly replicable elsewhere. 

Sri Lanka illustrates where the factors Jethro is talking about can end up. Ethnic conflict. As people suffer exclusion they become susceptible to narratives that play on group identity, reinforced by genuine ties to land, culture, religion and customs. Elites who manipulate the structures that reinforce such exclusion can themselves become trapped in a spiral of competing and mutual chauvinism that can take on an unstoppable momentum and end in war. Some history. The independence movement in Sri Lanka was multi ethnic, indeed it was led by a Tamil. But the inheritance of the British majoritarian winner-takes-all Westminster electoral system was an unmitigated disaster. It guaranteed power for the majority, and exclusion for the minority. The rest is highly contentious history but what is not in dispute was the growth of ethnic politics and its expression in policies, practices and discourse associated with violence and ultimately falling into the abyss of war in 1983 from which the island has only just emerged. The point here is that as a relatively progressive administration reaches out and joins OGP, there is a profound need to tread carefully and consider how the legacy of those traumatic decades will need to be navigated. Failure to do that and carrying on with business-as-usual, much of which was on display at the OGP Summit in Mexico recently, risks reinforcing and entrenching the very marginalisation and exclusion that gives rise to conflict dynamics. Naivety comes at a cost, which will be paid by the most vulnerable.

IDS advance the phrase ‘rational passivity’ to explain the phenomena of citizens apparently being compliant in systems that are against their self-interest, often confounding theories of change underpinning projects and programmes. The idea being that they make rational choices, anticipating the reaction of those in power and wanting to avoid it. The authors argue we need to check assumptions but also Western liberal ideas of what success actually looks like. This is where we part company. The idea that basic freedoms, and aspirations for democratic choice, transparency, accountability and the other goals represented by initiatives like OGP is a ‘western’ model is patently untrue. For that you need only to look at what much of Southern civil society has been advocating for years in the context of the post 2015 debates. The question is how best to get there. And this is where the IDS piece gets very woolly and difficult to understand. For example here’s one of the top three recommendations:
“Supporting civil society and its power as a field rather than as organisations, through processes of capacity mobilising to release existing energies”.
I genuinely have no idea what that means. I get it on one level but what do you actually do, then? What does the ‘capacity mobilising’ look like? What are these ‘existing energies’? It is so vague and open to widely differing interpretations as to be less than helpful. 

This surely is where we need to consult the body of peacebuilding and conflict transformation experience, literature and expertise that is so frequently lacking in these debates. Both fields have a huge amount to learn from each other – in both directions. With the majority of the poorest set to live in fragile states, and the expansion of OGP into those fragile contexts that is no longer a nice-to-have, but a must-have. It will mean donors adopting new internal structures so that their own staff can better work coherently across disciplines – not the case at the moment. It will mean practitioners with very different backgrounds coming together and creating new approaches that get to the heart of these dynamics and work with the grain rather than against it. Rarely found. And it will mean fundamentally rethinking what we mean by ‘open government’, the timescales in which we conceive of it and the methods with which we pursue it.

The price of getting this stuff wrong in fragile states is scary. But the opportunity of learning about what can be achieved if we can start to engage with citizens in all of their emotional, political, cultural and historical complexity is huge.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

OGP: An inclusive ‘movement’ that counts what counts?

Is there an open government ‘movement’ and if so where is it moving and how will it know if it gets there?

I heard repeated references to such a movement during last week’s OGP global summit in Mexico City but left with mixed feelings about just how inclusive such a movement if it exists really is, the extent to which civil society voices could be heard amid the din of power politics which still dominates much of the Open Government Partnership’s proceedings; and whether a movement about governance could ever really measure its progress if it is not using metrics that go beyond only data, and into less tangible but nevertheless critical factors such as perceptions, trust and legitimacy - surely all of whom are equally fundamental bedrocks to building responsive and accountable governance.

But there was also a real silver lining. And that was the genuine willingness to openly debate these challenges, harness the expertise of the elites that attend summits like that but also those of the most marginalised who live in hard and sometimes violent places, such as newest OGP member Sri Lanka. The summit was a solid serving of realism with a garnish of hope.

A movement?

The two-day summit was preceded by a one day affair solely for civil society. Taking place in the appropriately stunning surroundings of an art institution in the heart of old Mexico City the stone walls echoed with enthusiastic speakers hailing the progress made by OGP since its inception. Yet these were the converted. For sure, there were now a slew of National Action Plans which set out pathways to open data on everything from corruption through to public service delivery and domestic resource mobilisation, including in many cases examples of real engagement between reformist government champions and innovators from within business and civil society who collectively had used OGP to make real strides towards participatory governance and more efficient government. Before I add a ‘but’ to that sentence – that is a very great achievement for OGP and one for which its founders, funders and champions should be proud.


It was noticeable to me that the examples given were principally projects that centred on relatively non controversial topics and took place in relatively stable countries. The repeated references to the open government ‘movement’ for me, therefore, was strange. I don’t know of any other movement that only operates in relatively easy places to work and does so on relatively uncontroversial topics in the main. If the open government community – let’s call it that instead – is to really take on the mantle of a movement then surely it will need to take its reforming zeal to where the challenges are greatest.

Sri Lanka

One such place would be the new entrant to the platform which was unveiled at the Summit – Sri Lanka. This country’s entrance to the community offers us the chance to get to grips with some of the challenges faced by post conflict countries. It will be a hard and complex environment to navigate but one which will force the open government community to confront some of the issues around power and conflict I and others have been talking about for a long time. I used to work in Sri Lanka. It is a country which has emerged from decades of civil war, the ending of which cost several thousand civilian lives in a manner which remains highly contested. It is a state in which ethno-nationalist politics took hold in the post-independence era, and which resulted in a society so stratified along ethnic and religious lines that an armed insurrection and civil war ensued; the island toppling into the abyss in 1983. The Rajapaksa administration that emerged militarily victorious, after a civil war that was re-ignited in large part by the international response to the 2004 tsunami, was removed democratically in the last general election. It is a country that now remains deeply divided and, despite the new Sirisena administration being reformist in character and joining OGP as a result, is a nation in which the forces of division and sectarian nationalism are vibrant and growing. In short, this is a fragile State in which a progressive administration is by no means a guarantee that we have left the darkness of recent decades behind. There is a moral responsibility for the open government community to reach out to the peacebuilding community and together in turn forge partnerships with civil society, business and government champions to make the best possible contribution we can to that beautiful island’s journey out of endemic marginalisation, violent conflict and oppression. The good news is that this combination is possible. It won’t be easy, but some of us are already working on it.

Counting what counts

So how will we measure success? Do we judge it by quantifiable amounts of data published or do we use metrics that include how people think and feel as well? I wonder if OGP is starting to fall victim to what former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios once warned of as the "rise of the counter bureaucracy" - counting what you can, not what actually counts.

I had an interesting exchange with the indomitable Nnena Nwakanma of the Web Foundation on this subject at the Summit. Nnena who has in recent years resembled a super-energy charged visionary on the data revolution, made a comment that in order to measure success you had to be able to count what it was you were talking about. I couldn’t resist asking how you could measure such intangible things as trust or legitimacy. In fairness Nnena conceded that things were more nuanced than solely which pieces of data you can count (and in fact highlighted that by her own story of not being named in her early years because girls were not considered as valued as boys), but to me this was a microcosm of the fork in the road the open government community is faced with. If we are collectively serious about the SDG agenda which was another dominant theme of the summit, then we must be serious about the pledge to ‘leave nobody behind’. We simply can't hope to do that by only working in relatively stable countries and only measuring progress according to metrics that do not correspond to issues of power, marginalisation or perceived legitimacy and trust.

SDG16, much talked about at the Summit, is about governance. But it is also about justice and peace. And that will mean those who work in the worlds of building bridges of trust and legitimacy among communities affected by violence, marginalisation and fragility – will need a welcoming hand of partnership with those who work in the worlds of building technology, data and opengov projects. A starting place for that, it seems to me, is in Sri Lanka and in other states not yet members of OGP but facing similar challenges.

Less moaning, more fixing

One comment made to me in the Summit struck home, and it was a push back against my own scepticism. Several speeches by Heads of State or their representatives at the Summit had been clearly aimed at limiting the voices of civil society and shifting OGP towards being an inter governmental affair. To me this was all that was bad about OGP - but as I expressed this to one wise counsel it was gently pointed out to me that in order to fix problems and get things done we had to engage with what was there rather than what we would want to be there. Middle class people had other options, including walking away, they said. But the people who really need to see things fixed do not have any such luxury. So stop with the moaning and get with the fixing.

A point well made. Let's give it a go.