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.

Friday, 23 October 2015

What does openness look like: a response

MAVC has just posted an interesting take on what it regards as the key issues to consider when trying to understand what open government actually means, ahead of next weeks OGP Summit in Mexico. Their main question is “will all this openness actually change things”? Nailed it. But while they are headed in the right direction I worry that it’s what they don’t talk about rather than what they do, which indicates that some initiatives still really don’t quite get it.

To get to the answer of whether openness changes things, the questions they pose are threefold and set as metrics with which to measure the relative impact of OGP. Let’s have a look at the questions. Stating rightly that “Too often, we conflate openness with provision of information, or with the thinking that if everyone knows what government commitments are, or if budgets and datasets are published online, then that’s a commitment fulfilled”, they list:
  • What are you publishing?/ Do people care – who is asking for this information? / Is it in a format people can understand?
  • Where are you publishing it? / Who has access? Let’s be clear: the internet does not operate in universally accessible languages, nor is everyone actually able to afford, or get access.
  • Does this information actually help people improve people’s lives, or is it just PR so governments and organisations can say they are open and get an international pat on the back?
Oh dear. Are we really answering a question as fundamental as whether openness will actually change things, with issues about formatting, accessible languages and PR? The third inquiry offers the most hope with an opaque reference to improving people’s lives but I would have hoped to see something here about reaching and engaging marginalised groups, providing inclusive space for collective action, guarding civic space or simply just passing the Amina Test of relevance to the average citizen’s experience.

The MAVC article ambitiously goes on to try to ‘redefine openness’ as a tool to achieve change. They argue:
“Openness should mean that government plans are shaped not just by politicians, but are genuinely inclusive. It should mean that huge datasets are not published without thinking about who can actually understand them. It should mean publishing not just the ‘safe’ information, but also information that can be used to actually track what government is doing, what it is spending and achieving on behalf of its citizens.

It should mean that governments are open to change, to new ideas and criticism”.
Well, who could argue with any of that? And that’s the problem here. Let’s unpack things for a minute.

‘Genuinely inclusive’ – yay. But who defines that and what are we talking about. Women? Ethnic groups? LGBT? Disabled people? Political dissidents? One of the reasons statements like this are so easy to make but are so easily swept aside is that as soon as you start talking specifics you start to come across very sensitive subjects very quickly. If you are a gay man in several OGP member states you run the risk of being stuck on the front page of a newspaper, being locked up or attacked. If you are a political dissident in Azerbaijan you risk being locked up or murdered. That is the scale of the challenge in many places. And if the world leaders who proclaimed the SDG 2030 agenda were serious when they pledged to ‘leave no-one behind’ then they are going to need to take these open government approaches, defined in SDG16, to some very fragile, volatile and dangerous places to be a citizen. Have we done enough thinking about how to do that?

Publishing ‘huge datasets’ without thinking who can understand them. Well, yes.

Not just publishing ‘safe’ information. Safe for who? MAVC think it’s the government – they go on to talk about information on government activity, expenditure and performance. It might be worth considering just how ‘safe’ it is for citizens living in environments characterised by elite resource capture, security forces that operate with near impunity and endemic social exclusion – not to mention fragility and violence – to even contemplate using such information. I would politely suggest not very safe at all.

Governments ‘should be open to change, to new ideas and criticism’. Again, yay. But what do we mean? Most western donors would frame that in terms of ‘democracy’ or ‘democratisation’, and that’s reflected in heavy funding for programmes to institute elections or short term governance initiatives. But the evidence tells us that fundamental change doesn’t happen either through elections or short term initiatives, least of all those that rely on ‘fixes’ or ‘feedback loops’. Change in the citizen-State relationship is the result of contestation, challenge and evolution. The Word Development Report of 2011 posited that this process should be thought of in terms of three decades – and that’s without interruptions like natural disasters, economic shocks or conflict.

Asking tougher questions

I’ll be applying a tougher lens to what I see in Mexico next week. I will want to hear how world leaders and civil society elites have sought to develop thinking about how to define processes by which citizens and their governments can collectively define what their problems actually are, including highly sensitive ones like FGM, violence against women, corruption and exclusion; what success would really look like and a future that they can jointly sign up to. That would mean Amina having confidence that her daughter would not have her education stolen by corrupt local elites. Or these folk in Liberia having confidence in their local police force as they build a sustainable future out of conflict.

I’d like to hear about whether those involved in the opendata discourse have started to think about how to really understand and respond to marginalisation, exclusion and violence as much as whether standard service delivery projects are running efficiently and reported on using an app.

There are really exciting possibilities to do some of this stuff. Bringing people who are not currently part of the opengov conversation into it would be a good start. Engaging in collaboration on projects which are designed according to what the problems are – as they are understood by local people – and then seek to learn about what works, why and how. Bringing super clever techies together with people who routinely do amazing work in building bridges not of data or technology but of human trust between communities used to decades of conflict and reform minded officials in government. There is simply no point trying to be more ‘inclusive’ and efficient, with well presented ‘datasets’ if there is a profound deficit of legitimacy and trust, within a history of violence and exclusion. You need to tackle both in creative ways and over a long period. But that will mean thinking a lot further outside of the box than seems to be happening in many places at the moment.

Monday, 19 October 2015

Aid funding: UN Chief raises hackles of large INGOs

Stephen O'Brien, new head of UNHCR, told a conference in Geneva earlier last week that only 2% of humanitarian funding went to local aid agencies in disaster hit areas, despite in his words their being faster, cheaper and more culturally appropriate. It has re-awakened calls for the funding system which privileges large INGOs and agencies at the cost of local organisations, provoking predictable hackles to be raised in Northern capital HQs.

And although this is a humanitarian debate surely it speaks to the development sector as a whole. For years now some INGOs have understood that the days of top-heavy structures based in the North are over, while others have tried to recruit or transfer skills to the areas in which they operate. That has not been without cost, in particular to the jobs of those staff unable or unwilling to relocate, but if the sector is serious about investing in precisely the sort of long term sustainable ‘capacity’ it says is important, surely it needs collectively to embrace this trend. But it doesn’t. At least not uniformly.

And that’s a problem that can have catastrophic consequences. International aid agencies with very little contextual understanding make bad decisions in what can be dangerous environments where conflict intersects with calamity. The response to the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka arguably led to the re-ignition of that country’s civil war because those taking decisions did not understand the power dynamics they were dealing with and the likely responses of elites on both sides. Many thousands of people beyond those affected by the natural disaster paid for that with their lives.

c/o Eric Garland: Haiti school earthquake
Haiti, Nepal and other disasters provide similarly salutary lessons in the limitations of large scale international response as the primary means of response, from unintentionally stimulating violence to issues of accountability. Surely it would not take a great deal to first identify regions susceptible to disaster and secondly to invest, long term, in locally based, culturally embedded and conflict sensitive agencies who can be ready the next time a disaster comes along? Isn’t this part of the resilience agenda we used to hear so much about?

But when you read the reactions of some of the larger agencies to this suggestion, and presumably these reactions feature in their donor lobbying, you begin to see why this never seems to happen every time we have the debate. Here’s Sean Lowrie, of the Start Network, which brings together international and national NGOs for humanitarian response. Its members include Save the Children, Oxfam and Christian Aid, speaking to the Guardian:
“We’re still working in an old-fashioned, centralised, top-down system, which believes in the fallacy of control. We’re stuck and we’re not talking about the real issue, which are incentives, behaviour and governance. What we need is a whole new eco-system of smart humanitarianism, which responds to what is needed, which is flexible and diversified, and which is financed in new, smart ways.”
That sounds great. But part of the problem is that it sounds great to everyone because these are large statements that mean everything to everyone. When it gets down to the bottom line what we surely need to see are smaller, in-country based and more agile agencies that understand and are able to navigate the intensely political environments within which disasters take place while building community level resilience in between. I wonder whether we will actually see concrete moves towards such a structure, with the call for 20% of funding to go to smaller agencies having been made at the Geneva summit at which Mr O’Brien was speaking. Or will we need to wait for another catastrophe to have this recurring conversation again.

Friday, 16 October 2015

OGP & SDG16: Time to leave our comfort zones

Is the Open Government Partnership complimentary, contradictory or in competition with the Sustainable Development Goals and in particular SDG16 on governance? That was the big question posed by researchers from the Partnership for Transparency Fund writing earlier this week. The writers conclude that there is much to be gained from a complimentary approach and hope that conversations at the forthcoming Mexico OGP Summit will start to enable that to happen. The questions are posed in the context of some arguing that OGP should be the ‘home’ for SDG16 on governance, justice and peace to be implemented.

In response I think that the question is wrong and the answer is only partly right. Wrong because the idea that this is the first time that a multilateral initiative has been replicating large parts of another initiative is clearly not true, this is just the latest example. And only partly right because the opportunity here is fundamentally more exciting than just better co-ordination or the avoidance of duplication. We have an opportunity of a generation to actually do something effective for once about the interplay between power, politics, conflict and poverty. But we'll have to do that away from international institutions and policy wonkery, and in new and different ways.

On whether OGP should be the home of SDG16 I think there are fewer nuances. The idea is madness. For this to be the case you would need all countries of the world to join. And it’s worth bearing in mind that some existing member states have a nasty habit of shutting down a free press, locking up political opponents and using violence against their own citizens as a political tool. Perhaps a bit of institutional housecleaning to be done first.

The authors note that there is significant overlap between OGP goals and targets and that of SDG 16 on governance, peace and justice. Welcome to the world of international initiatives. OGP has also overlapped with the New Deal for Engagement with Fragile States for years. While the authors rightly argue that this could lead to unhealthy competition among initiatives rather than actually helping, I would politely suggest that the elites in many of the countries that have been members of both these initiatives, and who have made least progress on either, may also welcome the opportunity to merrily play the international community off against each other. That’s politics, folks.

The authors argue that OGP and SDG16 could collaborate in a brave new agenda for “…the larger goal of good governance”. Aside from the very loaded term ‘good’ it might also be worth bearing in mind that the OGP’s experience to date, and that of the New Deal before it, offer sage lessons in the challenges that face anyone seeking to turn SDG16 into reality. The New Deal ran into sand when elites in some member countries started to perceive that the OECD donors were themselves losing interest. OGP member states have stood accused by its own Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) of instrumentalising the initiative without delivering any form of governance reform at all. Chief among culprits was the current Chair South Africa, prompting President Zuma to reprimand the oversight of the IRM in front of President Obama at the 2014 OGP meeting at the UN General Assembly. Which was awkward.

"they take our taxes but don't fix our bridge". Amina's village, Dar es Salaam
Furthermore it’s worth reflecting that every time you create an initiative, platform or any other multilateral grouping – you create incentives, including those that mitigate against change and create closed conversations. A while ago I asked whether OGP in Africa would pass the Amina Test: whether this initiative which at the time was meeting in the same city she lived in would actually mean anything to the daily life of this young woman who knew all about corruption, bad governance and extreme poverty because her life chances had been stolen by all three. The consensus among African civil society voices by all accounts was that it would not pass that test. Unless and until initiatives like New Deal, OGP or even the SDGs actually mean anything to people like Amina we should perhaps temper our ambitions.

But therein lies the opportunity and the challenge. We can learn all of these lessons. We don’t need to repeat these errors. We cannot just pay lip service to Amina but instead meaningfully invite her and her community to shape the response. Hard to do, yes. But still possible. We can do all of those things. But it will mean, for civil society in particular, to start to move away from the international policy wonkery that has been the home for many of these ideas and start working to a far greater extent at national level for the next 5-10 years instead. Why hold a policy meeting in New York when you could have a more meaningful discussion with these people in Turkana: they have far more expertise in what power and governance looks like than UN officialdom does and will offer far greater insights than a debate where international folk who agree with each other talk to each other. It will mean going out of our way to capturing the learning that all of our experiences and those of others generate. And then using that learning collectively – as donors, practitioners and advocates to have honest conversations about failure as well as success. For those of us in the peacebuilding world it will mean working with new partners, and for those on the governance side of things the same. And for all of us it will mean thinking, working and acting politically but in ways which respect national sovereignty and local leadership.

Turkana village governors: the real governance policy experts
We can do all of that. But some of it will challenge our own institutional incentives, vested interests of the aid industry and frankly take many of us individually out of our comfort zones. Leverage every platform or initiative that there is out there - we have SDG16 now and that's a major advance - but we won't succeed in making it a success by seeing the next step as more engagement with international institutions. It will be won or lost on the ground, in hard and sometimes violent places.

If we genuinely want to seize the opportunity of SDG16, then that’s the deal, folks.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

What are the SDGs for: power to the people?

So. Post2015 has become post-post2015 and the SDGs were eventually born. For those of us who were for years part of the NGO post2015 policy clique, seeing each other in airports and UN corridors more even than our home cities this is the end as well as the start of an era. But as the declarations of unity from political leaders, exhortations to humanity from our spiritual leaders (notably a particularly impressive Pope) and inspirations like Malala ring in our ears we must turn back to the daunting reality of real life and ask ourselves just how a set of 16 goals and nearly 200 indicators can actually change anything at the level that real people live at. Because heaven knows the MDGs didn’t. That global poverty rate? As Duncan Green points out, don’t look to MDGs, look to China. And are we suggesting that we would not have been tackling malaria, HIV, infrastructure and illiteracy without the MDGs? Really? Were geopolitics, trade and raw power not by far more important?

Time to get real, perhaps. And this might be the biggest advantage of the new era. Within the aid industry we were surely guilty of a collective conceit when we argued for more aid on the grounds that it was the single most important flow of resources to counter poverty and disease. For starters it was dwarfed by remittances from people at the bottom and FDI from those at the top, while those people living in the shadow of conflict were left as poor as they ever were in 2000 when similar proclamations lauded the Millennium Declaration. Yet I wasn’t the only one to be told not to rock the boat when pointing this out at public meetings by colleagues from some of the household names of the sector. Now there’s a new boat setting sail so perhaps we can set a new course, and have a more honest conversation. Poverty is about who has power and who has none: not aid, nor technical targets nor even what pop stars tell us.

Poverty is power at work

Poverty, oppression, corruption and violence are not accidents. They happen because elites choose to use all or some of them to capture resources, seize or maintain power. We know this and positively there are some signs that this is more recognised than before. The drive from Southern civil society to have governance, justice and conflict recognised in this framework was bitterly resisted by States themselves massively impacted by poor governance, non-existent justice systems and sustained levels of violence. They lost, largely because civil society got organised and understood how to use soft power over the course of the last 5 years. That stands in stark contrast to how similar areas of the Millennium Declaration were whitewashed out of the MDGs that emerged afterwards. It is therefore a very significant achievement. But that victory will only matter if it results in real power being accrued by those people who suffer most from the effects of bad governance, injustice and armed violence. If you ask them they're only too happy to educate us - just ask Amina of Dar es Salaam.

welcome to the European Union
As the refugee columns streaming across Europe from the wars in the Middle East are discovering as they meet barbed wire, brutality and indifference on the borders of the European Union – itself one of the loudest voices proclaiming a bright new dawn in New York – what those in power actually do can be very different from what they say. Power and politics matter.

Widen the conversation

But there is a glimmer of hope here. Power rests on information as well as force. And some citizens are beginning to realise that they can harness the power of new tools and technologies to gain access to it, share it and drive change that challenges the status quo. You’ll find the soaring rhetoric for this in the discourse around the Data Revolution. But could it, even ever so slightly, work in real life? My point here is that in theory it could – but in order for that to happen it will need to be a conversation involving many more people than it currently does (primarily NGO policy wonks and bright new tech startups) and take people from very different walks of life to abandon the ways they do things and to work with each other in new ways. Data geeks with conflict transformation experts, governance and peace studies professors, rich kids with their poorer compatriots.

The ground zero for this will be in those countries where the majority of the poorest are set to live, who benefited the least from the MDG era and where the challenges of governance, injustice and conflict are at their most profound: fragile states. If we don’t get it right here then forget about the ‘leave nobody behind’ theme of the SDG week just gone. But if we do get it right here, imagine the potential.

Be humble, be ambitious, rip up the rule book and learn.

So what to do?

First, in my view we need to be very very humble. Those of us seeking to contribute to peace and development need to understand we are bit players entering tectonic processes of change and contestation that are centuries old and which will continue long after we and our short term projects are gone.

But, secondly, let's be ambitious. The Southern voices that fought their own governments to a point where they conceded the political aspects of the SDGs were ambitious, and rightly so. Working together we can change things but one step at a time with clearly thought out analysis and theories of how our interventions might gently nudge those processes of change in a slightly better direction over the long term.

And thirdly, it's time to rip up the conceptual basis for how we structure ourselves into silos – practitioners, researchers and donors alike. Human affairs do not correspond to the structures the aid industry has built for itself, so why should we expect those divides to do anything apart from fail? Innovative programmes likely to succeed will surely be those that adopt an explicitly learning approach where the learning is a primary objective not a by-product of a pre-determined theory of change, itself the product of a pre-determined donor priority, and are capable of setting out explicitly power-based approaches that seek to harness the very real potential of data but – crucially – ensure that *all* sections of society are part of the conversation about what that data is, what it means and what they want to see done about it by those in power. In other words genuinely responsive governments. And this is in no way an anti-government agenda either – some of the keenest champions of change are officials within the State, but they need willing partners. Equally some of the new wave of business pioneers are ready and willing to be part of the solution too, as they eventually must be. Both of them are just waiting to be asked, as one inspirational conversation on how change happens last year in Johannesburg powerfully illustrated.

There is a critically important role for international actors but as practitioners we are going to need to ditch many of our own vested interests in how we’ve done things so far, as donors accept a far far greater tolerance of risk in order for responsive, creative approaches to have the space to work and – for all of us – to start working coherently and rather more cleverly than we have so far rather than in our boxes that was so evident throughout the whole Post2015 process as each ‘niche’ sought to insert their own bauble on to the SDG Christmas Tree.

We are not short of ideas, thinking or theories as to how to do this stuff in practice. We just need to try it. Positive Deviance, Problem Driven Adaptive Iteration, Complexity Theory and so much more is out there just waiting to be tried – at scale – and with the requisite tolerance of risk necessary for it to find what works in each unique context.

It will be hard. Stuff will go wrong. In some cases very badly wrong. But that’s the human condition we’re seeking to deal with. The SDGs are much better than the MDGs. That is a good thing. But if they don’t lead to information and power being placed in the hands of the poorest and most vulnerable then their potential will be lost. Good luck, everyone.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Sentry: tackling conflict?

The Enough Project has produced a very slick, if spoiled by a blockbuster-style soundtrack, video to publicise its latest offering in a string of innovative approaches to tackling conflict in Africa. And in developing The Sentry the good folks at Enough have pioneered some steps by the conflict transformation community into the world of open data. Good for them.The problem is they seem to have fallen into the trap of so many tech initiatives that have gone before: the tech gets placed ahead of the conflict with hugely inflated claims of the impact the data will have - and is apparently being led exclusively by well intentioned Americans, while as others have pointed out for a project about Africa there is not an African leader in sight in this video, only the victims. Plus George Clooney.

Clooney: closing down conflict in Africa
Clooney and the Enough Project make a number of grand claims of what an approach to following the financial flows associated with some of the most protracted conflicts in the world might mean, both in terms of holding international corporates accountable and even more in terms of changing their behaviour. The project builds on the work supported by donors including the Open Societies Foundation and African innovators in the use of open source data, such as Justin Arenstein, to create a cadre of analysts and reporters who can then use that information to expose illicit flows, sanctions evasion, smuggling of natural resources and so on. But you don't see any reference to those African innovators already doing this work, which is a shame because Africa is not short of these people.

In response to this criticism Sacha Lezhnev of the Enough Project said that they were working with "a number" of these civil society and media actors who preferred to remain anonymous for safety reasons.

To achieve the sort of change this project calls for it will need to take place globally and locally in the countries affected by conflict themselves. My main questions on this project are twofold and relate to both of those levels of change.


Which companies are we talking about, here? Africa is the world's fastest growing region for FDI, with a 5% increase in 2014. A third of that was for extraction, principally oil and gas. And the majority of that investment came from China, with USD198.5 billion and rising in 2012. US FDI by comparison was USD 108.9 billion and falling in the same year. My point here is that Follow the Money style projects are likely to have very different impacts on a publicly listed company in New York or London, by comparison to an essentially State run enterprise in Beijing. But this is lost in the razmatazz of the project's publicity which does not refer once to China. This is not to argue that these projects have no purpose - they really do, as the work of OpenCorporates and others have already shown, but it may be wise to temper expectations, and plan for the long term rather than promising short term transformative change which is simply unrealistic.


To achieve change locally requires local people. So how is the introduction of data in this way different to the work that has already been produced by organisations like Code for Africa and others in the development of data journalism? Because these people have not only experience but valuable learning which it would be wise to reflect on, in the extent to which data can be used by citizens to hold power to account.

Here's Code for Africa, on the as-yet unfulfilled promise of open data:
"Open Data & Open Government Are Revolutionary. They promise to change the power dynamics that govern our societies, giving ordinary citizens more and deeper information in real time, along with digital tools for engaging with fellow citizens and with those in positions of power.

So, why are so few citizens using either the data or the tools -- despite generous funding and massive institutional support?

The problem, Code for Africa believes, is an issue of supply versus demand. Much of the focus by the civic technology movement to date has been on governments and activists pushing data and services at citizens, rather than listening to what citizens really want or need".
They go on to suggest how this could be redefined, taking a bottom up approach and listening to the citizens themselves. You have to wonder how much of this learning is reflected in the Enough Projects new venture into this arena. Judging by the video and the website not much. So it would be interesting to know more about how they plan to build on and learn from the experiences of the real innovators in this field who have been pioneering this work quietly, often at great risk to themselves for several years already.

Partnerships for change?

If we could see real partnerships being forged between international organisations and those innovators operating at the heart of the conflicts, building on the learning that this cutting edge work has already generated; and combining it with the knowledge of those citizen groups already involved in peacebuilding and conflict transformation on the ground who are usually absent from these projects, we might start to realise some of the tantalising potential that this sort of work holds out for genuinely altering conflict in Africa.

In the forthcoming SDG era where data is set to be king, there's a genuine opportunity to think creatively about how we harness the power of that data at the levels we will need to effect change. But I think projects like this, who deserve real credit for even trying, will need to be a little more humble, a lot more integrated and involve much wider collaboration to do that.