Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Brexit Britain: a leader in peace, governance & growth?

Whisper it quietly: this new Government might not actually be all that bad. Amid the predictable sound and fury from many in the UK development industry, itself populated mainly by left-leaning voters who were appalled at Brexit, the actual emerging policy picture as regards the direction of UK development policy shows early promise. I’m told that NGOs at the Conservative Party conference this week were left slightly taken aback, having braced themselves for an ideological onslaught that never came.

Priti & Boris

First up was Priti Patel, DFID’s new boss and leading light of the Brexit campaign. She had a lot to say on the theme of the day: free trade. DFID’s role was to counter poverty, respond to disasters but also to create the conditions for growth. That she explicitly links the growth of markets to the UK national interest as a post-Brexit trading nation should not be held against her. It’s been the unspoken goal of Her Majesty’s Government since the creation of DFID in 1997. And the link to trade is also hardly new ground. One of the most progressive donors in the world today, the Netherlands, unified it’s trade and development Ministries years ago, arguably leading to greater coherence overall.

And on peace she had this:
“…we can and will play an active part in making our world a more peaceful and prosperous place”.
A bit thin on the ground for detail but nothing to especially dislike.

Then came Boris Johnson. And what a different Boris this was. Gone were the jokes, and the blatant political ambition. In came serious analysis which, by comparison to the soundbites of Patel, had some particularly positive pointers for those of us interested in effective interventions to support peace, responsive governance and justice in some of the most complex, fragile and volatile places in the world.

Development needs freedom

Boris was vocal and blunt in his rejection of the pernicious thesis that development was possible without openness, transparency and responsive governance. That is a welcome and direct slap down to the sort of thinking led recently by the Overseas Development Institute, and over which we have tangled before. Liberal freedoms were, he said, essential to growth that remained stable. End of.

In fact Boris went much further than that. He castigated the regimes currently re-writing constitutions to lengthen spells of unbroken power in Africa while citing directly the closing civic space that has resulted in NGOs being targeted by those governments at home. The link between closing civic space and fragility is well established, with Carothers' recent work being the latest to examine it.

Soft power?

Boris leaned heavily on the idea of British soft power as a means by which those freedoms being curtailed might be addressed. It was clear to me that he included UK aid relationships in that, but he also cited the BBC and other forms of influence around the world. It was possible, he argued, to marshal all of Britain’s collective influence to support openness as well as growth. (Britain's soft power is something that gets talked about a lot - I did an analysis of its true spread here)

Reasons for optimism

The centres of gravity in Theresa May’s Government have shifted radically. The Treasury has gone from one of the most powerful Departments to a weaker implementing arm of Downing Street. While DFID is now headed by a Secretary of State who is clearly aligned with an agenda on governance and growth which is backed by the more politically powerful Foreign Secretary. Left leaning NGO folk might not like the personalities but it’s not a bad set of alignments for a progressive development and foreign policy.

So – a good start in my book, if a little confused and light on the detail. Confusion, for example, could be seen by Boris’ reference to Ethiopia as a development good news story, with rising life expectancy and a £300m DFID programme.

Current events in Ethiopia may cast those statistics in a slightly less favourable light.

And, to address Brexit, both Patel and Johnson called for British leadership of the aid industry. Well, it is fair to say that over the years DFID has been a thought leader on peace and governance. It is also fair to say that the European Union’s development policies are frequently confused and incoherent. The European Union’s 11 million farmers and their political voice arguably led to the suspension of the Doha Round (the US directly blamed the EU for this) which would have done more for growth and poverty alleviation than all of the aid budgets combined. It was notable Boris Johnson directly cited British determination to restart that Round. Coherence between trade and development is not such a bad idea.

Ultimately Brexit has happened. We have a new administration in the UK. They face no meaningful opposition at home. So it’s just as well that, from what I saw this week, there is much to be optimistic about if you’re a peacebuilder.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Peace in Myanmar: Listen to the people

“Some of you don’t like me. Some of you don’t like the Army. Some of you don’t like the Karen National Union. But that’s OK. We all have to live together”.
The Bago Region State Minister had just summed up the status and sentiment of the peace process in this part of Northern Kayin State, Myanmar.

Today was International Peace Day, and I was privileged to share it with two of the World’s longest military adversaries: Myanmar’s military (called the Tatmadaw) and one of the many Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) in Myanmar who have fought them since the late 1940s, the Karen National Union (KNU). I was here with Saferworld, for whom I work, and some of our partners working on the promotion of women’s role in the peace process.

Some areas of Karen are controlled by the Government. Other parts are controlled by the KNU. Having woken at dawn in Taungoo Township, itself under Government control, we journeyed off road for an hour through misty villages already well awake with the hard graft of farming. The dirt track got narrower, bumpier and more remote. And all of a sudden the odd soldier lining the route had a different insignia on their arm. We had crossed into KNU territory.

But this day was different. Karen civil society had painstakingly negotiated permissions to enable senior Government officials, Tatmadaw officers and even the Myanmar Police to cross into this area, attend and take part in a Peace Day event in front of several hundred villagers, who have borne the brunt of this conflict since before independence from Britain.

Even at 7am the sun was brutal but so were the people’s determination to sit there, sweat and listen to what these men had to say. And yes, they were all men. But it was not lost on anyone that it had been women, working behind the scenes and among their communities, who had brought them to the stage itself. The Commander of KNU’s 2nd Brigade spoke alongside the Tatmadaw officers. Both signatories to a ceasefire since 2012, but their polite mutual applause did not disguise how far remained to travel. In fact all of the speeches were conciliatory and the applause uniform. But what has struck me most in the conversations with those peacebuilders who have done so much to bring us to this point is how long and bumpy it will be before there is long term sustainable peace here. The sheer depth of antipathy, lack of trust in any part of the State by many, and the long term social impact of decades of violence will take generations to overcome, so that Myanmar can start to reach its potential.

Those of us wishing to support from the outside – donors and practitioners – have to start from a point of humility. We do not have the answers. They do. There are real opportunities but there is one simple metric to apply: will it be people-led instead of Government-centred? If the answer is no, it’s time to think again.

Setting Priorities: Listen and Learn

It was notable that behind the dignitaries the poster quoted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and stated that they were collectively “building blocks for peace”. Donors, UNDP: are you listening? That is real people telling us what they want the SDGs to mean in their realities. There are already proliferating SDG initiatives in this country that do not relate to building peace, but other agendas pre-determined by some donors and the government instead. Time to think again.

Making their voices count
Myanmar is about to embark on a process in which some form of federalism will be debated as a future governance settlement to bring the fighting to an end. But there are multiple and competing definitions of that federal state, and not every EAO has signed a ceasefire. Heavy fighting is currently taking place in different areas of the country. The momentum and genuine hope created and sustained by Aung San Suu Kyi is real reason to hope that these factors can be navigated and a more inclusive process can take shape. But it would be a profound mistake for outsiders not to place support for building peace at the centre of any and all of their strategies here, and to support the chances of peace by shaping those strategies from the bottom-up, listening and learning from what communities living in villages like this will gladly tell you about, if only they are asked. Peace will not ultimately be secured at a grand signing convention with world leaders looking on. It will be won or lost in these villages, with real people deciding if they have built enough trust in their former adversaries to begin to build together.


What today proved was that those people want peace. They showed that standing under the sun. From all generations. Holding candles. Gently scolding bored children. Wearing banners on their heads. They made sure their voices were heard today by those men who bear arms and wield power. That is their victory and what peace day is all about.

An even bigger victory would be for their voices to be heard, listened to and acted upon by those who will celebrate peace day later today at the UN General Assembly in New York, or in the capital cities of donor agencies as priorities are set.

Or is that too much for them to ask?

Friday, 9 September 2016

The Failure Debate: Cold Shower Time

Failure is a sexy theme at the moment. How to adapt and iterate to it is the latest development Holy Grail. But rather like a religious text the conclusions people draw from the debate tend to depend on their own standpoint, interests and perspectives. A thoughtful blogpost by DFID thinker Pete Vowles illustrates this point. As a donor he wrestles with the idea that failure is inevitable and useful if it can be captured for learning and adaptation, while wondering at how to make it ‘OK to fail’ for those implementing projects.

Pete makes a number of useful observations. He highlights, for example, the constant waves of new donor metrics, clouding one’s ability to judge progress from one to the next. He cites the lack of space for donors to really listen to local communities enough. And the implicit pressure to avoid any kind of failure, for fear of undermining wider aid efforts by handing ammunition to skeptics. There’s no easy answer to any of those when you consider the political economy donors and practitioners inhabit.

Yet some of the points Pete makes I think could be helped along by a cold shower reality check followed by some political thinking.

Time, cost & quality 

Pete posits one useful way of understanding failure is to adopt three lenses of time, cost and quality. But then leaves that hanging without returning to it anywhere else in his blog. This sounds eerily like the magnificent sounding “3 E”’s that were unveiled excitedly by DFID bods some years ago. We were told that Efficiency, Economy and Effectiveness would be the yardstick of judging Value for Money, but that was never really defined either.

I recently read a DFID call for proposals that very clearly judged VFM not on any of the “E”s but squarely on what percentage their implementing partner would charge them in overheads. And not much else. We clearly need a framework for judging value for money. We don’t yet have one beyond buzzwords that are ill-understood and applied inconsistently. And that’s a problem for adapting and iterating to failure using public funds that are rightly under scrutiny.

Safe to fail? 

Pete states that donors need to make it ‘safe’ for implementers to own up to, highlight and learn from failure. That is absolutely correct. But if Pete doesn’t mind me saying so, he is whistling in the wind.

The brutal reality is that there is a massive power imbalance which it is na├»ve to pretend doesn’t exist. Donor agencies have plenty. Sometimes more than their host Governments. Implementers, be they community based organisations, activist networks, NGOs or INGOs have absolutely none. There is a sliding scale of ‘none’ with local CBOs at the bottom, as INGOs can lobby. But it’s still basically none. Take a look at how DFID is destroying some UK based INGOs at the moment by repeatedly missing its own deadlines and commitments to re-invest in a PPA agreement. It’s already too late for some of them. Consider how that has impacted in turn on the local partners with whom those INGOs work, who rely on flexible funding to experiment, try new ways of working and to do the things Pete says he wants to see more of. It’s already too late for some of them too.

Institutional self-awareness is not easily created, but for all the woolly talk of “partnership” by donors it will always be a patron-client relationship. So if donors are serious then they need to start placing a hard financial value on learning in project design that goes way beyond standardised approaches to M&E or disjointed ‘learning components’ that often look like a bolt-on. We need consistent investment in projects that incentivise learning and adaptation at the core, recognising the value of both. Time to stop talking and start doing.

Be an aid skeptic 

Pete comes to the right conclusions in many respects. His points about listening to local people being the most pertinent among them in my view. So long as listening is accompanied by a preparedness to change course. But I couldn’t let his final flourish go without comment. He urges the reader to “think like an aid skeptic” in order to understand how this might all appear externally and to be self-critical. He later states:
“After all, the task of poverty reduction is one of the most challenging there is.”
The problem with this is twofold. Firstly there is an implicit assumption that his readers are not skeptics. I am. In fact most of the people I consider to be doing the most innovative thinking on adaptive programming are also wizened old skeptics. We should all be skeptics in my view, all the time. That, surely, is a pre-requisite to recognising when things go wrong, and to avoid the overly optimistic theories of change that often lead to mistakes being repeated, frequently by donors themselves, while limiting a tendency to overstate the actual impact of our efforts on people’s lives. It would also help with reducing hype-cycles that lead to ever shifting metrics and priorities. 

Secondly, and linked to the first, should we perhaps drop the pretence that development is about poverty? What does that mean anyway? $1.25 a day, or freedom of expression? Going back to Pete’s point about listening to local communities I doubt very much they would all frame their challenges in that way.

Citizens in Turkana. Voice, not poverty alleviation

Development is politics

When I met these communities in Turkana, who score highly on any poverty index, they didn’t talk about ‘poverty’. They talked about power. And how they didn’t have a voice, as one teacher put it, because there was no local strongman fighting their corner. They wanted to be treated justly, to have a voice and to build a better world for their children. How do we judge the relative contribution our efforts might be making to them? Or to these open government activists in South Africa trying to realise Mandela's vision of liberty amid rampant elite corruption?

And to readers who have never met her before allow me to introduce a young woman who to me personified the chasm that lies between the aid industry and the international initiatives which become their world - and the reality of what the world actually looks like to ordinary people. In my view Amina from Dar es Salaam should be asked to write every donor agency's strategy with immediate effect. Is she poor? Absolutely. Would she describe herself and her ambitions in that way? Not a chance.

Development is politics, whether we like it or not. So how we ultimately judge success or failure surely needs to go way beyond a projectised approach to business as usual development in the short term and take a much, much more holistic and long term view of how our aggregate efforts are having an impact overall. Otherwise it might add up to a row of nicely arranged beans in the end.

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.