Sunday, 16 September 2018

Nirmala: Nepal's wake up call for donors?

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

Short-termism: a Donor disease

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

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

Residents of Bhimduttanagar in Western Nepal demand justice for Nirmala

Positive v negative peace

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

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

Time to listen to evidence?

The future

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

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

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

Friday, 25 May 2018

Nepal, OGP & repeating the loops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 16 April 2018

Syria: Norms, Power & Responsibility to Protect

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Impressions of Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Peace in our time? Europe, Fascism & Brexit

In May 1993 I was nearly 17 years old. Two events in 1993-1994 that took place in faraway places profoundly affected the way I saw the world and what I wanted to do when I grew up. One of them were the deaths of Admira Ismic and Bosko Brkic. They were young people who loved each other. But Admira was a Bosnian Muslim while Bosko was a Serb. Yugoslavia was at that time being ripped apart by an ethnically defined and genocidal conflict which dictated that their relationship was not permitted. But they hadn’t read the script. As they ran across a square under sniper fire in a desperate attempt to escape the madness and live a life together shots rang out, killing Bosko instantly and injuring Admira. Instead of seeking to escape Admira crawled over to Bosko, lay down beside him and placed her arm across his chest. Witnesses said she died some 15 minutes later. I remember the images of their bodies lying in the square as snipers refused to agree a ceasefire. It was an image that said so much about tragedy but also something profound about the strength of the human spirit.

I’ve often thought of them in the years since, as I’ve been privileged to see others in conflict build peace, frequently overcoming experiences and hatred with almost unimaginable strength, imagination and commitment. But I think about them more now, and I worry that we are not heeding the warning their story teaches us, especially in Europe.

Recorded human history shows the ease with which populations can be manipulated into identifying themselves against ‘the other’. Elites construct ideals and largely fabricated or airbrushed national stories that either ignore the positive role of others or portray them as somehow malign. Scholars like Benedict Anderson came up with the term “imagined communities” to describe this. And before you start to think that all sounds very far removed, when was the last time we saw a ceremony to mark the role of Polish, Indian, Caribbean or African soldiers who fought for and with Britain in the 1940s?

At a time when we need the highest calibre of political leadership in Europe, we are rewarded with Theresa May, Boris Johnson and Claude van Juncker instead. And in that absence of political leadership and thus an increasingly antagonistic relationship between UK and rest of Europe is the risk of rising division which you can see elsewhere across the continent.

My country Britain succumbed to baser human instincts in last years referendum on membership of the European Union. I don’t blame those who did. They knew they were being forgotten about by a political elite who repeatedly demonstrated their lack of interest. But the tenor, tone, rumour and myth that dominated the campaign was sinister. You have to wonder what underlies a country totally reliant on immigration for its public services and industrial base voting against foreigners, which is how the referendum was presented.

Today's National Socialism
In Germany  the far right has just been elected to the Reichstag for the first time since 1933. They are the third largest party. No surprises that Mr Brexit Nigel Farage recently spoke at one of their rallies. And in Holland Geert Wilders may have lost the election. But he did come second. And if you look behind the euphoria of the elites at Macron’s victory in France it’s worth bearing in mind that that is the second time a neo-Nazi candidate also came second. Donald Trump may be the caricature of alt-right politics, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that much of his own programme centres on fear of foreigners too.

I believe Admira and Bosko were optimists. They ran across that square together because they thought there was a chance, however slim, of a better life. I’ve seen enough of others like them in the years since to be an optimist too, if a little cynical. But I wonder what they would tell us to do now. I think they’d tell us that as our political classes abdicate their responsibilities we can’t sit passively by and allow a similar set of disasters to emerge, fuelled by fear of foreigners and ‘the other’.

Admira and Bosko were buried side by side by their families. Their memory tells us never to be so complacent to imagine we couldn’t get to that stage again, even in Europe. I hope in time we get a calibre of political leadership across Europe, Britain and the wider West that we can trust in. But in the meantime it’s on us. Civic society in all its forms to oppose and challenge intolerance and division while promoting a European Union, a United Kingdom and a West which is open, inclusive and liberal.

The question, which I am rattling my brain about, is how.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Tanzania leaves OGP: watershed moment?

Tanzania is leaving the Open Government Partnership (OGP). This was a country lauded by OGP itself to the extent that the initiatives Africa regional meeting was held there, even while its government closed down newspapers. An awkward contradiction. When I spoke to ordinary citizens there, this was a government that had not earned the trust of its people and arguably had no place at the OGP table. The lesson of Tanzania, therefore, is surely that an initiative like OGP has to have red lines, and that the currency of credibility is trust.

So what can we learn from this? I would argue that including recalcitrant countries within an initiative that is there to open up government to the people undermines that initiative itself, in turn arguably doing harm to that relationship by creating a form of whitewash that removes incentives for genuine reform. Therefore there should probably be fewer members of OGP but those who remain could inspire others. And there’s always a route back into OGP. Tanzania is in reverse gear but that’s not inevitably the future.

Change is messy

But this isn’t a purist argument either. No government in the world is perfect, as my own in the United Kingdom is so magnificently demonstrating at the moment. It’s fine to have a messy picture. At this meeting in South Africa I remember passionate, fiery but deeply cynical civil society activists lamenting the state of their own governance while OGP’s own Paul Maassen urged them to see OGP as a lever to exert pressure and to hold those elites to account. OGP can be a space for citizen-state contestation with chaos, collision and innovation on both sides. That’s a perspective on power and its one that holds a lot of purchase, so long as there is sufficient civic space for that to happen.

Down with technocracy

At this week’s UN General Assembly Sanjay Pradhan, the CEO of the OGP, released a collection of essays themed on the essential role of trust. At the event EU Commissioner Timmermans, one of the more human of the Brussels political class, talked of citizens demanding their governments to do less talking about openness and more doing about it. As Gov says ‘trust me’ the citizen response is increasingly ‘show me’, he said. That sort of thinking is such a long way forward from the way those in the opengov community used to talk about it. I’m hopeful that the days of fetishising technology, lauding technocracy and placing faith in simplistic ‘feedback loops’ have now been replaced by serious analysis of the messy, contested way in which change in governance actually happens.

Watershed moment?

Because if it has, then Tanzania could be a watershed. Rather than despair at the withdrawal of a country that should probably never been a member because its polity was simply not ready, now could be the time to redouble efforts, but do so with eyes wide open. A lesson of Tanzania is to know what the red lines are: freedom of the press for example. And to apply those red lines. Another, as I was told by Amina in Dar es Salaam, is to measure the right things: like trust. Or legitimacy. Or justice. Not report cards. Nor projects. Nor activities. Trust is intangible, and there’s no app for that.

High stakes

So I hope Tanzania is that watershed. And while some more Governments should be shown the door, we should champion others who are joining OGP right now and those continuing to make real strides. OGP isn’t the be all and end all of everything, and there are other routes to improving governance. The SDGs for example. But it is a barometer of sorts and one worth supporting, not least as the crisis in State legitimacy is now leading us to some very dark places. People who do not trust their political class and feel marginalised reach for extremes. That’s human nature. One extremist now runs the most powerful country in the world. So this is high stakes, and it’s incumbent on us all to pull together.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Broken Britain: A Conflict Assessment

Terrorism in London Bridge and Finsbury Park. Fire and fury in North Kensington. Race hate and bigotry in the wake of the Brexit Referendum. Is Britain broken, and if so do we understand how broken and what to do about it? I thought it was time to measure ourselves against a peacebuilding framework. The conclusion is that, while our institutions are relatively strong, the underlying currents of marginalisation, exclusion and widespread injustice leaves us in a dangerous place. 

Measuring peace 

I thought the five Peacebuilding and Stability Goals (PSGs) of the New Deal for Engagement with Fragile States (New Deal) was a good place to start.

The New Deal was exciting because it was developed and designed jointly between fragile states and richer donor governments. It’s not a panacea, and I wrote here about its inherent flaws. But it’s a useful framework, and one which I hope gives food for thought.

The PSGs, which are intended to guide all work in fragile and conflict affected states, are:
  1. Legitimate politics: Foster inclusive political settlements and conflict resolution.  
  2. Security: Establish and strengthen people’s security. 
  3. Justice: Address injustices and increase people’s access to justice. 
  4. Economic Foundations: Generate employment and improve livelihoods. 
  5. Revenues & Services: Manage revenue and build capacity for accountable and fair service delivery.
So these are the internationally agreed principles for how we should measure and seek to improve the health of a state from a peace and conflict perspective. How does Britain measure up?  

Legitimate politics 

Radical preacher
On one level Britain’s politics measure up well. Turnout, particularly among young people in the last election, was high. Our democratic institutions are generally well regarded and corruption is measured as being low. Our press is free and journalists are not attacked.

But on a more fundamental level do the political elites still command the confidence of the people? I would argue that the vote to leave the European Union had less to do with the merits of Britain’s membership of the EU (not least because that was hardly discussed in the referendum campaign in favour of immigration) and more to do with widespread disenchantment with the political classes. This was exploited by a populist party, UKIP, using slogans and tactics reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s. That is not a healthy place to be. Just how unhealthy could perhaps be seen by this week's attack on a Muslim community leaving Ramadan prayers by a man raving about "killing all the muslims".


Britain is generally a safe place to be. Crime is not for most people a daily experience. The attacks on London Bridge and Finsbury Park are horrific yes, but notable mainly for their rarity.

But are we really as safe as we think we are? Hundreds of women die at the hands of their partners in Britain. And our violent crime levels are actually among the worst in the European Union. Young black men are dying from stabbings and knife crime at an alarming rate, with a morbid annual tally reported on every year. This is the same part of the population that is significantly over represented in the criminal justice system. If we are serious about establishing and strengthening people’s security, we have a long way to go. We could learn, perhaps, from other fragile States who themselves have made more progress in reforming their police that we appear to have to date.  


If you are arrested and charged in Britain you can reasonably expect to receive a fair trial. Our institutions are among the best in the world and, largely because of imperial history, are replicated throughout the English speaking globe.

But what do we mean by justice? Beyond the institutions do people really feel that this is a just country? On Thursday morning I woke up to a fire in a tower in the area of London where I live. A few days on and it is now clear that nearly 100 people died in the most appalling circumstances. Their story, and the culpability of officialdom who repeatedly ignored them in life, while continuing to fail their families in the wake of their deaths stands as a dark indictment of our society. I find it almost beyond comprehension.

And why were they living there? Poor people live in tower blocks in this country because there is, and has been for decades, a massive housing shortage. Yet while social housing is not built, local authorities do permit developers to construct large luxury accommodation which is often bought as an investment and left to stand empty. 

If you are poor in today’s Britain, this is how the system can and will treat you. That, in nobody’s eyes, can be called just.

Economic foundations 

Britain’s economic foundations are arguably weak. A country that forged its way based on manufacturing is now almost completely reliant on the services sector. And that too is largely reliant on access to markets, the largest of which this Government through Brexit is intent on leaving. Economic opportunities are centred on London and the South East, leaving large parts of the population in the former manufacturing areas, without much to go on. In fairness this Government has in the past demonstrated sincerity in attempting to develop a “Northern Powerhouse” of growth, but this is likely to take decades and will be vulnerable to external shocks.

The residents of Grenfell Tower lived in prosperous London too, however. The contrasts in this city between some of the richest real estate on planet Earth placed right next to some of the most deprived areas of the United Kingdom, with widespread poverty and higher levels of crime, is a permanent reminder both of injustice and the insecurity that that injustice breeds.

Revenues and services 

The ability to manage revenue and deliver services accountably and fairly is fundamental. On the surface Britain does have the basics right. A health service that is the envy of the world, for example. But this is now a country in which a local authority can completely fail its citizens, leading many of them to lose their lives as a result, and then fail them again to such an extent that the national government has had to step in. And nobody has resigned. Kensington Town Hall was stormed by those citizens last week, who felt they had no other way of holding anybody accountable.  

So what?

Britain is hardly the only European rich country to be marked by glaring inequalities and injustice. But at some point we have to decide whether our generations are going to just pass that along to the next. As we look at ourselves in the mirror in the weeks ahead, we have some serious questions to answer.