Saturday, 29 March 2014

Transparency: Learning, Limits & Power


Just off Gatot Subroko road, next to the clogged periphery road looping around a severely congested Jakarta is an open sewer. It sits between gleaming towers of industry and near to an impressive looking Korean Embassy. I walked past it having arrived at the luxurious Gran Melia Hotel a couple of weeks ago, and saw a man wading through it, scavenging for plastic bags. That that was a scene of poverty is self-evident, but it is also a story of power; he has none while the business and political elites around him contest for more.

That theme was seam running through a fascinating week in Jakarta (March 12-15) at the second annualTALearn week for practitioners, researchers and other members of the emerging movement for transparency and accountability. The T/A Initiative deserve huge credit for pulling together such a rich mix of people who got to the heart of present challenges, limitations and new thinking.

Having an honest conversation
The T&A field is relatively new; and a key challenge to its overall effectiveness was laid bare by a presentation from Twaweza which, to me, got across the scale of what that lack of experience means in practice. This NGO had held a meeting, notably chronicled by Duncan Green, in which they openly discussed why it was that their theory of change had not in fact led to the citizen participation they had aimed for. It was a story of living the transparency message as they concluded much of what they had been doing had not worked, with Rakesh describing it as a “bucket of cold water”, and asked the advice and perspectives of others to help them work out new theories of how they might catalyse change.
What struck me was two things about this, apart from the obviously strong relationship Twaweza enjoyed with their core donors in order to even contemplate such an open debate: firstly that the challenge was as much to donors as Twaweza, and secondly that the question of how the movement deals with failure remains far from the mainstream.
For donors Rakesh Rajani had some tough love: he urged practitioners not to follow their whims but to challenge them to think differently, more in accordance with local realities. If they were unable or unwilling, he said, then perhaps they were not suited to be your donors anyway. I was interested in the reaction of my donor peers, who came from both private foundations and government agencies, who were happy to be part of the conversation, and quite prepared to be challenged. Yet I was left with the thought that this was easier said than done when the pressure to justify expenditure classed as “aid” to increasingly sceptical domestic audiences is, if anything, set to increase the impetus towards top-down linear theories of change with short term outputs that are predominantly quantifiable. This runs counter to everything we do know about how governance reform happens; the World Development Report of 2011 describes such change taking place iteratively and over three decades.
Dealing with failure itself remains a thorny issue. While it’s difficult to disagree with the idea of learning from what doesn’t work, and some have even gone to the point of organising “FailFests” to celebrate that approach, it is difficult to see how that becomes a mainstream approach in the short term. One of my colleagues at Ushahidi told me recently that innovators in the private sector accept a failure rate of 90% for all new projects; in order to realise the 10% that succeed. But a private sector product is a very far distance from a governance reform that might take years; and given the domestic context of most donors, this approach must surely remain an insurgent way of doing things in the aid industry for the time being.
And what constitutes failure itself was still open to question; I found it interesting that the academic researchers taking part questioned Twaweza’s own conclusion that they had failed. Actually, they said, their approach had created potentially hugely powerful datasets that yielding critical insights into how local people perceived their own contexts, and how best outsiders might support them. My own programme Making All Voices Count is more in line with this view, adopting a rigorous approach to learning and ensuring that learning is publicly available, as we seek to support innovation in the relationship between citizens and their governments.

Smog bound but beautiful Jakarta

Limits, learning and loops
Having debated, deconstructed and otherwise scratched our heads about limits of what we could achieve, we agreed on the critical need for shared learning which could in turn loop into new forms of interventions. But if there was a golden goose showing us the way forward we never quite found it.
There was, however, clear consensus on the need to further develop the community of practice represented by TALearn and much discussion was had on how to ensure we all learn from experience and contribute those insights to the common weal. Ways of ‘learning while doing’, sharing information and other ideas were part of the mix, drawing from the wealth of knowledge out there from specialists in the field; with specific presentations coming from Norma Garza of the World Bank Institute, Walter Flores of CEGSS and Chris Roche of La Trobe University; in each case sharing personal and organisational thinking about how to generate evidence that actually improves impact, within a context of competing priorities.
While there were real frameworks and insights to take away for participants, I was still left wondering about that last point; competing priorities. What we had in the room were the like-minded champions of reform; advancing the long-term, adaptive and local problem-driven approach the evidence suggests is the only way to effectively engage with complexity and power. But applying a reality check to whether their evidence of these champions about what could be done differently was sufficiently powerful to persuade the decision makers of the larger agencies was a different question. The other side of the reality check was evident in conversations among donors and grantees alike – with all agreeing it would be a good thing to share knowledge and co-ordinate efforts; but how, and what vested interests might that challenge in an environment where grantees were also potential competitors? The ever present risk, therefore, is a relapse into short term and predominantly quantitative approaches.

Rush hour in Jakarta: not that much rushing

That power thing
Which brings me to the power thing. We know, surely, that the only way to work in complex environments is to do so politically, aware of the distribution of power and how we might intentionally or otherwise influence that. Jonathan Fox, who has produced some first class work on this in recent years, argued alongside Hari Kusdaryanto of the Asia Foundation and Aranzazu Guillan Montero of U4 that the route to fundamental change was more about contestation within elites and between them and civil society in various forms; than it ever was about short term outside interventions. He effectively deconstructed the traditional language of T&A – particularly the idea that the relationship between Citizen and State could be fixed by a “feedback loop”; which implied that the problem was technical rather than deeply political. He saved the best till last with a polite question of the audience: which theory of change had ever proven that you could overturn centuries of power dynamics by the application of a time-bound technocratic project?
In this I was reminded of the similar thinking already having been done and often drawn upon by those working in the conflict & fragility field; Douglass North, Sue Unsworth and Jonathan Goodhand spring to mind. But I was also reminded that there were power dynamics among the sector too; specifically between donors and grantees that we would be naïve to avoid thinking about.
Encouraging innovation
Ultimately we all know that what we’re about is finding those small pockets of amazing new ways of doing things, that break the mould somehow, and have the power to re-fashion the ways in which people can make their views known, have them heard and for governments to respond. But while we know that finding, nurturing and supporting those locally led and specific initiatives can be the most transformative form of change, the key to doing so on a large enough scale is learning, doing things differently and renewing our collective efforts to make the case for such a different way of doing things among decision makers internationally.
The man under the bridge in Jakarta deserves nothing less.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Open Government: top-down needs bottom-up

This is a blog post I published recently on the Making All Voices Count site on the progress reports published this month by theIndependent Reporting Mechanism of the Open Government Partnership.


Top-down needs bottom-up

Thirty five progress reports were published this month by the Independent Reporting Mechanism of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) looking into the extent to which countries had delivered on promises made when they joined the initiative, aimed at transforming the relationship between governments and the governed.

The OGP was founded on the principle that good governance requires more than government alone, and its Steering Committee includes members of civil society for that reason. Yet these reports make clear that the extent to which non-governmental actors are meaningfully involved is patchy. They make interesting reading, not least as I am about to join an initiative with similar goals called Making All Voices Count, which invests in bottom-up solutions that utilise innovation and technology to contribute to transparency, accountability and good governance.

The challenges the reports reveal underline that bottom-up is as much part of the picture as top-down.

Four of the progress reports are on countries which are members of the Making All Voices Count initiative (Tanzania, South Africa, Indonesia and The Philippines) and the challenges they reveal seem to revolve around structural weaknesses of the initiative in-country, questionable commitment to implementation and the need to utilise the possibilities of technology to harness the collective power of reformers from within and outside governments in each country. I focus on what each tells us about OGP and the wider push for open governance below.

Structures: OGP, elections, engagement & repression

The reports take several of these countries to task over the relative weakness of the place afforded to the initiative within the government machine. Urging the Philippines to “strengthen the OGP institutionally” the report calls for the formation of cross-departmental working groups and involvement across disciplines to address a lack of co-ordination either in the implementation or monitoring of progress.

Indonesia’s report also surfaces the sensitive issue of elections within the context of the OGP’s governmental home. It notes the OGP remains tied to a Presidential unit rather than a permanent department, rendering it “…dependent on the outcome of the next election.” This has also been found to be a structural weakness of the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, which seeks to pursue similar goals in the most challenging of circumstances, and may reflect the lack of incentives such initiatives offer elites to consider their own political mortality.
Insufficient engagement with civil society is cited in every case except for Indonesia, which scores highly here, with South Africa, The Philippines and Tanzania coming in for trenchant criticism.
South Africa’s use of deadlines expiring within days is compounded by Tanzania’s decision not to publish documents in Kiswahili “…limiting public participation,” made worse by a “weak” consultation process in the drafting stage. Even more worryingly, the report goes on to note the continued existence of repressive legislation which limits press freedom and others which “…counteract and contradict open government principles.”



Above image taken from the OGP website, reflecting all participating countries of the partnership

Commitment: a two way street

It’s also worth noting, however, that civil society in these countries does not escape criticism either. In particular The Filipino Government is taken to task for a lack of documented engagement in the consultation stage, which “…[b]oth the Government and civil society agreed … had been rushed”, while “consultation during implementation did not occur, but both Government and civil society shared responsibility for this … civil society did not cooperate to articulate common goals for OGP or expectations of the Government.”

It is hard to see how Governments can be expected to deliver on this agenda without support from civil society and to their credit the report notes that several organisations acknowledge this failure. But it might also be worth questioning the concept of ‘civil society’ in the first place, which is often taken as short-hand for NGOs, when the reality at local level is far more diverse. How many non-traditional players knew about the opportunity to engage if they were not on NGO mailing lists?

Surely, the only way we can genuinely be sure a fundamental transformation has taken place is when direct citizen engagement is both encouraged, accessible and acted upon; a challenge for global initiatives, but one which is applicable to all countries, North and South.

Tech: closing the feedback loop

Low levels of awareness about the initiative were found in precisely the social and professional groups that most need to be a part of it. In South Africa “…a number of relevant stakeholders are unaware of the OGP” and, worryingly, “[t]he level of awareness is also unsatisfactory among government agencies that do work related to the initiative.” The report calls for a major awareness-raising drive in that country as well as The Philippines and Tanzania and the role of tech in both raising profile, but also facilitating meaningful engagement is centre stage.

In The Philippines the report calls for the use of mobile technology and broadband to “[e]nsure analysis, usefulness and usability of data through open formats…” while in Tanzania the report notes that despite its involvement in the OGP and African Peer Review Mechanism the country still “…struggle[s] with a lack of accountability and loss of public trust.”

To counteract this, the report calls for the government to commit to publish a ‘dashboard’ of progress on OGP implementation online “…and ensure that all … reports are posted on the dashboard in a timely manner.” Lastly the report urges the government to “…take advantage of other communication channels, such as mobile phone/SMS technology, when supplying information to the public.”

That is fine as far as it goes, but supplying information is only part of the equation; interaction is the other essential element, so the manner in which the information is collected, presented and utilised by citizens seems to need attention too. Technology has a potentially transformative role to play, but innovation will need to be matched by sustained political commitment.

Ambition

Amid these manifest challenges, some structural and others political, comes a positive and interesting observation. While South Africa is gently chided for having chosen progress indicators that it had either already achieved or was well on the way towards, potentially instrumentalising the OGP for external validation, both Indonesia and Tanzania are critiqued for being too ambitious. Tanzania’s 25 commitments were “overly ambitious” and should be slimmed down to fewer more strategic ones while Indonesia is encouraged to build on what the report concludes are major advances with “…a more ambitious concept of fostering open government beyond current initiatives”.

Top Down needs Bottom Up

It’s fair to say these are challenging reports for any government to have to deal with in public. And they should all be commended both for their membership of OGP and clear willingness to make progress toward genuinely open and responsive governance.

It’s no easy thing to be critiqued in these ways and the culture shift this demands is often overlooked by campaigners and activists, healthily impatient for more.

In the challenges we find the real value, perhaps, of the OGP’s top-down approach. Exposing structural weaknesses and bureaucratic inertia is a necessary first step to change. But what, arguably, many of these conclusions also do is highlight the need for bottom-up and context specific solutions too. Just as much political science analysis has highlighted how government institutions create their own elites, incentives and dynamics the same is true of civil society structures too; and the critiques made of Filipino civil society organisations would appear to bear this out.

How to reach beyond the usual suspects – within and without government – and to meaningfully engage them in the political priority-making of their own societies remains the holy grail of good governance.

Part of that picture will mean investing in local innovations and where appropriate scaling them up, along with a constant questioning of impact through research. The shared vision of reformers is a world in which all voices genuinely do count, and the more we can harness the complementarity of Making All Voices Count with OGP the better.

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Cool vid: What do we want from Post-2015?



Much of the last two years of my life has been spent working on the conflict, governance and disaster policy debates on Post-2015. As I prepare for the big move, both to a different country and an exciting new chance to work on open governance from a different perspective, I came across this video from my colleagues within the Beyond2015 coalition which is quite simply excellent. 

Want a two minute synopsis of where global civil society is at? Invest a couple of minutes in watching this animation which, while it may not tell you anything you didn't already know, is actually quite inspiring in its coherence, simplicity and clarity. It was that directness and authority that I saw at work at the last UN General Assembly where, in my view, civil society excercised significant soft power in resisting the pushback that began there against including any of this rights, governance or peace stuff.

Enjoy.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

New Deal: Trough or Plateau?


I recently came across a new conceptual framework called “Hype Cycle”, which was originally conceived by business analysts Garner to explain the trajectory of tech ideas in business. It aims to explain the phenomenon by which new ideas generate huge hype; way in excess of what is actually possible, followed by a slide from inflated expectations into what is called a “trough of disappointment”. From that point the framework posits that the idea climbs a “slope of enlightenment” to a “plateau of productivity” whereby the idea is honed and becomes a useful addition to productivity as a new way of doing things, or else it fails.

We can all think of tech ideas that evolved along this continuum, but others have applied this framework to ideas and approaches in international development, notably the indomitable Ian Thorpe who places the MDGs and “aid effectiveness” firmly in the trough of disillusionment. Dave Algoso has gone further and refined the cycle to include two more possible outcomes to the trough - "swamp of continued use", and "trash heap of failures" - and it is his framework I adopt here.


Brendan Halloran of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative points out on Dave Algoso’s blog that nobody seems to have plotted where power and political analysis sits on this graph. So I thought I would start by using the New Deal, which is something I have been meaning to say something about for some time. Again


The New Deal goes to the heart of redefining the relationship between the State and Citizen, leading in theory to greater legitimacy in political leadership and participatory politics that adequately fit the local political economy, enabling states where governance is either contested or has broken down due to violent conflict to make a journey towards sustainable human progress, addressing structural issues and avoiding a relapse into violence which remains statistically more likely. It realigns the relationship between donors and recipient States, placing local context first instead of top-down paradigms. It undoubtedly featured at the top of the hype cycle, occupying a place at the “peak of inflated expectations” when it was unveiled to much fanfare at the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan. Here’s Hilary Clinton at the time:
"The New Deal for Fragile States, which [the g7+] have developed from the very beginning, is an exciting and fresh approach that has the chance to deliver real results."
And here is Ban Ki Moon :
"[The New Deal is a]...significant – and welcome – contribution to a more equitable and productive partnership between fragile states and their development partners"
I was privileged to see some of this work in Liberia, a pilot country, where extremely difficult conversations were being had, but in an atmosphere of genuine optimism for the future. Yet the New Deal has been on a steady slide since as this rescue meeting illustrated and, I would argue, now sits at the bottom of the trough of disillusionment. Governments of pilot countries did not in many cases live up to their pledges to adequately involve civil society in conducting fragility assessments, indicators of progress or even their ultimate compacts. Donors, I am told by people who were there, sent increasingly junior people to what were supposedly high level meetings, sending signals about their own level of support. Ultimately the process for the Somalia compact, for example, was truncated in order to meet a last minute deadline to unveil it at a glitzy conference in Brussels, creating high levels of cynicism and disenfranchisement among many in Somali civil society. Hardly living up to the ideals of Busan and prompting one analyst, Professor Weinstein of Purdue University, Chicago, to scathingly depict “the political poisoning of Somalia by Belgian waffles”.

The New Deal

So where next. My take is that those supporting the New Deal, such as the Civil Society Platform for Peacebuilding & Statebuilding, have got to climb the “slope of enlightenment”, but that climb will be reminiscent of a salmon leaping upstream, dodging the bears and fighting the current. The downward flow of water is provided by the pushback from some Governments of the G77, who started their pushback against anything resembling good governance being part of a post 2015 settlement at last Septembers UNGA. But several of the bears, which needn't be there, are entirely within the power of civil society. 

One is the duplication and division currently in play between those groups who talk about governance, and those who talk about peacebuilding & statebuilding. As I make my own transition from the peacebuilding tribe into that of open governance I am astounded at the level of duplication that there is. Both are talking about essentially the same things for much of the time, yet use different terminology and draw from different literature and experiences. The New Deal is a case in point; despite going to the heart of governance challenges you rarely hear it referred to in governance debates, at least not those I have been engaged in thus far. 

In addition much of the debate from civil society seems to have fallen into the trap of being overly technocratic, focussed on minutiae of indicators when a wider political argument needs to be made and re-made.

One last thought. Algoso's revised framework predicts one of three outcomes – the trash heap, a swamp of continued use or a plateau of productivity. I would suggest that only two of those outcomes are possible for the New Deal – plateau or trash. If civil society, their progressive allies in Governments North and South and multilateral institutions can get their acts collectively together then I see no reason why the learning, insights and experiences of the New Deal cannot reach a point where it becomes a mainstream way of contributing to good and effective governance – for fragile and non-fragile alike. North and South. But if that case is not made coherently, then I am afraid it will be washed away by a larger post2015 settlement with little scope for governance or peace, rendering it redundant.

Let’s hope the salmon make it.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Time for an honest conversation: change in a world of power and politics

This is a blogpost I wrote for an online debate at the Knowledge Platform for Security & Rule of Law at the Institute for Global Justice in The Hague. My fellow contributors were Erik Solheim, Chair of OECD-DAC, Dr. Jolle Demmers, Associate professor and co-founder of the Centre for Conflict Studies, Utrecht University, The Netherlands and Colonel Kees Matthijssen, Military Advisor Department of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Fundamental change is an intensely political process which happens over generations and can only be sustainable, legitimate and successful through the long-term engagement of citizens and informal power brokers in addition to political elites. This means long-term commitments, and accepting that governance models evolve over time and that many vital agents of change will be those that donors’ foreign policies regard as problematic.

On 17 December 2010, a 26 year old Tunisian street vendor called Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi poured a can of gasoline over himself and lit a match. That single act, borne of frustration and humiliation at the hands of corrupt officialdom, set off a chain of events that toppled regimes across the region and continues in the tragedy of Syria to this day. 


Bouazizi was an agent of change. But, three years on, journalists and activists are being arrested in Egypt, while confrontations between secularists and Islamists grow increasingly violent elsewhere. These events remind us that transformative change, of the sort fragile states need in order to make their journey out of conflict, takes place over generations and rarely follows a linear path. For example, the game-changing World Development Report of 2011 spoke of such change requiring three decades. We also know that transformative change can only ever be sustainable if it actively involves local communities and the elites that run them, who frequently do so in ways we find unpalatable.

Power is wielded in informal structures as much, if not more so, than in the formal ones we usually associate with ‘state building’. In short, we know that development is fundamentally about power and politics: the relationship between the governed and those who govern; but we still struggle to understand how best to go about supporting it. Policymakers need approaches grounded in theory, analysis and practice. 

Where are we now?

On 5 December, we heard representatives of the Policy and Operations Evaluation Department (IOB) of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs present the IOB report ‘Investing in Stability’. The report recognizes the positives of Dutch approaches to forging a new way of doing development with a focus on legitimate politics, open governance, transparency and accountability, best represented, perhaps, by the New Deal. Yet, the IOB also found gaps at country level; notably a vacuum created by the absence of theories of change which it argued was filled by ’neoliberal’ assumptions of what the approaches were trying to achieve and what local people actually wanted. In addition, policy-makers acknowledged that short-term timescales and the need to justify expenditure to a sceptical domestic electorate were barriers to a long-term approach. Meanwhile national foreign policy limited the actors they were allowed to work with.

So, despite us knowing that development is an intensely political process – an evolution of governance over the long term – the agents of change we need to talk to might not be acceptable in a neoliberal, short-term and foreign policy-aligned agenda. These are problems that practitioners on the ground, dealing with donors in capitals, are very familiar with.

Analysis & theory

Yet, practitioners themselves do not have all of the answers either. And one largely untapped resource is the wealth of academic research into precisely those complex and interacting factors that make understanding conflict so difficult. Returning to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, a good example is the vigorous debate between scholars over how best to understand Islamist social movements. Charles Tilly pioneered Social Movement Theory (SMT) as a means of understanding citizen-led activism in the 1970s. His work remains highly influential today. However, many scholars, particularly those from the region itself, such as Asef Bayat, argue that SMT-oriented approaches are fundamentally flawed because they are based on Western assumptions of what the movements’ actual aims are, and how change happens. While a Western movement might place a premium on the acquisition of power at the earliest possible opportunity and be comfortable with centralized leadership, Bayat illustrates how several MENA Islamist movements perceive their role in a continuum of changing society spanning centuries. And he dismisses the idea that they are centralized in the same way, arguing that this assumption creates a ‘hidden transcript’ of real layers within the movements that ultimately shape what they do and why. That sort of insight is gold dust for good policymaking, without which we cannot hope to understand the ‘full transcript’ of any situation, and judge who the real agents of change might be.

Practice

Experience bears this out, too. Incumbent political elites alone cannot deliver the sort of transformative shifts that are needed. So they alone cannot be the only partners to work with. And yet the dominant development paradigm under the MDGs has been a state-centric approach that too often locks out local partners and incentivizes national governments to respond to the needs of donors rather than their own citizens. That is why forging new and local partnerships, together with governments and driven by local priorities, is so important. Government responsiveness and accountability to citizens is surely the route to sustainable economic and political growth. But for donors that means partnering with groups whose politics they may not like and whose norms may be equally unpalatable. That is a real problem and one we need an honest conversation about.

Local legitimacy, national delivery

Long-term agents of change are precisely those people who are hardest to reach, or talk to. However, from armed groups to farmers’ collectives and informal leaders, only they can provide local legitimacy and ownership, and serve as the basis of any sustainable process of change. They simply have to be part of the bargaining processes. To do otherwise, and retreat from the difficult political sensitivities it may raise, would be to continue with business as usual.

And we know that doesn’t work.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

2013: That was the year that was

A forest in which bullets are found in trees. Western Germany. 
January started in the wake of a trip to Germany which brought home the historic proximity of the carnage that once tore my own part of the world apart, hidden away in silent forests. The new year was one in which I wanted to get things done, lots of them. And it was all about politics - asking questions about how we get to a place where conflict is done in debating chambers not battlefields, and in a way which improves people's lives.

The Dáil Éireann (Irish Parliament)


Ireland, continuing its bumpy journey away from organised violence offered a glimpse with a particularly ferocious debate in the Dáil on the subject of the economic recession, which was also the topic of a beautiful video of a song in a job centre in Spain. Sad, then, that the UK Parliament completely missed the point when it conducted a review of Britain's approach to designing a new way of doing development, post 2015.



February saw a group of NGOs launching a "campaign", called IF, that seemed to redefined the meaning of 'campaign' since it had been agreed in advance with the Government. Thankfully there was some more meaningful progress made by the countries associated with the New Deal at a conference in East Timor, but lingering questions remained.

March saw civil society hold up a red flag to the High Level Panel of "Eminent Persons", essentially because they didn't much like the prominence of the private sector in their thoughts. Anti-corporatism has been a constant feature of civil society voices this year. Fine to have accountability, essential in fact; but from where else will come economic growth?

April was dominated by the escalating bloodbath in Syria, and the concomitant inability of the international community to do anything whatsoever about it. Apart from arm their own proxies. An extraordinary video emerged of a conversation between two armed groups, yielding a unique window on to their world. A conference in Washington did its best to get the New Deal back on track, in an event that brought the big cheeses of development together.

May saw MEPs struggle with the debate over how Europe deals with emerging powers while revealing much about how they saw themselves, while June saw the publication of the High Level Panel report which sought to redefine development. In a game changer of a report the principle that development is an inherently political - not technical - process was established.

Yet July saw the ODI release a retrograde and damaging report that sought to argue the opposite, on the grounds that there was a lack of evidence proving the connection between good governance and economic growth. Deep breaths.

Syrians paid a heavy price
August saw the world return to the subject of Syria, provoked by the use of poison gas. The Grand Old Duke of Washington marched his men to the top of a hill, only to march them back down again when his Junior Lieutenant Cameron couldn't deliver the goods at home. The whole sorry episode, which prioritised gas over the horrific consequences of shells, bullets and mines, simply allowed the killing to go on unabated.

More positively, the UN General Assembly in September saw a dramatic contest of competing visions of what development should look like after 2015. It was good that the recalcitrant countries finally put their heads above the parapet because they were compelled to back down largely by their own civil society, also there in force and making full use of the new platform the new hybrid bodies established by the UN to hold these debates within offered. I like to think my own briefing was of some use, but a dramatic video was rightly of far more impact, with grassroots citizens using technology to offer uncensored views into their own fights for basic human rights. The revolution will be livestreamed, it would seem.


October saw the release of a little video of our exploits at the UNGA but November kicked off on a personal note with news of a new job, and forthcoming relocation to the amazing country of South Africa, as part of the Making All Voices Count programme.

December continued the post 2015 theme with news of how the Open Working Group were planning on defining that governance stuff through a series of indicators to negotiate over, while I was privileged to debate the role of how theories of change could or should shape Dutch policy towards fragile states where governance is at its most broken.

A rainbow, a cemetery and a child
The year ended as it had begun, with another poignant trip to the battlefields of Europe, this time retracing the steps of Private James William Underwood, my great great grandfather. Christmas in Ypres somehow summed up, for me at least, what the twists and turns of the year had really all been about.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Ypres at Christmas

A rainbow, a cemetery and a child
Cause we don’t trust you and ye hae been four months shooting at us” was the blunt reply from the Glaswegians of the Scottish Rifles, hunkered in cold and sodden mud trenches one Christmas day in 1914, to their counterparts in the German lines just metres away. While the story of the Christmas Truce, unofficially declared and involving the swapping of tobacco and football skills has come to define the futility of war it wasn't observed right the way down the lines. 

This week I revisited that area of Flanders as part of a family jaunt to the Christmas Markets in Germany. It somehow seemed apt as a reminder of what the season is supposed to be all about, amid the plastic commercialisation of much of it. There are no neon signs or expensive video games on the windswept plains of Belgium where the dying was done, nor even much space for it in the market town of Ypres, for so long the centre of the carnage, and usually the first venue incoming soldiers would see as they were marshalled ready to head out to the front line.

Ypres Market Square - the spire used regularly as a target for German artillery
My own great great grandfather, Private James William Underwood, arrived in Ypres Market Square on October 16th 1914. He would have been among many hundreds, amid shouting, horses and general chaos. He was a 30 year old railway labourer with two infant daughters at home. Old enough to understand what death might mean for him, but more importantly his daughters and wife Clara back in England. No room for jingoism here.

Marshalled with the 2nd Wilts Regiment he was among the first sent to the front, and knew nothing of the cataclysm to come. On October 24th he was reported missing, his position having been overrun by German troops. He spent the next four years in a prison camp in central Germany, presumably only realising the scale of what he had been spared by arriving prisoners, fresh from the human meat grinder of the war.

Tyne Cot cemetery. A Jewish tradition of stones on headstones, accompanied by a gentile's tribute
Tyne Cot cemetery stands silent testimony to the scale of the carnage, standing on the brow of the hill that so many allied troops died in order to take, with two German concrete pillboxes visible amid the countless grave stones.

The field where Pte Underwood was taken prisoner,1914
So on we went, driving through the battlefields and on to Germany to see Cologne, in all its Christmas Market glory. The commercialism is there, but so is a heavy emphasis on tradition and it is one of the few places where you can still see the season as preceding generations may have done. Rich scented gluhwein, wooden arts and crafts and costumed women performing with clockwork music machines; much as the young men on the German side, little boys themselves only a few years earlier, of the trenches would have remembered as they tried to coax their Glaswegian fellow conscripts to put aside the killing, if only just for one day.

Cologne Christmas Market 
Perhaps all of them died before the end of that war, which laid the foundations for the next, but their memory and common humanity is another reminder for me at least what this season is all about. Happy Christmas, and have a peaceful New Year.