Sunday, 27 September 2015

What are the SDGs for: power to the people?

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

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

Poverty is power at work

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

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

Widen the conversation

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

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

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

So what to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 26 July 2015

The Sentry: tackling conflict?

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Partnerships for change?

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

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

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Power blindness, conflict & governance: an appeal for joined up learning

Parents at a school in Turkana,  Kenya
Why do so many projects and programmes aimed at tackling problems created and sustained by powerful elites, fail to deal with the power dynamics that are driving those problems? In my view this is about easy assumptions, theories of change that bear little reality to the messy realities of human affairs and a short-termist approach from the donor community which dis-incentivises learning and the application of that learning to what practitioners in the field can do. So what’s the solution? I believe the only way to turn this around is to invest in programmes that are centred on learning as an objective in its own right, to have an honest conversation about the uncomfortable conclusions that that learning might present to well-established approaches and to expand that learning community to include the two disciplines that need to come together more than most: those that deal in ‘governance’ and those that pursue conflict transformation. I've spent time on both sides of that divide, most recently at Making All Voices Count and the division is both clear and largely pointless, hobbling efforts to effect genuinely transformative change from both perspectives. With the majority of the poorest and most vulnerable set to live in fragile states where, by definition, governance is at its weakest, we are collectively letting down the poorest and most vulnerable in who's interests we claim to be working.


If we build capacity then citizens will advocate for peace. If we publish data on services or resources then citizens will hold their governments accountable. The two broad assumptions that lie behind the majority of programming in the worlds of open government and peacebuilding. The problem is they are both wrong, as these parents in Turkana, Kenya who gave me a welcome and blunt reality check could have told you, if only they'd been asked. Change simply isn't that simple.

Trailblazers who are determined to prove this to be true are few and far between. But thankfully they do exist and long may they provide discomfort to the rest of us. Much has been made, rightly, of Twaweza’s role in highlighting the limits of data in inspiring citizens to act, even when the futures of their own children are at stake. An excellent article from Charles Kenny of CGD here compares the learning from Uwezo and India’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) , the latter of which highlights the lack of action that can be the hallmark of the State’s response to data too. Having established the woeful performance of that country’s educational outcomes, with one fifth unable to read a Grade 1 text, little actually happened as a result. This seems counter-intuitive. But if you are a citizen that has never been asked for your opinion or worse still live in a fragile context where expressing your opinion can be dangerous, why on earth would you? And as for the powerful elites within the Indian State, here’s what a senior Ministry of Human Resource Development official told the authors of the ASER report:
“Government always knew that learning levels are poor in public schools. We did not need ASER to tell us this fact which to us has always been self-evident.” 

 In other words, so what? It’s a fair bet that the children of that official didn’t attend a public school. And without incentives to challenge what might be vested interests, why would we expect powerful elites to change? By failing to acknowledge this in so many open government programmes and initiatives, in particular those that focus solely on technology, we risk exacerbating these factors rather than altering them. One reason why the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States has underperformed so dramatically and the Open Government Partnership still doesn’t seem all that relevant to real people in real places like Amina. This matters: nothing that emerged from the Financing for Development conference the other week would suggest the next development agenda will be any more explicit about the role of power in sustaining poverty, retarding equitable growth and promoting violence.

Theories of change 

One of the most frustrating things about making this case is that nobody disagrees with you. It’s all obvious. Then why do we still see so many open calls with linear 'A will lead to B and then C will happen' thinking? And why do we still see that thinking pervade the heights of senior decision makers within institutions that (a) should know better based on what their own reports tell them and (b) have the capacity to create either great harm or great progress? To me this practice is encapsulated in the ‘feedback loop’ idea that dominates the discourse around governance reform and to a lesser extent conflict transformation work. Seen most dramatically perhaps by the launch of the World Bank’s report on ‘closing the feedback loop: can technology bridge the accountability gap?’. To which, in my view the answer is no, it can’t, if tech is your starting point and not the power dynamics that govern the relationship people have with their governments.

The problem is, as we saw in this debate, the Bank seems to think the answer is yes. Vice President Sanjay Pradhan told us in April 2014 that the Bank sees governance as essentially a transaction between citizen and state, in which the citizen offers feedback on the service and the government responds. He even gave a project in the DRC (of all places) to illustrate this. To say such thinking ignores power is an understatement. To reflect on the size and impact of the spending power informed by this superficial and ill-informed analysis is terrifying. In fairness the Bank continues to invite critiques of its work, and its own reports hve highlighted the fallacy of this sort of approach with at least the World Development Reports of 2004 (on service delivery in a context of power) and 2011 (on developmental progress in fragile settings) underlining where they’re going wrong. But the problem is they seem to carry on regardless.

WDR2011: directly contradicts feedback loop thinking and challenges policymakers to think about conflict & power
One explanation for this might be in the short term-ism of so many donors in the open government and conflict transformation arenas. Projects that are restricted to one or more years duration with little or no provision made for the sort of long term, flexible, adaptive approaches we know are necessary to really get to grips with the underlying dynamics that need to change – captured perhaps in the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation or Positive Deviance schools of thought – are unlikely to get very far. And so we carry on.

What to do? 

The evidence base for what works and what doesn’t in goverance and conflict transformation is thin, for a good reason – it simply hasn’t been a priority by comparison to traditional forms of technocratic development encapsulated by the MDG era of the last 15 years. The only way of learning is by doing, but by this approach we will on occasions fail. I am not advocating the sort of ‘Fail Forward’ approach adopted by some in which failure seems to be actively celebrated, but I would humbly suggest that the development industry needs to adopt a much greater tolerance of risk.

Secondly we need an honest conversation which includes donors, practitioners and reformers alike. What we learn is likely to be challenging and uncomfortable. But honest conversations can and do happen as I was privileged to see in Jakarta last year at the Transparency & Accountability Initiative Learning Week on the subject of learning, limits and power. We heard directly from some of the trailblazers so far, including the former head of Twaweza now seated under his new desk at the Ford Foundation. Expanding that conversation beyond the few currently involved would be a massively positive step.

So, who’s up for it? Can we establish an active learning community drawn from across the open government, conflict transformation and donor communities that seeks to work out how to create space for risk, to learn from the good and bad it creates and innovate together?

Friday, 15 May 2015

OGP Africa: does it pass the Amina Test?

Amina lives in Dar es Salaam. It's not her real name. The fact that I can't tell you her real name is the basis for the question I ask about the Open Government Partnership's regional meeting for Africa taking place this week, May 20-21. I'm a big believer in the potential of the OGP but I worry it will miss living up to that potential by not grounding itself sufficiently in the real-life experiences of people like Amina, and what 'government' really looks like to them.

The choice of Tanzania for the regional meeting was controversial. It was borne, I am told by those organising it, simply out of necessity. The original plan (Sierra Leone) had been scuppered by the outbreak of Ebola and as the clock ticked no other country was apparently as willing as Tanzania to host the high profile event. There are presidential elections in that country in October.

Yet the location goes to the heart of some pressing and uncomfortable questions about what OGP is actually for. Tanzania has recently banned a newspaper and threatened journalists and bloggers with prison should they use what the government deems to be the 'wrong statistics'. This is not the bright dawn of openness shining through. And yet, and yet. Should OGP not hold the meeting there, then? My instinct is that to do so risks undermining the credibility of the initiative - but a very strongly held counter view by some is that this is precisely *why* the OGP should host their meeting there, enabling civil society in particular to vocalise the problems and put the government on the spot.

Time will tell whether that actually happens, and I respect the views of those who think that this is the best thing to do. 

But whatever happens here's a challenge I'd like to throw out. The Amina Test. I met her last July in a slum in Dar es Salaam. She is a highly intelligent and passionate woman who wanted to study as a nurse and won a place at a local college to do so. But when she turned up, ready to forge a career, and better both her own circumstances and that of her fellow citizens in doing so, she found that her place had been sold to someone else - who did not have the same qualifications as her, but had better political connections instead. Her future had been traded away. There was no question of appealing, or being able to do anything whatsoever about it. Amina now lives in the same slum, is not a nurse and has no hope of being so but continues her vocation by working alongside an older woman in a kind of apprenticeship for traditional medicine; helping women give birth who cannot afford to use the local hospital among other treatments. 

A bridge too far for really responsive government in Dar
Amina lives in a place that is regularly flooded, with a water mark high on the walls of her home, and rarely sees any local government officials. Standing down the path from her home, past the piles of rubbish festering in the heat, is a broken bridge that for me symbolised what government looked like to her. The bridge, which connected two halves of the area, had been broken by a flood several years ago. Despite regular promises to fix it, usually at election time, it still stood broken, with the villagers having constructed a hazardous plank across. Below them is a river that doubles as a clothes washing facility and a latrine. Amina's comment as she looked at the bridge was that the only thing the State seemed to be efficient at was collecting her taxes. Failure of citizens like her to pay them on time resulted in fines or prison, both very efficiently levied. 

A year on what I remember most about meeting her was the sheer level of cynicism she and others had toward both local and national government. It's not hard to understand why. And my reason for recounting this is to wonder just how connected the topics of conversation at the OGP Africa meeting will relate to how the world looks through the eyes of Amina. Because it needs to, to be relevant and stand any chance of being as transformative as it seeks to be.

Young activists' tributes to Nelson Mandela 
The people who will be at OGP Africa, from government, civil society and business alike, will be elites. As am I. But that includes many people from each of those categories who are deeply committed to doing what they can to transform the way that governments relate to citizens. I saw that at first hand during an inspirational session at the African Union in March, as civil society from across the continent sought to shape an African position on open data. Or at this meeting in South Africa as a post-post-apartheid generation sought to utilise the OGP platform to generate real change in the increasingly authoritarian politics of that country.

Inspiring backdrop to OGP South Africa meeting 
My point is that their collective challenge will be to ground each of their discussions - which will revolve around open data, reporting and participation - to the harsh realities of power, politics, marginalisation and inequality; not to mention the ever present threat of intimidation. These are frequently lacking from the open government discourse which often centres on tech, transparency and dubious assumptions of what citizens will actually do with data. If we see communiques and statements coming out of OGP Africa - signed up to by Governments and civil society alike - that demonstrably relate to those issues, setting clear and measurable goals to address them in meaningful ways, then the meeting will have passed the Amina Test. She has the right to expect that it does. 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

My new job: at Saferworld

New horizons beckon once again! I am really excited to be joining the peacebuilding NGO Saferworld, as Head of Asia programmes. Saferworld have played a leading role in the policy debates on peace and security in recent years, and have a reputation for innovative programming which seeks to get to the heart of how you transform the dynamics which drive violent conflict in some of the most volatile areas of the world. I've worked alongside them on both levels in recent years; arguing for peace, governance and security to be part of the Post 2015 framework within the corridors of the UN and on programming in the field. It's a real privilege to join the team.

I'm returning to the peacebuilding tribe after spending just over a year with the governance reform programme Making All Voices Count (MAVC). I learned a huge amount in that 12 months and am grateful for having done so, particularly as it has strengthened my conviction that there is an as-yet largely unexplored nexus between governance and peacebuilding approaches that could and should be combined, to unlock the most transformative levels of change we know we need to achieve in order for real change to happen in a world of ever shifting complexity, power & politics. 

Putting that together with the very well established and ground breaking programming areas for which Saferworld is known, in security & justice reform, understanding gender, peace & security and promoting conflict sensitive development among others, I hope we can start to build on those areas while pioneering new approaches in the field that draw from a wider set of experiences, contributing evidence of what works and why. With that in mind I'm looking forward to working again with the many and excellent colleagues, friends and givers of wise counsel I have had the very great privilege to meet in the last year.

Exciting times ahead!

Monday, 30 March 2015

Africa Data Consensus: power & politics, not tech

It was a real privilege to be asked to help facilitate a group on what the data revolution could and should mean for Africa last week. A High Level Conference in Addis Ababa hosted by UNECA convened civil society, innovators from business and elsewhere to hammer out what an African position could look like. Groups included those looking at peace and security, public services and data for development.

Working with colleagues from Hivos our own group was reassuringly one of the largest and looked at what harnessing the power of data could mean for human progress in the coming generations. Frankly I was blown away by the power of the ideas that flowed, many of which are reflected in the final document (above). Participants included two young guys from openstreetmap in Cote D'Ivoire, a woman human rights campaigner from DRC and the former Speaker of Parliament in the Comoros.

What was particularly reassuring for me was that so much of the debate centred on the problems of real life, rather than the "there's an app for that" discourse so frequently found in tech or 'innovation' based conversations and programmes.

What did it mean for security and privacy? How could we harness the power of business at the same time as guarding against abuses? Could 'data' end up being the new extractive industry - with business making huge profits while not releasing data as responsible citizens. Huge questions with no easy answers but we arrived at a hard fought consensus on the key action points for the Ministers of the African Union meeting this week to consider. It will be intriguing to see which way that goes.

UPDATE: 2nd April: The AU statement is out and it makes for underwhelming reading, I'm afraid. Highly state-centric, it concentrates on the role of national statistical agencies and "existing pan African inititatives. This is despite the civil society participants pointing out repeatedly that national government agencies could only ever capture a partial picture of people's lives and services, while there was an absence of any meaningful and holistic pan African data initiatives. Here's what the powerful had to say:
"High-quality statistical information and data are essential for the proper planning and measurement of development outcomes. Africa should generate its own data to enable it to better monitor and track economic and social targets, including the goals and objectives of Agenda 2063. A data revolution in Africa would afford our continent the opportunity to interact with diverse data communities and to embrace a wide range of data sources, tools and innovative technologies, which would enable the continent to produce disaggregated data, including gender-disaggregated data, for decision-making, service delivery and citizen engagement. An African data revolution should be built on the principles of openness across the data value chain and a vibrant data ecosystem driven by national priorities and inclusive national statistical systems. In this regard, we underscore the importance of strengthening existing pan-African statistical institutions, as well as other similar institutions agreed to by Heads of State and Government, to support the implementation of the first ten-year plan of Agenda 2063."
Disappointing, is my verdict.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

ODI goes retro: the backlash begins

Back to the future with ODI

David Booth of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) yesterday published a think piece which essentially questions the relevance of governance to developmental progress. Positioning himself as the little boy pointing out a naked emperor he draws on recorded history and one or two other writers in support of his argument, which is basically that economic progress happens first – everything else happens afterwards. He neatly tries to take apart the consensus, momentum and progress that has been made throughout the post-2015 marathon, during which citizens have consistently and in overwhelming numbers expressed their desire to see open, transparent, accountable and responsive governments, in the form of five ‘myths’.

This, to my mind, is a retrograde argument that belies where it comes from: from where I am standing it’s part of a backlash from those who would prefer that ‘international development’ (define that how you will) remains essentially an economists playground, and should be pursued through an economists, technical approach. All that governance, power and political stuff is just too messy, you see. Wouldn't that approach have worked by now, though? 

At the heart of David’s piece, in my reading of it, is the idea that ‘development’ is essentially economic growth alone. It is clear throughout his argument that David conceives of development as being solely about economic growth rather than, for example, political institutions. In fact he specifically dismisses them. So with such a narrow definition of development it becomes possible to make the case he does. Or does it? What sort of economic growth are we talking about? 72% of the world’s poorest people live in Middle Income Countries. In other words even when you have economic growth as measured by GDP you do not necessarily achieve equitable economic growth and, thus, the majority of people remain poor. And, in situations where violence is routinely used by elites, very vulnerable. Without a politically engaged and aware population, who are able to hold their governments to account through robust political institutions, that situation will not change any time soon and the glaring inequalities it creates and perpetuates will contribute directly to the potential for violence. Which will disrupt growth. Now how much “development” have you achieved? One of the reasons the World Development Report of 2011 linked jobs, security and justice was for precisely this reason – development is political as much as economic, and to pretend otherwise is a recipe for repeating the errors the report was concerned with, which has left over 1.5 billion people in conflict affected states as poor and vulnerable as they ever were at the outset of the MDG era. 

Now I’d like to respond to each of David’s ‘myths’, as he puts them, as a contribution to the debate.

1 Good governance is important for development.

David here disputes this basic premise and states:
"The history of human progress, from 17th century England to 21st century China and Vietnam, is completely clear on this point: governance ideals are realised over time on the back of economic progress, not the other way round".
To make this case requires you to perform the not inconsiderable feat of ignoring recorded human history. The richest countries in the world achieved that status not through a focus solely on a set of economic goals, least of all goals imposed by donors, but through centuries of contested political ideas in which groups of people fought and died for rights, and elites sought to deny them. The context in which they did that might have been economic: for example the industrial revolution, but the battles themselves were about power and politics. The political happened in tandem with the economic, not in sequence. What emerged in the West were constitutional democracies, within which that economic growth and the emergence of the rule of law took place. And that is precisely the aims of those living in the states most affected by the absence either of good governance or economic progress and scarred by endemic violence, as can be seen by the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States. Far from perfect, the New Deal nevertheless for the first time redefines ‘development’ as being as much about a participatory journey towards growth, between State and citizen, as well as a partnership of equals between donor and recipient. A similar definition is made by the Open Government Partnership.

2 Governance improvement is a good entry point for developmental reform.

David’s view here is apparently that this is bunkum too. Instead of focusing on governance, which he describes with a flourish as a ‘ghetto’, he states:
“All experience tells us that institutions and social norms change slowly at best. Aid-supported institutional change has a well-documented tendency to produce either ‘capability traps’ or purely cosmetic improvements. History, especially the last half-century in Asia, shows that very significant gains in economic transformation and human well-being can be achieved within highly dysfunctional systems. Reform initiatives should surely aim to repeat those gains by whatever means are to hand”.
He goes on to cite the excellent Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation line of thinking from Andrews, Pritchett and Barder as evidence of what actually works and argues that policies, not openness, hold the key to progress.

My response to this is straightforward: not only do we know that institutions and norms change slowly (the World Development Report of 2011 talks in terms of 30 years for example), but we also know that pursuing the sort of technocratic approach to ‘development’ David seems to be proposing we continue, characterised by economic policymaking which ignores political contestation, social movements and endemic resource capture by elites will perpetuate poverty and increase the likelihood of violence. Evidence? Try the direct link between structural adjustment programmes and violent conflict in Sri Lanka. Or perhaps the fraying of social fabric in other countries, as political elites take full advantage of liberalisation. Sadly, we are not short of similar examples. And the beauty of the PDIA idea is the notion that practitioners should respond flexibly to challenges and changes as they arise, rather than ploughing on regardless because that’s what the donor logframe says. My point here is that the role of open, inclusive and legitimate political institutions are a critical enabling factor which cannot simply be ignored, as they largely have been to the detriment of the poorest by the old development paradigm David seeks to defend.

3. High levels of transparency, accountability, participation and competition sustain economic development.

David disputes this on the grounds, essentially, of a lack of evidence to prove the point in the developing world. I would gently counter that the rule of law, low corruption and participatory governance structures would seem to have rather a lot to do with the economic growth of the richer countries of the world.

4. Southeast Asian lessons about agriculture are non-transferrable because the Cold War is over.

David makes a point here that I don’t fully understand. Perhaps greater minds than mine, do.

5. African regimes can’t do problem-driven, adaptive development.

David rebuts this idea, and I agree with him. But I can’t help noticing a straw man in the room. Who is arguing this anyway? In fact, on the subject of African voices why don't we hear from Mthuli Ncube, Chief Economist and Vice President of the African Development Bank:
"Deliberate policies to reduce inequalities and promote inclusion are now needed more than ever before. It is time to focus on people’s expectations: decent work, a living wage, access to basic service, more democracy, and accountable governments...Governance is now one of the cornerstones of economic development. Good governance, in its political, social, and economic dimensions, underpins sustainable human development and the reduction of poverty, in that it defines the processes and structures that guide political and socio-economic relationships"
Rather a different take on things from an African perspective.

Lastly I take issue with David’s argument on an unashamedly moral ground. He states:
“…human well being can be achieved within highly dysfunctional systems”.
This is a pernicious argument of the sort we've seen before from the old school of development. I don’t claim it is made with malign intent but the effect is sinister. Quite apart from it being disturbing for a comfortable Western research institute to casually dismiss the hopes of the poorest to have the fundamental rights we enjoy in a cast off comment; the more dangerous implication of this argument is that we should carry on as usual, seeing ‘development’ as purely economic and people’s rights as nice-to-haves rather than must-haves. Music to the ears of strongmen and repressive governments everywhere. One of the reasons, perhaps, why citizens of developing countries have consistently, and in overwhelming numbers, placed good governance as among their highest priorities. This can be seen from the MyWorld survey, the High Level Panel process and the UN Thematic Consultations among others. That this has been reflected in the work of governments in the Open Working Group is to my mind one of the more inspiring aspects of the last few years. Citizens voices, calling for good governance, apparently being heard.

You have to wonder at the motives of those who propose to ignore them.