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.

Monday, 22 May 2017

PDIA: Running before walking?

I’m beginning to wonder how much more PDIA has to offer, in particular for working in volatile and contested contexts. Not that I don’t remain a big fan of Matt Andrew’s work, but because I think it’s time some reality checks were applied to how it seems to be developing. If we don’t do that, I fear that the drive to move away from rigid top down approaches might lead us to another extreme, which could actually do some real harm.

Running over planning

Matt has recently posted several blogs in which he explains how he and colleagues at Harvard have been deliberately minimising the workshopping at inception periods of PDIA programmes, in favour of ‘launchpad’ style events of no more than 1.5 days which seek to construct, deconstruct and then lead to action on the problems which have been collectively identified. He argues that the traditional evidence gathering period, complete with week long inception workshops rarely get either the diagnosis or the plans right at the outset, so it is better to adopt a more bite-sized approach in which action generates learning which in turn can shape action.

Having just experienced another week long inception workshop I have a great deal of instinctive sympathy for this. But only to a point. In the workshop I just took part in, the real value wasn’t just the “data” or “evidence” we generated. No, it was the trust we developed between local partners and international actors, both of whom are about to embark on a programme in a conflict affected country, where there are very real risks of things going wrong. That just doesn’t fit with a ‘launchpad’ approach on its own.

Bias and power

Andrews does however argue persuasively on the importance of internal rather than external actors (consultants or people from donor agencies) leading this initial work. That is absolutely right. Andrews couches this in terms of navigating the biases that external actors inevitably bring. I would argue however that this is also about navigating the power asymmetry between those actors, invariably donors or wealthy INGOs, and their local partners. It might be veiled in positive language about solidarity, but that power imbalance is there, and it isn’t going anywhere soon. If you want to get the real picture, you’ve got to step back and be prepared to hear unwelcome truths. This lack of self awareness among donors even extends to the more progressive among them, who understand the need to incentivise learning from failure.

The ‘evidence hurdle’

Andrews argues for a one page plan arising from a quick and pressurised ‘launch pad’ into action, as the ideal PDIA approach. I don’t have an ideological problem with that, but I do just wonder how much Andrews and his colleagues have considered the evidence of at least the last 20 years from the peacebuilding sector. Scholars, policy makers and practitioners alike have all argued that to understand drivers of fragility, and to build peaceful relations that break deep rooted conflict systems, requires an analytical approach that guides long term engagements. That’s not to say you don’t need to be flexible and adaptive – in fact conflict affected states are in that sense the most relevant places for PDIA thinking to guide our work. But to jettison an analysis-guided approach in favour of just ‘getting on with it’ is itself a bit retrograde.

Combined endeavours

That workshop I just did? It’s a programme that will adopt an approach that has taken much of Andrews’ earlier work and adapted it to a peacebuilding programmatic framework. I’m really excited about it, but also daunted at the scale of the challenge. I feel what we need to do is learn how to combine different approaches, taking the best of both rather than adopting PDIA wholesale, particularly some of the points Andrews argues in these latest blogs. In that way we could really begin to get to a level of change that always seems somehow just out of our reach.

Who's up for a learning agenda which combines power, conflict and governance thinking?