Sunday, 5 April 2020

Covid-19: peace positive?

C19 will change the world, but are there positives for peace and stability that might emerge from the carnage, and how might these be supported? Here are some emerging thoughts on how this, the pre-eminent shared challenge of us all, might just unlock conflict systems that have appeared intractable for generations.

Regional cooperation 

If C19 has taught us anything, it is that closing borders doesn’t work. There is not a single country that has been protected by doing this. Accepting that fact, and the inescapable reality that what happens in our neighbours and our neighbourhoods near and far will affect us in my view changes the dial fundamentally. Populations are in my view unlikely to respond to jingoism and ‘othering’ from elites if they can see they may pay the price at huge scale. Leaders used to whipping up sentiment may find they are in fact held to account for not working together with others.

Resolving conflict 

If there is growing acceptance that we need to manage conflicts, to make way for collaboration on a shared pandemic, then what structures will we need? Beyond the UN perhaps the model of the African Union’s capacity to exert soft and hard pressure might be emulated within other regional structures in Asia for example. The AU’s condemnation of coups and isolation of coup leaders have in some cases resulted in change, while the African Union Mission to Somalia has involved the use of hard power. Could it be that we emerge with strengthened institutional frameworks to temper the worst excesses of power?

A new economy 

Measuring ‘development’ by economic metrics alone is bunkum. In the most fragile countries, including those ostensibly making progress, the model is frequently highly unequal with elites controlling the most successful sectors, at the expense of others. But that model itself has now been exposed, as C19 cuts off demand in the West for goods produced elsewhere. Building back will require a much wider and diverse economic base, and that will need to include a broader section of the population. This arguably presents a real opportunity to encourage a more diverse and inclusive economic model that may pay dividends in terms of peace as much as growth.


It is unlikely that civil society in any country will accept business as usual once this pandemic has passed. A renewed push for greater accountability, responsiveness and transparency within governance systems can be expected, and potentially encouraged. That is as true in the West as the South and East, and represents a potential moment to renegotiate social contracts between citizens and states. More accountability generally means more peaceful societies.

Taliban anti-coronavirus drive in NE Afghanistan. New form of legitimacy? (unclear how machine gun helps v Covid)

The Black Death in 14th Century England stripped the then ruling elite of their main claim to legitimacy: namely, that it was divine will. This had been clearly dis-proven, in the eyes of the people, who proceeded to revolt. It is hard to imagine that the legitimacy of force or power alone, or narratives of supremacy will survive C19 intact. Renegotiating that legitimacy, combined with greater accountability, may open the way for far-reaching change in the balance of power that could in turn yield positive and peaceful results.

What now? 

None of the above is inevitable. But then, nobody knows what happens, now. It will take decades to know, and new generations to judge. But it is also inescapable that this is a pivotal moment in human development.

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Infinity and beyond: Governance in fragile states

Building State Capability
The eminent Building State Capability blog has a guest article by Paul von Chamier which re-appraises possibly the most important World Development Report in recent years on how change happens in conflict affected states, that of 2011. His take makes depressing reading, using as it does the basis of the game-changing WDR11 and applying an updated data-set from the last decade (quick re-cap: economic crisis, OECD downturn, Arab Spring, Syrian conflict and lots more) and re-testing the core conclusions against that data. You may recall WDR11 posited that change only happens in generational time frames for States emerging from conflict. Von Chamier’s findings echo this, but they go further. The below table applies the Bank’s World Governance Indicators and finds that in many categories of ‘positive governance’, while there are positive signs on political stability and voice/accountability for the rest FCAS are tagged as ‘infinity’: in other words at this rate they’ll never get there.

There will be lots of nodding among many of us at this, who have been pointing out for a long time that short-termist approaches to change manifested by three-year projects that seek to rapidly ‘transform’ factors that took generations in our own countries, let alone anyone else’s, will fail. However, I do also think this take on things suffers from a bit of log-frame thinking based on limited metrics, resulting in an unnecessarily bad prognosis. A counsel of despair is never the best starting point for anything. 

Von Chamier uses, in this blog, only the Bank’s governance indicators. Useful as they are, on corruption, rule of law, institutional effectiveness and so on they fail to capture what in my view is a nebulous and perhaps intangible factor but nevertheless critical, which is how human behaviour in the form of contestation and social movements (loosely defined) manifests. Note I said social movements, not civil society as such.

And while this article understandably uses data sets from the last ten years to augment the previous 20, perhaps it’s instructive to look at wider evidence stemming back centuries of human history and social change, which still has salience to contexts we see today. Struggles in England for the rights of citizens in the 15th century, parliament in the 17th, for the right of women to have the vote in the 19th and 20th, for equality on the part of many throughout that period and which still go on would suggest that our collective history, and thus our institutions, are shaped by how those groups pursue those agendas and how elites respond; in addition to other indicators that may portray a static picture. None of this is to dispute the core argument that change in societies scarred by conflict takes generations, nor is it to argue that things cannot go backward, but it is to say that there is an intangible human element that is often missed in this form of measurement and analysis.

So work from social scientists as far back as Charles Tilly’s on social movements in the 1970s through to more contemporary analysis by Douglas North and others, not forgetting scholars from some of the countries on our lists of FCAS in the Middle East or South Asia, would suggest that there is more to predicting rates of change; and that the answer of ‘infinity’ may therefore indicate that we haven't asked all of the right questions. 

For external actors this may have implications that also echo those reached in WDR11; the import of contributing to initial political stability, creating space for human security and over the long-term peacebuilding and statebuilding in parallel to build on the one indicator that does shine out in the governance dataset: voice and accountability; which in the story of human progress could possibly the most important metric of all.

To infinity or beyond? 

Monday, 23 December 2019

Peace in the Triple Nexus: a response

Development Initiatives have produced a thought-provoking blog on “the Nexus”; which sounds like an exciting new film for Christmas, but is instead a reference to the triple nexus idea of humanitarian, development and peace (HDP) programming; and the challenges of bridging what are sometimes contradictory strands together across institutional, disciplinary and political divides.

While their main conclusion is that peace funding needs to be scaled up in order for coherent HDP programming to be realised, I thought the article also risked repeating some of the conceptual barriers that still seem to bedevil the chances of achieving that coherence. So in an attempt to add some constructive criticism here are some thoughts.

The problem here, for me, is how peacebuilding itself is conceptualised. Here are the authors:
“HDP programmes tend to work from different departure points. For humanitarians this can broadly be characterised as saving lives; for peacebuilding, as stability and security; and for development as opportunities for addressing poverty”. 
Peacebuilding is not about stability and security; it is about a long term and inevitably convoluted, contested and complex journey towards establishing the basis by which conflict can be managed without recourse to violence. This will frequently include aspects of how resources and wealth are distributed, the extent to which economic growth is inclusive, and to which institutions are effective but also perceived as legitimate and, ultimately, how contestation can be carried out through peaceful means. And while stabilisation is very much an essential part of breaking what are often cyclical conflict systems, complete with their own political economies, you can’t divorce your initial response from the longer-term factors likely to impact on the potential for longer term peace. There are dilemmas and trade-offs throughout, which span the three HDP strands. Therefore locking ourselves conceptually into a “peace = security/stability” box undermines the real extent to which HDP is ever possible. Because *all* not only *some* programming is political.

This article implies essentially that of the three strands, only peace programming is political. The authors state:
“Peacebuilding in most of its forms is a political enterprise” 
They also, in reference to OECD DAC’s ‘3 Cs – Collaboration, Coherence, Complementarity – state:
“They could be viewed as a spectrum with the humanitarian-peace nexus at the lower end with a minimum expectation of complementarity; the development-peace nexus in the middle; and the more established and less contentious humanitarian-development nexus at the higher end between collaboration and coherence”. 
Taken together this is depressing stuff. The idea that humanitarian work is not political or is somehow less contentious is surely not borne out by experience on the ground. Injecting what are often huge amounts of resources into a situation that has frequently arisen out of violent conflict, and is thus charecterised by competing groups, will always be intensely political. It will and does create winners and losers. It will and does run the risk of becoming instrumentalised by elites, both from among the target population or their surrounding host communities or governments.

But the really depressing point for me here is about expectations: relegating the humanitarian-peace nexus to the ‘lower end’ with “…a minimum expectation of complementarity” (and presumably not therefore much in the way of coherence or collaboration) is likely to make those risks more, not less likely.

The authors do however highlight some of the learning that has emerged on Nexus programming elsewhere; including the importance of factoring in analytical lenses on conflict sensitivity, the identification of peace dividends alongside immediate humanitarian need and thinking about how the design of immediate responses help or hinder long term developmental and/or peace outcomes. I would think building on those insights would require thinking that reverses the expectations outlined by our authors and makes the case for looking at all three HDP strands at each and every stage. 

Like any conversation worth having this is likely to be a difficult and challenging one, in order to get to the nub of how actors from humanitarian, developmental and peacebuilding backgrounds could and should work in a collaborative, coherent and complementary way. It’s a goal well worth aiming for, and DI deserve real credit in opening some of these questions up to debate. 

Tuesday, 3 December 2019

Innovative finance, conflict, ... and peace?

Can private finance unlock potential to help break cycles of conflict and build durable stability and peace? Pertinent questions posed in a thought-provoking article from Donata Garrasi from the Office of the UN’s Special Representative to the Great Lakes; and someone I had the great pleasure of working with during her time as the Coordinator of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding & Statebuilding.

The article highlights some recent scholarship from Georgia Keohane, Capital and the Common Good, and argues persuasively that if we were able to create and sustain FDI flows into the markets of fragile states in the form of social impact investments, supported by a screening process to ensure conflict sensitivity and human rights principles were not compromised, together with a knowledge platform to capture learning as we go; then this would represent a chance to generate both economic and peace dividends.

It’s a compelling prospect and it’s fair to say dogmatic arguments about private investment not being part of the development space are now largely in the past. Donors are rightly looking at innovative ways in which these public private partnerships could or should work and there have been strong proponents on both sides of the fence; Paul Polman arguably having been one of the more prominent business voices in recent times.

And yet. My main challenge to the thinking in this article is that it is so clearly written from the vantage point of the pinnacle of the UN system. For example, the Bretton Woods institutions’ creation at the end of WWII are cited thus:
“The intent was to use financial institutions to further economic development and prosperity and create global stability – the ultimate public good. In other words: economic development for stability; just what is needed today”. 
This is true to an extent. But the institutions were also designed to seal the new power dynamics that had emerged in the West following the conflict, as the world emerged from the colonial era into the new bi-polar world that would assume the contours of the Cold War soon afterwards.

The article cites the need for a ‘knowledge platform’:
“…that would bring together investors with a multi-disciplinary community of practice dedicated to enhancing investment in fragile countries”. 
It suggests the World Economic Forum or the OECD as hosts, and calls for visionary leaders from North and South to set the course. But we’re not short of visionary leaders, including from the South, and those who combine public and private sector spheres; such as these women from Bangladesh. Why do these platforms always have to sit in Northern institutions; be they set amid snow-topped Swiss mountains or Parisian boulevards? 

I listened to a fascinating podcast this morning, which focused on political settlements and why some peace deals fail or falter. Both Jonathan Cohen, of Conciliation Resources, and Jan Egeland, S-G of the Norwegian Refugee Council and longstanding architect and supporter of peace accords over 20 years, spoke powerfully about the gritty, grainy realities of why some fighters return to the gun. What united their perspectives was what happens when young men and women who have demobilised, taken the first tentative steps out of fighting, find that they have nothing to transition meaningfully towards, whether that is employment, a role with dignity or both. 

There's also a distinct absence in the article of any reference to the governance challenges likely to dominate any post-conflict environment. Endemic corruption, rampant elite capture and the routine use of violence as a means of sustaining access to resources are not issues that can be 'screened' for and dealt with easily, particularly if there are investments at stake. The level of trust this engenders was to me captured by visceral comments made to me by civil society activists in Liberia almost 7 years to the day, as they sought to support their own growth into long term peace through the New Deal. This is perhaps why investments of a less scrupulous nature are also a long standing feature of these environments.

As both Jonathan and Jan noted there are examples where economic growth has played an important and positive role, in providing alternatives for former combatants, marginalised groups and others; but this isn’t the uniform experience. Grounding conversations in how to generate economic growth that supports long -term peace to me means locating those conversations in those environments, where they can draw on the reality of the contexts being discussed. And with each of them being unique in their own right, it’s likely uniform approaches of the type normally associated with discussions emerging from the high peaks of finance are unlikely to have the traction they would need to succeed.

Clear-eyed conversations, grounded in gritty realities but with the ambition Donata rightly outlines for harnessing the power of growth – now there’s a winning investment..

Wednesday, 4 September 2019

Peter da Costa: Teacher, mentor, visionary and friend

This morning I had the sad privilege of attending the memorial of Peter da Costa, along with some of his family and friends here in London. Taking place in the suitably grand surroundings of Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, we said goodbye to a teacher, a visionary and passionate advocate for the rise of Africa and all its people. With the word ‘all’ being the important one.

I’ve never written an obituary before, and by comparison to the heartfelt and beautiful contributions this morning it won’t compare. But many of you knew Peter as did I, as a co-conspirator, a colleague and a friend with whom we conjured up ideas and tried to find ways to bridge divides and try doing old things in new ways. For those of us trying to contribute to peace, to fairness and human progress he was in my view the sort of person humanity desperately needs more of, but of whom it has so few. Amid the sadness however, and Peter would be the first to say this, his ideas remain with us even if their progenitor does not. We can all build on them.

Peter was a man of amazing combinations. A fierce intellect, reflected in an academic record that broke new ground, combined with a deeply human, humble and empathetic approach. The happiest I ever saw Peter was when he was drawing ideas out of people who hadn’t had the chances he’d had, couldn’t articulate them in the same language, but did have the qualifications of experience and a willingness to share it.

A profound sense of pride, particularly in the younger people he worked with and whose potential he sought to bring out, particularly in the form of partners supported by the Hewlett Foundation, for whom he worked as an advisor. Yet this was often combined with a lack of tolerance for what he perceived as laziness, from whomsoever it came. I think in hindsight he couldn’t stand the idea of people not contributing what he could see they were able to, in the mission to which he was so committed.

But in that mission, which I would describe clumsily as Africa finally emerging as a continent among equals, with all of its people – women every bit as much as men – able to reach their potential, he exhibited another combination. A depth of kindness and non-judgmental empathy to those around him, together with a fierce lack of tolerance for corruption or the abuse of power, from whomsoever that emerged.

Peter understood and spoke the languages of different tribes in the development world. Technology. Political economy. Innovation. Data. Evidence. Power. Conflict & peacebuilding. That he could combine them and see new ways for them to work together was reflected in his many achievements. He broke boundaries and silos, persuaded governments, pushed through sheer stubbornness and supported initiatives that stood the test of time, such as the Africa Data Consensus. He was a revolutionary who sought to take people with him.

One of my last memories of Peter was standing in a Nairobi nightclub. Over the impossibly loud music, and thudding, floor shaking bass, Peter was trying to outline a thought on something to do with political economy. An absurd situation, and I’m afraid I moved the conversation on to football instead. He rolled his eyes, but with the familiar twitches of a wry smile. A microcosm of Peter – high expectations, a fearsome intellect, but all the while deeply human.

I thought of him earlier this week as I saw the sun come up over Hyde Park. It’s not enough to never forget Peter, he’d want more than that. Take his ideas and example forward. I know I’ll try to.

Friday, 21 December 2018

Peacebuilding: Time to think and act Human?

What is peacebuilding? That nearly all of you will give slightly (or significantly) different answers to that is part of what I perceive to be a wider problem. You could just as well ask ‘what is development’ with the same result. GDP, or rights? Jobs or voice? So in this brief thought piece I will restrict myself to a narrower question, which is one I believe needs to be addressed if we are to become more effective in understanding the causes of conflict, and acting to build long term and positive peace.

My argument here is that in the last ten years peacebuilding has largely benefited from a process of professionalisation. That’s a process we’ve witnessed among practitioners in the NGO sector, as much as in the donor agencies themselves, with cadres of professionals emerging in both. But my worry is that in that process we have erred too much on the side of analysing conflict through lenses of political science at the cost of wider perspectives, such as anthropology, in our quest to understand how and why humans behave the ways we do. And that makes us less effective.

When I first started in peacebuilding back in 2008 the wider development sector was heavily dominated by economists, and their metrics. So progress was seen in primarily economic terms and not those, say, of human rights, voice, struggles and the differentiated experiences of communities, women or marginalised groups. The economist mindset is still very much alive, and people like me regularly argue with their proponents, but we do generally have a more holistic approach now which is welcome. Yet in that process of widening the disciplines and perspectives we use, I fear the political scientist has become the new economist, largely without intending to be.

And that’s a problem, in my view, on a number of grounds. Political science offers us strong and useful methods of understanding conflict and wider society, usually through the prism of institutions. But as a discipline it is massively dominated by Northern and Western viewpoints which make assumptions which simply don’t hold in many of the societies in which they are applied. Within academia this has provoked a backlash in which writers from the global South, such as Chatterjee, and several Middle East scholars have written powerfully to illustrate just how the theories of Hobsbawm, Anderson, North and others simply don’t help us to grasp why people behave in the way they do in large parts of the world, in this case South Asia and the Middle East.

Traditional Northern political science essentially holds that powerful elites win and then retain power by seizing institutions, and then setting the rules of the game in their favour, in perpetuity. And there’s a large degree of truth in that. But it tends to dismiss the idea that humans are also emotional creatures with deep spiritual attachments to land, ideas, communities and belief systems (famously by Ben Anderson's "Imagined Communities" thesis) which in my view shape their behaviours as much as, if not more than, rebelling to take power. So when you’re trying to understand a conflict that might take an ethno-nationalist form, for example, where conflicting groups self identify by ethnicity, in my view this is as much about those human characteristics as it is about powerful elites. The point is we need to understand both, and act accordingly. A lot of Sue Unsworth's work, which shaped much of DFID's later thinking, also hinted at this, in order for the elite-community bargaining work which she held as central to success, to take place.

As we look across what is sadly a growing number of conflicts worldwide, where many take on that ethno-nationalist form, this in my view is a pressing issue for us as a sector to get right, and it lies in the analysis we use and the theories we develop on the basis of that analysis. More anthropology, more Southern based persepctives and more balance with the new dominant theme is needed. Essentially in my view we need to think more about humans as they are, and not as if they were robots, controlled principally by elites, even in their own minds and conceptions of the world around them. How we might do this, will be the subject of my next piece!

Until then, let me end by quoting Phil Vernon, a peacebuilder from whom I learned a great deal during my time at International Alert. Phil is both a peacebuilder and a poet, and this evocative peace captures a sight that will be familiar to peacebuilding practitioners across the globe:

I come each day to clean the marble plaque,

place flowers beneath Azadin’s face, and pray

he rests in peace. The eve of the attack,

he begged my blessing which I proudly gave –

a mother's leave to die.

Low sunlight bathes

the bridge, the road, the bracken-covered hills

in warmth and welcome; piebald peaks arrayed

Against the sky stand friendly guard.

War steals

our children but it spares them all the ills

of longer life, and us from saving them.

I sit in simple silence simply filled

with comfort by his being near.

She spends

her evenings at the bridge contentedly;

the sunlight dissolves gently in the sea.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Nirmala: Nepal's wake up call for donors?

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

Short-termism: a Donor disease

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

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

Residents of Bhimduttanagar in Western Nepal demand justice for Nirmala

Positive v negative peace

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

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

Time to listen to evidence?

The future

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

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

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