Friday 28 December 2012

Bullets and mulled wine: Europe’s journey

Stadtwald forest: Germany

A sharp tip glinted out of the tree, having travelled through from the other side. Chopping the wood open revealed the small bullet to be as shiny as the day it had been fired, as Allied troops pressed into Germany in the closing months of World War II.

And there were more. This time a dull, blunt and rounded chunk of metal embedded deep into another tree: the remnant of a heavy machine gun and a reminder of the hell that had been unleashed here.  We were told it is common to find bullets and shrapnel embedded in these trees. 

We had come to the forest to cut a Christmas tree in the late days of December; an ancient tradition in this part of western Germany. The families we were the privileged guests of showed us around these quiet hills which, cloaked in freezing mist and joined by warm mulled wine with even warmer company, were a memorable part of this year’s Christmas for us. 

The contrast, for me, was profound and at once a reminder of how far Europe has travelled away from its blood soaked past but also of the risks that never really go away. 

After all there we were: a family from England who had met a family from Germany on holiday – in France. Standing in beautiful countryside and sharing traditions. That was the progress part.

But there we also were, in the same forest where our grandfathers had slaughtered one another; as a result of a political elite’s collective failure to address the rise of extremism which itself had been made possible by their failure to manage the global economy.

Sadly that last bit about the failure of elites and the rise of extremism is an increasingly accurate description of the countries of Southern Europe. When I was in Liberia earlier this year I met a Greek guy about the same age as me, in his mid thirties. He’d never been to Africa before and ended up in a fairly random job in West Africa simply because he had been so desperate to get out. He gave accounts of elderly people being wheeled out of care homes and left on the streets because their families could no longer afford the fees. That was terrible enough.

Golden Dawn rally: Greece
But then he mentioned something, in passing, which was even more troubling. Before he left he’d voted for the fascist Golden Dawn party, who now occupy seats in the Greek Parliament. When I asked him why he told me he wasn’t a fascist, he’d moved to Africa after all, but the political system “needed a shock”. It could have been straight out of the mouth of a suddenly impoverished 1930s worker in Weimar Germany, casting their vote for the Nazis, to "send a message".

While in India the appeal of Hitler seems to lie in a perception that he was a firm leader who "got things done". Many businesses now appear to be cashing in on the Nazi brand, and sales of Mein Kampf are described as "brisk". Those Indians who seem to admire Nazi Germany do not do so because they are filled with hate or are anti semitic, they appear to be responding to the appeal of charismatic leadership, which they describe feeling India lacks.

And therein lies the problem. If it is possible for the passage of time to sanitise a period even as blood drenched and cataclysmic as the Third Reich, then can we really be so complacent as to imagine it could never happen again?

That night in Germany, over more drinks and by the warmth of a fire, our hosts and I reflected on how our own generation’s world view had been shaped by the Cold War but how the fall of the Berlin Wall was now but a chapter in our children’s textbooks. To them the idea that they could be at war with each other was a bizarre notion. And yet one of our hosts as a girl had been taught how to use a rifle by her grandfather, fearful of a future return to the carnage and mass rape that accompanied the Russian advance into Germany from the East which he had experienced first-hand.

Stuff of textbooks
As Europeans it is tempting sometimes to focus only on the progress we’ve made, and the EU's role in that was recently recognised. But the unfolding political chaos in Greece, with the prospect of more countries to follow, surely means we have no room for complacency at all. And in the beautiful forests of western Germany trees bearing hidden bullets stand silently testament to that.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Nationalism: modern, or primeval?



Discuss. Well, only if you want to. I ask the question because it is the topic that has taken me away from this blog for longer than I would have liked, along with getting back into the swing of things post-Liberia and of course the approach of Christmas. Back now though.

I am completing an M.S.c. at BirkbeckCollege, University of London, at the moment, and have been studying a fascinating set of debates around nationalism and ethnic identity. What makes a nation, and do we all have the same idea of what that means? Where do our ethnic and other identities come from and how do they shape what we do?

Big philosophical debates but the question I have been researching this month has been the extent to which nationalism can be understood using different analytical lenses. Specifically, the lenses adopted by 'ethno-symbolists', such as Anthony Smith, or 'modernists' such as Birkbeck's own Eric Hobsbawm, who sadly died recently.

I am not about to repeat the depth of the research here, save to say that ethno-symbolist perspectives view nationalism as being the latest expression of a set of factors that have roots going back many centuries, drawing primarily on religious and cultural developments for each social group. Modernists, on the other hand, take their starting point as more related to the growth of the modern nation state emerging out of the period of industrialisation in the 1700 and 1800s. 

They both have a valid perspective, of course. Without nations, or the idea of what that would mean, you can't by definition have nationalism. But to discount all historic factors which have moulded societies simply because they occurred under a different governance system, generally monarchies drawing their legitimacy from religion, seems to me dangerously close to trying to fit a complex situation into the straightjacket of a pre-cooked theory.

Either way, the collection of thoughts and research on these questions are not simply academic hot air. They have very real relevance to how we can understand the world we are in, and nowhere is this more pressing than in regions of armed conflict, where the narrative on both sides is usually framed in nationalist or quasi-nationalist terms. Yet what struck me recently was a comment by the person leading this course, a newly qualified PhD who clearly has huge enthusiasm for the subject, which was that until recently these questions had largely been neglected by the mainstream of academic debate.

I would add to that the mainstream of policy making, which at best has limited the likelihood of success for peacebuilding efforts in some of the most intractable conflicts in the world. At worse it may have resulted in real harm, as projects have been set up and implemented in ignorance of the subtle nuances of the situation they were intended to improve.

How do we effectively connect the reflective academic with the time pressured policy maker and make it work? Now there's a question.  

Sunday 2 December 2012

Making the New Deal work: a view from the ground

Fishtown, Southern Liberia
"they carry the graves in their stomachs" said a Liberian Congressman recently, travelling around that small West African country with a civil society leader and trying to get across the depth of the wounds still carried by his fellow Liberians from the years of war. It was relayed to us in a meeting in Monrovia one evening last week, which went well into the late hours, as we pored over 'indicators' being developed for Liberia as part of the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, unveiled earlier this year in Busan, South Korea.

The New Deal is the opportunity of a generation for the 1.5 billion people who live in the shadow of armed violence, and for whom the years of the Millennium Development Goals have delivered comparatively little. For the first time a genuine and equal partnership between donor countries and 19 developing nations affected by conflict, calling themselves the 'G7+', has formed, and together tried to act on the insight that in order to achieve anything meaningful on a journey away from conflict and towards prosperity you have to address the politics: the relationship ordinary people have with those that govern their lives at every level.

A first step envisaged by the New Deal was the inclusive development of "fragility assessments" – an analysis of the key factors driving conflict in each unique country taking part. And another, which is what we were doing that night, was the design of "indicators" to measure progress or the lack of it towards the overall vision of sustainable peace that would be produced for every state, guiding donors and governments alike.


But the devil is in the detail, and that detail is frequently to be found in what might seem like semantics. Several of our debates were over single words. Could you have an indicator that said 'factors of conflict addressed'? 'Addressed' surely implies 'resolved' and that might be open to box-ticking on the part of governments who want to skate over politically difficult problems. Many other words or phrases were hotly discussed too.

And that’s what took us so long. The clock ticked as food arrived to keep us going. What was the right word here, the right phrase there? And the reason why those Liberian civil society leaders stuck at it, passionately arguing back and forth, was because there was so much riding on it. If the New Deal works, and I mean *really* works, then it will have implications not just for those fragile and conflict affected countries it was designed for but for development as a whole.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf meeting us last week
For a start it will mean that without the active involvement of ordinary people, on the ground, no inter-governmental approach alone is ever going to really work. That’s a radically different approach to the top-down MDGs.

But for those countries scarred by violence, and taking hazardous steps on the journey towards long term peace, that path is strewn with pitfalls; and amid what can sometimes seem abstract debates couched in development jargon it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of the fact that this is ultimately about people, with strengths and weaknesses and in many cases who have been deeply traumatised by war.

The conflict in Liberia only ended a decade or so ago. And those who survived, according to that Congressman, still carry the "graves in their stomachs". They are the people, bearing that legacy, who will need convincing that any new development framework is worth the paper it is written on.


Which might be why later that week, during a United Nations Global Thematic Consultation on how to address conflict in the development framework that replaces the MDGs, the first thing Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf asked us was where the New Deal stood in all of this post-2015 debate.

And that, in turn, might mean the days of top-down-one-size-fits-all has finally had its’ day. And not a day too soon.

Wednesday 21 November 2012

Congratulations Malcolm Bruce!


Malcolm Bruce, the Chair of the International Development Select Committee in the UK Parliament is to receive his knighthood from the Queen today. The award was given in recognition of his service to the country both as a parliamentarian as well as his substantial charity work over several decades.

I have known Malcolm for over 10 years, having worked in the deafness charity sector prior to joining a peacebuilding NGO. One of Malcolm’s daughters was born profoundly deaf, so he had personal experience of the many dilemmas faced by parents of children with a very low incidence disability. The fact that there are not many other profoundly deaf children around you means that families are often left isolated, lacking in any real support and offered completely contradictory information from both “professionals” and campaigners, each with their own ideas of “whats for the best”.

Sign language or lip reading? Special school or mainstream? Cochlear implant, hearing aids or nothing? In each case the choice parents make have far reaching consequences and to be faced with advice that is often politicised – with campaigners on both sides warning of making the “wrong” or even “immoral” choice is less than helpful.

Malcolm was a Trustee of both RNID and the National Deaf Children’s Society/Deaf Child Worldwide during my time there and in both cases provided a lot of sage and wise advice as those organisations sought to navigate those difficult waters.

I remember one occasion when Malcolm popped up at Prime Minister's Questions, during a particularly difficult session for Gordon Brown. He bowled him a soft question about the importance of deaf kids education, and suggested a meeting. The Prime Minister, seeing a friendly question for once grasped it with both hands and said yes. I dont think he realised it was going to be a meeting with most of the deafness sector, and which ended up with a series of Ministerial committments on ensuring choice for parents

He has also been a forensic examiner of the UK’s international development policies as Chair of the Select Committee, which is the main scrutiny forum for parliamentarians in the UK. He played a key role in examining and challenging the approaches of the last and present Government, and despite his committee welcoming a lot of the positive moves this Government has made towards addressing conflict and fragility they have also not shied away from asking very awkward questions, such as how much money was being spent on consultants. The latter question led to the coining of the phrase “poverty barons” by the right wing press opposed to aid on principle, but they were valid questions nonetheless.

And as with the deafness charity sector at home, international NGOs are just as politicised in many ways as different advocates of approaches to deaf kids are. I’ve always felt deaf politics was a good preparation for international development debates.

I gave evidence to his committee earlier this year on the extent to which DFID was effective in its operations in the central African Great Lakes Region, including the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some tough questioning ensued and you certainly had to be on top of your detail to answer them, but recent events in and around Goma illustrate just why those questions are even more valid now than they ever were.

Looking ahead to the debate on what comes after the Millenium Development Goals, the UK is lucky to have Malcolm prodding and poking away. Keep being awkward, Sir Malcolm!

Monday 19 November 2012

Radi-Aid: Africans for Norway



This. is. hilarious!

I think it's trying to address a point often made by African civil society about their resentment at how they are often portrayed by Western NGOs, usually as part of a fundraising drive. Pictures of miserable children seem to be the order of the day, to the exclusion of any other image of Africa or Africans.

As a response, this is far better than simply getting angry about it - it's brilliant!

Sunday 18 November 2012

The battle for ideas with China


Paul Collier argues that the West, by which I assume he means liberal democracies, should concede defeat in the battle for economic power with China and instead focus on winning the war of values instead.

It’s a seductive argument, because it offers us a chance to fight a battle we feel we can win from within a comfort zone we’re comfortable with, and he makes it in the brutal context of political murders and corporate malfeasance in Guinea, a country wracked by corruption which he rightly points out is aided and abetted by corporate interests based in London, Paris and New York.

And one in which a local Treasury anti-corruption official could be gunned down in the streets when her fight for transparency presented a threat to the profit margins of these dark forces.

Aissatou Boiro: murdered anti-graft official
So what would this "battle" look like, and what sort of "weapons" would we need to fight it? And, more importantly, what would victory actually look like if we won?

The US election was dominated by increasingly hysterical descriptions of Chinese economic wrongdoing leading to car plants in Detroit standing empty. And in Africa, which is the focus of Professor Collier’s piece, we have seen that they adopt a no-questions-asked approach to trade. The new Premier, Xi Jiping, gives no indication of altering course.

Yet that contrast is where I think Professor Collier’s argument partly falls down. No liberal democratic government that wants to be re-elected is going to concede defeat to China on economic grounds. The fact is that China can manufacture goods at a fraction of the cost, and that’s not going to change. The challenge for the West, surely, is to rise to that challenge by responding with knowledge driven services that don’t involve factories as the chief means of production. It might be an idea to turn that Detroit car factory into a business school.

Robin Cook
But that doesn’t mean we can’t open a second front and launch an all-out offensive on values. One of my favourite politicians of the last century was the much maligned Robin Cook who, as Foreign Secretary, announced his pursuit of an “ethical foreign policy”. The idea was that the driving aims of foreign policy would be normative as much as power-politics. It didn’t work out, but that might have been because he didn’t seem to get much support even from within his own Government for the idea.

The battle ground for the second offensive on values would almost certainly be Africa, for the reason Professor Collier gives: home to vast natural resources but also home to violence, poverty and corruption on a similarly vast scale. Yet also home to people, like Aissatou Boiro, willing to put their lives on the line to fight for a better world for themselves and their fellow citizens. They are the people who will do the fighting in this battle. The prize being economic growth, yes, but growth with peace and social justice too.

And that battle will commence *after* 2015, not before it. The current debate over the post-2015 framework is taking off, with some exciting and progressive work already having been done, such as the New Deal for engagement with fragile states, a partnership for inclusive growth, peace and justice between donors and countries affected by conflict. But the debate will need to conclude in a way that countries like China and Russia are happy with, or at least not so unhappy with that they veto it.  So there is much to fight for to shape that overall agenda, but it will only ever create an environment in which the battle for values will be contested.

So one Foreign Secretary of one Western (or African) country, however enlightened, isn’t going to cut it. What might do, however, is an institution that can act on a global scale with the resources and people who are able to support those fighting for the values of fairness, transparency and democracy effectively. Step forward, perhaps, the European External Action Service, the EEAS.

European External Action Service
As an institution it has had a rocky start, not helped by turf wars within the EU itself. But taking the long view this might be the institution that could bring some coherence to Europe’s engagement with Africa, starting by aligning trade policy with development and peacebuilding objectives, and designing its’ support effectively by well thought out interventions, designed in partnership with all those struggling for growth with peace and justice.

Their thinking was outlined by Nick Westcott, Managing Director for the Africa Division, in the wake of the Lisbon Treaty in 2011. He talked of three pillars forming a "new framework of engagement" between Europe and Africa. They being: "supporting peace, promoting prosperity, and working through partnership with African countries and others." Not a bad set of goals to marry growth with peace and justice. 

Pie in the sky? It seems so, particularly when you look at some of the ridiculous manoeuvrings that sometimes characterise the European Union. But what are the alternatives?

Syria highlights the utter inadequacy of the UN in the face of a struggle between East and West because it can be held to ransom by one side or the other; while the US is no longer that useful global hegemon that we can all rely on to do that values stuff while we Europeans get on with making consumer goods.

So if this is a battle worth fighting, do we really have any alternative means of collectively supporting, on a global scale, those in Africa fighting for a vision of a better world?

And if the answer to that question is no, it seems to me we either just give up or try to get our European acts together and make this institution work. Sharpish.

Wednesday 14 November 2012

Lecture: Arab Uprising & Social Media



Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi is one of the best known social media operators who played a key role in the momentous events which have re-cast the Middle East over the course of the past two years. He is one of the best connected Twitter users both within the region and without and is regularly ahead of the game on emerging trends.

I've corresponded with him every now and again during that time and, despite having 148,000 followers to his name, have always received friendly responses. 

Here in the West there have already been lots of seminars and debates on the role of social media throughout the events which were ignited by a self immolation in Tunisia but many have not actually featured any of those who were actually using the media directly. 

So here's a brief talk he gave to students at NorthWestern University last night in Chicago, Illinois.

Sunday 11 November 2012

Remembrance Sunday: Thoughts on peace


One of my first jobs after finishing University was a temporary post at the Royal British Legion in 1997. I was one of the few non-military people in the building, and this soon grew to be the basis of much of the ribald banter between myself and my colleagues, who were all recently retired from the three services.

I liked them, a lot, and still remember them more vividly than more recent work places. Partly because of the fantastically filthy jokes and terms they had for civvies, but mainly because they were some of the most genuine and warm people I have ever spent time with.

I remember Ron, whose hands still shook from the stress he suffered half a century before, aboard a submarine which had suddenly gone into an uncontrolled dive in the East Asian Sea during the Korean conflict. Had Ron and his colleagues not managed to get the vessel out of the dive at the last minute the pressure of the depths would have crushed it instantaneously. It had been very close.

I remember Ben, who had served on the cold war’s first front-line in Germany in the years immediately following 1945. Tensions were high between the former allies and the prospect of war erupting over what Stalin regarded as the intolerable capitalist presence in West Berlin, deep in his territory of East Germany, was very real. Ben learned a few words of Russian and, being an enterprising man, soon had an illicit cigarette business going with his erstwhile enemies. All the while knowing that if conflict did come to pass he wouldn’t stand a chance.

Both Ben and Ron had lived in a twentieth century whose first half had been obliterated by global conflict and economic depression, and a second half which existed for the most part under the constant shadow of nuclear annihilation. Understandably, then, they thought that conflict was just one of life’s constants and you had to make the best of it. The poppy appeal, held every year as a means of raising money for the Legion and a way for the nation to mark its respects to the fallen, was a practical affair which didn’t change that underlying truism about the nature of our world.

Perhaps Ben and Ron were right. Looking around today we see easily where the spotlight happens to shine, such as on Syria, but in the shadows there are far larger human tragedies unfolding daily such as in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As well as national remembrance days there is now an International Day of Peace, marked by the United Nations every September 21st on which the emphasis is less about honouring the memory of war dead, and more on what needs to be done to promote genuine peace. One of the ideas behind the day is to promote a global truce in all armed conflicts to mark the day, which is promoted by the PR campaign behind Peace One Day

But wouldn't it be better if we were aiming just a bit higher than a single day? And how about dealing effectively with the causes of each conflict rather than its symptoms, which is basically what a truce is about? You wonder sometimes about how limited the human imagination can be when faced with its biggest challenges.

Remembrance Sunday is about symbolism and it feels right that we honour those who gave their todays for our tomorrows, but I wonder if in future we could combine a mark of respect for the fallen with a mark of hope for a better world to come, and a determination to think big to achieve it. After all, the alternative, as the last British Tommy Harry Patch once said "...is organised murder and nothing else."

Ron and Ben would roll their eyes, laugh out loud and scoff at that idea, but secretly, I bet they’d agree.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Bottom Billion: The right theory?

Theories of change are the currency of development and peace practitioners alike, but they all rest on assumptions. So what about Professor Collier's assumption that there is a bottom billion? Have a watch of a recent TED lecture he gave, to see what you think:



Saturday 3 November 2012

London High Level Panel: Reflections

In conversation with the High Level Panel
It had been a long time coming. Since the first meeting of the High Level Panel, set up by Ban Ki Moon and co-chaired by the British, Liberian and Indonesian Heads of State in New York the massed ranks of civil society had been looking forward to this meeting with expectations and anxiety in equal measure.

Expectations were high of a genuine dialogue and opportunity to reshape the path out of extreme poverty with people at its centre, while anxieties were heightened by the prospect of politicians reverting to type and stymieing the process in the search for a bland compromise that everyone could live with.

Those of us lucky enough to have been asked to take part in the dialogue with the High Level Panel members through the Beyond 2015 campaign met wider civil society the day before, and it was already very clear indeed that there were some very impressive voices to be heard. Leaders of the disability movement from South Africa, the climate change campaign from Bangladesh and the grassroots Niger Delta Women's movement for Peace and Development were among them. Surely the Panel members had to be struck by the power of the arguments they advanced?

On the day, the session for civil society was the second of three outreach events and our trepidation wasn’t helped by the sight of the first lot coming out in super sharp suits and uber confident smiles. Yes, it was the business folk who’d come to pow-wow over a power-breakfast, get down to the bottom line and seal the deal with the panel. Business has a vital role to play and it was absolutely right they were there, but they have a very different way of doing things, those folk from the City. And we had to follow them.

So with some nerves in we went and for the next 90 minutes our faith in the process, I think, was very much reinforced. It became immediately obvious that these Panel members genuinely wanted to rise to the challenge that they’d been set: find a way forward that delivers on the goal first outlined in 2000: of ending poverty in our time.

Graca Machel during our discussions
They listened and genuinely engaged, among them Graca Machel, a former Mozambican education minister and advocate for the rights of southern African women and children, who herself had some challenging words for us. Keep up the pressure, she said, but look to yourselves too. We could not expect, she argued, to be taken seriously if we couldn’t demonstrate as civil society that we genuinely represented our constituencies and managed to construct a single coherent narrative from within ourselves.

The Panel, who by and large mix in high circles generally, were confronted by some uncomfortable truths from the ground. No, we didn’t need a “social floor”, whatever that jargon means, said the woman from the Niger Delta, responding to a Panel member's suggestion. It’s quite straightforward – we need insurance, just like any other business, as she described how a group of women in her community had received micro credit loans to start fish farming businesses. But a recent flood had destroyed the fish farms leaving them with no assets but a mountain of debt. Pencils were sharpened and notes were made. It was one of many references to climate change throughout the day.

Lunch was at the IoD
Our discussions were over too soon, of course, and off we trooped for lunch which was cleverly procured by those bods at Development Initiatives who’d hired a room in the Institute of Directors next door. The irony of discussing extreme poverty over prawn sandwiches in the plush surroundings of the IoD was not lost, but it was a good chance to debrief, and the mood among us was really positive. We were actually getting somewhere with these guys.

The youth were the next bunch in, and by all accounts they were seriously impressive too.

But at 4pm things, in my view at least, started to go downhill. There was a town-hall style meeting, the idea of which was to allow members of the panel to hear direct from members of civil society who hadn’t been part of the earlier chunks of the day. And, frankly, I think we all rather let ourselves down.

The Panel members were lined up in a row in front of the massed ranks of what must have been over 200 people, who'd been urged to tweet like there was no tomorrow, even having been issued with WiFi passes on the way in. Top blogger Duncan Green of Oxfam did a great job chairing the debate and managed to drill some discipline into the first exchanges. 15 seconds was your lot, he said, any more and you are effectively robbing someone else of the chance to speak.

What followed, however, was two hours of mostly random single issue mini and not-so-mini speeches with each speech maker, in some cases reading from a pre-prepared script, underlining how their own issue was the single most important thing of all and really must be seen as such, you know.

This prompted Graca Machel to re-iterate her plea for coherence and discipline – “I am you” she said standing from her chair, referring to her own civil society status, “but you must help us”. The message was that we were definitely not helping by this sort of approach. What we needed was a ”package” and civil society had to help, not hinder that work. Having completed this oration she promptly announced she had a plane to catch and left the stage, still telling us to behave ourselves, as an unfortunate aide tried to disentangle her from the microphone cable on her lapel, nearly falling over in the process. Quite an exit.

Tawakkul Karman
This was also the message from Yemeni Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Tawakkul Karman, a fearsomely impressive young woman, who has fought for human rights and social justice in the context of highly conservative Yemen, and the “war on terror” being prosecuted all around her. I would imagine she doesn't take fright too easily. We had to keep up the pressure, yes, she said – but we also had to help the panel, not pepper them with a very long shopping list.

Yet this was immediately followed by one gentleman who treated us to a long and winding speech, which seemed to be punctuated by regular name checks for his organisation. Oh dear.

Towards the end however, my own faith was renewed by one young man from Sierra Leone.

He had no interest in long speeches, nor name checking anyone or anything. He was a former child soldier who had been forced to do terrible things, he said. Kidnapped at a very young age during the waves of civil war, that was his reality. That had been his childhood. By now he was speaking to a silent hall, as he looked at the Panel members and told them calmly that if they produced a framework that again missed the likes of people like him as the MDGs had, the world would never forgive them. And then promptly sat down.

Clearly moved, former Clinton Chief of Staff John Podesta, responded that missing people like him had been one of the biggest errors of the previous framework, and that it couldn't be allowed to happen again.

That is the scale of the challenge, both for the Panel members but also for us. And reflecting on the last couple of days I think there is an awful lot of work to do on both sides.

Monday 29 October 2012

Hurricane Sandy: Haiti isn't Manhattan



24/7 rolling footage of water breaching middle class streets on the coast of New Jersey, or the southern financial district of Manhattan, is the diet we've all been fed for the past day. But hasn't the storm, which has already lost it's official "hurricane" status been around for just a bit more than that?

Indeed it has, having killed 66 people in the Caribbean before reaching the eastern seaboard of the US and reportedly having led directly to an outbreak of cholera in Haiti, helpfully introduced to the island by Nepalese UN forces, by contaminating water supplies.

Breathless reporting from the US
On the short film above, shot by the Bri Kouri Nouvèl Gaye media team and which has somehow missed the prime time slots of CNN and the BBC, a man looks at the camera and reports that "the NGOs have finished wasting funds and we are still under tents".

And those tents didn't really stand much of a chance against one of the biggest storms in living memory, but the 350,000 camp dwelling residents of Haiti won't be pinning their hopes on another international humanitarian rescue mission.

Priorities, eh?

Anna Frank and the IDPS

Amsterdam canal, next to Anna Frank's House
What's the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (IDPS), the new framework for tacking conflict and fragility reached at the Busan summit got to do with a Jewish girl murdered by the Nazis during the second world war?

Well, nothing directly. But I spent three days in The Hague, Holland, last week with members of civil society organisations from across Europe, America, Africa and Asia who are trying to make a new way of tackling armed conflict work, and I was struck by the role of history in shaping our future.

Back at the end of November 2011 world leaders met at a High Level conference in Busan, South Korea to have a difficult conversation. It had been clear for a long time that the aid agenda for eradicating extreme poverty had failed at least 1.5 billion of the poorest and most vulnerable people. Now, to make mattters harder, the world was in the grip of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression, and donor countries needed to show their electorates that they were getting value for their aid dollars. So both the poorest in the world and the voters of hard pressed donor states were being short changed.

But some of the countries most affected by violence had a plan, and the plan made a lot of sense. Together with donor countries they launched what became known as the New Deal, marking a fundamental shift in the way the world responded to the threat of conflict, and supported states building their way to peace and prosperity.

They all accepted that the old world of top-down, one-size-fits-all, we know best, take it or leave it aid had to end, and be replaced by a genuine partnership between governments of each unique set of circumstances and donors, who jointly designed their interventions according to the reality on the ground rather than an economists' spreadsheet in a UN agency or a World Bank office. It was a breakthrough that led to a set of five Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals: legitimate politics, justice, security, economic foundations and revenues and services — to give clarity on the priorities to be pursued in fragile states.

Here's part of the declaration unveiled at the summit:
"We, the members of the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (“the Dialogue”), comprised of the g7+ group of 19 fragile and conflict-affected countries, development partners, and international organisations, believe that a new development architecture and new ways of working, better tailored to the situation and challenges of fragile contexts, are necessary to build peaceful states and societies. These are presented in the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States (the “New Deal”)".
Inspiring stuff, and most exciting for me was the fact that civil society, so often pushed to one side by governments because they tend not to toe a party line, was this time considered vital to the chances of success. So my meetings in the Hague were all about taking a reality check on how things were getting on and sharing ideas about how some of the real progress made in this process can be contributed to the wider vision of what the world of development might look like in 2015, once the old world of the Millenium Development Goals have expired.

So these are genuinely exciting times. But what drew me to the link between these meetings and Anna Frank was the question of history. It's something you can't feel or poke or touch but it's a factor that has so much power to constrain what we can or can't do today.

It didn't go unnoticed by several of the partners from West Africa last week that we were meeting in The Hague. Where, of course, Charles Taylor had just been sentenced to life in prison for the obscene levels of human carnage he wrought over lands in that region. And the place, as our colleagues from the Democratic Republic of Congo also noted, where warlord Thomas Lubanga had also met his judgement.

Anna Frank
As you walk down quiet streets in Amsterdam in Autumn you are struck first by the beauty of the scene of bobbing canal boats and leaves drifting from the trees, but secondly, as you approach Anna Frank's house, the difficulty of imagining the sound of Nazi boots that once echoed down the cobbles on their way to seize more victims of the "race war" they had been indoctrinated to pursue.

So Holland is a place where the history of humanity's inhumanity is all around you and it was, at least last week, the scene of intense debate between a group of committed people trying to steer the world in a better direction.

High stakes indeed.

Sunday 28 October 2012

International Space Station: cool footage



This blog is mostly about global issues and responses to conflict, but occasionally I like to go beyond the mere global, and go, er, universal! Take a look at this footage, taken today and speeded up by 5 times, of a freight pod called Dragon disembarking with over a 1,000 lbs of stuff ready to take back to earth.

Impressive stuff. To me, anyway.

Saturday 20 October 2012

Iran: a view through Iranian eyes


The Washington Post have just carried this video by Chicago film-maker Cyrus Dowlatshahi called "Beautiful Iran". WaPo carry it as what they call a "supplement" to the sound and fury that they corrrectly predict the forthcoming presidential debate on foreign policy will generate on the subject.

Outside the US we're fortunte enough to look at these things with perhaps a longer lens, with no immediate election or decision facing us. But we're still also fed the same diet of commentary on the country. Without doubt the regime is rightly condemned for what they do to their own people, such as Neda Agha-Soltan in 2009, but this film to my mind gives us a fleeting glimpse into who those people are and what the world looks like to them.

Give it a go.

Friday 19 October 2012

Liberia: warlords or peacemakers?



Watch this video to get a sense of where a country feted by the UN and others as being the future of African post conflict statehood is at. And prepare to be shocked. You're about to hear directly from women forced into prostitution and of  children forced to fight in a civil war that was so apocolyptic it is known as world war three by Liberians themselves.

I visited Liberia at the end of 2008 and travelled around the rural areas that seemed yet to feel any sense of progress after the war had finished. While negotiating various unofficial roadblocks it appeared the UN force in the country simply hunkered down behind their sandbags and counted the days till they could leave. I remember the bizarre sight of a Bangladeshi military camp right in the middle of one of the poorest countries in West Africa, who had erected a massive billboard proclaiming that Bangladesh was ripe for inward investment.

Banga County, Liberia
Not sure how many of the subsistence farmers went for that one.

I also, on the other hand, remember interviewing a pastor in Nimba County who was the chair of a local radio station dedicated to broadcasting news to the local population both in Liberia and in the refugee camps over the border in Guinea. He told me that large numbers of his swelling congregation were newly returned refugees and that they had come back because of what he had been able to tell them over the radio, about their rights in the post-war Liberia, and how land disputes, between them and the people who had moved on to their land after they'd fled, would be settled. He had genuine hope for the future and was one of the many inspiring people who quietly do transformative work without asking for any kind of recognition.

So what's the point of this post? Two reasons.

First off it's a timely reminder to all of us currently engaged in detailed policy debates that can often seem very abstract and impenetrable to anyone that doesn't speak our brand of development or peacebuilding jargon, to remember it's ultimately all about people.

Kids in Nimba County, Liberia
Take the young woman forced in to prostitution interviewed on the video, clearly under the influence of heroin to numb the pain of what she is having to do to earn money, who says she wants to open her beautician business. She has her certificate of education and doesn't understand why she's still in the brothel.

Is her voice heard in all of our complex policy papers, and position statements? If we can't answer that question straight away, then we have a problem. I'm not sure everything I write gives her a voice, and I bet I'm not the only one.

Which brings me to the second point. It's too easy to be taken in by alluring statistics and narratives about just how much progress Liberia and countries like it has made. One of the most depressing scenes on this video is the sight of the beach in West Point Monrovia, which doubles as as a mass latrine.

While I was in New York last month I met a number of Liberian civil society colleagues who told me what they thought of what their President, lauded around the world as the only democratically elected female leader in Africa, had done. And it wasn't quite as complimentary. 

Fishtown, SE Liberia: Beautiful, but shortly after this shot I sought refuge in a UN camp!
The UN Mission in Liberia, UNMIL, is set to withdraw soon. You have to hope that the former warlords interviewed in this remarkable film do not return to their previous occupations. What will play a large part in ensuring they don't is the building up of alternative voices for peace, outside the ranks of the Government and among people like that pastor, working with newly returned refugees to nudge people away from confrontation with each other.

That's what builds resilience - the ability to manage internal conflict and external shocks without the use of violence. So quite important, then, that we start to agree among ourselves what this resilience thing is actually all about.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Video: Assad's bombs

Here's a video that Al-Jazeera just posted up on Twitter - recorded only hours ago from Latakia in Syria it features a man investigating a bomb, which he says is TNT, which has failed to completely explode.

He takes it apart and picks out heavy screws, and even sheets of metal that were packed inside the casing ready to act as shrapnel. The intent was to tear people apart. Kill them and maim them.

Such is the nature of war. The video doesn't tell us anything we didn't know but it is, perhaps, a welcome reality check on what people are facing right now.

Monday 15 October 2012

Conflict in the UK

What's conflict, then? Is it war between two sets of uniformed militaries? Or is it something more complex.

Worth listening to these lyrics for a reality check of how life looks to a young mixed race man in Britain today - and then reflecting on just how far there is to go before we can begin to say to the rest of the world that we have genuinely achieved equality and dealt with our own conflicts.

Arise, EU: Nobel Peace Prize



Much sound, fury and ridicule has characterised the British response to the decision by the Nobel Peace Prize committee to award this year’s gong to the European Union. The Committee singled out the "EU's contribution for over six decades to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe" in its announcement last week, which seemed to surprise the EU more than anyone else. A rushed morning press conference (above) saw a somewhat ruffled President Barroso confess to having been taken completely by surprise, before he smoothed himself down and was professing himself not to have been surprised at all by the evening's television news schedules.

It’s easy to mock. Even easier when you have comic characters to point at, as the current tussle between Barroso and Van Rompuy to collect the prize will illustrate.

And all too easy to find fault with the rationale, either by pointing to the current descent into unrest being experienced in Greece, itself provoked by the ignoring of its own rules by the Eurozone in admitting politically expedient but non-convergent economies, or by referring to the inability of the EU to do anything meaningful to stop the bloodshed in the Balkans without US assistance.

But is that really the whole picture? My own reaction to the announcement, coming hard on the heels of the award to President Obama just two years ago, was to join the chorus of disapproval. But thinking about it during the day, perhaps as President Barroso smoothed down his best suit to pitch for the chance to collect the prize, I found myself recanting.

The Committee said it valued the stabilising part played by the EU that "has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace". The work of the EU, it argued, represents "fraternity between nations", and amounts to a form of the "peace congresses" to which Alfred Nobel referred as criteria for the Peace Prize in his 1895 will.

The big picture here, surely, is that the European Coal and Steel Community effectively locked France and Germany together and made renewed conflict a remote prospect. You needed coal and steel to make guns and armies and if you depend on each other for even that basic ability, well, best to make the marriage work.

It’s been a rocky marriage but it’s survived. And there is no union like it anywhere else in the world. Not many political projects stand the test of six decades, and none have faced the scale of the challenges that have been thrown at it over the years, from German reunification and the end of the Cold War to the present economic crisis. And there hasn’t, after all, been another general European war.

Perhaps the message from Norway, itself not a member of course, is simply to take care, in facing the biggest and potentially the most terminal challenge to date. You never quite realise what you have till it’s gone.

Wednesday 10 October 2012

New ad campaign as food price shock looms



Water is Life has released a new fundraising video that does two things really well - first it powerfully makes the case for supporting the world's poorest by contrasting the scale of problems faced by them to those in the developed world, and secondly it manages to do this without robbing these people of their human dignity as certain other NGO fundraising campaigns do all too often.

No pictures of large eyed children and poor people looking up at the camera with food bowls here, simply people who are living in Haiti and therefore affected by both extreme poverty and the aftermath of a natural disaster making their point in a way that is striking and hard to ignore. These are also people who were right royally let down by the international response to their plight in 2010.  So the utter disdain of the woman that echoes the complaint about blocked wifi, turning her head as she does so, for me says it all.

A lesson worth learning in here for global civil society, then, as they seek to raise funds and make the case for what they do. It reminds me of a phrase the disability movement in the UK use: "nothing about us without us", which might be a useful rule of thumb for the PR departments of international NGOs.

And all this comes as ominious warnings have started to surface about a looming food price spike which is likely to affect those with least ability to manage the consequences. CNBC has reported that the recent downward trend in food prices is set to end, possibly in Asia first, and due in large part to volatile changes in climate affecting yields of staple crops, rice being the obvious one.

But the problem won't all be down to climate change, a bigger part of the picture is the use of formerly agricultural land to produce bio-fuels, driven in large part by the European Union and United States. The Guardian reported last month that we have the extraordinary position of the EU contributing to global instability by pursuing targets that are supposed to reduce global instability by targetting carbon emissions - and being warned to stop by the Chief Executive of a major corporation, as opposed to, say, a green NGO.

Which all makes the need to get some coherent action around the sustainable development agenda arising out of the Rio+20 conference ever more pressing. If we don't see that, then those people back in Haiti are going to have an awful lot more to worry about than their wifi connection. 

Monday 1 October 2012

UN General Assembly: View from the sidelines

Ahmadinejad protest
Last week Manhattan was in lockdown. The 193 member states of the United Nations General Assembly were in town, each bringing delegations that in some cases took a whole fleet of cars to move around. Disgruntled New Yorkers tried to get on with their lives as jumpy police officers tried to keep the traffic moving, banging on bonnets where necessary.

Inside the hall a succession of leaders gave speeches that were, for the most part, largely unreported except in their own countries. Exceptions included Obama and, of course, the Iranian President Ahmadinejad, fresh from a TV interview, who provoked the usual midtown demonstration in protest at his widely reviled views on the Holocaust and actions against his own people. If you read the papers that's probably all you heard about.

I was there, along with a host of other NGOs, to try to contribute to the process kick started by the Secretary General with the formation of a High Level Panel of world leaders to look at what will come after the expiry of the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.

International Alert, for whom I work, is currently co-ordinating global civil society input into the UN thematic consultation on conflict, fragility and disaster which will feed into the work of the world leaders, along with eight other consultations. This is as part of the Beyond2015 coalition.

In recent months there has been some welcome momentum building behind the idea that, in order to “do development” effectively, you have to “do the politics” first. That’s if by ‘development’ we are talking about long term progress that removes the need for aid altogether. And that’s if by ‘the politics’ we mean navigating the complex factors that shape every country, including our own.

You might think that’s common sense, but it’s not what the MDGs ended up doing. And the result for those countries experiencing armed conflict or the threat of it, is that none of them have ended up achieving a single MDG goal. So addressing the politics – that is to say the relationship that people have with their governments at all levels - is key. In UN jargon this ends up being called “Governance”.

Mark Malloch-Brown
That’s a conclusion already reached by the World Bank, and other elements of the UN, while key donors such as the UK have also pledged to address these factors directly from now on. Speaking to me earlier that week at the Liberal Democrat party conference in Brighton a chief architect of the MDGs, former UN Deputy Secretary-General Mark Malloch-Brown, also publicly acknowledged that this had been a weakness. He said this: “…if, as a global community, we can tackle governance it could be the single biggest breakthrough of MDGs Mark II”. Exciting stuff.

So it was a bit worrying a day later in New York to hear the EU Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs say, in his opening remarks at a high level side event, that what we needed was more of the same. In fact Commissioner Piebalgs said that one of the biggest strengths of the MDGs had been their simplicity, adding that this was important for people back home in his country of Latvia who should be covered in the next framework along with every other country, to understand them. They had been “a good start”, he said uninspiringly.

Commissioner Piebalgs
This strikes me as being wrong on two levels. Firstly, and apart from the common sense angle, there is now a large body of evidence that suggests trying to over simplify your interventions in what are inherently complex situations doesn’t work. And it works the least for the poorest and most vulnerable people. The World Bank estimates that there are 1.5 billion people who live in countries affected by conflict, which is quite a lot of people to let down.

Secondly, and I say this as a former would-be politician, it’s just plain lazy. Lazy because it’s coming from people who are, as politicians, supposed to be good communicators and able to lead people with the power of their arguments. Are they really saying that what we need is simplicity because the average person on the street is incapable of understanding anything else? It seems some of them are.


It was therefore reassuring that the Swedish Minister for International Development Gunilla Carlsson, speaking at the same meeting, was quick to respond. No, business as usual was not an option, she said bluntly. She argued passionately that the continued exclusion of women from positions of influence in their own countries, and the exponential rise in sexual violence they suffered in areas of conflict had to be challenged effectively. And she said that to ignore the role of governance would lead to an unacceptably poor return and called for a fundamental rethink. Phew.

Press conference
Speaking later, after the first meeting of the High Level Panel of which Mr Piebalgs and Ms Carlsson are both members, the three co-chairs of the Panel gave a press conference. David Cameron, British Prime Minister, described what he calls the “golden thread” of the absence of corruption and conflict being key to building strong governments with people at the heart of them. Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf returned to the theme of women and argued strongly that their role was key as was the role of the private sector in driving growth and in time replacing the need for aid. President Yudhoyono of Indoenesia concentrated on the need to ensure the process itself was open, participatory and transparent.

All good stuff, and it was only mildly obscured by the British press embarassing themselves with questions about a British politicians run-in with a policeman to Cameron, and a very awkward moment for the Indonesian President.

An important strand in their work is the need to build on the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States which arose from a process involving donors, civil society and the g7+ group of nations, all of whom have experienced conflict. That process led to a number of conclusions which sign-post how we might collectively address the issue of governance, and achieve genuinely long-term sustainable development. Five key goals were identified, and will be pursued in the coming years in a number of pilot projects. Those goals are legitimate politics, justice, security, economic foundations and revenues and services.

G7+ Ministers of fragile states, plus partners - April 2012
Fine words, you might think, but at a side event in New York Lancedell Mathews, Executive Director of the New African Research and Development Agency and a member of the civil society group lobbying from the perspective of conflict affected states, set out clearly why they were much more than that:
“The MDGS do not capture the complexity of development work in fragile areas whereby processes are as important as outcomes. That is precisely what the New Deal is trying to achieve: through focusing on 5 very sound Peace and State building Goals, countries will find their ways to build resilient societies, with accountable governments responsive to people’s needs and providing them with security, justice, social services and a chance to be included in decision-making processes. For that to happen, we need all stakeholders - governments, donors, international partners and civil society – to work together, in democratically-owned processes, to create the healthy state-society relations that must underpin peace”.
Including people in politics. Building resilience against shocks. Democratically owned processes that make the citizen and the government reliant on each other. We might be back to common sense here, but these are voices from those countries most affected who are arguing that these are the gaps that need to be filled.And the work has already begun to think about how we go about measuring that.

It’s a bit more complicated than some politicians might like to admit, but if we’re to see a post-2015 framework that stands a chance of genuinely achieving progress for people living in the shadow both of poverty and of violence then I’m afraid they’re just going to have to work that little bit harder.

Saturday 8 September 2012

UK Aid: Stick or twist?


New broom: Justine Greening MP
David Cameron arrived back at his desk after a summer break dominated by a rising chorus of criticism from his own side that he just wasn’t up to it. Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and erstwhile rival for the top job in a few short years, had called for Cameron to “stop pussyfooting around”. Nadine Dorries, an oft-mocked MP but nevertheless representing a strong right of centre faction in the party expressed fury that the Government was not Conservative enough and out of touch with ordinary people, a malaise she blamed on the fact that Cameron and his ally Chancellor George Osborne were both “rich posh boys”. While Peter Bone, representing the Right-of-Right faction who call themselves the Cornerstone Group, even speculated about who might take over in the event of David Cameron’s death. A tad bizarrely, perhaps.

Put that alongside the disastrous unravelling of the budget in recent months and a series of badly handled policy gaffes and it was all getting a bit hard going for this Government.

Last week’s re-shuffle, then, was intended to put a spark back into the administration and seize back the initiative from an Opposition Labour Party that was coasting along without having to do much at all, really. It seems to have succeeded, according to the punditocracy

But for the international development sector it has put a giant cat amongst a group of frankly terrified pigeons.

Late on Monday afternoon I received a part-typed part-handwritten letter from Andrew Mitchell, the departing Secretary of State, in which he paid tribute to the work of International Alert, for whom I work.

Signing off personally with best wishes for the future he had underlined words for effect and it spoke volumes about him, that he would take the time to draft such a letter in the final hours of his tenure instead of handing it to his officials. That was why the development sector generally liked Andrew Mitchell – he was approachable, and thoroughly understood our work, having taken care to use his time in Opposition to do so.

He was also very tough and single minded in pursuit of value for taxpayers money, introducing independent scrutiny of his own Department's effectiveness including its' funding of NGOs, and did not suffer fools gladly. But he inspired confidence and even warmth among many.

We had to wait hours, then a day, for his replacement to be unveiled as she apparently argued vehemently against the idea. After an eternity entered stage left Justine Greening, the former Secretary of State for Transport.

At a meeting later that week well over thirty development NGOs, who happened to be meeting anyway, had a discussion about who she was and what she might be like. It soon transpired that nobody knew very much but from what we did know there seemed to be a sense that Ms Greening would be constructive and positively disposed to her new brief.

The very next day brought a story in the Times newspaper that painted a very different picture. She had argued against the job, it claimed, and did not regard the work of the Department for International Development very highly. This sent the Oppositon Labour Campaign for International Development into a spin, quite literally, as they issued dire warnings of what all of this meant for aid.

I asked the journalist, Sam Coates, why she was claiming things in the spin she put on her article, such as the fact that Ms Greening wants to end the ringfencing of development spending, that did not appear in the article itself. She refused to answer.

answer there came none
But this week-end brought more. The Sun, Daily Mail and Express newspapers, all of which represent the Peter Bone outlook on the world, joined the chorus of approval for what they expect – and want – to be cuts to the UK aid budget - or the "foreign aid madness" as the Express calls it. 

An iron law of British political life is never to believe what you read in newspapers. We have a sick press in this country that is currently being investigated by the police and even a High Court Judge, after all. So all of this is likely to be guesswork and wishful thinking.

But if Ms Greening is of the Peter Bone persuasion when it comes to aid it may give some pause for thought to the sector as a whole. He was, after all, the man who personally intervened to block a piece of legislation that would have guaranteed UK aid spending to be maintained at 0.7% of Gross Domestic Product only months ago.

Whether that target is the right thing to be doing anyway is an argument for another article, but for the time being the anxiety levels of those same NGOs, as they scan the Sunday papers for any signs of what the new Secretary of State really thinks, and where she might take UK policy, is likely to remain sky high.