Wednesday 18 July 2012

UK MDG Inquiry: careful what you wish for

House of Commons, UK Parliament
The International Development Select Committee of the UK Parliament has announced a formal inquiry into the Millenium Development Goals.

It is asking questions about how well they have worked and what that might tell us about the sort of goals the world should commit to after the MDGs expire in 2015.

Pencils are being sharpened by lobbyists as we speak.

The Committee is a powerful one in the UK, and has recently been made even more powerful by the British Government, who ensured that a new body called the Independent Commission on Aid Impact (ICAI) reports to it. The Government is required by law to respond to every recommendation the Committee makes, giving its reasons, which makes it a strong part of the checks and balances of the system.

Several members of the Committee have told me that this Inquiry was timed to coincide with the setting up of the High Level Panel announced by Ban Ki-Moon recently, which will be joint chaired by British Prime Minister David Cameron and his counterparts from Liberia and Indonesia. Put that together with the leading role among donors that the British Department for International Development (DFID) occupies and you begin to see that this Inquiry may well end up being very influential indeed, way beyond the borders of the UK.

So it's important. That much we can all agree on. But what should we tell them about how well or otherwise the MDGs have done? That much, I suspect, we can't.

The MPs, in the questions they are asking for people's views on, are basically asking whether the system of MDGs works or not. In other words should we have another set of globally agreed targets that everyone has to follow by a deadline. Or, if they haven't worked, is there another way?

Surely the answer is that despite some remarkable strides forward in health and primary education, they have not worked, certainly not in the way and to the extent they were intended to. And that this is because a set of quantitative targets that you measure by counting things works when you are building hospitals, roads or schools but it does not work when you are trying to promote rights, political inclusion and an economy in which everyone has the opportunity to participate. That is why in those areas where rights, political inclusion and equity are in short supply or non-existent, the least progress has been made. The World Bank has found that no conflict affected country has met a single MDG, nor will they. Bad luck for the 1.5 billion people who live in them.

The problem is that civil society in the UK and apparently across the rest of the "Northern" world as well, has a schizophrenic approach to that conundrum. The dominant message coming out of NGOs in the UK at the moment is aimed at pressurising the UK Government to enshrine a committment to give a minimum of 0.7% GDP in overseas development assistance. Being polite this is not the most astute politics at a time when the UK has just entered a double dip recession and people are losing their jobs.

There is an argument to be had about whether you should really measure your effectiveness when it comes to aid against what you put in rather than what it actually delivers, but also consider for a moment what that advocacy message implies to the outside world: that the main priority of civil society is a measure that centres on GDP - precisely the approach which led to the definition of a set of economist-designed goals that address the things you can count and touch but ignore the things you can't - but which, in the long term, are essential to genuinely turning things around.

Oxfam, among others, now refute this approach and argue for a much wider concept of what "growth" actually means. When I last gave evidence to the Committee they were interested in exploring not only the new things we should be measuring but over what sort of timescales they should be measured - did we ever really expect to halve world poverty in 15 years? 

So isn't this actually an opportunity instead to have a more meaningful conversation about what really works?

That would mean publicly accepting that development is not an economists' project that can be measured in unit cost of input or GDP rate of output but rather a political intervention in the affairs of other people's countries, with their consent, with a view to changing those politics for the better. I just felt awkward even typing that sentence becasue of the colonial overtones to it, which is the same reason why donor countries have also been reluctant to talk about it too. But if you do accept that argument, the focus on 0.7% or GDP starts to look strange.

And with the global economy in flux, the emergence of very different power relationships between the old "North" and "South" than were in place at the time the MDGs were conceived in 2000 and the rise in concern over environmental issues means that what emerges after 2015 is wide open for debate. There are at the moment no limits as to where that conversation might go and in what forums it might take place, or even if it ends up with anything after 2015 at all. But if civil society can't move on from it's fixation with targets like 0.7% they won't be a part of the main conversation.

Friday 13 July 2012

What a wonderful world

Working in development and peacebuilding I often get the sense sitting in what seem like endless meetings, drafting reports or delving into complex tomes that we begin to miss the human dimension of what it is we do and why.

And possibly also that we don't allow enough emotion or values into the way we do it - logical frameworks so beloved of donor agencies tend to set things out, well, logically but I can't help feeling robbed of my humanity after having gone over one in any detail.

So here's a cure - a simply incredible video from the International Space Station. Watch it with headphones if you like music and click it onto full screen to get the full benefit. As you fly around the beautiful globe below look out for the northern lights, for lightening flashes far below and the constellations of stars that surround you.

What a wonderful world. Let's not break it.

Tuesday 10 July 2012

Thomas Lubanga: A small victory for justice

Lubanga at the ICC
What do you do with someone who is responsible for children being kidnapped, often after having been made to commit atrocities against their own families, up to and including killing them, and for forcing them either to fight on front lines or to serve as sexual slaves?

The answer, according to the International Criminal Court today, is lock them up for fourteen years. Such was the fate of Thomas Lubanga, a warlord who has become a symbol of everything that is wrong about the Democratic Republic of Congo, but also a man who's fate seems to offer some hope that people like him may one day have to answer for their deeds.

As the English judge calmly read out the sentence today, amid scenes of civilised calm, and as Mr Lubanga stared at the screens in front of him it all seemed a world away from the chaos of eastern DRC. He will no doubt serve his sentence, the 8 years that remains of it after time on remand is taken into account, in similarly calm surroundings before retiring to a villa somewhere pleasant in Europe.

OK I made that last bit up, but I wouldn't be surprised.

But to me the case asks deeper questions about what on earth you try to do about applying justice to environments in which the most bestial and inhuman acts are commonplace. It seems like a straightforward issue if you talk to human rights advocates - find these people, lock them up and hold them up as an example and a deterrent. And it's tempting to go along with that.

But if you're a warlord hearing that, and you know that those women your men raped last night when they ransacked that village on your orders could easily be the witnesses that lead to you being hunted down and imprisoned. Well, you might just go back and finish them off. And make sure future victims meet the same fate too.

It's a horrible dilemma.

I sat next to the UK Director of Human Rights Watch David Meopham and gave evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee of the UK Parliament on this subject a few months ago. He was very clear about one such warlord, Bosco Ntaganda, who he said needed to be arrested immediately. He had numerous outstanding arrrest warrants to his name and it was a disgrace he was still marauding around the DRC, he said.

Well, they did go after him after DRC President Kabila gave the nod. The only problem was that Mr Ntaganda's Militia, named M23, has thus far routed the DRC Armed Forces at every turn, forcing them to flee over the border to Uganda.

Yes, that's the official DRC Army, fleeeing to another country for protection. Having seen them up close when I was last in DRC, I am not surprised.They are usually pawns in a bigger regional game which involves the surrounding countries on DRC's eastern borders.

Ntaganda: Not on the run, on the march
Seeing this, the UN forces in that region are now anticipating an assault by Ntaganda on Goma, the provincial capital, which would provoke both a humanitarian crisis with the predictable columns of refugees with nowhere to go and a national crisis that could conceivably lead to a real challenge to the DRC Government as a whole. The last two Governments of that massive country have been toppled by forces marching from the East. 

So back to the question of justice.

Lubanga will do his 8 years and not really suffer much. Ntaganda will almost certainly not be caught, at least for the foreseeable future. In a situation where Lubanga stands out for being the exception that proves the rule that there really is almost complete impunity in that part of the world, is it really worth the cost in lives to try to apply justice to these people before you have the capacity to actually do it?

No easy answer. But it's a question worth asking, even if you feel horrendously guilty in doing so.

Friday 6 July 2012

Post-2015: The UN should know better

From Rio+20 we learn that the SDGs may supplant the MDGs but that the High Level Panel needs to clarify how the Global Conversation will contribute to them.

Confused? Everybody is, but few readily admit it. The ferment of the international development community currently resembles a giant boiling cauldron, sizzling with acronyms and spiced with speculation. Large bubbles emerge below the steam and periodically burst, coughing out of the plasma another possibility of what the world might look like after the fabled date of 2015 and sends everyone scurrying to their keyboards to bash out a policy response, and consult with their consortia.

As Skype calls span the world, carrying the anxious conversations of thousands in civil society, it’s sometimes worth sitting back and surveying the scene, if only for the comedy value. It reminds me of Lance Corporal Jones of the British sit-com Dad's Army who used to run around at times of crisis crying "don't panic"!
Civil Society engages with the post 2015 agenda
What – on earth – am I talking about?

For the last few months I have been looking into what’s going on between now and the time that the Millennium Development Goals expire, in 2015. Not long now, and the tension is mounting, it seems.

The MDGs were agreed at the turn of the century and were conceived in a very different world. 9/11 was still 18 months away and Afghanistan was a little thought of country somewhere north of Pakistan for most people. Iraq hadn’t happened and the world had just about recovered from the 1997-1998 financial crisis two years before with the prospect of a 2008 style crash unthinkable.

In 2005 we had the Make Poverty History campaign with tens of thousands lining the streets and cramming into rock concerts designed to force the recalcitrant G8 leaders, the rulers of the world it seemed, to commit to urgent action to do just that. Commit large enough sums of money and those babies that kept dying as Bono clicked his fingers on the stage to illustrate the mortality rate would simply stop dying. People would be fed. And housed. And clothed. And happy.

Bono clicked, babies died
Now those same political leaders are no longer the leaders of the world and the G20, created alongside the Financial Stability Forum to stabilise the world after the 1998 crisis, is now the forum for the great and powerful.

Except even they seem hamstrung when it comes to agreeing what to do about the current crisis contracting the world.

Put that together with an American election that might return a Republican administration deeply suspicious of the idea of aid as a principle, and the ongoing turmoil that threatens the very existence of one of the world’s biggest economic blocs in the form of the Eurozone, and you have what might be considered a somewhat difficult environment in which to decide how best to donate taxpayers money to end poverty in poor places that voters have never heard of.

The response, thus far, seems to be a complete lack of coherence from those who should know much, much better. The Rio+20 conference, so-called since it took place two decades after its 1992 predecessor, was ostensibly about the environment but was actually an attempt to redefine the global consensus on what development should actually be all about. Led by countries like Colombia, Guatemala and Brazil this was an attempt to define the next generation of what international development should look like. MDGs 2.0, if you like.

It failed. 

We were left with the apparent establishment of an Intergovernmental Group of 30 countries who will, somehow and at a timescale not yet published, define the content of Sustainable Development Goals that aim to establish both a social floor below which no citizen of the world should be expected to live (think more detail than a dollar a day but along those lines) and an environmental ceiling above which it would be hazardous for economic growth to stray (so growth that doesn’t over-use or deplete natural resources)

Rio+20: Home-time prompted wild celebrations
That’s one process.

The second is the process started under the auspices of the UN Secretary General which is about considering a successor to the MDGs themselves. In recent months this strand has seen an explosion of activity. Roundtables, thematic consultations, regional consultations and numerous reports have been flooding out of the UN system and reverberating around the world, themselves provoking even more consultations from the various cogs of the global governance system as they consider how to play their hand. I am currently assisting in a response to a European Commission consultation, for example.

Consultation is good. It’s good to talk. But where are all of these conversations headed and how will what people have said they want be taken into account, pulled together, made whole?

Ah, says the UN, that’s the job of the High Level Panel of world leaders jointly chaired by British Prime Minister David Cameron, Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Indonesia’s President Yudhoyono. Sounds good – northern leaders uniting with their southern brethren in a common endeavour to reshape the world for the common good.

High Level Panel
Except that there are still – months after the panel was launched – no terms of reference, no clarity on how they will work and even for how long the panel will last.

So we have, apparently, two global processes which are both concerned with basically the same set of issues but with competing ideas of how those issues should be tackled. They both involve the same set of governments around the world – donors and donees – and will in both cases be subject to the vagaries of the global power games that always accompany any such process.

In other words we are in an environment it would be hard to imagine being any tougher for this sort of debate to take place, politically never mind economically, and what is the UN system allowing to happen? For everyone to be divided into two competing camps consisting of the same people.

What could possibly go wrong?

Tuesday 3 July 2012

UN votes on Arms Trade Treaty

Negotiations on an Arms Trade Treaty began at the UN this week and will run for four weeks. The treaty aims to limit the unregulated flow of arms, mainly small arms, which are then used by either state or non state groups - usually against civilians. 

The UK Government is supporting the initiative with Alistair Burt of the Foreign Office attending the meetings in New York this week. He said this
"The unregulated trade in conventional arms feeds conflict and undermines peace and security. Since 2006, the UK has been at the front of a global effort to introduce more effective and coherent international regulation of that trade."
Good stuff, but ti's worth remembering that David Cameron was caught flat footed by the Arab Spring when it first burst into the open. While people protested in th streets of North Africa our Prime Minister was in the Middle East, with arms exporters. 

And the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, CAAT, points out that the UK Government has been quick to seal new arms deals with the new regimes now in place, and continue contracts with those such as Saudi Arabia who remain. 

Kaye Stearman of Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) said:
"..BIS figures show that the UK government is happy to approve arms exports to the same governments who abuse and suppress human rights. It's time to end the double standards and stop selling weapons to these authoritarian and repressive regimes".
Having said that the UK Government is taking a positive stand, and you have to hope that the treaty that emerges stands the test of regimes, including likely signatories to it, who will subsequently do everything they can to flout it. It's part of the answer, but very far from being the only one. No silver bullet here.

Monday 2 July 2012

China in Africa: pure motives?

There is a new narrative about China's ever growing appetite for investment in Africa, and it's one that is proving to be very challenging, and provocative, for those in the West who view the continent through the prism of poverty.

Dambisa Moyo, a high flying Zambian and one time World Bank official, regards aid as dead. Not good enough, she argues, that aid takes little account of the sometimes venal regimes to which that aid is given nor the fact that it is the wrong type of aid to stimulate a genuinely diverse economy capable of competing in the world.

That book alone made Moyo her name as an author and you can argue the merits of the debate one way or another. But her latest book, called “Winner Take All: China’s Race for Resources and What It Means for the World” and which she is vigorously promoting in broadcast studios across the world at the moment, makes the case that China's transformative presence in Africa is a thoroughly good thing - a "boon for Africa" as she puts it in this NY Times op-ed.

To those worried about power games, seeing the trend as evidence of a power grab from the East, she says this: "Despite all the scaremongering, China’s motives for investing in Africa are actually quite pure". And to those who argue that China is exploiting people she points out that this may result in African citizens asking pointed questions of their own Governnments, which is no bad thing.

Moyo often neutralises criticism of her positions by emphasising that she is arguing from an African standpoint. That is a powerful dampener and is the same one responsible for the reluctance of many Western Governments to talk about politics and freedoms when they design and donate their aid, anticipating the charge of neo-colonialism.

But some are unimpressed with this latest foray by Moyo, including Oxford Analytica's Jolyon Ford who wrote his own Op-Ed critiquing that of Moyo on He regards Moyo's analysis as at best simplistic and at worst missing a genuine opportunity to subject the role of China to a thoroughgoing assessment.

Things are more complex, says Ford, and questions why an economist of Moyo's standing chose not to address whether or not China's economic investments in Africa would result in genuinely diverse African economic growth. He asks a whole series of other questions including the extent to which local jobs are being created (given China's reputation for importing workers along with their wealth) and whether or not Africa has swapped indebtedness to Western donors to greater chains of debt to Chinese creditors.

For my own perspective I've been bemused by Moyo's other major claim in her latest book, which is that there are likely to be wars over resources. Some might say wars over resources have been going on on a very grand scale for some considerable time, athough in fairness she is simply saying there will be more. Given the failure of the Rio+20 conference to take any meaningful action on addressing issues such as climate change she probably has a point, but perhaps makes it clumsily.

Moyo burst on to the scene with Dead Aid and did so with much backing from African opinion formers themselves. But it appears her latest argument on China as being the next best thing for the continent is under real scrutiny, including from African sources, and many are finding it wanting.