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.