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.

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