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.