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.

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