Tuesday 22 January 2013

UK Parliament on Post-2015: A missed opportunity

The International Development Select Committee, which scrutinises the Department for International Development (DFID), has issued a long awaited report on the post 2015 agenda. And, frankly, it is a disappointing call to regress to the bad old days of the poorest and most vulnerable being left behind.

The post-2015 debate is about what replaces the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Those countries furthest behind achieving those goals are the ones experiencing armed conflict or emerging from war. It is unlikely any of them will achieve a single MDG.

The reason why, according to Governments and civil society in many of those countries, is the way that the international aid system works, and the fact that the MDGs which the system is geared towards do not address issues around conflict and fragility (or other critical issues such as human rights.)

You may think it common sense that progress against poverty would struggle in situations where the Government is shattered by the legacy of war, corruption is endemic and sections of the population remain subject to routine discrimination and human rights abuses. And you’d be right.

Towards the end of its life the Labour government published a White Paper in 2009 that highlighted conflict, the need to address the role of power and politics, along with corruption, as an obstacle to achieving progress against poverty. In Opposition, both Conservative and Liberal Democrats also emphasised the importance of addressing the conflict issue in development. In Coalition government, they developed new and innovative policies such as Building Stability Overseas (BSOS) while reforming DFID to be in a position to draw on a cadre of conflict and fragility expertise when designing its programmes in unstable areas.

World Development Report: business as usual "not an option"
 All of this new thinking was backed up by the definitive 2011 World Development Report produced by the World Bank, hitherto the lead backer of the MDG approach. This report was in depth, evidence based and authoritative, concluding that business as usual was simply not an option if the 1.5 billion people living in the shadow of violence were themselves to be lifted out of poverty.

Indeed, some of those countries themselves have already fashioned a new way of working, not wanting to wait until 2015, which is called the New Deal for Fragile and Conflict Affected States. In short, they have already recognised that the approach taken by the MDGs does not work, and have designed an alternative. Here’s how they describe themselves:
“The goal of the g7+ is to stop conflict, build nations and eradicate poverty through innovative development strategies, harmonized to the country context, aligned to the national agenda and led by the State and its People”.
So lots of new thinking, evidence based and already being pioneered by people themselves in countries at the bottom of the MDG league such as South Sudan, Somalia and Liberia. You’d think at least some of that might feature in a report on the post 2015 debate.

Yet the Select Committee report essentially calls for a return to a conflict insensitive model of development and, as if you can support development effectively while a country is unstable or ridden with violent conflict, places a premium on simple messaging to retain public support. You assume it is the public of donor countries they are referring to, since public opinion of the way in which the aid system works in many parts of Africa and Asia is far from complimentary and is clear on the need of ordinary people for security.

The report isn’t all bad.

Not surprisingly, it supports the Prime Minister’s declared ambition to eliminate extreme poverty, and echoes the call many others have made for an agenda of environmentally sustainable development.

The Committee offers useful recommendations on the need to disaggregate data collection to avoid persistent local poverty being masked by rapid advances elsewhere, and on the importance of job creation which they argue warrants explicit reference as a goal.

And they make a cogent argument for clarity on the opaque inter-governmental process ahead for deciding on the new development framework, and suggest some flexibility on timescales to be built in with the proposal for 5 yearly checks on progress.

An inconvenient factor
Yet in missing the big picture, and ignoring the references to the experience in conflict affected states that were contained in at least five separate submissions to their Inquiry, the Committee struggles to get to grips with the major factors preventing progress being made for so many people.

This is most evident in their section on Governance. Here, they chide the Prime Minister for having given, they claim, two different definitions of his “Golden Thread” theory, which he has defined repeatedly as being about “stable government, lack of corruption, human rights, the rule of law [and] transparent information.” They point out that in a different speech he erred by quoting “access to markets, property rights [and] private sector investment.”

Ignoring the fact that access to markets and property rights are manifestations of stable government and the rule of law, the Committee then goes on to suggest three vaguely defined additions to the concept: empowerment, fairness and collectivity.

It does not explain what it means by any of these concepts (empowering who? Fairness on what? Collectivity of whom?), just suggests them as useful additions. By contrast they have nothing to say about political participation of citizens outside of election time, nothing about the role of legitimate institutions building democratic as well as conflict resolving capacity and nothing about the inclusion of marginalised groups.

At the heart of this missed opportunity the Committee seems to understand “governance” mainly in terms of service delivery: health care, education and so on. Nobody would dispute the importance of effective public services, but in ignoring the pioneering work in refashioning approaches to development which first seek to understand conflict and then design ways in which jointly owned interventions can actually generate progress without risking harm, the Committee has issued a throwback and retrograde report which predates all of that, teleporting us back to the middle of the last decade.

And in doing so, it has done us all a disservice, not least the poorest and most vulnerable who depend on us learning from past mistakes.

Saturday 19 January 2013

Ireland: Flags or Fertility?

The last few weeks in Northern Ireland have stirred feelings of dread on both sides of the Irish sea as scenes have played out that all of us hoped had been consigned to the blood soaked pages of the history books.

A vote to lower the Union flag at Belfast City Hall has led to nightly rioting in which tens of policemen and women have been injured and countless families terrorised, including some who have had to flee their homes. The vote reflected the new balance of power in the City Hall, which now has a nationalist majority, albeit slim.

And therein lies the nub of the issue. Is this about a flag or is it about a birthrate?

Northern Ireland is global ground zero for the fetishisation of flags - I remember arriving in Belfast one evening to find Palestinian and Israeli flags fluttering from the same lampposts where previously Union Jacks and Irish Tricolours had once flown. Asking why I was soon told that some Loyalists had liked the idea of an Israeli crackdown on some Palestinian nationalist protestors so had flown the Jewish nations's colours. Immediately this brought the response on the nationalist side of Palestinian solidarity.

So their own conflict was not enough, they needed an infusion from the Middle East.

But is it really what it seems or is there something deeper at play? Specifically it seems to be a recognition that in a province where ethnic politics rules the numbers game is tipping inexorably toward the Catholic population. Northern Ireland, in common with most democratising areas, and unlike regions with established democracies, has an ethnic party system. In other words you vote on the basis of your kin, not the issues.

In that situation, replayed across many post conflict societies, you dont vote on issues but on ethnicity. Because it soon acquires a zero sum game status - your loss is their gain and vice versa - even if you agree with the other sides view on education, health or housing.

When the New York Times interviewed one protestor he said this:

“If we lose this one, we’ll have a united Ireland in 5 or 10 years, and we won’t accept it,” he said. “We’ll die to defend the flag. If we have to, we’ll go back to the graveyards and the jails.”

And that, it seems to me, is what all of this is about. Not a flag, not the City Hall, but a sense among the Unionist population that the tide of history is turning inexorably against them. And they may be right. The question now is whether the structures put in place by the Good Friday Agreement that I remember being signed as snow fell around the Stormont buildings can hold under the strain. I remember well the hopes we had for that, captured for me by the Cranberries at the time.

That agreement stipulated that the majority will would prevail - consent. With a changing population it will not be long before the will of the people changes with it.

And that, perhaps, might explain the venom behind the rocks these past weeks.

Friday 18 January 2013

Being Jewish in Iran

Fascinating short film from France24 in their series on Iran this week, which profiles the large and apparently thriving Jewish community in the country. At one boy's bar mitzvah he is seen talking about his Muslim friends and Muslim diners are seeing mixing with Jewish party goers pouring each other generous portions from a large bottle of very alcoholic wine, judging by the slightly tipsy man carrying the bottle who claims "we've never had any problems"!

I spent much of last year studying Shia Islam and the social movements that have emerged from within it, particularly looking at how they frame their arguments and position themselves within the Shia discourse, in so doing mobilising supporters and resources in pursuit of change.

What became obvious was that the analytical tools we in the West use to try to understand those things fall at the first hurdle because the frameworks we use are based on western assumptions. For example, the assumption that such movements want to seize power at the earliest opportunity – when in fact they may envisage decades of altering society before wanting to do so, seeing themselves as part of a continuum of change lasting centuries. In many ways you could argue the seizure of power by Khomeini was a result more of the implosion of the Pahlavi regime than an active programme on his part to bring it about as soon as possible.

Imam Khomeini: not in a hurry?
Equally, wider theories of Iran’s pursuit of an “arc” of Shia influence across the Middle East, long put forward by some, is quite difficult to sustain when you scrutinise it.

The regime’s tolerance of a Jewish community, right at the heart of the Bazaars of Teheran that swept away the Shah, is also an aspect of the country not widely known, while the fervent nationalism of the Jewish surgeon and parliamentarian in the film runs counter to what a Western narrative might predict.

What all of that tells you, as ever, is that things are not always as they seem. No surprises there. But sometimes we need reminding, and this film is a really fascinating way of doing that.

Thursday 17 January 2013

Journalism, Twitter & Al-Shabaab

Frank Gardner
Earlier this morning I was on a bus trundling up a frozen Uxbridge Road in West London. Nothing unusual there.

But on my phone I was reading a press statement that had just been posted by Al-Shabaab in Somalia, relating to what they claimed was the execution they had just carried out of French hostage Denis Alex.

This is the same Twitter account which posted images of a dead French commando who had taken part in a disastrous raid aimed to rescue Mr Alex, earlier this week.

Half an hour later I saw a tweet come through from Frank Gardner, the BBC's Middle East correspondent, reporting that Al-Shabaab had made this claim. Nothing else and no reference to where he had heard this information. So I pointed this out, with the admittedly juvenile hashtag #redundant, because with the remaining 15 charecters I couldn't make the point I really wanted to make.

Before I had time to send a second pointing out that perhaps the real story was that in the Al-Shabaab statement there is a detailed account of the negotiations the group claims that they had with the French intelligence services, which directly contradicts in some detail that given by the French Government, Mr Gardner replied with the equally juvenile response to the effect that I no longer needed to follow him, then, and promptly blocked me!

In hindsight the hashtag was a bit childish, I shouldn't have used it and actually I have the highest respect for Mr Gardner who is a first class journalist. But I do think there is a valid point to be made about the role of social media and journalisms response to it, which at the moment seems to me to be problematic.

Twitter is limited in two ways: tweets can only ever be snippets and the whole point of it is to talk about the here and now, not anything deeper. Put that with the increasing reliance of the media on the medium as a primary source and you have the beginning, possibly imperceptibly, of a skew of their own coverage in the same directions: increasingly limited in scope and confined to the immediate present. 

Do I believe that Al-Shabaab are telling the truth in their account of the negotiations that took place? No. But then I also don't believe the French Government's version on the same basis that they both have far too many reasons not to give an honest account. Instead of probing that, or perhaps any other angle that goes beyond the fact that Mr Alex was killed, all we got was a "breaking news" tweet that failed even to cite the source. (there was space to do so) When you start to get that from someone as good as Frank Gardner surely there is a problem, including of redundant reporting.

Looking at the growing way in which armed groups are using social media for propaganda and even incitement of others, there is clearly a challenge for Governments. But for the media there is arguably a greater challenge: to avoid the temptation simply to repeat what has been "announced" as if it is some kind of exclusive when it's actually been posted to the world, and perhaps also to look a little bit deeper into the story beyond the here and now instead of being caught up in the social media race to be first.

Correspondents are no longer the sole gateways to information for the rest of the world, but many are in privileged positions of access. Maybe leaving the Twitter-frenzy competition to be "first" with the "breaking news" to the newswires and returning more to explaining than describing would be a good first step.

UPDATE: I've just had an interesting chat with a journalist working in the same field, who asks me back - why should they cite Twitter when they don't cite press releases, emails or phone calls. Which seems like a fair point. They argued that Twitter is now mainstream and don't accept the point I make about skewing coverage ...  which is fair enough, I'm only asking the question!

Saturday 12 January 2013

Here comes the Sun: A Spanish jobcentre

When people look back at the current crisis, they might refer back to this one little episode - a flashmob of musicians who decided to offer a ray of sunshine to the victims of the recession while they sat in a Spanish job centre - as one highlight that showed the grim reality of the situation, but also the humanity with which many bore it. Inspiring.

Sunday 6 January 2013

Conflict through politics: A lesson

The holy grail for peacebuilders is finding means by which conflict can be managed without the use of violence, and the answer to that is some form of politics. Therefore the discipline is essentially one of political science, with our actions guided by a thorough analysis of what is going on in what are always multi layered and complex situations.

Those factors are likely to be local, national and often regional with factors not respecting borders or sovereignty. Increasingly they are also global with the obvious example being the economic slowdown which started with the crash of 2008, or perhaps the changing role of China in Africa.

So what does this actually look like, day to day? Have a watch of this very fiery exchange from the Irish Dail between Mary Lou Mcdonald of Sinn Fein and Eamon Gilmour, the Deputy Prime Minister in the coalition government between Labour and Fine Gael. I would embed it here but Youtube seems not to have the right embed code.

It draws all of the conflict factors relating to Ireland into one exchange and does so in increasingly brutal exchanges. The situation in the North of Ireland, the euro crisis which presaged the loss of Irish economic sovereignty for a generation, the cuts to the living standards of the vulnerable that are taking place as a result and the national political merry go round.

And it does so involving a representative of what is now a democratic political party rather than an armed group pursuing violence as its primary means of advancing its goals, who wants to debate every aspect of social policy rather than solely the question of Irish unity.

For political anoraks like me, it's entertaining just as a piece of political theatre but the more serious point is that it also represents how robust the political forum is there. Frankly in the search for peace what we're really after is a forum in which politicians can tear bits off each other. And then go home afterwards.

Sort that, in theory, and economic growth follows.

There is a lesson in here for the New Deal, which is currently experiencing difficulties in many of the pilot countries as a result of different political forces contesting the single shared "vision" that that process is supposed to be developing for each country's future, for governments and civil society to work together harmoniously towards.

The reason that is unlikely to happen is that it forgets the role of politics. There will never be a single vision to which everyone subscribes and it is unrealistic to expect there to be.

While there is a very legitimate concern that countries who do not have the sort of robust forum to manage those contested visions as Ireland does may spill into violence as a result, surely a better approach might be to invest in the development of the capacity to disagree as much as deliver services and economic growth. In other words invest in political capacity as much as economic or social capacity.

The standard answer to that is usually one that involves free and fair elections, which is also important, but what about in between? It's what happens after the election observers and the world media have gone home that is usually more important than the outcome for the long term future.

The disagreement you see raging in the video takes place between elections and its purpose is at least partly to relieve tension. Rude things get said in a very direct way, things that some people feel need to be said. And while the Government dismisses the attacks, it's likely to have at least some effect on policy. The point being that happens in a democratic chamber and not through street protests or other disorder.

The New Deal was signed up to by Governments of the G7+ and it is a remarkable step forward that deserves all of our support in the post 2015 debate, if the new framework is effectively to tackle the bottom billion that have been left behind by the MDGs. But there was never any political incentive for those Governments developing the New Deal to invest in the capacity of their oppositions to engage in, well, opposition.

That, to me at least, is a missing part of the picture, and it's one that might be worth putting right.