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.

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