Tuesday, 23 April 2013

New Deal Postscript: Time for action

Last week I wrote about real concerns over the future of the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, ahead of a meeting on the fringes of the World Bank’s Spring Meetings in Washington. It seemed as if despite best intentions, innovative thinking and early momentum old habits were creeping back in to even this new model of doing development.

On the ground relations between local civil society and their national governments were being stymied while meetings were increasingly being dominated by power politics, rather than collective visioning of a better future which dealt with the complex drivers of conflict and instability. Despite this, we were still seeing a series of communiques and declarations proclaiming the bright new future that the New Deal was delivering; it had begun to look like nobody could spot the elephant in the room.

So, how did they do in DC?

Well they have a sense of humour these policy elites, as I understand the room was informed that the communique was final, not for debate and could we all applaud it please. A ripple of polite acclamation ensued as eager eyes scanned the detail, haggled over behind closed doors hours earlier. 

It was, as ever, a compromise and probably the best they could do. It clings to the idea that the New Deal has already been transformative:
“the New Deal has had significant impact in influencing the discourse and policies of international and national partners, at both global and at country levels”
But introduces a welcome note of humility:
“The initial progress and results achieved in the implementation of the New Deal in a number of self-nominated pilot countries give grounds for optimism and provide the basis for increased efforts”.
Grounds for optimism. I can live with that. But then it gets a bit better:
“We now urge g7+ governments, bilateral and multilateral development partners, civil society, and the broader international community to step up their efforts to translate New Deal commitments into concrete changes in behaviour and practice, in support to country-owned and country-led priorities, and consistent with national law and internationally agreed principles”.
Note concrete changes changes required – not delivered – required. And:
“Development partners are encouraged to implement policy and operational reforms to align with the New Deal, in particular the TRUST commitments. Efforts to manage risks, increase the use of country systems - with appropriate financial management in place and consistent with national laws and internationally agreed principles - and to support the building of national capacities, including of civil society, for example, should be enhanced”.
Not perfect, but attention to building civil society capacity also good.

Much of this was not in the original draft communique, and reflects the fact that some of the hard truths told to power at this meeting were at least heard and reflected upon. Attention to actually changing policies and practices, and embedding local consultation with communities in the business of development and governance, receives a welcome shot in the arm.

So the meeting seems to have made a positive contribution. But a communique is only ever a communique. And the acid test for the New Deal, surely, is what now happens on the ground, particularly in those countries currently piloting its implementation.

Civil society, at national and international level, has a vital role to play in monitoring and assisting that process, with governments and donors held to account for what they do next. A positive focus on that, rather than shouting about what we don’t like in the latest communique might be the most productive strategy to follow.

There’s a lot riding on how the New Deal works in practice, and not only for the G7+, or other countries nominally classed as “fragile”. Experience since 2000 teaches that building participatory relationships between communities and those that seek to govern them goes to the heart of whether development itself works; get that wrong, and the poorest stay poor while the vulnerable remain so.

Get that right, on the other hand, not just in rhetoric but in reality, in the run up to 2015 and we might be looking at a fundamental and positive re-casting of international development itself as the rest of the world takes notice.

High stakes indeed.

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