Saturday 28 December 2013

2013: That was the year that was

A forest in which bullets are found in trees. Western Germany. 
January started in the wake of a trip to Germany which brought home the historic proximity of the carnage that once tore my own part of the world apart, hidden away in silent forests. The new year was one in which I wanted to get things done, lots of them. And it was all about politics - asking questions about how we get to a place where conflict is done in debating chambers not battlefields, and in a way which improves people's lives.

The Dáil Éireann (Irish Parliament)

Ireland, continuing its bumpy journey away from organised violence offered a glimpse with a particularly ferocious debate in the Dáil on the subject of the economic recession, which was also the topic of a beautiful video of a song in a job centre in Spain. Sad, then, that the UK Parliament completely missed the point when it conducted a review of Britain's approach to designing a new way of doing development, post 2015.

February saw a group of NGOs launching a "campaign", called IF, that seemed to redefined the meaning of 'campaign' since it had been agreed in advance with the Government. Thankfully there was some more meaningful progress made by the countries associated with the New Deal at a conference in East Timor, but lingering questions remained.

March saw civil society hold up a red flag to the High Level Panel of "Eminent Persons", essentially because they didn't much like the prominence of the private sector in their thoughts. Anti-corporatism has been a constant feature of civil society voices this year. Fine to have accountability, essential in fact; but from where else will come economic growth?

April was dominated by the escalating bloodbath in Syria, and the concomitant inability of the international community to do anything whatsoever about it. Apart from arm their own proxies. An extraordinary video emerged of a conversation between two armed groups, yielding a unique window on to their world. A conference in Washington did its best to get the New Deal back on track, in an event that brought the big cheeses of development together.

May saw MEPs struggle with the debate over how Europe deals with emerging powers while revealing much about how they saw themselves, while June saw the publication of the High Level Panel report which sought to redefine development. In a game changer of a report the principle that development is an inherently political - not technical - process was established.

Yet July saw the ODI release a retrograde and damaging report that sought to argue the opposite, on the grounds that there was a lack of evidence proving the connection between good governance and economic growth. Deep breaths.

Syrians paid a heavy price
August saw the world return to the subject of Syria, provoked by the use of poison gas. The Grand Old Duke of Washington marched his men to the top of a hill, only to march them back down again when his Junior Lieutenant Cameron couldn't deliver the goods at home. The whole sorry episode, which prioritised gas over the horrific consequences of shells, bullets and mines, simply allowed the killing to go on unabated.

More positively, the UN General Assembly in September saw a dramatic contest of competing visions of what development should look like after 2015. It was good that the recalcitrant countries finally put their heads above the parapet because they were compelled to back down largely by their own civil society, also there in force and making full use of the new platform the new hybrid bodies established by the UN to hold these debates within offered. I like to think my own briefing was of some use, but a dramatic video was rightly of far more impact, with grassroots citizens using technology to offer uncensored views into their own fights for basic human rights. The revolution will be livestreamed, it would seem.

October saw the release of a little video of our exploits at the UNGA but November kicked off on a personal note with news of a new job, and forthcoming relocation to the amazing country of South Africa, as part of the Making All Voices Count programme.

December continued the post 2015 theme with news of how the Open Working Group were planning on defining that governance stuff through a series of indicators to negotiate over, while I was privileged to debate the role of how theories of change could or should shape Dutch policy towards fragile states where governance is at its most broken.

A rainbow, a cemetery and a child
The year ended as it had begun, with another poignant trip to the battlefields of Europe, this time retracing the steps of Private James William Underwood, my great great grandfather. Christmas in Ypres somehow summed up, for me at least, what the twists and turns of the year had really all been about.

Monday 23 December 2013

Ypres at Christmas

A rainbow, a cemetery and a child
Cause we don’t trust you and ye hae been four months shooting at us” was the blunt reply from the Glaswegians of the Scottish Rifles, hunkered in cold and sodden mud trenches one Christmas day in 1914, to their counterparts in the German lines just metres away. While the story of the Christmas Truce, unofficially declared and involving the swapping of tobacco and football skills has come to define the futility of war it wasn't observed right the way down the lines. 

This week I revisited that area of Flanders as part of a family jaunt to the Christmas Markets in Germany. It somehow seemed apt as a reminder of what the season is supposed to be all about, amid the plastic commercialisation of much of it. There are no neon signs or expensive video games on the windswept plains of Belgium where the dying was done, nor even much space for it in the market town of Ypres, for so long the centre of the carnage, and usually the first venue incoming soldiers would see as they were marshalled ready to head out to the front line.

Ypres Market Square - the spire used regularly as a target for German artillery
My own great great grandfather, Private James William Underwood, arrived in Ypres Market Square on October 16th 1914. He would have been among many hundreds, amid shouting, horses and general chaos. He was a 30 year old railway labourer with two infant daughters at home. Old enough to understand what death might mean for him, but more importantly his daughters and wife Clara back in England. No room for jingoism here.

Marshalled with the 2nd Wilts Regiment he was among the first sent to the front, and knew nothing of the cataclysm to come. On October 24th he was reported missing, his position having been overrun by German troops. He spent the next four years in a prison camp in central Germany, presumably only realising the scale of what he had been spared by arriving prisoners, fresh from the human meat grinder of the war.

Tyne Cot cemetery. A Jewish tradition of stones on headstones, accompanied by a gentile's tribute
Tyne Cot cemetery stands silent testimony to the scale of the carnage, standing on the brow of the hill that so many allied troops died in order to take, with two German concrete pillboxes visible amid the countless grave stones.

The field where Pte Underwood was taken prisoner,1914
So on we went, driving through the battlefields and on to Germany to see Cologne, in all its Christmas Market glory. The commercialism is there, but so is a heavy emphasis on tradition and it is one of the few places where you can still see the season as preceding generations may have done. Rich scented gluhwein, wooden arts and crafts and costumed women performing with clockwork music machines; much as the young men on the German side, little boys themselves only a few years earlier, of the trenches would have remembered as they tried to coax their Glaswegian fellow conscripts to put aside the killing, if only just for one day.

Cologne Christmas Market 
Perhaps all of them died before the end of that war, which laid the foundations for the next, but their memory and common humanity is another reminder for me at least what this season is all about. Happy Christmas, and have a peaceful New Year.

Thursday 12 December 2013

Theories of change: A debate

Last week I took part in a panel debate at the Institute for Global Justice in The Hague on the role that theories of change could or should have in determining how donor countries design their interventions in the affairs of others. Specifically, do we understand well enough the situation we are trying to change and the likely impact of the change we are trying to bring about? And do we recognise that our analysis is sometimes even unconsciously shaped by our own assumptions, preferences and values - even when we have tried not to let that happen. And is that a bad thing anyway? Big questions, all.

It followed a review of Dutch foreign policy in fragile states from 2005-2011, carried out by the Ministry's Policy & Operations Evaluation Department (IOB), which made a number of challenging findings, including the suggestion that some programmes lacked an explicit theory of change, in place of which a "neo-liberal paradigm" had been adopted, and which prevented critical analysis, reflection and the adoption of theories and insights that might result in a more scientifically robust policy. On the other hand, their report found that a strength of the Dutch approach was to remain flexible and adaptable to often volatile and changing situations, which a rigid theory of change approach might mitigate against, particularly if it was generically applied across large spaces. In recognition of the tension they were bringing out, that of local theory of change versus flexibility of approach, the authors recommended that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs increase its investment in context analysis and the capacity to translate that analysis into programme design.

Heavy stuff. But I was hugely impressed. Not only with the strength of the research that had gone into the report but also the response of the Dutch Government to it. In it's formal response to the Dutch parliament the Government suggested that it wanted to learn from the report but do so in a manner which invited contributions from a wide range of perspectives - academic, practitioner and policy maker - and this event, hosted by the Knowledge Platform on Security & Rule of Law was part of that. The Knowledge Platform was established a year or so ago in order to bring these communities together to shape research agendas that ultimately support more informed Dutch policy making in some of the most challenging and complex parts of the world, and it has been a huge privilege to facilitate one of its five working groups in the last year. Other donor countries would do well to learn from this approach and adopt a similar initiative.

Ronald Wormgoor, of the MFA: introducing the report with some perspectives of a policy maker
So, what did we think? Highlights for me included our exploration of the tension between theory and practice. We didn't need to spend long convincing each other that a theory of change based approach was a good thing. It clearly is, and its absence creates a vacuum which as the report found is quickly filled by other agendas not necessarily suited to the context. A neo-liberal approach to economic reform in a country beset with structural inequality could be a recipe for disaster. It's all about understanding the power and the politics. But here's the challenge - what if our own domestic politics are the problem?

There was consensus among us that you can only really gain local understanding through long term engagement: analytically sound, flexible in application and strategically relevant. I pointed out the World Development Report of 2011 talked about change taking place in time brackets of three decades, let alone the arbitrary 15 years that seems to be the assumption behind the next set of MDGs. Jeroen de Lange, our chair for the day and himself a former Dutch MP, pointed out that domestic political considerations would act against that level of commitment, and went on to make the very honest point that debates in parliament were often shallow and lacking any kind of serious analysis. Not something restricted to the Dutch parliament, clearly. So this is a case that needs to be made more publicly, perhaps, the message being simply: if you want a return on this investment, you'll need to invest in stability for the long term. Tough sell.

Dr Willemijn Verkoren, Head of the Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM) at Radboud University Nijmegen, challenged the absence of the global or at least regional dimension of the debate; pointing out that political dynamics rarely respect national boundaries and that any context analysis worth the name would need to reflect that. She also argued that there was a disconnect between science and policy, with policy makers ignoring theory and analysis and instead adopting essentially off-the-shelf packages of "statebuilidng" - institution building, civil society promotion and rule of law for example - which bore little reality in either its design nor its sequencing to the political realities on the ground. This was not a good use of public money, she suggested. Hard to disagree.

Geert Geut and Julia McCall, of IOB, spoke to the practical challenges that they acknowledged their report threw up. In particular they both agreed that time was rarely available for policy makers to adopt a sufficiently long term analysis, approach and engagement. It was part of a wider conversation, they argued, that needed to be had if the Government was to gain the results it was seeking to achieve with its partners on the ground, while maintaining public confidence in the wisdom with which they were spending their money. 

At the end of the debate Jeroen de Lange asked a blunt question. Did it all really matter, he asked? Was enough at stake? The passion with which that question was answered for the remainder of the day in the workshops that followed involving by my count around a hundred practitioners, researchers and policy makers indicated that yes, actually, it really did. 

These are precisely the sort of difficult, challenging and at times hugely frustrating conversations we all need to have if we are serious about fundamentally achieving a world in which people are able to reach their potential; free from violence, poverty and able to shape their lives and that of their countries with dignity and respect. The Dutch have kicked it off by measuring themselves against those ambitions: will other donors be brave enough to follow? 

Sunday 8 December 2013

Open Gov, Open Data, Open Growth least that's the theory! Very good animation here from the bods over at the Bank which sets out the theory with some practical examples. Much suspicion remains among many about the folks at the Bank after their role in pioneering the very opposite of open government, by rendering governments of developing countries more accountable to international financial institutions than their own citizens. But the game changing World Development Report of 2011, their support for the New Deal  and the Global Partnership for Social Accountability among other things would indicate that organisationally their top team seems at last to get it. You have to hope so.

The animation doesn't cover the actual innovation and tech that will be needed in order to genuinely make the connection between open data and the transformations it can bring in the relationship between the governed and those who govern. For that to happen there is going to need to be a great deal of innovation led by people themselves, from the bottom up, to slowly build those new partnerships. That's one of the reasons why I am so excited to be joining the Making All Voices Count team, as part of what is called a Grand Challenge for Development. It's certainly that.


Monday 2 December 2013

Those Governance targets in full

Last week I reported from the European Development Days at which a leading UN official working with the Open Working Group for their February meeting tackling governance and conflict revealed the 15 targets, or indicators, that would be considered by the group in their meeting. At that point I only had broad headlines but I can now set them out in more detail, which I have taken from the Technical Support Team briefing. (page 11)

They are as follows: 

Peaceful societies 
  • prevent and reduce by X% violent deaths and injuries per 100,000 by year Y 
  • Eliminate all forms of violence against children, women and other vulnerable groups by year Y 
  • Enhance social cohesion and ensure adequate formal and informal mechanisms are in place to peacefully address tensions and grievances by year Y 
  • Reduce by X% inequalities across social groups, amongst regions within countries and between women and men by year Y 
  • Reduce external drivers of violence and conflict, including illicit flows of arms, drugs, finance, natural resources and human trafficking by X% by year Y
  • Reduce bribery and corruption by X% by year Y and ensure that officials can be held accountable 
  • Increase political participation by X%, including diversity of representation in public decision making and civic engagement at all levels
  • Ensure universal freedom of expression, association, peaceful assembly and access to independent media and information 
  • Guarantee the public's right to information and access to government data, including budgets 
  • Enhance state capacity, transparency and accountability regarding the control of natural resources and the equitable sharing of benefits derived from their exploitation
Rule of Law 
  • Provide free and universal legal identity including universal birth registration by year Y 
  • Ensure independence of judiciary and increase the accessibility and responsiveness of justice services by X% by year Y 
  • Improve capacity, professionalism and accountability of security institutions (including police) by X% by year Y 
  • Increase by X% the share of women and men, communities and busineses with secure rights to land, property and other assets by year Y 
  • Ensure equal right of women to own and inherit property, sign a contract, register a business and open a bank account, by year Y 
I thought last week that this was overall a positive development, given that it might frame the OWG's meeting in a more positive and constructive manner, rather than the entrenched discourse about the extent to which these political issues potentially contravene sovereignty we saw emerge at September's UN General Assembly. They do seem to take the conclusions of 2011's World Development Report that jobs & justice are mutual requirements as a given and the paper itself makes that case even more powerfully.

I stand by that analysis based on the political intelligence I hear coming out of New York and experience of the spoilers emerging at the last UNGA. But I have since been reading up on some of the literature around open government and I do wonder at the extent to which these targets, and the paper in which they are presented, start to fall into a trap that scholars have started to notice. 

Specifically, what is the difference between Open Data and Open Government? Two scholars, Harlan Yu and David Robinson, in 2012 wrote a piece called "The New Ambiguity of Open Government" and their argument is captured in the title. They warn that there is an assumption that providing open data on non contentious issues risks being accepted by the international community as ticking the open government box, and ask pertinently why some countries are so happy to sign up to the Open Government Partnership. They point out that the terminology of open data and open government is now used interchangeably as if it was the same thing; which it is not. I wonder if the governance targets being considered by the OWG only partially avoid that trap - specifically referring to budget data, yes, but not which budgets, in what format and with what regularity. Although I suppose that might be something for the OWG members to discuss. 

They do however seem to avoid the trap detailed by Beth Noveck, Obama's former Chief Technology Officer for Open Government, who argues strongly for collaborative democratic participation rather than merely participatory. Her point was that lots of meetings did not equate to actual collaborative decision making and that open government, to be meaningful, required the latter. The targets attention to freedom of expression and specific political participation, including of women and vulnerable groups, are a strong sign that that message has been heard. 

So...we have a proposal which looks much better than I and others thought might be on the table. It now remains to be seen as to whether these indicators, and the wider discussions on governance they will provoke, will survive not just the meeting in February but the critical drafting process from February to the next UNGA in September 2014. 

In the meantime the UN General Assembly will itself be debating much the same topic in one of President John Ashe's thematic debates. This will be, crucially, more open both to civil society as well as non OWG member States and will have a direct impact on those drafting the OWG report which will form the basis of the final leg of this post 2015 marathon, the High Level Political Forum. 

As ever there is much to play for.