Monday, 22 July 2013

ODI goes retro: negative peace

“…you, the said Galileo... have rendered yourself vehemently suspected by this Holy Office of heresy, that is, of having believed and held the doctrine (which is false and contrary to the Holy and Divine Scriptures) that the sun is the centre of the world, and that it does not move from east to west, and that the earth does move, and is not the centre of the world."
Father Vincenzo Maculano da Firenzuola, June 22nd 1633, at the trial of Galileo Galilei.

Every now and again something comes along that proves people haven’t really moved all that further forward in responding to inconvenient truths with knee jerk and perverse conclusions. One such example was the recent paper on post-2015 by the otherwise excellent Overseas Development Institute (ODI). 

This paper by Lisa Denney is a response to the call by the High Level Panel to establish a stand alone goal on peace and conflict in the post 2015 development agenda. It seems to argue that, since there is little evidence of good governance leading to economic progress, the drafters of a new development agenda shouldn’t bother with it. Instead, they should concentrate on the absence of actual violence rather than anything like human rights, participatory politics, accountability or transparency as indicators of progress. There just isn’t the evidence, she argues, to justify all that rights and governance stuff. So as long as people aren’t actually being killed, we might still eradicate poverty.

Deep breaths.

It’s difficult to know where to start with an argument like that, which is perhaps why I went for the Holy Roman Empire. But let’s just take Ms Denney’s arguments in sequence.

The paper essentially argues that we have lots of evidence of how violence can disrupt development, and quotes Collier’s famous “30 years of GDP lost” in support. So we know, then, that the absence of violence is good for economic growth. But it goes on to say that there is not the same evidence illustrating how the existence of good governance – for example democracy, freedom from repression, accountability and human rights – actively contributes to that economic growth. Thus, the author claims, we must prioritise “negative peace” (the absence of violence) over “positive peace” (not just the absence of violence but the active involvement and rights of people). Denney argues:
“…there does not appear to be sufficient evidence to argue that anything beyond a ‘negative peace’ approach is actually instrumental to other developmental outcomes”.
and goes on to claim that 
“there is stronger evidence for linking insecurity and poverty than peace and development … therefore while some might suggest that peace enables development, it is empirically more accurate to say that conflict or insecurity disrupts development”
Three points in response: what is development, why is there a lack of evidence and what does this conclusion mean.

What is development?

Denney spends a lot of time in the first part of her paper deconstructing terminology and vocabulary, which is fair enough given the amount of jargon floating around in these debates. But the one word that is left alone is probably the most important: development. It is clear throughout this paper that Denney conceives of development as being solely about economic growth rather than, for example, political institutions. So with such a narrow definition of development it becomes possible to make the case she does. Or does it? What sort of economic growth are we talking about? 72% of the world’s poorest people live in Middle Income Countries. In other words even when you have economic growth as measured by GDP you do not necessarily achieve equitable economic growth and, thus, the majority of people remain poor. And, in situations where violence is routinely used by elites, very vulnerable. Without a politically engaged and aware population, who are able to hold their governments to account through robust political institutions, that situation will not change any time soon and the glaring inequalities it creates and perpetuates will contribute directly to the potential for violence. Which will disrupt growth. Now how much “development” have you achieved? One of the reasons the World Development Report of 2011 linked jobs, security and justice was for precisely this reason – development is political as much as economic, and to pretend otherwise is a recipe for repeating the errors the report was concerned with, which has left over 1.5 billion people in conflict affected states as poor and vulnerable as they ever were at the outset of the MDG era.

Consider too that a post-conflict state is also, statistically speaking, a pre-conflict state with the majority of wars being recurrences of old. To achieve any kind of growth at all you need to break that cycle.. Here’s the World Development Report:
“…strengthening legitimate institutions and governance to provide citizen security, justice and jobs is crucial to break cycles of violence.”
Even the IMF, the bastion of econometrics, in a report released in January this year recommended, based on a study of 146 civil conflicts:
"...a strategy for reconciliation and recovery centered on three main pillars—implementing growth enhancing policies, reforming dysfunctional institutions, and addressing urgent social needs— to reduce the risk of conflict recurrence."
And here's Mthuli Ncube, Chief Economist and Vice President of the African Development Bank:
"Deliberate policies to reduce inequalities and promote inclusion are now needed more than ever before. It is time to focus on people’s expectations: decent work, a living wage, access to basic service, more democracy, and accountable governments...Governance is now one of the cornerstones of economic development. Good governance, in its political, social, and economic dimensions, underpins sustainable human development and the reduction of poverty, in that it defines the processes and structures that guide political and socio-economic relationships"
In other words, 'growth enhancing policies' will only work in these situations if combined with political development too. Denney’s argument, if taken up by the OWG, risks perpetuating violence and undermining progress by ignoring the role of political institutions, 'urgent social needs' and accountable governance. 

Why the lack of evidence?

Denney claims that while there is a wealth of evidence highlighting the causality of violence and a lack of growth there is not an equivalent amount linking positive peace with that growth. She is of course completely right: because it hasn’t been tried yet. Is it any wonder after nearly 15 years of the whole world pumping vast resources into an MDG inspired focus on economic and technical indicators that we now have a wealth of evidence about how violence is an inhibitor? No, not particularly. Is it any surprise that, given there has not been an equivalent scale global push to establish and pursue the elements of positive peace – where people have the right to participate in the running of their own countries without fear or repression – that there is not a wealth of evidence of what works and what doesn’t? Well, guess what folks, no. To use the lack of equivalent evidence for something you haven't tried yet as the basis to do nothing new is both retrograde and reductionist in the extreme.

What does this mean?

So what does Denney’s conclusion that ‘negative peace’, simply the absence of a body count, be prioritised over the rights of people to play a full role in their countries mean? To be fair to Denney she states:
“The arguments made here should not be construed as being ‘anti peace'”. 
That’s good, but hang on a minute, she continues:
“…of course living in open and accountable societies is more desirable to many people … [but] … there are endless ‘goods’ that we could include in the post-2015, [sic] … it is important to make decisions about the key priorities, given that the ultimate focus is on eradicating extreme poverty…[and]… the stronger correlations between insecurity and poverty than between peace and development suggest that our efforts should be focussed on a negative peace approach. That is what we know is most likely to have the greatest dividend for reducing poverty.”
This is a pernicious argument. I don’t claim it is made with malign intent but the effect is sinister. Quite apart from it being disturbing for a comfortable Western research institute to casually dismiss the hopes of the poorest to have the fundamental rights we enjoy in a cast off comment; “..there are endless ‘goods’ we could include..”, - the more dangerous implication of her argument is that we should carry on as usual, seeing ‘development’ as purely economic and people’s rights as nice-to-haves rather than must-haves. Music to the ears of strongmen everywhere.

To make this case also requires you to ignore recorded human history. The richest countries in the world achieved that status not through a focus solely on a set of economic goals but through centuries of contested political ideas in which groups of people fought for rights, and elites sought to deny them. The context in which they did that might have been economic: for example the industrial revolution, but the battles themselves were about power and politics. What emerged in the West were constitutional democracies, within which that economic growth and the emergence of the rule of law took place. And that is precisely the aims of those living in the states most affected by the absence either of good governance or economic progress and scarred by endemic violence, as can be seen by the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States. Far from perfect, the New Deal nevertheless for the first time redefines ‘development’ as being as much about a participatory journey towards growth, between State and citizen, as well as a partnership of equals between donor and recipient.

The clue to the New Deal lies in the name. It is new. The evidence of what works doing things this way is scarce precisely because it hasn’t been tried systematically or on a global scale before. The ODI know this, yet still argue for a reductionist approach which disregards the elements of a broader vision of human development including peace, justice and human rights which have emerged as the central themes not only of the New Deal but of the global civil society response to the High Level Panel, leading them to call for a specific peace and justice goal in the post-2015 framework in those terms.

You have to ask why the ODI don't agree.