Friday 10 January 2014

Time for an honest conversation: change in a world of power and politics

This is a blogpost I wrote for an online debate at the Knowledge Platform for Security & Rule of Law at the Institute for Global Justice in The Hague. My fellow contributors were Erik Solheim, Chair of OECD-DAC, Dr. Jolle Demmers, Associate professor and co-founder of the Centre for Conflict Studies, Utrecht University, The Netherlands and Colonel Kees Matthijssen, Military Advisor Department of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Fundamental change is an intensely political process which happens over generations and can only be sustainable, legitimate and successful through the long-term engagement of citizens and informal power brokers in addition to political elites. This means long-term commitments, and accepting that governance models evolve over time and that many vital agents of change will be those that donors’ foreign policies regard as problematic.

On 17 December 2010, a 26 year old Tunisian street vendor called Tarek al-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi poured a can of gasoline over himself and lit a match. That single act, borne of frustration and humiliation at the hands of corrupt officialdom, set off a chain of events that toppled regimes across the region and continues in the tragedy of Syria to this day. 

Bouazizi was an agent of change. But, three years on, journalists and activists are being arrested in Egypt, while confrontations between secularists and Islamists grow increasingly violent elsewhere. These events remind us that transformative change, of the sort fragile states need in order to make their journey out of conflict, takes place over generations and rarely follows a linear path. For example, the game-changing World Development Report of 2011 spoke of such change requiring three decades. We also know that transformative change can only ever be sustainable if it actively involves local communities and the elites that run them, who frequently do so in ways we find unpalatable.

Power is wielded in informal structures as much, if not more so, than in the formal ones we usually associate with ‘state building’. In short, we know that development is fundamentally about power and politics: the relationship between the governed and those who govern; but we still struggle to understand how best to go about supporting it. Policymakers need approaches grounded in theory, analysis and practice. 

Where are we now?

On 5 December, we heard representatives of the Policy and Operations Evaluation Department (IOB) of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs present the IOB report ‘Investing in Stability’. The report recognizes the positives of Dutch approaches to forging a new way of doing development with a focus on legitimate politics, open governance, transparency and accountability, best represented, perhaps, by the New Deal. Yet, the IOB also found gaps at country level; notably a vacuum created by the absence of theories of change which it argued was filled by ’neoliberal’ assumptions of what the approaches were trying to achieve and what local people actually wanted. In addition, policy-makers acknowledged that short-term timescales and the need to justify expenditure to a sceptical domestic electorate were barriers to a long-term approach. Meanwhile national foreign policy limited the actors they were allowed to work with.

So, despite us knowing that development is an intensely political process – an evolution of governance over the long term – the agents of change we need to talk to might not be acceptable in a neoliberal, short-term and foreign policy-aligned agenda. These are problems that practitioners on the ground, dealing with donors in capitals, are very familiar with.

Analysis & theory

Yet, practitioners themselves do not have all of the answers either. And one largely untapped resource is the wealth of academic research into precisely those complex and interacting factors that make understanding conflict so difficult. Returning to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, a good example is the vigorous debate between scholars over how best to understand Islamist social movements. Charles Tilly pioneered Social Movement Theory (SMT) as a means of understanding citizen-led activism in the 1970s. His work remains highly influential today. However, many scholars, particularly those from the region itself, such as Asef Bayat, argue that SMT-oriented approaches are fundamentally flawed because they are based on Western assumptions of what the movements’ actual aims are, and how change happens. While a Western movement might place a premium on the acquisition of power at the earliest possible opportunity and be comfortable with centralized leadership, Bayat illustrates how several MENA Islamist movements perceive their role in a continuum of changing society spanning centuries. And he dismisses the idea that they are centralized in the same way, arguing that this assumption creates a ‘hidden transcript’ of real layers within the movements that ultimately shape what they do and why. That sort of insight is gold dust for good policymaking, without which we cannot hope to understand the ‘full transcript’ of any situation, and judge who the real agents of change might be.


Experience bears this out, too. Incumbent political elites alone cannot deliver the sort of transformative shifts that are needed. So they alone cannot be the only partners to work with. And yet the dominant development paradigm under the MDGs has been a state-centric approach that too often locks out local partners and incentivizes national governments to respond to the needs of donors rather than their own citizens. That is why forging new and local partnerships, together with governments and driven by local priorities, is so important. Government responsiveness and accountability to citizens is surely the route to sustainable economic and political growth. But for donors that means partnering with groups whose politics they may not like and whose norms may be equally unpalatable. That is a real problem and one we need an honest conversation about.

Local legitimacy, national delivery

Long-term agents of change are precisely those people who are hardest to reach, or talk to. However, from armed groups to farmers’ collectives and informal leaders, only they can provide local legitimacy and ownership, and serve as the basis of any sustainable process of change. They simply have to be part of the bargaining processes. To do otherwise, and retreat from the difficult political sensitivities it may raise, would be to continue with business as usual.

And we know that doesn’t work.

1 comment:

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