Tuesday, 30 December 2014

2014: That was the year that was

In the spirit of taking stock it’s fair to say this was a momentous year, both for the world of the policy wonks dealing in peace and governance and for me personally with a move from one side of this 'ere world to the other. Here’s a doodle/snapshot of what went before through my eyes.

January opened with a chance to debate with DAC Chair Erik Solheim on change in a world of power and politics. What had we learned since the Arab Spring and what did that mean for those of us wanting to contribute to positive outcomes for people and their governments. The report card isn’t a great one, as a quick glance at Libya illustrates. My point was that policy makers needed a healthy dose of honesty in their projections and conversations.

This was germane also for the troubled New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, an initiative between donors and recipient governments that sought to reverse the trend of shying away from the critically difficult challenges driving conflict with intensely political settlements between citizens and states in their journey out of conflict. It has proved frustratingly difficult with old habits dying hard.

And of course, the post-2015 horizon was looming large with real questions about the extent of genuine citizen participation there would be.

February saw me join the open governance initiative Making All Voices Count and relocate to Johannesburg. It became very clear very quickly that the two tribes of ‘conflict’ and ‘governance’ practitioners didn’t speak enough, despite working on essentially the same things. In both cases the need for bottom up approaches to meddling in other people’s politics was laid bare, in a series of hard hitting reports by the Independent Reporting Mechanism of the Open Government Partnership.

March continued the theme of power and politics with a trip to Jakarta for a learning week with the Transparency & Accountability Initiative where donors, practitioners and researchers sought to share learning on how to encourage openness and participatory governance in the context of shifting and dynamic contexts, set against frequently rigid and silo’d programme and project designs. Logframing our way out of complex political processes turns out to be a mugs game – who knew?

April was an opportunity to challenge the World Bank on their technocratic world view, as they released a report which used the dreaded phrase ‘feedback loop’ to sum up the relationship citizens have with their governments. No room for issues of legitimacy, inclusion or participation there. And I wonder what Amina from Dar es Salaam would have made of it. On a positive note a fantastic project emerged from change makers within local government in Pakistan which demonstrated that change-makers from within these contexts can harness innovation to transformative effect, and that donors could play a constructive role in supporting them. 

May saw the Open Government Partnership roadshow take place in Dublin Castle, inauspiciously coinciding with a corruption scandal which claimed the scalp of an Irish Justice Minister. Against this backdrop the conference grappled fascinatingly with the role of politics, big business and that strange thing known as ‘dark data’. No doubt the NSA was intrigued.

During June-July-August I was privileged to engage in a number of debates on how change happens. On a stiflingly hot day in Berlin leading a workshop at the Open Knowledge Foundation we brought techies together with the non-technical problems their innovations were often aimed at ‘solving’, a sobering experience in Dar es Salaam revealed the extent to which a lack of expectations can undermine progress while in South Africa a business leader and local government expert sought to challenge some preconceived ideas about the role of those outside that thing we call “civil society”. Turns out NGOs and campaign groups don’t have all the answers. 

Turkana women: as parent governors they do what they can but rarely see government officials 
September saw a return to earth with a bump, as some field work in a semi-arid, fragile and marginalised county called Turkana in Northern Kenya provided the context for a stark reality check on what the world really looks like to the poorest and most vulnerable. Seems a long way from technocratic feedback loops and MDGs.

Taking that insight into November I was struck at the Civicus International Civil Society Week in South Africa at the extent of that disconnect, but this time between demands from NGOs and the real world of global governance. “Listen to us” just doesn’t seem to cut it to me, surely it’s time to start to organise for the post-post-2015 world if we’re serious about making all voices count?

Dar es Salaam: they take our money but don't fix our bridge said citizens
What that could look like was vividly displayed in an inspiring session with South African activists at the civil society session of the Open Government Partnership in Johannesburg. Cynicism borne of experience was in abundance but so was a willingness to make this opportunity work and to see the glass as half full – taking the energy of the struggle against apartheid and translating it into strategies for 2015. And with that, the year closed for me at least on an inspiring and positive note.

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