Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Cool vid: What do we want from Post-2015?

Much of the last two years of my life has been spent working on the conflict, governance and disaster policy debates on Post-2015. As I prepare for the big move, both to a different country and an exciting new chance to work on open governance from a different perspective, I came across this video from my colleagues within the Beyond2015 coalition which is quite simply excellent. 

Want a two minute synopsis of where global civil society is at? Invest a couple of minutes in watching this animation which, while it may not tell you anything you didn't already know, is actually quite inspiring in its coherence, simplicity and clarity. It was that directness and authority that I saw at work at the last UN General Assembly where, in my view, civil society excercised significant soft power in resisting the pushback that began there against including any of this rights, governance or peace stuff.


Wednesday, 22 January 2014

New Deal: Trough or Plateau?

I recently came across a new conceptual framework called “Hype Cycle”, which was originally conceived by business analysts Garner to explain the trajectory of tech ideas in business. It aims to explain the phenomenon by which new ideas generate huge hype; way in excess of what is actually possible, followed by a slide from inflated expectations into what is called a “trough of disappointment”. From that point the framework posits that the idea climbs a “slope of enlightenment” to a “plateau of productivity” whereby the idea is honed and becomes a useful addition to productivity as a new way of doing things, or else it fails.

We can all think of tech ideas that evolved along this continuum, but others have applied this framework to ideas and approaches in international development, notably the indomitable Ian Thorpe who places the MDGs and “aid effectiveness” firmly in the trough of disillusionment. Dave Algoso has gone further and refined the cycle to include two more possible outcomes to the trough - "swamp of continued use", and "trash heap of failures" - and it is his framework I adopt here.

Brendan Halloran of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative points out on Dave Algoso’s blog that nobody seems to have plotted where power and political analysis sits on this graph. So I thought I would start by using the New Deal, which is something I have been meaning to say something about for some time. Again

The New Deal goes to the heart of redefining the relationship between the State and Citizen, leading in theory to greater legitimacy in political leadership and participatory politics that adequately fit the local political economy, enabling states where governance is either contested or has broken down due to violent conflict to make a journey towards sustainable human progress, addressing structural issues and avoiding a relapse into violence which remains statistically more likely. It realigns the relationship between donors and recipient States, placing local context first instead of top-down paradigms. It undoubtedly featured at the top of the hype cycle, occupying a place at the “peak of inflated expectations” when it was unveiled to much fanfare at the 4th High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan. Here’s Hilary Clinton at the time:
"The New Deal for Fragile States, which [the g7+] have developed from the very beginning, is an exciting and fresh approach that has the chance to deliver real results."
And here is Ban Ki Moon :
"[The New Deal is a]...significant – and welcome – contribution to a more equitable and productive partnership between fragile states and their development partners"
I was privileged to see some of this work in Liberia, a pilot country, where extremely difficult conversations were being had, but in an atmosphere of genuine optimism for the future. Yet the New Deal has been on a steady slide since as this rescue meeting illustrated and, I would argue, now sits at the bottom of the trough of disillusionment. Governments of pilot countries did not in many cases live up to their pledges to adequately involve civil society in conducting fragility assessments, indicators of progress or even their ultimate compacts. Donors, I am told by people who were there, sent increasingly junior people to what were supposedly high level meetings, sending signals about their own level of support. Ultimately the process for the Somalia compact, for example, was truncated in order to meet a last minute deadline to unveil it at a glitzy conference in Brussels, creating high levels of cynicism and disenfranchisement among many in Somali civil society. Hardly living up to the ideals of Busan and prompting one analyst, Professor Weinstein of Purdue University, Chicago, to scathingly depict “the political poisoning of Somalia by Belgian waffles”.

The New Deal

So where next. My take is that those supporting the New Deal, such as the Civil Society Platform for Peacebuilding & Statebuilding, have got to climb the “slope of enlightenment”, but that climb will be reminiscent of a salmon leaping upstream, dodging the bears and fighting the current. The downward flow of water is provided by the pushback from some Governments of the G77, who started their pushback against anything resembling good governance being part of a post 2015 settlement at last Septembers UNGA. But several of the bears, which needn't be there, are entirely within the power of civil society. 

One is the duplication and division currently in play between those groups who talk about governance, and those who talk about peacebuilding & statebuilding. As I make my own transition from the peacebuilding tribe into that of open governance I am astounded at the level of duplication that there is. Both are talking about essentially the same things for much of the time, yet use different terminology and draw from different literature and experiences. The New Deal is a case in point; despite going to the heart of governance challenges you rarely hear it referred to in governance debates, at least not those I have been engaged in thus far. 

In addition much of the debate from civil society seems to have fallen into the trap of being overly technocratic, focussed on minutiae of indicators when a wider political argument needs to be made and re-made.

One last thought. Algoso's revised framework predicts one of three outcomes – the trash heap, a swamp of continued use or a plateau of productivity. I would suggest that only two of those outcomes are possible for the New Deal – plateau or trash. If civil society, their progressive allies in Governments North and South and multilateral institutions can get their acts collectively together then I see no reason why the learning, insights and experiences of the New Deal cannot reach a point where it becomes a mainstream way of contributing to good and effective governance – for fragile and non-fragile alike. North and South. But if that case is not made coherently, then I am afraid it will be washed away by a larger post2015 settlement with little scope for governance or peace, rendering it redundant.

Let’s hope the salmon make it.

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.