Saturday 14 November 2015

OpenGov: emotions, complexity, power & partnerships

Human beings are complex, volatile and often irrational creatures. That is all the more so in environments characterised by the use of violence, corruption and where the dominant narrative around them is one of ‘them and us’, often expressed through ethnic identity. The idea, therefore, that in our approaches to opening up government we can design interventions and structures that think about homogeneous ‘citizens’ engaged in transactions with a machine-like ‘State’, and that all we need to do is produce data and tools with which to use that data to improve that relationship is absurd.

A useful piece of research recently published by IDS underlines that point by examining people’s perceptions of those in power around them, the effect that has on their psycho-social state and the choices they make as a result. In this study, Jethro Petit has produced a powerful account of how existing power relations inhibit ‘citizens’ from acting on information and engaging with the State. But he goes further and illustrates the psycho-social impact of multiple forms of exclusion, reinforced by patronage and violence. Here’s a critical passage:
“…these multiple dimensions of poverty and exclusion took the form of stress, depression, despair and low self-esteem. Many people showed signs of undiagnosed and untreated trauma and mental illness generated by these conditions, in addition to more overt domestic and/or political violence. This stress and trauma affected people's disposition to engage in civil society or politics. 
Our Reality Checks exposed intimate and emotional effects of poverty and exclusion often missed by more conventional research focused on material or legal deficits”.
It’s a strong piece of research and one I hope gets the traction it deserves. It echoes what I was told by a teacher in Turkana, Northern Kenya last year in my own reality check:

“This is a forgotten school. And a forgotten place. Maybe because our village doesn’t have a strongman, that’s why they don’t listen to us”.
He was despondent, angry and frankly depressed. Getting him to even talk to me about opening up relationships with the new County level government there was an achievement in itself. That's the voice of a marginalised individual that is all too frequently missing from open government discussions and approaches. He's just as divorced from the reality of his own countrymen and women who are highly educated open data or civil society innovators in capitals as he is from his own government. How could either of them hope to understand what he thinks, feels and is likely to respond to? This is a case some of us have been making for a while now.

School governors in Turkana - citizens in need of data?
But it does beg the question: what to do? Perhaps not much in the case of SIDA who commissioned the research as they shrink their budget by 60%. But for the rest the answer to my mind is to be found in how we engage in fragile states where the features Jethro is talking about are most pronounced. Yet the literature usually referenced by those within the governance sphere has little connection with the body of work that has already been done on the psycho-social impacts of conflict and fragility and which points to some of the possible answers. So we need to widen our evidence base, widen the conversation among practitioners, and apply it to how we think about the ways in which structures such as OGP and others could better understand and respond to the complexity of real people. A good starting point is Sri Lanka, newest member of OGP, but the lessons we learn from fragile states are highly replicable elsewhere. 

Sri Lanka illustrates where the factors Jethro is talking about can end up. Ethnic conflict. As people suffer exclusion they become susceptible to narratives that play on group identity, reinforced by genuine ties to land, culture, religion and customs. Elites who manipulate the structures that reinforce such exclusion can themselves become trapped in a spiral of competing and mutual chauvinism that can take on an unstoppable momentum and end in war. Some history. The independence movement in Sri Lanka was multi ethnic, indeed it was led by a Tamil. But the inheritance of the British majoritarian winner-takes-all Westminster electoral system was an unmitigated disaster. It guaranteed power for the majority, and exclusion for the minority. The rest is highly contentious history but what is not in dispute was the growth of ethnic politics and its expression in policies, practices and discourse associated with violence and ultimately falling into the abyss of war in 1983 from which the island has only just emerged. The point here is that as a relatively progressive administration reaches out and joins OGP, there is a profound need to tread carefully and consider how the legacy of those traumatic decades will need to be navigated. Failure to do that and carrying on with business-as-usual, much of which was on display at the OGP Summit in Mexico recently, risks reinforcing and entrenching the very marginalisation and exclusion that gives rise to conflict dynamics. Naivety comes at a cost, which will be paid by the most vulnerable.

IDS advance the phrase ‘rational passivity’ to explain the phenomena of citizens apparently being compliant in systems that are against their self-interest, often confounding theories of change underpinning projects and programmes. The idea being that they make rational choices, anticipating the reaction of those in power and wanting to avoid it. The authors argue we need to check assumptions but also Western liberal ideas of what success actually looks like. This is where we part company. The idea that basic freedoms, and aspirations for democratic choice, transparency, accountability and the other goals represented by initiatives like OGP is a ‘western’ model is patently untrue. For that you need only to look at what much of Southern civil society has been advocating for years in the context of the post 2015 debates. The question is how best to get there. And this is where the IDS piece gets very woolly and difficult to understand. For example here’s one of the top three recommendations:
“Supporting civil society and its power as a field rather than as organisations, through processes of capacity mobilising to release existing energies”.
I genuinely have no idea what that means. I get it on one level but what do you actually do, then? What does the ‘capacity mobilising’ look like? What are these ‘existing energies’? It is so vague and open to widely differing interpretations as to be less than helpful. 

This surely is where we need to consult the body of peacebuilding and conflict transformation experience, literature and expertise that is so frequently lacking in these debates. Both fields have a huge amount to learn from each other – in both directions. With the majority of the poorest set to live in fragile states, and the expansion of OGP into those fragile contexts that is no longer a nice-to-have, but a must-have. It will mean donors adopting new internal structures so that their own staff can better work coherently across disciplines – not the case at the moment. It will mean practitioners with very different backgrounds coming together and creating new approaches that get to the heart of these dynamics and work with the grain rather than against it. Rarely found. And it will mean fundamentally rethinking what we mean by ‘open government’, the timescales in which we conceive of it and the methods with which we pursue it.

The price of getting this stuff wrong in fragile states is scary. But the opportunity of learning about what can be achieved if we can start to engage with citizens in all of their emotional, political, cultural and historical complexity is huge.

Sunday 8 November 2015

OGP: An inclusive ‘movement’ that counts what counts?

Is there an open government ‘movement’ and if so where is it moving and how will it know if it gets there?

I heard repeated references to such a movement during last week’s OGP global summit in Mexico City but left with mixed feelings about just how inclusive such a movement if it exists really is, the extent to which civil society voices could be heard amid the din of power politics which still dominates much of the Open Government Partnership’s proceedings; and whether a movement about governance could ever really measure its progress if it is not using metrics that go beyond only data, and into less tangible but nevertheless critical factors such as perceptions, trust and legitimacy - surely all of whom are equally fundamental bedrocks to building responsive and accountable governance.

But there was also a real silver lining. And that was the genuine willingness to openly debate these challenges, harness the expertise of the elites that attend summits like that but also those of the most marginalised who live in hard and sometimes violent places, such as newest OGP member Sri Lanka. The summit was a solid serving of realism with a garnish of hope.

A movement?

The two-day summit was preceded by a one day affair solely for civil society. Taking place in the appropriately stunning surroundings of an art institution in the heart of old Mexico City the stone walls echoed with enthusiastic speakers hailing the progress made by OGP since its inception. Yet these were the converted. For sure, there were now a slew of National Action Plans which set out pathways to open data on everything from corruption through to public service delivery and domestic resource mobilisation, including in many cases examples of real engagement between reformist government champions and innovators from within business and civil society who collectively had used OGP to make real strides towards participatory governance and more efficient government. Before I add a ‘but’ to that sentence – that is a very great achievement for OGP and one for which its founders, funders and champions should be proud.


It was noticeable to me that the examples given were principally projects that centred on relatively non controversial topics and took place in relatively stable countries. The repeated references to the open government ‘movement’ for me, therefore, was strange. I don’t know of any other movement that only operates in relatively easy places to work and does so on relatively uncontroversial topics in the main. If the open government community – let’s call it that instead – is to really take on the mantle of a movement then surely it will need to take its reforming zeal to where the challenges are greatest.

Sri Lanka

One such place would be the new entrant to the platform which was unveiled at the Summit – Sri Lanka. This country’s entrance to the community offers us the chance to get to grips with some of the challenges faced by post conflict countries. It will be a hard and complex environment to navigate but one which will force the open government community to confront some of the issues around power and conflict I and others have been talking about for a long time. I used to work in Sri Lanka. It is a country which has emerged from decades of civil war, the ending of which cost several thousand civilian lives in a manner which remains highly contested. It is a state in which ethno-nationalist politics took hold in the post-independence era, and which resulted in a society so stratified along ethnic and religious lines that an armed insurrection and civil war ensued; the island toppling into the abyss in 1983. The Rajapaksa administration that emerged militarily victorious, after a civil war that was re-ignited in large part by the international response to the 2004 tsunami, was removed democratically in the last general election. It is a country that now remains deeply divided and, despite the new Sirisena administration being reformist in character and joining OGP as a result, is a nation in which the forces of division and sectarian nationalism are vibrant and growing. In short, this is a fragile State in which a progressive administration is by no means a guarantee that we have left the darkness of recent decades behind. There is a moral responsibility for the open government community to reach out to the peacebuilding community and together in turn forge partnerships with civil society, business and government champions to make the best possible contribution we can to that beautiful island’s journey out of endemic marginalisation, violent conflict and oppression. The good news is that this combination is possible. It won’t be easy, but some of us are already working on it.

Counting what counts

So how will we measure success? Do we judge it by quantifiable amounts of data published or do we use metrics that include how people think and feel as well? I wonder if OGP is starting to fall victim to what former USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios once warned of as the "rise of the counter bureaucracy" - counting what you can, not what actually counts.

I had an interesting exchange with the indomitable Nnena Nwakanma of the Web Foundation on this subject at the Summit. Nnena who has in recent years resembled a super-energy charged visionary on the data revolution, made a comment that in order to measure success you had to be able to count what it was you were talking about. I couldn’t resist asking how you could measure such intangible things as trust or legitimacy. In fairness Nnena conceded that things were more nuanced than solely which pieces of data you can count (and in fact highlighted that by her own story of not being named in her early years because girls were not considered as valued as boys), but to me this was a microcosm of the fork in the road the open government community is faced with. If we are collectively serious about the SDG agenda which was another dominant theme of the summit, then we must be serious about the pledge to ‘leave nobody behind’. We simply can't hope to do that by only working in relatively stable countries and only measuring progress according to metrics that do not correspond to issues of power, marginalisation or perceived legitimacy and trust.

SDG16, much talked about at the Summit, is about governance. But it is also about justice and peace. And that will mean those who work in the worlds of building bridges of trust and legitimacy among communities affected by violence, marginalisation and fragility – will need a welcoming hand of partnership with those who work in the worlds of building technology, data and opengov projects. A starting place for that, it seems to me, is in Sri Lanka and in other states not yet members of OGP but facing similar challenges.

Less moaning, more fixing

One comment made to me in the Summit struck home, and it was a push back against my own scepticism. Several speeches by Heads of State or their representatives at the Summit had been clearly aimed at limiting the voices of civil society and shifting OGP towards being an inter governmental affair. To me this was all that was bad about OGP - but as I expressed this to one wise counsel it was gently pointed out to me that in order to fix problems and get things done we had to engage with what was there rather than what we would want to be there. Middle class people had other options, including walking away, they said. But the people who really need to see things fixed do not have any such luxury. So stop with the moaning and get with the fixing.

A point well made. Let's give it a go.

Friday 23 October 2015

What does openness look like: a response

MAVC has just posted an interesting take on what it regards as the key issues to consider when trying to understand what open government actually means, ahead of next weeks OGP Summit in Mexico. Their main question is “will all this openness actually change things”? Nailed it. But while they are headed in the right direction I worry that it’s what they don’t talk about rather than what they do, which indicates that some initiatives still really don’t quite get it.

To get to the answer of whether openness changes things, the questions they pose are threefold and set as metrics with which to measure the relative impact of OGP. Let’s have a look at the questions. Stating rightly that “Too often, we conflate openness with provision of information, or with the thinking that if everyone knows what government commitments are, or if budgets and datasets are published online, then that’s a commitment fulfilled”, they list:
  • What are you publishing?/ Do people care – who is asking for this information? / Is it in a format people can understand?
  • Where are you publishing it? / Who has access? Let’s be clear: the internet does not operate in universally accessible languages, nor is everyone actually able to afford, or get access.
  • Does this information actually help people improve people’s lives, or is it just PR so governments and organisations can say they are open and get an international pat on the back?
Oh dear. Are we really answering a question as fundamental as whether openness will actually change things, with issues about formatting, accessible languages and PR? The third inquiry offers the most hope with an opaque reference to improving people’s lives but I would have hoped to see something here about reaching and engaging marginalised groups, providing inclusive space for collective action, guarding civic space or simply just passing the Amina Test of relevance to the average citizen’s experience.

The MAVC article ambitiously goes on to try to ‘redefine openness’ as a tool to achieve change. They argue:
“Openness should mean that government plans are shaped not just by politicians, but are genuinely inclusive. It should mean that huge datasets are not published without thinking about who can actually understand them. It should mean publishing not just the ‘safe’ information, but also information that can be used to actually track what government is doing, what it is spending and achieving on behalf of its citizens.

It should mean that governments are open to change, to new ideas and criticism”.
Well, who could argue with any of that? And that’s the problem here. Let’s unpack things for a minute.

‘Genuinely inclusive’ – yay. But who defines that and what are we talking about. Women? Ethnic groups? LGBT? Disabled people? Political dissidents? One of the reasons statements like this are so easy to make but are so easily swept aside is that as soon as you start talking specifics you start to come across very sensitive subjects very quickly. If you are a gay man in several OGP member states you run the risk of being stuck on the front page of a newspaper, being locked up or attacked. If you are a political dissident in Azerbaijan you risk being locked up or murdered. That is the scale of the challenge in many places. And if the world leaders who proclaimed the SDG 2030 agenda were serious when they pledged to ‘leave no-one behind’ then they are going to need to take these open government approaches, defined in SDG16, to some very fragile, volatile and dangerous places to be a citizen. Have we done enough thinking about how to do that?

Publishing ‘huge datasets’ without thinking who can understand them. Well, yes.

Not just publishing ‘safe’ information. Safe for who? MAVC think it’s the government – they go on to talk about information on government activity, expenditure and performance. It might be worth considering just how ‘safe’ it is for citizens living in environments characterised by elite resource capture, security forces that operate with near impunity and endemic social exclusion – not to mention fragility and violence – to even contemplate using such information. I would politely suggest not very safe at all.

Governments ‘should be open to change, to new ideas and criticism’. Again, yay. But what do we mean? Most western donors would frame that in terms of ‘democracy’ or ‘democratisation’, and that’s reflected in heavy funding for programmes to institute elections or short term governance initiatives. But the evidence tells us that fundamental change doesn’t happen either through elections or short term initiatives, least of all those that rely on ‘fixes’ or ‘feedback loops’. Change in the citizen-State relationship is the result of contestation, challenge and evolution. The Word Development Report of 2011 posited that this process should be thought of in terms of three decades – and that’s without interruptions like natural disasters, economic shocks or conflict.

Asking tougher questions

I’ll be applying a tougher lens to what I see in Mexico next week. I will want to hear how world leaders and civil society elites have sought to develop thinking about how to define processes by which citizens and their governments can collectively define what their problems actually are, including highly sensitive ones like FGM, violence against women, corruption and exclusion; what success would really look like and a future that they can jointly sign up to. That would mean Amina having confidence that her daughter would not have her education stolen by corrupt local elites. Or these folk in Liberia having confidence in their local police force as they build a sustainable future out of conflict.

I’d like to hear about whether those involved in the opendata discourse have started to think about how to really understand and respond to marginalisation, exclusion and violence as much as whether standard service delivery projects are running efficiently and reported on using an app.

There are really exciting possibilities to do some of this stuff. Bringing people who are not currently part of the opengov conversation into it would be a good start. Engaging in collaboration on projects which are designed according to what the problems are – as they are understood by local people – and then seek to learn about what works, why and how. Bringing super clever techies together with people who routinely do amazing work in building bridges not of data or technology but of human trust between communities used to decades of conflict and reform minded officials in government. There is simply no point trying to be more ‘inclusive’ and efficient, with well presented ‘datasets’ if there is a profound deficit of legitimacy and trust, within a history of violence and exclusion. You need to tackle both in creative ways and over a long period. But that will mean thinking a lot further outside of the box than seems to be happening in many places at the moment.

Monday 19 October 2015

Aid funding: UN Chief raises hackles of large INGOs

Stephen O'Brien, new head of UNHCR, told a conference in Geneva earlier last week that only 2% of humanitarian funding went to local aid agencies in disaster hit areas, despite in his words their being faster, cheaper and more culturally appropriate. It has re-awakened calls for the funding system which privileges large INGOs and agencies at the cost of local organisations, provoking predictable hackles to be raised in Northern capital HQs.

And although this is a humanitarian debate surely it speaks to the development sector as a whole. For years now some INGOs have understood that the days of top-heavy structures based in the North are over, while others have tried to recruit or transfer skills to the areas in which they operate. That has not been without cost, in particular to the jobs of those staff unable or unwilling to relocate, but if the sector is serious about investing in precisely the sort of long term sustainable ‘capacity’ it says is important, surely it needs collectively to embrace this trend. But it doesn’t. At least not uniformly.

And that’s a problem that can have catastrophic consequences. International aid agencies with very little contextual understanding make bad decisions in what can be dangerous environments where conflict intersects with calamity. The response to the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka arguably led to the re-ignition of that country’s civil war because those taking decisions did not understand the power dynamics they were dealing with and the likely responses of elites on both sides. Many thousands of people beyond those affected by the natural disaster paid for that with their lives.

c/o Eric Garland: Haiti school earthquake
Haiti, Nepal and other disasters provide similarly salutary lessons in the limitations of large scale international response as the primary means of response, from unintentionally stimulating violence to issues of accountability. Surely it would not take a great deal to first identify regions susceptible to disaster and secondly to invest, long term, in locally based, culturally embedded and conflict sensitive agencies who can be ready the next time a disaster comes along? Isn’t this part of the resilience agenda we used to hear so much about?

But when you read the reactions of some of the larger agencies to this suggestion, and presumably these reactions feature in their donor lobbying, you begin to see why this never seems to happen every time we have the debate. Here’s Sean Lowrie, of the Start Network, which brings together international and national NGOs for humanitarian response. Its members include Save the Children, Oxfam and Christian Aid, speaking to the Guardian:
“We’re still working in an old-fashioned, centralised, top-down system, which believes in the fallacy of control. We’re stuck and we’re not talking about the real issue, which are incentives, behaviour and governance. What we need is a whole new eco-system of smart humanitarianism, which responds to what is needed, which is flexible and diversified, and which is financed in new, smart ways.”
That sounds great. But part of the problem is that it sounds great to everyone because these are large statements that mean everything to everyone. When it gets down to the bottom line what we surely need to see are smaller, in-country based and more agile agencies that understand and are able to navigate the intensely political environments within which disasters take place while building community level resilience in between. I wonder whether we will actually see concrete moves towards such a structure, with the call for 20% of funding to go to smaller agencies having been made at the Geneva summit at which Mr O’Brien was speaking. Or will we need to wait for another catastrophe to have this recurring conversation again.

Friday 16 October 2015

OGP & SDG16: Time to leave our comfort zones

Is the Open Government Partnership complimentary, contradictory or in competition with the Sustainable Development Goals and in particular SDG16 on governance? That was the big question posed by researchers from the Partnership for Transparency Fund writing earlier this week. The writers conclude that there is much to be gained from a complimentary approach and hope that conversations at the forthcoming Mexico OGP Summit will start to enable that to happen. The questions are posed in the context of some arguing that OGP should be the ‘home’ for SDG16 on governance, justice and peace to be implemented.

In response I think that the question is wrong and the answer is only partly right. Wrong because the idea that this is the first time that a multilateral initiative has been replicating large parts of another initiative is clearly not true, this is just the latest example. And only partly right because the opportunity here is fundamentally more exciting than just better co-ordination or the avoidance of duplication. We have an opportunity of a generation to actually do something effective for once about the interplay between power, politics, conflict and poverty. But we'll have to do that away from international institutions and policy wonkery, and in new and different ways.

On whether OGP should be the home of SDG16 I think there are fewer nuances. The idea is madness. For this to be the case you would need all countries of the world to join. And it’s worth bearing in mind that some existing member states have a nasty habit of shutting down a free press, locking up political opponents and using violence against their own citizens as a political tool. Perhaps a bit of institutional housecleaning to be done first.

The authors note that there is significant overlap between OGP goals and targets and that of SDG 16 on governance, peace and justice. Welcome to the world of international initiatives. OGP has also overlapped with the New Deal for Engagement with Fragile States for years. While the authors rightly argue that this could lead to unhealthy competition among initiatives rather than actually helping, I would politely suggest that the elites in many of the countries that have been members of both these initiatives, and who have made least progress on either, may also welcome the opportunity to merrily play the international community off against each other. That’s politics, folks.

The authors argue that OGP and SDG16 could collaborate in a brave new agenda for “…the larger goal of good governance”. Aside from the very loaded term ‘good’ it might also be worth bearing in mind that the OGP’s experience to date, and that of the New Deal before it, offer sage lessons in the challenges that face anyone seeking to turn SDG16 into reality. The New Deal ran into sand when elites in some member countries started to perceive that the OECD donors were themselves losing interest. OGP member states have stood accused by its own Independent Reporting Mechanism (IRM) of instrumentalising the initiative without delivering any form of governance reform at all. Chief among culprits was the current Chair South Africa, prompting President Zuma to reprimand the oversight of the IRM in front of President Obama at the 2014 OGP meeting at the UN General Assembly. Which was awkward.

"they take our taxes but don't fix our bridge". Amina's village, Dar es Salaam
Furthermore it’s worth reflecting that every time you create an initiative, platform or any other multilateral grouping – you create incentives, including those that mitigate against change and create closed conversations. A while ago I asked whether OGP in Africa would pass the Amina Test: whether this initiative which at the time was meeting in the same city she lived in would actually mean anything to the daily life of this young woman who knew all about corruption, bad governance and extreme poverty because her life chances had been stolen by all three. The consensus among African civil society voices by all accounts was that it would not pass that test. Unless and until initiatives like New Deal, OGP or even the SDGs actually mean anything to people like Amina we should perhaps temper our ambitions.

But therein lies the opportunity and the challenge. We can learn all of these lessons. We don’t need to repeat these errors. We cannot just pay lip service to Amina but instead meaningfully invite her and her community to shape the response. Hard to do, yes. But still possible. We can do all of those things. But it will mean, for civil society in particular, to start to move away from the international policy wonkery that has been the home for many of these ideas and start working to a far greater extent at national level for the next 5-10 years instead. Why hold a policy meeting in New York when you could have a more meaningful discussion with these people in Turkana: they have far more expertise in what power and governance looks like than UN officialdom does and will offer far greater insights than a debate where international folk who agree with each other talk to each other. It will mean going out of our way to capturing the learning that all of our experiences and those of others generate. And then using that learning collectively – as donors, practitioners and advocates to have honest conversations about failure as well as success. For those of us in the peacebuilding world it will mean working with new partners, and for those on the governance side of things the same. And for all of us it will mean thinking, working and acting politically but in ways which respect national sovereignty and local leadership.

Turkana village governors: the real governance policy experts
We can do all of that. But some of it will challenge our own institutional incentives, vested interests of the aid industry and frankly take many of us individually out of our comfort zones. Leverage every platform or initiative that there is out there - we have SDG16 now and that's a major advance - but we won't succeed in making it a success by seeing the next step as more engagement with international institutions. It will be won or lost on the ground, in hard and sometimes violent places.

If we genuinely want to seize the opportunity of SDG16, then that’s the deal, folks.

Sunday 27 September 2015

What are the SDGs for: power to the people?

So. Post2015 has become post-post2015 and the SDGs were eventually born. For those of us who were for years part of the NGO post2015 policy clique, seeing each other in airports and UN corridors more even than our home cities this is the end as well as the start of an era. But as the declarations of unity from political leaders, exhortations to humanity from our spiritual leaders (notably a particularly impressive Pope) and inspirations like Malala ring in our ears we must turn back to the daunting reality of real life and ask ourselves just how a set of 16 goals and nearly 200 indicators can actually change anything at the level that real people live at. Because heaven knows the MDGs didn’t. That global poverty rate? As Duncan Green points out, don’t look to MDGs, look to China. And are we suggesting that we would not have been tackling malaria, HIV, infrastructure and illiteracy without the MDGs? Really? Were geopolitics, trade and raw power not by far more important?

Time to get real, perhaps. And this might be the biggest advantage of the new era. Within the aid industry we were surely guilty of a collective conceit when we argued for more aid on the grounds that it was the single most important flow of resources to counter poverty and disease. For starters it was dwarfed by remittances from people at the bottom and FDI from those at the top, while those people living in the shadow of conflict were left as poor as they ever were in 2000 when similar proclamations lauded the Millennium Declaration. Yet I wasn’t the only one to be told not to rock the boat when pointing this out at public meetings by colleagues from some of the household names of the sector. Now there’s a new boat setting sail so perhaps we can set a new course, and have a more honest conversation. Poverty is about who has power and who has none: not aid, nor technical targets nor even what pop stars tell us.

Poverty is power at work

Poverty, oppression, corruption and violence are not accidents. They happen because elites choose to use all or some of them to capture resources, seize or maintain power. We know this and positively there are some signs that this is more recognised than before. The drive from Southern civil society to have governance, justice and conflict recognised in this framework was bitterly resisted by States themselves massively impacted by poor governance, non-existent justice systems and sustained levels of violence. They lost, largely because civil society got organised and understood how to use soft power over the course of the last 5 years. That stands in stark contrast to how similar areas of the Millennium Declaration were whitewashed out of the MDGs that emerged afterwards. It is therefore a very significant achievement. But that victory will only matter if it results in real power being accrued by those people who suffer most from the effects of bad governance, injustice and armed violence. If you ask them they're only too happy to educate us - just ask Amina of Dar es Salaam.

welcome to the European Union
As the refugee columns streaming across Europe from the wars in the Middle East are discovering as they meet barbed wire, brutality and indifference on the borders of the European Union – itself one of the loudest voices proclaiming a bright new dawn in New York – what those in power actually do can be very different from what they say. Power and politics matter.

Widen the conversation

But there is a glimmer of hope here. Power rests on information as well as force. And some citizens are beginning to realise that they can harness the power of new tools and technologies to gain access to it, share it and drive change that challenges the status quo. You’ll find the soaring rhetoric for this in the discourse around the Data Revolution. But could it, even ever so slightly, work in real life? My point here is that in theory it could – but in order for that to happen it will need to be a conversation involving many more people than it currently does (primarily NGO policy wonks and bright new tech startups) and take people from very different walks of life to abandon the ways they do things and to work with each other in new ways. Data geeks with conflict transformation experts, governance and peace studies professors, rich kids with their poorer compatriots.

The ground zero for this will be in those countries where the majority of the poorest are set to live, who benefited the least from the MDG era and where the challenges of governance, injustice and conflict are at their most profound: fragile states. If we don’t get it right here then forget about the ‘leave nobody behind’ theme of the SDG week just gone. But if we do get it right here, imagine the potential.

Be humble, be ambitious, rip up the rule book and learn.

So what to do?

First, in my view we need to be very very humble. Those of us seeking to contribute to peace and development need to understand we are bit players entering tectonic processes of change and contestation that are centuries old and which will continue long after we and our short term projects are gone.

But, secondly, let's be ambitious. The Southern voices that fought their own governments to a point where they conceded the political aspects of the SDGs were ambitious, and rightly so. Working together we can change things but one step at a time with clearly thought out analysis and theories of how our interventions might gently nudge those processes of change in a slightly better direction over the long term.

And thirdly, it's time to rip up the conceptual basis for how we structure ourselves into silos – practitioners, researchers and donors alike. Human affairs do not correspond to the structures the aid industry has built for itself, so why should we expect those divides to do anything apart from fail? Innovative programmes likely to succeed will surely be those that adopt an explicitly learning approach where the learning is a primary objective not a by-product of a pre-determined theory of change, itself the product of a pre-determined donor priority, and are capable of setting out explicitly power-based approaches that seek to harness the very real potential of data but – crucially – ensure that *all* sections of society are part of the conversation about what that data is, what it means and what they want to see done about it by those in power. In other words genuinely responsive governments. And this is in no way an anti-government agenda either – some of the keenest champions of change are officials within the State, but they need willing partners. Equally some of the new wave of business pioneers are ready and willing to be part of the solution too, as they eventually must be. Both of them are just waiting to be asked, as one inspirational conversation on how change happens last year in Johannesburg powerfully illustrated.

There is a critically important role for international actors but as practitioners we are going to need to ditch many of our own vested interests in how we’ve done things so far, as donors accept a far far greater tolerance of risk in order for responsive, creative approaches to have the space to work and – for all of us – to start working coherently and rather more cleverly than we have so far rather than in our boxes that was so evident throughout the whole Post2015 process as each ‘niche’ sought to insert their own bauble on to the SDG Christmas Tree.

We are not short of ideas, thinking or theories as to how to do this stuff in practice. We just need to try it. Positive Deviance, Problem Driven Adaptive Iteration, Complexity Theory and so much more is out there just waiting to be tried – at scale – and with the requisite tolerance of risk necessary for it to find what works in each unique context.

It will be hard. Stuff will go wrong. In some cases very badly wrong. But that’s the human condition we’re seeking to deal with. The SDGs are much better than the MDGs. That is a good thing. But if they don’t lead to information and power being placed in the hands of the poorest and most vulnerable then their potential will be lost. Good luck, everyone.

Sunday 26 July 2015

The Sentry: tackling conflict?

The Enough Project has produced a very slick, if spoiled by a blockbuster-style soundtrack, video to publicise its latest offering in a string of innovative approaches to tackling conflict in Africa. And in developing The Sentry the good folks at Enough have pioneered some steps by the conflict transformation community into the world of open data. Good for them.The problem is they seem to have fallen into the trap of so many tech initiatives that have gone before: the tech gets placed ahead of the conflict with hugely inflated claims of the impact the data will have - and is apparently being led exclusively by well intentioned Americans, while as others have pointed out for a project about Africa there is not an African leader in sight in this video, only the victims. Plus George Clooney.

Clooney: closing down conflict in Africa
Clooney and the Enough Project make a number of grand claims of what an approach to following the financial flows associated with some of the most protracted conflicts in the world might mean, both in terms of holding international corporates accountable and even more in terms of changing their behaviour. The project builds on the work supported by donors including the Open Societies Foundation and African innovators in the use of open source data, such as Justin Arenstein, to create a cadre of analysts and reporters who can then use that information to expose illicit flows, sanctions evasion, smuggling of natural resources and so on. But you don't see any reference to those African innovators already doing this work, which is a shame because Africa is not short of these people.

In response to this criticism Sacha Lezhnev of the Enough Project said that they were working with "a number" of these civil society and media actors who preferred to remain anonymous for safety reasons.

To achieve the sort of change this project calls for it will need to take place globally and locally in the countries affected by conflict themselves. My main questions on this project are twofold and relate to both of those levels of change.


Which companies are we talking about, here? Africa is the world's fastest growing region for FDI, with a 5% increase in 2014. A third of that was for extraction, principally oil and gas. And the majority of that investment came from China, with USD198.5 billion and rising in 2012. US FDI by comparison was USD 108.9 billion and falling in the same year. My point here is that Follow the Money style projects are likely to have very different impacts on a publicly listed company in New York or London, by comparison to an essentially State run enterprise in Beijing. But this is lost in the razmatazz of the project's publicity which does not refer once to China. This is not to argue that these projects have no purpose - they really do, as the work of OpenCorporates and others have already shown, but it may be wise to temper expectations, and plan for the long term rather than promising short term transformative change which is simply unrealistic.


To achieve change locally requires local people. So how is the introduction of data in this way different to the work that has already been produced by organisations like Code for Africa and others in the development of data journalism? Because these people have not only experience but valuable learning which it would be wise to reflect on, in the extent to which data can be used by citizens to hold power to account.

Here's Code for Africa, on the as-yet unfulfilled promise of open data:
"Open Data & Open Government Are Revolutionary. They promise to change the power dynamics that govern our societies, giving ordinary citizens more and deeper information in real time, along with digital tools for engaging with fellow citizens and with those in positions of power.

So, why are so few citizens using either the data or the tools -- despite generous funding and massive institutional support?

The problem, Code for Africa believes, is an issue of supply versus demand. Much of the focus by the civic technology movement to date has been on governments and activists pushing data and services at citizens, rather than listening to what citizens really want or need".
They go on to suggest how this could be redefined, taking a bottom up approach and listening to the citizens themselves. You have to wonder how much of this learning is reflected in the Enough Projects new venture into this arena. Judging by the video and the website not much. So it would be interesting to know more about how they plan to build on and learn from the experiences of the real innovators in this field who have been pioneering this work quietly, often at great risk to themselves for several years already.

Partnerships for change?

If we could see real partnerships being forged between international organisations and those innovators operating at the heart of the conflicts, building on the learning that this cutting edge work has already generated; and combining it with the knowledge of those citizen groups already involved in peacebuilding and conflict transformation on the ground who are usually absent from these projects, we might start to realise some of the tantalising potential that this sort of work holds out for genuinely altering conflict in Africa.

In the forthcoming SDG era where data is set to be king, there's a genuine opportunity to think creatively about how we harness the power of that data at the levels we will need to effect change. But I think projects like this, who deserve real credit for even trying, will need to be a little more humble, a lot more integrated and involve much wider collaboration to do that.

Tuesday 21 July 2015

Power blindness, conflict & governance: an appeal for joined up learning

Parents at a school in Turkana,  Kenya
Why do so many projects and programmes aimed at tackling problems created and sustained by powerful elites, fail to deal with the power dynamics that are driving those problems? In my view this is about easy assumptions, theories of change that bear little reality to the messy realities of human affairs and a short-termist approach from the donor community which dis-incentivises learning and the application of that learning to what practitioners in the field can do. So what’s the solution? I believe the only way to turn this around is to invest in programmes that are centred on learning as an objective in its own right, to have an honest conversation about the uncomfortable conclusions that that learning might present to well-established approaches and to expand that learning community to include the two disciplines that need to come together more than most: those that deal in ‘governance’ and those that pursue conflict transformation. I've spent time on both sides of that divide, most recently at Making All Voices Count and the division is both clear and largely pointless, hobbling efforts to effect genuinely transformative change from both perspectives. With the majority of the poorest and most vulnerable set to live in fragile states where, by definition, governance is at its weakest, we are collectively letting down the poorest and most vulnerable in who's interests we claim to be working.


If we build capacity then citizens will advocate for peace. If we publish data on services or resources then citizens will hold their governments accountable. The two broad assumptions that lie behind the majority of programming in the worlds of open government and peacebuilding. The problem is they are both wrong, as these parents in Turkana, Kenya who gave me a welcome and blunt reality check could have told you, if only they'd been asked. Change simply isn't that simple.

Trailblazers who are determined to prove this to be true are few and far between. But thankfully they do exist and long may they provide discomfort to the rest of us. Much has been made, rightly, of Twaweza’s role in highlighting the limits of data in inspiring citizens to act, even when the futures of their own children are at stake. An excellent article from Charles Kenny of CGD here compares the learning from Uwezo and India’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) , the latter of which highlights the lack of action that can be the hallmark of the State’s response to data too. Having established the woeful performance of that country’s educational outcomes, with one fifth unable to read a Grade 1 text, little actually happened as a result. This seems counter-intuitive. But if you are a citizen that has never been asked for your opinion or worse still live in a fragile context where expressing your opinion can be dangerous, why on earth would you? And as for the powerful elites within the Indian State, here’s what a senior Ministry of Human Resource Development official told the authors of the ASER report:
“Government always knew that learning levels are poor in public schools. We did not need ASER to tell us this fact which to us has always been self-evident.” 

 In other words, so what? It’s a fair bet that the children of that official didn’t attend a public school. And without incentives to challenge what might be vested interests, why would we expect powerful elites to change? By failing to acknowledge this in so many open government programmes and initiatives, in particular those that focus solely on technology, we risk exacerbating these factors rather than altering them. One reason why the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States has underperformed so dramatically and the Open Government Partnership still doesn’t seem all that relevant to real people in real places like Amina. This matters: nothing that emerged from the Financing for Development conference the other week would suggest the next development agenda will be any more explicit about the role of power in sustaining poverty, retarding equitable growth and promoting violence.

Theories of change 

One of the most frustrating things about making this case is that nobody disagrees with you. It’s all obvious. Then why do we still see so many open calls with linear 'A will lead to B and then C will happen' thinking? And why do we still see that thinking pervade the heights of senior decision makers within institutions that (a) should know better based on what their own reports tell them and (b) have the capacity to create either great harm or great progress? To me this practice is encapsulated in the ‘feedback loop’ idea that dominates the discourse around governance reform and to a lesser extent conflict transformation work. Seen most dramatically perhaps by the launch of the World Bank’s report on ‘closing the feedback loop: can technology bridge the accountability gap?’. To which, in my view the answer is no, it can’t, if tech is your starting point and not the power dynamics that govern the relationship people have with their governments.

The problem is, as we saw in this debate, the Bank seems to think the answer is yes. Vice President Sanjay Pradhan told us in April 2014 that the Bank sees governance as essentially a transaction between citizen and state, in which the citizen offers feedback on the service and the government responds. He even gave a project in the DRC (of all places) to illustrate this. To say such thinking ignores power is an understatement. To reflect on the size and impact of the spending power informed by this superficial and ill-informed analysis is terrifying. In fairness the Bank continues to invite critiques of its work, and its own reports hve highlighted the fallacy of this sort of approach with at least the World Development Reports of 2004 (on service delivery in a context of power) and 2011 (on developmental progress in fragile settings) underlining where they’re going wrong. But the problem is they seem to carry on regardless.

WDR2011: directly contradicts feedback loop thinking and challenges policymakers to think about conflict & power
One explanation for this might be in the short term-ism of so many donors in the open government and conflict transformation arenas. Projects that are restricted to one or more years duration with little or no provision made for the sort of long term, flexible, adaptive approaches we know are necessary to really get to grips with the underlying dynamics that need to change – captured perhaps in the Problem Driven Iterative Adaptation or Positive Deviance schools of thought – are unlikely to get very far. And so we carry on.

What to do? 

The evidence base for what works and what doesn’t in goverance and conflict transformation is thin, for a good reason – it simply hasn’t been a priority by comparison to traditional forms of technocratic development encapsulated by the MDG era of the last 15 years. The only way of learning is by doing, but by this approach we will on occasions fail. I am not advocating the sort of ‘Fail Forward’ approach adopted by some in which failure seems to be actively celebrated, but I would humbly suggest that the development industry needs to adopt a much greater tolerance of risk.

Secondly we need an honest conversation which includes donors, practitioners and reformers alike. What we learn is likely to be challenging and uncomfortable. But honest conversations can and do happen as I was privileged to see in Jakarta last year at the Transparency & Accountability Initiative Learning Week on the subject of learning, limits and power. We heard directly from some of the trailblazers so far, including the former head of Twaweza now seated under his new desk at the Ford Foundation. Expanding that conversation beyond the few currently involved would be a massively positive step.

So, who’s up for it? Can we establish an active learning community drawn from across the open government, conflict transformation and donor communities that seeks to work out how to create space for risk, to learn from the good and bad it creates and innovate together?

Friday 15 May 2015

OGP Africa: does it pass the Amina Test?

Amina lives in Dar es Salaam. It's not her real name. The fact that I can't tell you her real name is the basis for the question I ask about the Open Government Partnership's regional meeting for Africa taking place this week, May 20-21. I'm a big believer in the potential of the OGP but I worry it will miss living up to that potential by not grounding itself sufficiently in the real-life experiences of people like Amina, and what 'government' really looks like to them.

The choice of Tanzania for the regional meeting was controversial. It was borne, I am told by those organising it, simply out of necessity. The original plan (Sierra Leone) had been scuppered by the outbreak of Ebola and as the clock ticked no other country was apparently as willing as Tanzania to host the high profile event. There are presidential elections in that country in October.

Yet the location goes to the heart of some pressing and uncomfortable questions about what OGP is actually for. Tanzania has recently banned a newspaper and threatened journalists and bloggers with prison should they use what the government deems to be the 'wrong statistics'. This is not the bright dawn of openness shining through. And yet, and yet. Should OGP not hold the meeting there, then? My instinct is that to do so risks undermining the credibility of the initiative - but a very strongly held counter view by some is that this is precisely *why* the OGP should host their meeting there, enabling civil society in particular to vocalise the problems and put the government on the spot.

Time will tell whether that actually happens, and I respect the views of those who think that this is the best thing to do. 

But whatever happens here's a challenge I'd like to throw out. The Amina Test. I met her last July in a slum in Dar es Salaam. She is a highly intelligent and passionate woman who wanted to study as a nurse and won a place at a local college to do so. But when she turned up, ready to forge a career, and better both her own circumstances and that of her fellow citizens in doing so, she found that her place had been sold to someone else - who did not have the same qualifications as her, but had better political connections instead. Her future had been traded away. There was no question of appealing, or being able to do anything whatsoever about it. Amina now lives in the same slum, is not a nurse and has no hope of being so but continues her vocation by working alongside an older woman in a kind of apprenticeship for traditional medicine; helping women give birth who cannot afford to use the local hospital among other treatments. 

A bridge too far for really responsive government in Dar
Amina lives in a place that is regularly flooded, with a water mark high on the walls of her home, and rarely sees any local government officials. Standing down the path from her home, past the piles of rubbish festering in the heat, is a broken bridge that for me symbolised what government looked like to her. The bridge, which connected two halves of the area, had been broken by a flood several years ago. Despite regular promises to fix it, usually at election time, it still stood broken, with the villagers having constructed a hazardous plank across. Below them is a river that doubles as a clothes washing facility and a latrine. Amina's comment as she looked at the bridge was that the only thing the State seemed to be efficient at was collecting her taxes. Failure of citizens like her to pay them on time resulted in fines or prison, both very efficiently levied. 

A year on what I remember most about meeting her was the sheer level of cynicism she and others had toward both local and national government. It's not hard to understand why. And my reason for recounting this is to wonder just how connected the topics of conversation at the OGP Africa meeting will relate to how the world looks through the eyes of Amina. Because it needs to, to be relevant and stand any chance of being as transformative as it seeks to be.

Young activists' tributes to Nelson Mandela 
The people who will be at OGP Africa, from government, civil society and business alike, will be elites. As am I. But that includes many people from each of those categories who are deeply committed to doing what they can to transform the way that governments relate to citizens. I saw that at first hand during an inspirational session at the African Union in March, as civil society from across the continent sought to shape an African position on open data. Or at this meeting in South Africa as a post-post-apartheid generation sought to utilise the OGP platform to generate real change in the increasingly authoritarian politics of that country.

Inspiring backdrop to OGP South Africa meeting 
My point is that their collective challenge will be to ground each of their discussions - which will revolve around open data, reporting and participation - to the harsh realities of power, politics, marginalisation and inequality; not to mention the ever present threat of intimidation. These are frequently lacking from the open government discourse which often centres on tech, transparency and dubious assumptions of what citizens will actually do with data. If we see communiques and statements coming out of OGP Africa - signed up to by Governments and civil society alike - that demonstrably relate to those issues, setting clear and measurable goals to address them in meaningful ways, then the meeting will have passed the Amina Test. She has the right to expect that it does. 

Tuesday 5 May 2015

My new job: at Saferworld

New horizons beckon once again! I am really excited to be joining the peacebuilding NGO Saferworld, as Head of Asia programmes. Saferworld have played a leading role in the policy debates on peace and security in recent years, and have a reputation for innovative programming which seeks to get to the heart of how you transform the dynamics which drive violent conflict in some of the most volatile areas of the world. I've worked alongside them on both levels in recent years; arguing for peace, governance and security to be part of the Post 2015 framework within the corridors of the UN and on programming in the field. It's a real privilege to join the team.

I'm returning to the peacebuilding tribe after spending just over a year with the governance reform programme Making All Voices Count (MAVC). I learned a huge amount in that 12 months and am grateful for having done so, particularly as it has strengthened my conviction that there is an as-yet largely unexplored nexus between governance and peacebuilding approaches that could and should be combined, to unlock the most transformative levels of change we know we need to achieve in order for real change to happen in a world of ever shifting complexity, power & politics. 

Putting that together with the very well established and ground breaking programming areas for which Saferworld is known, in security & justice reform, understanding gender, peace & security and promoting conflict sensitive development among others, I hope we can start to build on those areas while pioneering new approaches in the field that draw from a wider set of experiences, contributing evidence of what works and why. With that in mind I'm looking forward to working again with the many and excellent colleagues, friends and givers of wise counsel I have had the very great privilege to meet in the last year.

Exciting times ahead!

Monday 30 March 2015

Africa Data Consensus: power & politics, not tech

It was a real privilege to be asked to help facilitate a group on what the data revolution could and should mean for Africa last week. A High Level Conference in Addis Ababa hosted by UNECA convened civil society, innovators from business and elsewhere to hammer out what an African position could look like. Groups included those looking at peace and security, public services and data for development.

Working with colleagues from Hivos our own group was reassuringly one of the largest and looked at what harnessing the power of data could mean for human progress in the coming generations. Frankly I was blown away by the power of the ideas that flowed, many of which are reflected in the final document (above). Participants included two young guys from openstreetmap in Cote D'Ivoire, a woman human rights campaigner from DRC and the former Speaker of Parliament in the Comoros.

What was particularly reassuring for me was that so much of the debate centred on the problems of real life, rather than the "there's an app for that" discourse so frequently found in tech or 'innovation' based conversations and programmes.

What did it mean for security and privacy? How could we harness the power of business at the same time as guarding against abuses? Could 'data' end up being the new extractive industry - with business making huge profits while not releasing data as responsible citizens. Huge questions with no easy answers but we arrived at a hard fought consensus on the key action points for the Ministers of the African Union meeting this week to consider. It will be intriguing to see which way that goes.

UPDATE: 2nd April: The AU statement is out and it makes for underwhelming reading, I'm afraid. Highly state-centric, it concentrates on the role of national statistical agencies and "existing pan African inititatives. This is despite the civil society participants pointing out repeatedly that national government agencies could only ever capture a partial picture of people's lives and services, while there was an absence of any meaningful and holistic pan African data initiatives. Here's what the powerful had to say:
"High-quality statistical information and data are essential for the proper planning and measurement of development outcomes. Africa should generate its own data to enable it to better monitor and track economic and social targets, including the goals and objectives of Agenda 2063. A data revolution in Africa would afford our continent the opportunity to interact with diverse data communities and to embrace a wide range of data sources, tools and innovative technologies, which would enable the continent to produce disaggregated data, including gender-disaggregated data, for decision-making, service delivery and citizen engagement. An African data revolution should be built on the principles of openness across the data value chain and a vibrant data ecosystem driven by national priorities and inclusive national statistical systems. In this regard, we underscore the importance of strengthening existing pan-African statistical institutions, as well as other similar institutions agreed to by Heads of State and Government, to support the implementation of the first ten-year plan of Agenda 2063."
Disappointing, is my verdict.