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?