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.

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