Thursday 28 April 2016

The New Deal: all about poverty?!

Sarah Hearn has written a thought provoking article on the World Bank’s site which argues that the New Deal, of which she has just led an independent evaluation, is “…the basis for fighting extreme poverty”. As if that wasn’t enough she goes on: “…the New Deal could strike the definitive blow against extreme poverty in the next fifteen years”. In both cases, for added impact, the quotes are hyper-linked as ready-made tweets for the faithful to send out about the New Messiah.

I don’t think the New Deal is the new Messiah. In fact I think it’s been a very naughty boy in recent years. Beset with a lack of senior engagement or delivery by the very donors who brought it into this world in partnership with the G7+ Group of fragile states, who themselves have faced trenchant criticism from their own civil society for not having lived up to the commitment of developing a participatory approach to a new way of inclusive governance, the New Deal has suffered what Dave Algoso refers to as the ‘hype cycle’, which I applied to the New Deal here.

Not the Messiah
Hearn’s article seems to want to cheer-lead the New Deal back onto centre stage by aligning it with pre-defined agendas of ‘ending extreme poverty’ which was never the basis for the initiative. Which is a shame, because elsewhere in her article she makes a number of very valid and profound points that those of us who want to see real progress on conflict, peace, justice and governance need to reflect on. Here are some of the stronger take-aways for me:

Local accountability

Hearn rightly points out that “…solutions to conflict and poverty only work when they are nationally-owned and led”. She adds that one of the strongest aspects of the New Deal was that it established the principle of mutual accountability for progress against commitments: between citizen and State, but also between State and donors.

Leaving aside the dubious word ‘solution’ (conflict is never 'solved' it is a process of contestation which in and of itself is not a problem, it’s the violence when institutions fail that can be the problem) – the author hits the nail on the head. The FOCUS and TRUST principles established mutual accountability between citizens, States and donors for the first time in what should have been a binding framework which, even if some parties didn’t live up to their commitments was, in and of itself, a real marker of progress in the way the world responds to conflict.

Global progress

Which leads me to my second point. Hearn usefully describes the G7+ as ‘global norm entrepreneurs’. I haven’t come across this description before but it fits – and that is what is so potentially exciting about the New Deal; placing control in the hands of progressive partners in government and civil society in the fragile states themselves and for them to start to jointly redefine the routes out of conflict. This is real global progress and played a large role in the emergence of SDG16 on governance, peace and justice. Though the author omits to mention that global civil society, which included those drawn from fragile states, themselves played just as much an important norm re-setting role as their governments did in the years leading to 2015.

The author also notes the lack of progress by donors in meeting commitments to their G7+ partners. This has been picked up before, notably in this landmark review from 2014, and in the light of the European refugee crisis I suspect is a feature that will worsen. But right to hold them to account.

So far, so good. But...

No room for governance?

Hearn repeatedly states that the New Deal is about ‘ending extreme poverty’. No it isn’t. It is about assisting countries to break cycles of conflict that keep repeating because of factors like weak institutions, elite resource capture, endemic corruption, marginalisation, contested legitimacy and ham-fisted interventions by international institutions which often make things much worse. Like the World Bank, for example. It’s about redefining how citizens self-define as participants in that State, how they define the causes of fragility that undermine that State and by reaching a compact with political elites about how to address them. Yes, that might provide the basis for economic growth to take place which lifts people out of poverty – but conflict exists in a wide range of countries with a very wide range of economic circumstances. Who defines ‘extreme poverty’ anyway? Is that how those actors engaged in armed conflict define their struggles? Is that what citizens are saying that they want? Or is this an attempt to shoe-horn the New Deal into a ready-made set of mantras that passed their sell by date in 2015 with the passing of the MDGs?

The point here is not semantic, it’s serious. SDG16 requires us to think about governance as well as justice and peace. That is far more relevant than a discourse on ‘extreme poverty’ to the people it is supposed to support. Ask these people in Liberia.

Nowhere in this piece does Hearn mention the Open Government Partnership (OGP) for example, which some fragile states, including G7+ members, are starting to join. The idea that the New Deal is the main show in town for fragile states is daft. What we need surely is a coherent approach that brings open government efforts to improve transparency, accountability and anti corruption – usually dominated by civil society elites in capitals – with peacebuilding efforts usually taking place within traditionally marginalised populations who may in many cases have been engaged in armed confrontation for decades. Initiatives like OGP and the New Deal do not talk to each other at the moment, and that is a problem. There is much they could learn from each other, and together would stand a far greater chance of generating real progress in line with the holistic approach to peace that SDG16 sets out.

Jim Kim gets it

Earlier this year I watched Jim Kim issue a comment at the Bank’s Fragility Forum that startled many of his colleagues. He acknowledged that the Bank had been part of the problem in many fragile states and promised to be more coherent, more joined up and to end a technocratic and fragmented approach which mitigated against progress. Perhaps getting carried away he demanded to be told if any World Bank employee didn’t live up to that vision.

Articles like this highlight that we have a long way to go before we achieve that level of joined up thinking. And considering how long real change takes to happen, we don’t have a moment to waste.

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