Wednesday 21 September 2016

Peace in Myanmar: Listen to the people

“Some of you don’t like me. Some of you don’t like the Army. Some of you don’t like the Karen National Union. But that’s OK. We all have to live together”.
The Bago Region State Minister had just summed up the status and sentiment of the peace process in this part of Northern Kayin State, Myanmar.

Today was International Peace Day, and I was privileged to share it with two of the World’s longest military adversaries: Myanmar’s military (called the Tatmadaw) and one of the many Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAOs) in Myanmar who have fought them since the late 1940s, the Karen National Union (KNU). I was here with Saferworld, for whom I work, and some of our partners working on the promotion of women’s role in the peace process.

Some areas of Karen are controlled by the Government. Other parts are controlled by the KNU. Having woken at dawn in Taungoo Township, itself under Government control, we journeyed off road for an hour through misty villages already well awake with the hard graft of farming. The dirt track got narrower, bumpier and more remote. And all of a sudden the odd soldier lining the route had a different insignia on their arm. We had crossed into KNU territory.

But this day was different. Karen civil society had painstakingly negotiated permissions to enable senior Government officials, Tatmadaw officers and even the Myanmar Police to cross into this area, attend and take part in a Peace Day event in front of several hundred villagers, who have borne the brunt of this conflict since before independence from Britain.

Even at 7am the sun was brutal but so were the people’s determination to sit there, sweat and listen to what these men had to say. And yes, they were all men. But it was not lost on anyone that it had been women, working behind the scenes and among their communities, who had brought them to the stage itself. The Commander of KNU’s 2nd Brigade spoke alongside the Tatmadaw officers. Both signatories to a ceasefire since 2012, but their polite mutual applause did not disguise how far remained to travel. In fact all of the speeches were conciliatory and the applause uniform. But what has struck me most in the conversations with those peacebuilders who have done so much to bring us to this point is how long and bumpy it will be before there is long term sustainable peace here. The sheer depth of antipathy, lack of trust in any part of the State by many, and the long term social impact of decades of violence will take generations to overcome, so that Myanmar can start to reach its potential.

Those of us wishing to support from the outside – donors and practitioners – have to start from a point of humility. We do not have the answers. They do. There are real opportunities but there is one simple metric to apply: will it be people-led instead of Government-centred? If the answer is no, it’s time to think again.

Setting Priorities: Listen and Learn

It was notable that behind the dignitaries the poster quoted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and stated that they were collectively “building blocks for peace”. Donors, UNDP: are you listening? That is real people telling us what they want the SDGs to mean in their realities. There are already proliferating SDG initiatives in this country that do not relate to building peace, but other agendas pre-determined by some donors and the government instead. Time to think again.

Making their voices count
Myanmar is about to embark on a process in which some form of federalism will be debated as a future governance settlement to bring the fighting to an end. But there are multiple and competing definitions of that federal state, and not every EAO has signed a ceasefire. Heavy fighting is currently taking place in different areas of the country. The momentum and genuine hope created and sustained by Aung San Suu Kyi is real reason to hope that these factors can be navigated and a more inclusive process can take shape. But it would be a profound mistake for outsiders not to place support for building peace at the centre of any and all of their strategies here, and to support the chances of peace by shaping those strategies from the bottom-up, listening and learning from what communities living in villages like this will gladly tell you about, if only they are asked. Peace will not ultimately be secured at a grand signing convention with world leaders looking on. It will be won or lost in these villages, with real people deciding if they have built enough trust in their former adversaries to begin to build together.


What today proved was that those people want peace. They showed that standing under the sun. From all generations. Holding candles. Gently scolding bored children. Wearing banners on their heads. They made sure their voices were heard today by those men who bear arms and wield power. That is their victory and what peace day is all about.

An even bigger victory would be for their voices to be heard, listened to and acted upon by those who will celebrate peace day later today at the UN General Assembly in New York, or in the capital cities of donor agencies as priorities are set.

Or is that too much for them to ask?

Friday 9 September 2016

The Failure Debate: Cold Shower Time

Failure is a sexy theme at the moment. How to adapt and iterate to it is the latest development Holy Grail. But rather like a religious text the conclusions people draw from the debate tend to depend on their own standpoint, interests and perspectives. A thoughtful blogpost by DFID thinker Pete Vowles illustrates this point. As a donor he wrestles with the idea that failure is inevitable and useful if it can be captured for learning and adaptation, while wondering at how to make it ‘OK to fail’ for those implementing projects.

Pete makes a number of useful observations. He highlights, for example, the constant waves of new donor metrics, clouding one’s ability to judge progress from one to the next. He cites the lack of space for donors to really listen to local communities enough. And the implicit pressure to avoid any kind of failure, for fear of undermining wider aid efforts by handing ammunition to skeptics. There’s no easy answer to any of those when you consider the political economy donors and practitioners inhabit.

Yet some of the points Pete makes I think could be helped along by a cold shower reality check followed by some political thinking.

Time, cost & quality 

Pete posits one useful way of understanding failure is to adopt three lenses of time, cost and quality. But then leaves that hanging without returning to it anywhere else in his blog. This sounds eerily like the magnificent sounding “3 E”’s that were unveiled excitedly by DFID bods some years ago. We were told that Efficiency, Economy and Effectiveness would be the yardstick of judging Value for Money, but that was never really defined either.

I recently read a DFID call for proposals that very clearly judged VFM not on any of the “E”s but squarely on what percentage their implementing partner would charge them in overheads. And not much else. We clearly need a framework for judging value for money. We don’t yet have one beyond buzzwords that are ill-understood and applied inconsistently. And that’s a problem for adapting and iterating to failure using public funds that are rightly under scrutiny.

Safe to fail? 

Pete states that donors need to make it ‘safe’ for implementers to own up to, highlight and learn from failure. That is absolutely correct. But if Pete doesn’t mind me saying so, he is whistling in the wind.

The brutal reality is that there is a massive power imbalance which it is naïve to pretend doesn’t exist. Donor agencies have plenty. Sometimes more than their host Governments. Implementers, be they community based organisations, activist networks, NGOs or INGOs have absolutely none. There is a sliding scale of ‘none’ with local CBOs at the bottom, as INGOs can lobby. But it’s still basically none. Take a look at how DFID is destroying some UK based INGOs at the moment by repeatedly missing its own deadlines and commitments to re-invest in a PPA agreement. It’s already too late for some of them. Consider how that has impacted in turn on the local partners with whom those INGOs work, who rely on flexible funding to experiment, try new ways of working and to do the things Pete says he wants to see more of. It’s already too late for some of them too.

Institutional self-awareness is not easily created, but for all the woolly talk of “partnership” by donors it will always be a patron-client relationship. So if donors are serious then they need to start placing a hard financial value on learning in project design that goes way beyond standardised approaches to M&E or disjointed ‘learning components’ that often look like a bolt-on. We need consistent investment in projects that incentivise learning and adaptation at the core, recognising the value of both. Time to stop talking and start doing.

Be an aid skeptic 

Pete comes to the right conclusions in many respects. His points about listening to local people being the most pertinent among them in my view. So long as listening is accompanied by a preparedness to change course. But I couldn’t let his final flourish go without comment. He urges the reader to “think like an aid skeptic” in order to understand how this might all appear externally and to be self-critical. He later states:
“After all, the task of poverty reduction is one of the most challenging there is.”
The problem with this is twofold. Firstly there is an implicit assumption that his readers are not skeptics. I am. In fact most of the people I consider to be doing the most innovative thinking on adaptive programming are also wizened old skeptics. We should all be skeptics in my view, all the time. That, surely, is a pre-requisite to recognising when things go wrong, and to avoid the overly optimistic theories of change that often lead to mistakes being repeated, frequently by donors themselves, while limiting a tendency to overstate the actual impact of our efforts on people’s lives. It would also help with reducing hype-cycles that lead to ever shifting metrics and priorities. 

Secondly, and linked to the first, should we perhaps drop the pretence that development is about poverty? What does that mean anyway? $1.25 a day, or freedom of expression? Going back to Pete’s point about listening to local communities I doubt very much they would all frame their challenges in that way.

Citizens in Turkana. Voice, not poverty alleviation

Development is politics

When I met these communities in Turkana, who score highly on any poverty index, they didn’t talk about ‘poverty’. They talked about power. And how they didn’t have a voice, as one teacher put it, because there was no local strongman fighting their corner. They wanted to be treated justly, to have a voice and to build a better world for their children. How do we judge the relative contribution our efforts might be making to them? Or to these open government activists in South Africa trying to realise Mandela's vision of liberty amid rampant elite corruption?

And to readers who have never met her before allow me to introduce a young woman who to me personified the chasm that lies between the aid industry and the international initiatives which become their world - and the reality of what the world actually looks like to ordinary people. In my view Amina from Dar es Salaam should be asked to write every donor agency's strategy with immediate effect. Is she poor? Absolutely. Would she describe herself and her ambitions in that way? Not a chance.

Development is politics, whether we like it or not. So how we ultimately judge success or failure surely needs to go way beyond a projectised approach to business as usual development in the short term and take a much, much more holistic and long term view of how our aggregate efforts are having an impact overall. Otherwise it might add up to a row of nicely arranged beans in the end.