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.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Conflict, peacebuilding & open government: opportunities & threats

“Election victories bring legitimacy to new leaders and provide windows of opportunity for bold action … nevertheless ethnic armed groups … also enjoy significant, if contested, legitimacy, particularly among marginalised communities that often regard the State as alien.”
A key passage from an excellent review by Ashley South of the peace processes in Myanmar and the Philippines, and the daunting challenges they face now. This review is written from a political economy perspective and looks at the bargaining and deals that have or have not yet been done in both contexts. The comparative study makes a number of observations that to my mind highlight a set of challenges but also opportunities for a combined open government/peacebuilding approach to have greater traction on openness as well as long term peace. Ultimately this calls for a unified institutional approach to an SDG agenda that places conflict together with governance and justice in a way that will force us to confront this challenge. In my view not a moment too soon.

Don’t rush

South points out that as a peace process takes hold there is an increasing asymmetry of power which threatens vested interests on the part of non-State armed groups. Put bluntly they start to lose relevance. South states:

“While the current transition in Myanmar may prove an opportunity to reassess State-society relations in the country, it might also represent a turning point in influence for the ethnic armed organisations”.
Another way of looking at this, is that the elites at the top of armed organisations are at their most vulnerable as this process takes hold. A quick look at the overthrow of elites in other former armed groups that were attempting non-violence in the past makes this point. Not appreciating this, and rushing towards elections and/or new forms of electoral or otherwise political contestation before democratic institutions and armed groups themselves are ready for this, therefore poses huge risks. Timing and sequencing for governance initiatives, especially those under the ‘democratisation’ banner, is critical.

Build trust

South notes that in both Myanmar and the Philippines, the conflicts dividing society have lasted so long that there is now a lack of understanding on both sides of the other, particularly among the young. A lack of understanding by a majority population of the history, circumstances and grievances of marginalised communities is acutely dangerous if a governance approach is not itself informed and shaped by it. The “Open Government Partnership”, for example, is a title that implies one singular government with one State to which all citizens subscribe. If that is not the case and, furthermore, the people themselves do not understand each other's perspectives let alone universally self-define as citizens of that State, such an approach is doomed to fail or even do harm. Yet we do now have States joining OGP who face such challenges. The organisation I work for Saferworld is thinking hard about how to bring those approaches together to minimise harm and maximise potential. Because, amid the danger, there is potential.


I used to work in Sri Lanka just after the civil war. Not only did communities there not understand each other’s perspectives, in the case of younger generations they didn’t even speak the same language. English had been the official language which enabled Sinhalese and Tamil speakers to communicate prior to a war which erupted in 1983 and prevented most Tamil children born afterwards from learning it. To me it seemed symbolic of the challenge but also the chance to build: you can in the end learn to speak another language and, albeit in similarly lengthy timescales to learning a language, learn to understand and trust others too.

The potential presented by the entry of open governance initiatives into fragile contexts to create opportunities to support that process of learning to understand and trust through collaboration can be harnessed if the initiatives are designed in a way that is conflict sensitive, genuinely inclusive but also that do not shy away from difficult and intensely political issues. Otherwise you risk having a dialogue between international donors with privileged civil society and political elites that do not speak to the underlying grievances that at any time could re-emerge in favour of data-led projects that only scratch the surface. It’s worth remembering that the majority of conflicts are relapses of old.

Two themes seem likely to emerge from these initiatives in Myanmar, the Philippines but also Sri Lanka, Kenya and a wide range of other fragile contexts: federalism or some form of devolution on the one hand; and transparency/accountability on the other. Marginalised groups will tend to be interested in the former while relatively privileged majority groups the latter. Open government initiatives tend to avoid questions of devolution while peacebuilding approaches avoid transparency, beyond the superficial. Yet if they can be combined as part of the peacebuilding/openness deal then there could be very clear dividends for both. Devolution need not only be framed as answering a political demand from a formerly armed group but also as enhancing transparency for all groups in society, including the majority group, by bringing decision making closer to the people. Similarly enhancing transparency need not only be framed as something of relevance to the majority communities in society but also has the benefit of shining a light on the elites who for years have controlled the lives of marginalised groups in times of conflict.

An inclusive approach to peacebuilding and open governance – for example by ensuring the participation of all groups (defined by ethnicity, gender, geography etc.) – in determining political settlements as well as the themes on which a new era of governance is to be founded is going to be really, really hard. That’s why it hasn’t been tried before. But with the new era of SDGs that will compel donors and practitioners to come together to try them there are grounds for some hope. And the relevance of what we learn from this work will have implications way beyond post conflict states.

Saturday, 9 April 2016

Panama Peril for Opengov

This was the week the open government movement lost a leader, and began to realise its own frailty. The implications of a global political crisis sparked by the Panama Papers revelations has already claimed one Prime Minister, but for the openness movement it is another political casualty that risks exposing the flank of a movement that to date has enjoyed glitz, glamour and relative safety. David Cameron’s disastrous week involved issuing no less than five statements followed by an awkward TV interview in which he revealed that yes he had in fact benefitted from an offshore secret tax avoidance scheme, but promised not to do it again. He increasingly resembles Blair in the latter years, as even St. Snowden calls for his head.

Personally I think £30,000 inherited from your father that you sold prior to becoming Prime Minister is spectacularly small fry. But my opinion doesn’t matter – he’s joined the ranks of the politically walking dead. And that matters. 

Days gone by: HLP on post 2015
Cameron has long been a vital source of support for the open government movement. From his time co-chairing the High Level Panel on Post 2015, where he placed anti-corruption alongside economic growth and peace as part of his ‘golden thread’ ideas – which in turn found their expression in SDG 16, through to ensuring a reformed DFID invested in governance and peacebuilding; and forging coalitions of progressive donor countries to support the Open Government Partnership (OGP) he has been a long-standing source of political and financial support for the movement to grow and thrive. That he did so against the wilder instincts of the right wing of his own party is to his enduring credit.

So his leaving the stage, along with Obama, matters. It opens up three main challenges which are each potentially terminal for the movement for openness: an increased ability of strongman elites to block progress, a withdrawal of funding for the movement and a consequent vulnerability to other external shocks.

Poised to strike 

Political elites reach and maintain power by being ruthless. Amid the Panama revelations last week we saw the ICC dismiss a case against the Kenyan Vice President over a lack of evidence resulting from witnesses recanting their evidence. Allegations abound of why so many witnesses suddenly decided to withdraw their evidence. Political prisoners reside in several OGP countries, while others have banned newspapers that print inconvenient articles. And you may remember Jacob Zuma, the current co-chair of OGP, once gave a speech attacking the idea of the Independent Reporting Mechanism of the initiative he co-chairs. He seems to have survived another corruption scandal this week too. My point here is that elites like this have got very different ideas about openness, transparency and accountability, and the movement needs as many supporters as it can get. Where are the Southern political leaders to replace Cameron and Obama? 

An independent reporting mechanism in action
Where’s the money? 

The harsh reality for the open government movement is that it relies on a fickle donor community to keep going. Many European donors have already scaled back their funding to deal with the political fall out of the biggest refugee flow streaming across the plains of Europe since 1945. That will worsen this summer. DFID has long been chief among donors supporting this work, but will it continue under new political ownership? Many will have noticed that Justine Greening has not rushed to Cameron’s defence. With the Opposition Labour Party in no state to win the next General Election it is hard to see any of the leading contenders to replace Cameron as Prime Minister regarding this as a priority. Particularly not this man.

That would leave USAID about to be overshadowed by the prospect of a demagogue, with the other major donors caught between an intolerant domestic electorate and an increasingly vocal political opposition to the idea of continued assistance.

External shocks 

The one thing we can predict is that the future is unpredictable. The impact of another 2008 scale economic shock, more horror from Syria or the re-opening of frozen conflicts will all have their impacts on the movement for openness and transparency. To my mind this underlines why OGP in particular needs urgently to step out of its comfort zones and adapt its approaches to take into account the fragility, power dynamics and conflicts that underlie so many of the symptoms it seeks to tackle. There’s no tech, or app for that, I'm afraid. Data needs to be understood in the political context which will shape the responses of elites and citizens alike.

Grounds for hope

Amid the peril, hope. I spoke to a grass roots leader of an activist network of women in Sri Lanka yesterday. They work across that conflict scarred but beautiful island supporting widows and other women in a fight for social justice that has been going since the nation’s independence. These are the people who will ultimately determine whether abstract international constructs like OGP or the SDGs actually mean anything. Where are their voices in those high level summits so beloved of donors and practitioners alike? To date they have consistently failed the Amina Test which I suggested as a metric for the Africa meeting of OGP last year. We need to hand power to people like Amina and listen to what she wants and can tell us a whole lot more. If we do that, then I think the movement can transition into a long lasting force for good that actually changes things. 

That doesn't mean the international voice of civil society isn’t important either. The global movement which grew into the Beyond2015 coalition consistently challenged the idea that openness, transparency and peace was a Northern inspired idea. The momentum that this movement captured offers a chance to maintain the pressure on all political elites which, if harnessed, has already show itself to be a powerful force that cannot be ignored.

Many people, including me, were profoundly sceptical as to whether the post-2015 campaigns would overcome the scale of the challenges before them. But they did. And they did so because of people like the Sri Lankan activist, the Tanzanian mobiliser, the South African children of struggle and their allies in the wider development movement. Those are the people who can succeed in the more difficult times ahead as the pushback begins in earnest.

Power and politics never went away. They were just sleeping.