Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Broken Britain: A Conflict Assessment

Terrorism in London Bridge and Finsbury Park. Fire and fury in North Kensington. Race hate and bigotry in the wake of the Brexit Referendum. Is Britain broken, and if so do we understand how broken and what to do about it? I thought it was time to measure ourselves against a peacebuilding framework. The conclusion is that, while our institutions are relatively strong, the underlying currents of marginalisation, exclusion and widespread injustice leaves us in a dangerous place. 

Measuring peace 

I thought the five Peacebuilding and Stability Goals (PSGs) of the New Deal for Engagement with Fragile States (New Deal) was a good place to start.

The New Deal was exciting because it was developed and designed jointly between fragile states and richer donor governments. It’s not a panacea, and I wrote here about its inherent flaws. But it’s a useful framework, and one which I hope gives food for thought.

The PSGs, which are intended to guide all work in fragile and conflict affected states, are:
  1. Legitimate politics: Foster inclusive political settlements and conflict resolution.  
  2. Security: Establish and strengthen people’s security. 
  3. Justice: Address injustices and increase people’s access to justice. 
  4. Economic Foundations: Generate employment and improve livelihoods. 
  5. Revenues & Services: Manage revenue and build capacity for accountable and fair service delivery.
So these are the internationally agreed principles for how we should measure and seek to improve the health of a state from a peace and conflict perspective. How does Britain measure up?  

Legitimate politics 

Radical preacher
On one level Britain’s politics measure up well. Turnout, particularly among young people in the last election, was high. Our democratic institutions are generally well regarded and corruption is measured as being low. Our press is free and journalists are not attacked.

But on a more fundamental level do the political elites still command the confidence of the people? I would argue that the vote to leave the European Union had less to do with the merits of Britain’s membership of the EU (not least because that was hardly discussed in the referendum campaign in favour of immigration) and more to do with widespread disenchantment with the political classes. This was exploited by a populist party, UKIP, using slogans and tactics reminiscent of Europe in the 1930s. That is not a healthy place to be. Just how unhealthy could perhaps be seen by this week's attack on a Muslim community leaving Ramadan prayers by a man raving about "killing all the muslims".


Britain is generally a safe place to be. Crime is not for most people a daily experience. The attacks on London Bridge and Finsbury Park are horrific yes, but notable mainly for their rarity.

But are we really as safe as we think we are? Hundreds of women die at the hands of their partners in Britain. And our violent crime levels are actually among the worst in the European Union. Young black men are dying from stabbings and knife crime at an alarming rate, with a morbid annual tally reported on every year. This is the same part of the population that is significantly over represented in the criminal justice system. If we are serious about establishing and strengthening people’s security, we have a long way to go. We could learn, perhaps, from other fragile States who themselves have made more progress in reforming their police that we appear to have to date.  


If you are arrested and charged in Britain you can reasonably expect to receive a fair trial. Our institutions are among the best in the world and, largely because of imperial history, are replicated throughout the English speaking globe.

But what do we mean by justice? Beyond the institutions do people really feel that this is a just country? On Thursday morning I woke up to a fire in a tower in the area of London where I live. A few days on and it is now clear that nearly 100 people died in the most appalling circumstances. Their story, and the culpability of officialdom who repeatedly ignored them in life, while continuing to fail their families in the wake of their deaths stands as a dark indictment of our society. I find it almost beyond comprehension.

And why were they living there? Poor people live in tower blocks in this country because there is, and has been for decades, a massive housing shortage. Yet while social housing is not built, local authorities do permit developers to construct large luxury accommodation which is often bought as an investment and left to stand empty. 

If you are poor in today’s Britain, this is how the system can and will treat you. That, in nobody’s eyes, can be called just.

Economic foundations 

Britain’s economic foundations are arguably weak. A country that forged its way based on manufacturing is now almost completely reliant on the services sector. And that too is largely reliant on access to markets, the largest of which this Government through Brexit is intent on leaving. Economic opportunities are centred on London and the South East, leaving large parts of the population in the former manufacturing areas, without much to go on. In fairness this Government has in the past demonstrated sincerity in attempting to develop a “Northern Powerhouse” of growth, but this is likely to take decades and will be vulnerable to external shocks.

The residents of Grenfell Tower lived in prosperous London too, however. The contrasts in this city between some of the richest real estate on planet Earth placed right next to some of the most deprived areas of the United Kingdom, with widespread poverty and higher levels of crime, is a permanent reminder both of injustice and the insecurity that that injustice breeds.

Revenues and services 

The ability to manage revenue and deliver services accountably and fairly is fundamental. On the surface Britain does have the basics right. A health service that is the envy of the world, for example. But this is now a country in which a local authority can completely fail its citizens, leading many of them to lose their lives as a result, and then fail them again to such an extent that the national government has had to step in. And nobody has resigned. Kensington Town Hall was stormed by those citizens last week, who felt they had no other way of holding anybody accountable.  

So what?

Britain is hardly the only European rich country to be marked by glaring inequalities and injustice. But at some point we have to decide whether our generations are going to just pass that along to the next. As we look at ourselves in the mirror in the weeks ahead, we have some serious questions to answer.

Monday, 22 May 2017

PDIA: Running before walking?

I’m beginning to wonder how much more PDIA has to offer, in particular for working in volatile and contested contexts. Not that I don’t remain a big fan of Matt Andrew’s work, but because I think it’s time some reality checks were applied to how it seems to be developing. If we don’t do that, I fear that the drive to move away from rigid top down approaches might lead us to another extreme, which could actually do some real harm.

Running over planning

Matt has recently posted several blogs in which he explains how he and colleagues at Harvard have been deliberately minimising the workshopping at inception periods of PDIA programmes, in favour of ‘launchpad’ style events of no more than 1.5 days which seek to construct, deconstruct and then lead to action on the problems which have been collectively identified. He argues that the traditional evidence gathering period, complete with week long inception workshops rarely get either the diagnosis or the plans right at the outset, so it is better to adopt a more bite-sized approach in which action generates learning which in turn can shape action.

Having just experienced another week long inception workshop I have a great deal of instinctive sympathy for this. But only to a point. In the workshop I just took part in, the real value wasn’t just the “data” or “evidence” we generated. No, it was the trust we developed between local partners and international actors, both of whom are about to embark on a programme in a conflict affected country, where there are very real risks of things going wrong. That just doesn’t fit with a ‘launchpad’ approach on its own.

Bias and power

Andrews does however argue persuasively on the importance of internal rather than external actors (consultants or people from donor agencies) leading this initial work. That is absolutely right. Andrews couches this in terms of navigating the biases that external actors inevitably bring. I would argue however that this is also about navigating the power asymmetry between those actors, invariably donors or wealthy INGOs, and their local partners. It might be veiled in positive language about solidarity, but that power imbalance is there, and it isn’t going anywhere soon. If you want to get the real picture, you’ve got to step back and be prepared to hear unwelcome truths. This lack of self awareness among donors even extends to the more progressive among them, who understand the need to incentivise learning from failure.

The ‘evidence hurdle’

Andrews argues for a one page plan arising from a quick and pressurised ‘launch pad’ into action, as the ideal PDIA approach. I don’t have an ideological problem with that, but I do just wonder how much Andrews and his colleagues have considered the evidence of at least the last 20 years from the peacebuilding sector. Scholars, policy makers and practitioners alike have all argued that to understand drivers of fragility, and to build peaceful relations that break deep rooted conflict systems, requires an analytical approach that guides long term engagements. That’s not to say you don’t need to be flexible and adaptive – in fact conflict affected states are in that sense the most relevant places for PDIA thinking to guide our work. But to jettison an analysis-guided approach in favour of just ‘getting on with it’ is itself a bit retrograde.

Combined endeavours

That workshop I just did? It’s a programme that will adopt an approach that has taken much of Andrews’ earlier work and adapted it to a peacebuilding programmatic framework. I’m really excited about it, but also daunted at the scale of the challenge. I feel what we need to do is learn how to combine different approaches, taking the best of both rather than adopting PDIA wholesale, particularly some of the points Andrews argues in these latest blogs. In that way we could really begin to get to a level of change that always seems somehow just out of our reach.

Who's up for a learning agenda which combines power, conflict and governance thinking? 

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Good Governance, or good enough?


Vive la France. Macron defeated a populist in the mould of Trump and himself becomes Vice Chair of the Open Government Partnership, no less. Onwards to advancing an agenda of openness, transparency and responsive governance, friends!

But what is the plan, next? Is it really crisis averted, and we can now look ahead to a bright new dawn of advancing good governance around the world? For those of us who would like to see the sort of progressive agenda represented by the Sustainable Development Goals, specifically SDG16 on Justice, Peace and Governance, what does success look like?

Justice is relative

As with poverty, so it is with justice. Although there remain examples of top down, technical approaches to “justice reform” which ignore context and prioritise the implementation of Western models of law, most objective observers accept that this approach will continue to fail. And where you’re talking about countries that are volatile, contested and prone to conflict then you could be entrenching the very factors that perpetuate that fragility.

So how to think about success? No easy answers. But it seems to me that the only models likely to work are ones that accept what might appear to be unpalatable aspects of the way communities settle their differences, without compromising on core values of human rights. This isn’t a challenge exclusive to ‘developing’ countries either. In the United Kingdom for example there is a live debate about the extent to which informal systems of law might at some point integrate with the formal State systems.

Positive, not negative peace

SDG16 holds that very person has the right to live free from violence or the threat of violence. A cursory look around reveals that the trend is very rapidly going in exactly the opposite direction. I worry too, however, that we lose sight of what ‘peace’ actually means. Within the peacebuilding community it is a familiar concept that peace is not simply the absence of violence, which you could measure by body counts. That could just mean that the violence is displaced elsewhere, or that the threat of violence remains due to unresolved grievance. That is so-called negative peace. It is time the idea of positive peace, meaning the ability of citizens to pursue grievances without recourse to violence, took wider hold. This would mean, for example, justice or governance institutions that are perceived to be legitimate by all sections of the population and are thus used as a means of settling disputes or contesting competing political ideas.

Good or good enough governance?

Is all corruption bad?

Rampant corruption is harmful and dangerous. It robs people of their futures and perpetuates human misery. Connivance between State elites and foreign firms to avoid tax is unforgivable. The hollowing out of State owned enterprises, such as we can see with Kenya Airways for example, is rightly challenged. But we need to be careful about the entirety of what we wish for in the next 10 years. Many of the States that are now members of OGP for example are ones in which the rule of law is a process of negotiation, rather than rigid application. The State is still negotiating with its citizens, and citizens with each other. What that will need to mean is action plans that take account of that longer term, wider process of evolution rather than ones that envisage some kind of immediate transparency revolution fuelled by the holy grail of data and technology where wrongdoing is rooted out mercilessly at every level. Human societies just don’t work like that, and the collateral damage that such an approach might provoke in some places would lead to very real dangers for the poorest and most vulnerable people. That, to me, is more important than targets.


A girl or boy born in 2015 will be entering adulthood in 2030. What do we want for them? If we want them to be confidently looking ahead to a lifetime of productivity, free from fear of violence and confident they can achieve their potential on their own merits, then we may need to reflect on how best we serve their future. Good enough may actually be better than good.

Monday, 24 April 2017

What is the value of civil society?

David Sasaki of Hewlett has written a first class post which throws down the gauntlet to civil society: either shape up to the extent that the people you claim to represent appreciate your value, or ship out. Harsh perhaps, but overdue. Sasaki calls for a frank conversation, and does not disappoint:

“Many civil society organizations do not add substantial value to the lives of those they claim to represent. They are more focused on pleasing their wealthy donors than the people they intend to serve”.
Sasaki’s next observation, however, is even more challenging, in particular for Northern INGOs beloved of policy reports and conferences in important places. Quoting former Hilary Clinton staffer Anne-Marie Slaughter he notes that CSOs:
“…will need to do more than just technocratic policy analysis if they are to remain relevant in our age of institutional distrust and government dysfunction”.
Phew – I can hear many famous names within Northern civil society say, that’s not us. We do field programming in hard places as well. But how much of that programming is driven by bottom up need, shaped by what communities themselves are saying that they want, compared to pre-cooked Northern policy agendas from both civil society and the donor community? I think most of us know the answer to that one.

So while I agree with Sasaki’s diagnosis of the problem as far as it goes, I think he overlooks another critical element. That of the role of donors in creating the very incentives that require CSOs to be ‘focussed on pleasing their wealthy donors’. Until both Foundations and statutory donors stop creating such a short termist and questionable set of incentive structures, including the widespread use of profit-making firms at the expense of civil society with questionable impact, then it is difficult to see this changing. The current 'payment by results' fad is hardly conducive to this either.

I also disagree with the primary treatment he prescribes. Sasaki says that civil society should catch up, emulate and seek to support more people like Maria Sarungi Tsehai in Tanzania. Maria is a deeply impressive individual who uses social media to mobilise and amplify the voices of communities often overlooked by powerful elites. I have had the privilege of working with Maria in the past (interestingly enough as a donor) and I agree that this sort of politically informed working is by far more impactful than standard and pre-shaped governance programming. Yet I do not think that civil society is necessarily right to emulate individuals like that, but rather to find and develop others like her.

In some ways this speaks to Positive Deviance programming, which the work of boundary-pushing organisations like Twaweza in Tanzania have done much to advance. In my reply to Sasaki’s blogpost I gently pointed out that those positive deviants might not be as highly educated, resourceful or fluent as Maria. But their ideas are just as important and in many ways more so. Hence learning from another resident of Dar es Salaam, Amina. Her life chances were robbed by State corruption and continue to be shaped by it. Yet her commitment to public service and piercing analysis of where problems really lie and what needs to be fixed is compelling. It's just not presented in policy or development-speak.

But to develop this new way of working, which we can all agree is likely to be working with the grain rather than against it, and thus more transformative than policy-led technocracy, the inescapable conclusion is that donors will need to buy into this agenda too. So far, there are precious few signs of that at scale.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

Hope for 2017: disruption, discomfort and adaptation

In a small hamlet in Turkana, Northern Kenya, is a teacher called John. This man and his wife are quietly dedicating their lives to changing the worlds of boys and girls in one of the toughest places in the world to be born. The land is semi-arid. All indices of poverty and violence are near the top of the scale. Teacher John is fluent in three languages, highly educated and could be living a very comfortable life. Yet he lives in the house above, placing hot ashes in front of the door every night to ward off the snakes. He’s sunk his own money into building a blockhouse for girls to sleep in so that their parents feel confident they won’t be attacked if they attend school, and has opened doors to opportunities for his pupils that would simply not have been there had it not been for what happens at that school. It’s not as if he is after recognition or reward. It takes hours to get there over roads that barely exist, and with armed guards to ward off potential attackers. Former pupils act as the schools sentries at night. But he and his wife do represent hope that seems to be in such short supply as we enter 2017: that those quiet heroes best represent humanity’s capacity to make progress despite the odds being loaded overwhelmingly against it.

Our challenge is to find those quiet heroes and support them. But to do so will mean disruption, discomfort and adaptation to the way we work. If we can do that, though, perhaps 2017 can be the point where we started to really change the world for the better. 

Disruption: getting our house in order

There is an inherent contradiction between the generosity of spirit that individuals repeatedly demonstrate by, for example, donating to appeals or working with refugees, and the consistent polling which reveals scepticism about the aid industry, or aid itself. The latter is grist to the mill for the Daily Mail brand of nationalism.

But is it so complex? If the average British voter were to see the work that Teacher John is doing they would be likely to want to support it. We see this time and again in response to appeals such as Comic Relief. That’s good. So it tells us we need to be much much better at telling these stories effectively.
But there’s also an inescapable conclusion that the diet of fundraising featuring patronising stories about poor people has to end. And there is legitimacy in the criticism of the size of salaries at the top of the aid industry, in addition to the vested interests that shape the way that large INGOs and private contractors behave. And, lest donors think that they are above criticism, they have shaped the industry that now exists. If they continue to fund the sector on the basis of payment by results and short term projects then the private contractors will grow ever more rapacious and large INGOs ever more inflexible. We all need to change.

Discomfort: getting serious about conflict 

Armed conflict is rising inexorably, with the death toll and human misery it brings. We already know that the cost of conflict is decades of lost growth and a massive waste of human potential. We also know, from overwhelming evidence, that transforming cycles of conflict requires a long term and sustained programme of support for things like inter-communal relations based on trust, institution building that is people-centred and governance that commands public legitimacy over several decades after the fighting itself stops. Yet the international aid community continues to treat peacebuilding as a poor relation, even in places where fragility is a defining factor, while opting for short term projects that pretend that because fighting has stopped the conflict must be over. So technical or technology based approaches to ‘governance’ can be used instead. The people that will pay the biggest price for that are not the donors or the aid practitioners, they are the poorest and most vulnerable in whose interests we claim to work.

Thankfully we have some positives to draw on here. There is growing recognition, if not yet commitment, to do things differently in fragile settings.

We have a new UN General Secretary who has seen the impact of conflict first hand and in his first speech expressed a determination to make 2017 a ‘year of peace’.

And we have an SDG framework that we can use to hold governments and multi-national institutions accountable.

Adaptation: finding Teacher John

I came across John almost by accident. I was working as a donor at the time and was looking for unusual suspects who had ideas about how to tackle deep seated problems that traditional forms of aid had consistently failed to address. But in him I also found an individual that represented the ideas behind the theory of “Positive Deviance”. This is the notion that there are individuals or groups out there who find ways of stepping outside a norm and in doing so find innovative ways of addressing apparently intractable problems. He was succeeding where most initiatives in this part of Kenya had failed.

The implications of this are profound. It means forgetting the idea that large, centralised approaches to aid or development will work. Rather, the approaches likely to work in achieving the aims of peace, justice and open government set out in the SDGs will take context as a starting point, be shaped by people like John and probably operate at a much smaller and intimate scale, navigating the unique contours of each.

No complaining

Meeting these three challenges will mean confronting vested interests that shape the behaviour of donors and practitioners alike. It will also mean adapting our work within a volatile and dangerous global context in which civic space is under threat in all of our countries. But nothing worthwhile is ever easy. And unless any of us are prepared to make the sort of sacrifices and adaptations that people like Teacher John do, we shouldn’t complain at the discomfort.