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.