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.