Sunday, 16 September 2018

Nirmala: Nepal's wake up call for donors?


Nirmala was 13 when she was raped, murdered and left in the rice field that she walked across every day to go to school. She’d had to be stronger than her years, supporting her mother after her father left two years before. Teachers describe a bright and dedicated student who dreamed of supporting her mother and family to become independent and secure. Yet in a society where sexual violence is rampant and deep rooted practices sustain an oppressive environment for the vast majority of women Nirmala had learned she’d have to fight every step of the way. On that day in July, however, she wasn’t strong enough to fight. Her body lay in the field for at least a week before it was found. The police did nothing, literally, and there are widespread suspicions of some form of collusion.

Short-termism: a Donor disease

As gut wrenching as this story is on a human level, it should also make us angry. Many young Nepalis have been out of the streets protesting this week, and it is their fight to change their society which those of us who care about Nepal must hope they win. But it is also in my view a searing, damning indictment of much of what many donor agencies have been doing in the country for the last decade or so since the end of the civil war. And perhaps worst of all many of us have implicitly acquiesced with this, trying to squeeze peacebuilding into other sorts of projects rather than loudly making the case and challenging donors to justify their neglect of it.

So what’s been the problem? Well, a familiar yet lazy assumption that “conflict” is over; short term uncoordinated and technocratic projects; a misplaced faith in technology or data; superficial attention to gender and marginalisation, and a propensity to adopt one size fits all approaches have arguably combined to fail to meaningfully impact on a single root cause of what girls like Nirmala face every day. Such as 6 year old Puja Saha, who was violated and then desecrated. This horrific murder and the fallout over a botched, ineffective and possibly corrupt response by the police and authorities to it should lead to hard questions being asked of each donor agency: what they are doing in the country to support peace and development. And if they are not, then why not.

Residents of Bhimduttanagar in Western Nepal demand justice for Nirmala

Positive v negative peace

Nirmala’s family came from Kailalai in the West of the country. A former Maoist stronghold in the civil war, it’s where I first started work there over a decade ago. I remember the stories of forced land seizures, of hiding young men and children in the forests from forced abductions/conscription, but also of young women routinely violated, sometimes as a means of settling inter communal disputes. Two types of violence. Both very real. The old woman who sat quietly in her garden under a tree describing in a hollow voice the day her granddaughter was taken in a raid. She’d slept under the tree ever since, in the hope of hearing her return. At that time the war had only just finished and fighters with uniforms and guns no longer posed a direct threat. But the most basic understanding of peacebuilding will tell you that peace is not merely the absence of war, but the transformation of deep rooted drivers of conflict that are experienced and fester long into the future if left unaddressed, usually by the most vulnerable. Donor agencies in Nepal, however, ceased the vast majority of peacebuilding support a few short years later. War was over, they said. Time for us to move on. The vaunted truth, reconciliation and justice processes never really got off the ground.

Peacebuilders sometimes describe ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ peace. The former means that combatants with guns have gone, but some communities remain subject to violence or the threat of it, usually sustained by structural and social discrimination of various kinds. This begins to explain why the vast majority of conflicts are relapses of old. Positive peace on the other hand is when those underlying factors are being addressed in ways that allow all groups in society to feel secure, have the ability to pursue grievances through non-violent means and trust in the security, justice and governance institutions that are there to serve them equally. In Nepal, sadly, negative peace seemed to be enough for most of the donors.

Time to listen to evidence?

The future

Nepal has immense potential. Its’ history tells you that. If those of us who wish to support the country achieve that potential then it’s time to concede what the evidence from here and elsewhere tells us. Namely that peace requires long term investment: the game changing World Development Report of 2011 talked in terms of 30 years, for example. It takes generations to heal, and build trust. So donor projects with ridiculous claims of being ‘transformative’ over periods of 18 months or 2 years have got to go. They make little sense in terms of value for money, impact or basic common sense. We need to see long term programmes aimed at supporting the development of institutions capable of commanding the support of the communities they serve. Of supporting those champions within society who are challenging centuries of oppressive caste, ethnic or gender based norms that pose a direct risk to the lives of girls like Nirmala, often at great risk to themselves. And sustaining that work for as long as it takes.

If half the population is subject to routine violence or the threat of it, and marginalised communities remain under the yolk of entrenched structural and social discrimination then that is not peace. Nor, therefore, will it be stable or grow in a way that unlocks a country’s full potential, regardless of how much traditional development programming you engage in. Support for the current process of federalisation in the country, which in theory will bring governance closer to communities and thus more responsive is welcome, and great in theory. But it needs to be embedded in strong conflict analysis and long term, flexible initiatives that get to the roots of lingering violence, marginalisation and the corruption that sustains it. So let’s see less technocratic and short term isolated projects about data, technology or infrastructure and more long term and joined up engagement on what experience from elsewhere in the world (Kenya is instructive) tells us will be a contested and convoluted journey to a new dispensation of how government works, in order to avoid entrenching existing divides by default.

Nirmala was the future of Nepal. Her dreams and aspirations, together with evident ability, commitment and strength of character were ample evidence of that. Those out on the streets protesting will go back to their communities, many of them continuing to work in their own ways or as part of organised activism to change things for the better. They are the future too. 

Friday, 25 May 2018

Nepal, OGP & repeating the loops


It is said that the definition of madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. Earlier this week I attended an event which suggested there was a very real risk of another country falling victim to what seems to be a trend of this, unless something can be done to bridge a divide between the evangelists of the open data movement and those of us working on peacebuilding and conflict transformation in volatile and contested states.

USAID Nepal hosted an event at which the US Ambassador, who is a strong supporter of anti-corruption initiatives, made very clear the US Government’s desire for Nepal to join the Open Government Partnership, (OGP). Flanked by a panel including the Information Commissioner and representatives from civil society and Government, she spoke to a room packed to the rafters with the great and the good of public and civic life in Nepal. Supported by Victoria Ayer, a Board Member of OGP, the Ambassador extolled the virtues of open data which she claimed would lead to accountability and greater prosperity.

This is, to put it mildly, ambitious. Nepal is embarking on a process of federalisation which itself is highly contested and in some places has contributed to violence. It has also just witnessed an historic union of the two Communist parties of Nepal forming a seemingly impregnable central Government with a two thirds parliamentary majority. So the Left has the strongest hold on the centre of power for generations, while a contested process of devolution of power to local government beckons.


An historic merger
 None of this was mentioned. Not even once. In a conversation about governance. The only time the feel-good factor about how open data was going to change everything for the better was punctured was when a prominent civil society activist said that in her opinion the problem wasn’t a lack of data, it was a lack of honesty. The Ambassador herself quoted SDG16, which as she stated, is about "peace, justice and governance". That would suggest we should be talking about all three of those strands in parallel, not just one aspect of one strand.

So what does all of this mean? Do we simply roll our eyes and give up? No. But we need to have a much more holistic conversation about how change actually happens, rather than getting fixated on one aspect of a wider process or thinking that membership of an elite club will lead to manna from heaven. We already know data itself doesn’t lead to accountability. It’s about how power, politics, behaviours and attitudes shape human relationships. Indeed the lessons of OGP itself would point to the danger of assuming fragile and contested states make genuine progress in the way that the Ambassador predicts. A glance at Kenya’s stalled progress, Sri Lanka’s questionable advances, the Philippines’ descent into murderous State impunity and, of all places, Afghanistan’s almost total lack of movement would suggest some humility might be in order before making such claims.


Nepal is a beautiful, ancient country of enormous potential. But it is also highly fragmented along multiple lines, much of which is a poisonous legacy of civil conflict. It can and should make progress both on stability and growth, with the result that young Nepalis no longer have to become mistreated economic migrants to the Gulf, but can realise their own and their country’s potential at home. But for that to happen will require the development of strong, responsive local and national government structures in which contestation over resources, policies and priorities can be managed within institutions that are regarded as the legitimate fulcrum of a contest of ideas, without the need for violence.

So none of this is to say that open data, within or without clubs like OGP, doesn’t have a fundamentally important role to play. It is a critical part of deliberative decision making, informed by evidence as much as ideology or patronage. But for international actors wishing to support that, the overwhelming weight of evidence from within Nepal as with other fragile and contested environments points to the need to take a much more holistic approach to bridging the gap between statebuilding and peacebuilding to have any chance whatsoever of success. So despite the enthusiasm among elites for membership of clubs, I’m afraid we still need to talk about who’s voices are still not even part of the conversation.

Monday, 16 April 2018

Syria: Norms, Power & Responsibility to Protect

A man carries a baby who survived what activists say was an airstrike by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Duma neighbourhood of Damascus


In 2005 the United Nations declared that we have a ‘responsibility to protect’. That is to say, if humanity watches people being brutalised, murdered or driven from their homes then there is a duty to intervene to protect those populations. It was forged against the backdrop of repeated examples of industrialised inhumanity, after each round of which the world solemnly declared “never again”. Until next time. So the intent was to break that cycle and to make those words actually mean something, strengthening global norms and building deterrence by instilling fear in would-be brutalisers minds that they would one day be held accountable.

You could argue that the recent bombing, therefore, in Syria is an example of R2P in action. A red line had been drawn in 2013 by Obama against the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, but which had not been enforced, after a vote in the British Parliament meant that America would have been acting alone. This latest use of poison was the trigger for what turned out to be an extremely limited and essentially symbolic show of force by the US, UK and France. Whether it has any effect at all, given that Assad has now essentially won the civil conflict, remains to be seen.

Ultimately this shines a light on the limitations of normative power against realpolitik. In the wake of the British and French intervention in Libya, ostensibly to prevent a massacre and under the aegis of R2P, several other nations, notably Brazil, tabled an alternative and slightly nuanced version, called Responsibility While Protecting. On one level this was about protecting against unintended damage, but in reality this was a limiting attempt to reassert the primacy of sovereignty and limit the role of Northern States. There would have to be an extremely high bar for any international power to intervene in future.

And that’s the contest we see in Syria. A largely impotent West seeking to engage in limited and militarily pointless actions to support a normative framework that holds little relevance to a powerful dictator, supported by Russia. It’s a grim sight for those wishing to break that ‘never again’ cycle. A quick glance at international impotence over the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar/Bangladesh, or the ongoing misery in the Democratic Republic of the Congo would suggest that this isn’t about to change any time soon. It seems to me that the contest over norms we would all want to see will take place within the very limited parameters of power, politics and geopolitics for a very long time to come. The people gasping for air in Douma will not live to see its conclusion, but its incumbent on the rest of us to work out the art of the possible, in an increasingly anarchic world.