Thursday 31 December 2020

Building back better: a dose of humility

Covid has been a sobering experience, revealing the frailties of our social fabric and laying waste to the most vulnerable among us. Without engaging in a counsel of despair, I think one of the lessons for us is that to overly rely on the State to guide human behaviour simply won't work. It may also be the case that the social frameworks that were in place before, are perhaps not with us any longer. And that part of our building back better in the West might involve re-learning those aspects of social control that underpin our responsibilities to each other, and the resilience to respond to crisis, from parts of the World where they remain strong.

The problem

To share an anecdotal experience. This afternoon I stood in a supermarket and observed an elderly man standing with a basket of food, waiting for a checkout. Around him bustled shop workers, many without masks, and several shouting to their colleagues. Shoppers, including a young man with no mask, brushed physically past the elderly gentleman, rolling their eyes because he was in their way. And throughout the store, while the majority were wearing masks, many repeatedly removed them and showed no inclination to engage in distancing of any kind. Earlier today an intensive care consultant described such people as having “blood on their hands”. He’d seen the inevitable result of the behaviour I’d just witnessed in the ICU wards. 

So what’s going on? Thoughtlessness or a lack of something intangible, that might otherwise have altered behaviour?

I can’t help thinking of the stories I grew up with, of stoicism and communal support withstanding the onslaught of the Blitz. The images of St Pauls’ Cathedral, of newly homeless women making tea and others were echoed by my own grandparents in their own stories from that time. But I also think of some of the communities it’s been my privilege to work among during my own lifetime. In Turkana, Nepal, Afghanistan and elsewhere where communities have run their own affairs in the absence of a strong State and done so in a manner which would make the sort of behaviour I saw in the supermarket, and that we see in beach parties and other breaches highly unlikely. These are also places where the concept of 'positive deviance' often applies - where communities themselves have developed ways of dealing with challenges by innovating their own norms; be that cultivating land or looking after the elderly. No role for the State involved, nor for that matter international donors. Just ask Amina, from Dar es Salaam. 

Building back better?

It’s fair to say that the governance challenges witnessed in the West during the last few years undermine the idea that others should simply adopt our model of managing their affairs unquestioningly. There are other models out there and no doubt their relative merits will be hotly contested. But to me, that’s only part of the picture anyway.

We in the West will also do well to consider what we might want to learn from societies who have not relied on the State at all, be that either an authoritarian or liberal version, and have managed their affairs based on behaviours that do not encourage individualism, and the lack of empathy or responsibility that can entail, and which we have witnessed a great deal of throughout this pandemic with disastrous results. These are societies who have often managed to hang together in the face of challenges way greater than Covid, including armed conflict. Building back better will in my view need to involve a large helping of humility, and a willingness to learn from others. The vulnerable old man with his shopping basket deserved a great deal more care from those around him than he received. 

Sunday 5 April 2020

Covid-19: peace positive?

C19 will change the world, but are there positives for peace and stability that might emerge from the carnage, and how might these be supported? Here are some emerging thoughts on how this, the pre-eminent shared challenge of us all, might just unlock conflict systems that have appeared intractable for generations.

Regional cooperation 

If C19 has taught us anything, it is that closing borders doesn’t work. There is not a single country that has been protected by doing this. Accepting that fact, and the inescapable reality that what happens in our neighbours and our neighbourhoods near and far will affect us in my view changes the dial fundamentally. Populations are in my view unlikely to respond to jingoism and ‘othering’ from elites if they can see they may pay the price at huge scale. Leaders used to whipping up sentiment may find they are in fact held to account for not working together with others.

Resolving conflict 

If there is growing acceptance that we need to manage conflicts, to make way for collaboration on a shared pandemic, then what structures will we need? Beyond the UN perhaps the model of the African Union’s capacity to exert soft and hard pressure might be emulated within other regional structures in Asia for example. The AU’s condemnation of coups and isolation of coup leaders have in some cases resulted in change, while the African Union Mission to Somalia has involved the use of hard power. Could it be that we emerge with strengthened institutional frameworks to temper the worst excesses of power?

A new economy 

Measuring ‘development’ by economic metrics alone is bunkum. In the most fragile countries, including those ostensibly making progress, the model is frequently highly unequal with elites controlling the most successful sectors, at the expense of others. But that model itself has now been exposed, as C19 cuts off demand in the West for goods produced elsewhere. Building back will require a much wider and diverse economic base, and that will need to include a broader section of the population. This arguably presents a real opportunity to encourage a more diverse and inclusive economic model that may pay dividends in terms of peace as much as growth.


It is unlikely that civil society in any country will accept business as usual once this pandemic has passed. A renewed push for greater accountability, responsiveness and transparency within governance systems can be expected, and potentially encouraged. That is as true in the West as the South and East, and represents a potential moment to renegotiate social contracts between citizens and states. More accountability generally means more peaceful societies.

Taliban anti-coronavirus drive in NE Afghanistan. New form of legitimacy? (unclear how machine gun helps v Covid)

The Black Death in 14th Century England stripped the then ruling elite of their main claim to legitimacy: namely, that it was divine will. This had been clearly dis-proven, in the eyes of the people, who proceeded to revolt. It is hard to imagine that the legitimacy of force or power alone, or narratives of supremacy will survive C19 intact. Renegotiating that legitimacy, combined with greater accountability, may open the way for far-reaching change in the balance of power that could in turn yield positive and peaceful results.

What now? 

None of the above is inevitable. But then, nobody knows what happens, now. It will take decades to know, and new generations to judge. But it is also inescapable that this is a pivotal moment in human development.

Wednesday 8 January 2020

Infinity and beyond: Governance in fragile states

Building State Capability
The eminent Building State Capability blog has a guest article by Paul von Chamier which re-appraises possibly the most important World Development Report in recent years on how change happens in conflict affected states, that of 2011. His take makes depressing reading, using as it does the basis of the game-changing WDR11 and applying an updated data-set from the last decade (quick re-cap: economic crisis, OECD downturn, Arab Spring, Syrian conflict and lots more) and re-testing the core conclusions against that data. You may recall WDR11 posited that change only happens in generational time frames for States emerging from conflict. Von Chamier’s findings echo this, but they go further. The below table applies the Bank’s World Governance Indicators and finds that in many categories of ‘positive governance’, while there are positive signs on political stability and voice/accountability for the rest FCAS are tagged as ‘infinity’: in other words at this rate they’ll never get there.

There will be lots of nodding among many of us at this, who have been pointing out for a long time that short-termist approaches to change manifested by three-year projects that seek to rapidly ‘transform’ factors that took generations in our own countries, let alone anyone else’s, will fail. However, I do also think this take on things suffers from a bit of log-frame thinking based on limited metrics, resulting in an unnecessarily bad prognosis. A counsel of despair is never the best starting point for anything. 

Von Chamier uses, in this blog, only the Bank’s governance indicators. Useful as they are, on corruption, rule of law, institutional effectiveness and so on they fail to capture what in my view is a nebulous and perhaps intangible factor but nevertheless critical, which is how human behaviour in the form of contestation and social movements (loosely defined) manifests. Note I said social movements, not civil society as such.

And while this article understandably uses data sets from the last ten years to augment the previous 20, perhaps it’s instructive to look at wider evidence stemming back centuries of human history and social change, which still has salience to contexts we see today. Struggles in England for the rights of citizens in the 15th century, parliament in the 17th, for the right of women to have the vote in the 19th and 20th, for equality on the part of many throughout that period and which still go on would suggest that our collective history, and thus our institutions, are shaped by how those groups pursue those agendas and how elites respond; in addition to other indicators that may portray a static picture. None of this is to dispute the core argument that change in societies scarred by conflict takes generations, nor is it to argue that things cannot go backward, but it is to say that there is an intangible human element that is often missed in this form of measurement and analysis.

So work from social scientists as far back as Charles Tilly’s on social movements in the 1970s through to more contemporary analysis by Douglas North and others, not forgetting scholars from some of the countries on our lists of FCAS in the Middle East or South Asia, would suggest that there is more to predicting rates of change; and that the answer of ‘infinity’ may therefore indicate that we haven't asked all of the right questions. 

For external actors this may have implications that also echo those reached in WDR11; the import of contributing to initial political stability, creating space for human security and over the long-term peacebuilding and statebuilding in parallel to build on the one indicator that does shine out in the governance dataset: voice and accountability; which in the story of human progress could possibly the most important metric of all.

To infinity or beyond?