Last month I blogged about mining companies as Gollum. I suggested that human society finds it impossible to choose between having its cake (sustainability) and eating it (natural resource-based development), and that mining and oil companies are our Gollum (the character in JR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings who is torn between morality and greed), somehow representing our inability to choose a sustainable development path.
Having spent time with a mining company over the past couple of weeks, I realise I was partly wrong. Not about the cake – or perhaps to be faithful to the Gollum metaphor I should say the ring: we certainly hold development and sustainability goals which aren’t currently compatible; we certainly want national revenue growth and local autonomy; and there are also competing desires in mineral producing nations for market pragmatism and resource nationalism.
What I was wrong about was the identity of Gollum. I said in my earlier blog that the mining and oil/gas companies were our Gollum, wrestling with the competing desire for sustainability and wealth. A more accurate picture would draw ourselves - human consumer society – as Gollum, wrestling collectively and constantly with the decision about whether to keep our cake or eat it. It is inescapably difficult for individuals, families, communities or politicians alike to choose between the better way of life which strips the earth of its resources and contributes to dangerous climate change, and a more environmentally sustainable approach which allows for less (or slower) improvement. Why should poorer communities and nations wait for a better life if they can have it now? Why should those with a better standard of living sacrifice it? So it’s no wonder we put this decision off, effectively asking future generations (and others alive today we cannot see) to solve it and live with consequences of our choices.
So if we are ourselves Gollum, wanting to possess the golden ring, even though we know how dangerous that will be, where does that leave the mining and oil/gas companies – the diggers and drillers?
In my previous blog I suggested they need to see themselves as mediators - mediating between our difficult options – and develop the appropriate skills and approaches to play this role. I’d go further now. Given that our desire for goodies and an improved standard of life seems to outweigh our sense of responsibility to future generations, and given the role of miners and oil/gas companies in supplying the coal, oil and gas which fuel both development and climate-changing pollution, it seems they have to take on at least part of the leadership role in society which we and our politicians will not.
This is a deeply unfair burden to bestow on corporations, especially since – as was explained to me recently – they have no real, material existence beyond the obligations between shareholders and company officers. But given we have so bestowed it, responsible companies have little choice but to accept it as part and parcel of corporate responsibility.
It is for each company – or at least its directors and senior staff – to define how it meets this leadership challenge. But in general I would suggest that each company needs as a minimum to define publicly two things at a high level:
- The ethical framework within which it will require its directors and staff to make decisions where the trade-off between sustainability and development is present.
- Its role and contribution as a development actor - so that it can use this to help it understand the positive societal benefits it creates, and set these against the negatives.
The International Development Committee should commission a study to investigate how the UK’s non-aid policies impact the development prospects of poor people and societies overseas.
In addition to voluntary scrutiny by civil society and the media, two statutory institutions in the United Kingdom monitor the country’s official contribution to overseas development: parliament mainly through its International Development Select Committee (IDC), and the Independent Commission for Aid Impact.
The former has been in operation since 1997, one of a number of standing parliamentary committees set up to “shadow” departments of state. Through focused inquiries, and review of policy and legislative proposals, it aims to shine a bright light on the government’s aid instruments – mainly those administered by the Department for International Development (DFID). The IDC is made up of 11 MPs, currently drawn from the three main parties. As with other select committees, it can call ministers and civil servants to explain and justify proposed and actual policy, and make recommendations accordingly. Ministers are expected to respond to its findings within 60 days.
The ICAI is a much newer beast. It was established by Andrew Mitchell – then Secretary of State for international development – immediately after the 2010 election, as a mechanism to counter what he rightly saw as a tendency to flabbiness which had developed within DFID. I welcomed this at the time, as I’d long thought that a high spending department like DFID with its broad, long-term and hard-to-measure objectives needed better scrutiny than it was getting from parliament. The ICAI was set up with a small office in Whitehall under the oversight of four independent commissioners, with a commendably lean staffing model; commissioning a small number of focused and directed inquiries every year, producing reports to which DFID (or any other department disbursing overseas aid) must respond, and must explain how it will (or why it declines to) implement any of the ICAI’s recommendations.
For a number of reasons, the ICAI appears to have more teeth than the IDC. A kind of cosiness has developed between the IDC and DFID, perhaps because the committee attracts MPs who are broadly sympathetic to the overseas aid enterprise as it has been defined over the past few years, rather than sceptics; and perhaps because other committees are more attractive to ambitious and publicity-seeking MPs wanting to create controversy. The IDC was born as DFID’s twin in 1997, and has accompanied DFID as the latter has grown ever larger over the years: in a way, the department and the IDC have kind of grown up together and are two pillars of the post-1997 overseas aid establishment. I have the overall impression that the most the IDC can do is ask good questions and suggest small policy tweaks, even when it is not convinced by DFID’s approach. Its role is of course not much helped by the rather binary role of the UK media, most of which is either for or against development aid, and without much appetite for nuance or subtlety.
The ICAI by contrast was born at a time of recession when the aid budget was under shrill media attack, which it was in some respects Mitchell’s attempt to pre-empt. Its approach is by mandate and nature more focused and forensic than that of the IDC. Its commissioners and staff seem to have been well-picked: at least they appear to understand aid and development in the round, but are not part of the aid establishment, and can thus ask the right questions. Already they have produced a number of well-written and robust reports, in which they combine an understanding of the nuanced nature of aid and development, with a nevertheless very simple “traffic lights” approach to their findings, pointing out what is and isn’t working well.
Aid, or development?
It’s obvious, of course, that external aid is only one – and by no means the most important – factor in a country’s development. Other important factors include local and international business investment and activity, politics, policies and laws, civil society, education, social capital, international connections including trade, and the legitimacy and effectiveness of institutions. So any review of how aid works has to include an analysis of how it interacts with – enhancing or diminishing – these factors – some of which are anyway explicitly targeted for improvement by the UK’s aid programmes. So far, so good. Both the IDC and the ICAI can do this.
But there is a wider point of great relevance to the scrutiny of the UK government’s contribution to the development of other countries. Especially when that government is publicly committed to supporting overseas development. The issue is that, whatever its overseas aid budget, the government’s other (non-aid) policy positions also impact significantly on development progress elsewhere. I am not making a new point here so won’t illustrate in massive detail, but just to give a few well known examples:
- The hiring by the UK’s National Health Service of health professionals, especially nurses, from developing countries where well-trained and effective health professionals are already far too rare. By recruiting them to work in the UK we provide them with professional and financial opportunity, and improve the health of people in the UK, while reducing the effectiveness of health service provision and outcomes in the countries from which they hail. On the face of, a negative contribution to overseas development.
- The continued laundering through the UK’s property and other investment markets of ill-gotten gains from developing countries, provides opportunities for those misusing public monies in developing contexts to get away with it, and to avoid paying taxes and thus contributing to development in their home country.
- The closing down of international banking for Somalia expatriates makes it that much harder for Somalis living abroad to remit funds to their families back home, and to conduct business transactions.
- Through its active membership of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the UK effectively operates a form of protectionism, subsidising EU farmers and thus skewing the market against imports from poorer countries.
- By its homeland security policies, not to mention its overseas military adventures, the UK undermines human security in many poor countries.
- By its climate change mitigation policies, such as an insistence on biofuels, some of which are now grown on land from which poor farmers have been displaced, and by its own production of carbon pollution, the UK impacts the lives, livelihoods and security of people in developing countries.
- By its absurd insistence on waging war on drugs, rather than accepting that this policy will never work, the UK enables the operation of violent drug gangs which undermine the governance and safety of millions of people in developing countries.
Of course it is by no means all negative. In addition to good outcomes from its overseas aid programmes, the UK also supports and enables development in many other ways: for example by its support of international governance through the UN and other bodies, by the relatively enlightened approach of many UK-based and -regulated international companies, and by its anti-corruption policies, to name but three.
I am not arguing here for any specific change in UK government policy on any of these issues. Indeed, each of them represents the tip of an iceberg made up of a complex and nuanced network of inter-connected issues to which there no easy and obvious solution. I simply cite them as but a few among the manifold ways in which the government’s policies make a difference to the development prospects of people living far away.
This brings me to my main, final and simple point, which is that the bodies which scrutinise government policy and practice ought to look much more widely than at its official aid programme, if they are to make informed judgements about the effectiveness of government’s policy to support development in poorer countries.
As far as I can see, ICAI’s mandate is a narrow one: it was set up to evaluate the impact of the UK’s overseas development aid. That is a pity, because it has shown that it combines the mandate and approach to shine a powerful forensic light on the issues which it investigates.
So we must look to the IDC to open up the broader line of inquiry which this analysis suggests: into to the various other ways in which UK government policy and actions impact the development prospects of people far away, whether for good or ill. Perhaps in so doing, the IDC should borrow a leaf from ICAI’s book, and commission a strong, analytical report on the topic, rather than simply asking for a series of submissions and answers to questions from a range of witnesses, which often seems to lead to a rather diffuse and unfocussed report.
Today I attended the London annual general meeting of one of the largest global mining companies, and I am writing this en route to South America where I will spend a week with staff from another. What makes them so interesting? Obviously there is something fascinating to the non-engineer about how engineers extract minerals from the ground, often from great depth, and then retrieve the elements they want – which are invisible to me – from the ore, and then market them halfway round the world. But beyond that, miners and oil drillers occupy a truly fascinating role in society as mediators. This is because by virtue of their business niche they mediate – on behalf of the rest of us, one might say – between interests and issues which are often in tension. In this way they symbolize our wish, in modern society, to have our cake and eat it. Perhaps they are a kind of Gollum – representing our wish for wealth and power (“the ring, my precious!”) and our simultaneous moral desire to be good. No wonder they get so much stick from different quarters. I will try to explain this briefly, in terms of three of these contradictions or tensions.
1. Local vs. national
Minerals sit on or under the ground (or seabed), somewhere. That somewhere is where God, the gods, or geology put them, depending on your point of view. So they are on one very basic level, local. But in our modern era of nation-states, they tend legally to belong to the “nation”, and are thus at the disposal of the state, on the nation’s behalf. In poorly governed nations, that makes them vulnerable to being seen as the patrimony of the ruling elite, rather than the population as a whole. While in democracies they are managed as national patrimony for the benefit of the nation as a whole. But in any case, democracy or no, there will always be a tension between the needs, interests, desires and beliefs of local populations in the area where minerals lie, and those of the nation as a whole. And even more so in colonial or post-colonial situations where there is an underlying tension between indigenous people and the colonial invaders or their descendants; or in nations where one particular indigenous group, region or class holds sway over others. Most often, this tension is expressed in terms of local populations wanting to hold onto the resource (perhaps by preventing it from being mined, perhaps by wanting greater ownership and control of the resource once mined). AGMs of mining companies always provide illustrations of this, when local representatives who have purchased a single share, use this as a licence to remonstrate against the company’s destruction of their environment or its failure to mine in ways they find acceptable. So miners and other diggers and drillers (for oil, gas, geothermal power, etc.) straddle the very difficult fault line between local communities and the state, and have to mediate between the competing interests of both.
This is difficult enough in democratically mature polities like the USA and UK, but that much harder of course in countries run by relatively unrepresentative governments, where many of the most important mineral deposits occur. Miners are forced to mediate between these competing interests – all the while trying to maximise their own primary interest, getting the best return on shareholder investments now and in the future.
2. Growth now vs sustainability
Where we humans love to have our cake and eat it, is inherent in the tension between sustainability and development. Phrases like “sustainable development” trip neatly off the political tongue. But when we are honest, we know that the kind of development we can most easily envisage perforce involves economic growth, and since the days of Newton if not before, we have known that economic growth of the kind we are familiar with is inherently unsustainable. This is because it involves using up natural resources at a faster rate than they can be replaced – and in many cases using up natural resources which simply cannot be replaced.
Our improved understanding of climate change has brought this into sharper focus, just at a time when billions of humans whose parents and grandparents were largely excluded from the proceeds of fast and unsustainable growth are obtaining access to them. We are now acutely conscious that we are moving towards a cliff-edge in a headlong rush that we don’t seem to know how to stop.
Enter the mining and oil companies, whom we have charged with the task of helpfully providing many of the irreplaceable raw materials we need, to take us over the cliff: oil, gas, coal, iron, copper, potash and the like. Oh! how we want them to provide these materials as cheaply as possible – witness the current political non-debate over energy prices in the UK, or over carbon pricing in Australia; oh! how we want an above-average return on our shares; and oh! how we love to castigate the same mining and oil companies for destroying the environment and pushing us over that cliff….
So once again the very same companies find themselves caught in the midst of a schizophrenic debate between people who want to keep their cake while stuffing their faces with it, and thus mediating between our two Gollums. This is because governments and intergovernmental organisations seem incapable of doing so – not least because we don’t really want them to. This tension was illustrated at the AGM of BHP Billiton today, where a thoughtful climate activist named Ian Dunlop had put himself forward for election to the company’s Board, citing the need for a better understanding and commitment on climate change issues by directors of this huge company, whose portfolio includes energy and coking coal, oil and gas. Needless to say, he stood no chance of being adopted as a director by the company’s investors – who like most other investors have not yet really begun to factor the costs of climate change into their short-termist investment plans.
3. Resource nationalism vs market pragmatism
And then there is the fundamental tension between the desire of governments in mineral-rich countries to get the minerals to market as effectively and efficiently as possible, and their demand to have as much control and income as possible. This tension is most obvious where the minerals are technically difficult to extract – e.g. the North Sea – or in under-developed countries with inadequate skills and infrastructure which impede progress. In both cases, governments are tempted to overplay their hand – trying to extract a greater proportion of revenues than well-run companies can often stand; and sometimes good companies which would have produced a reliable flow of income from well-run mines and wells are displaced in favour of less principled operators who promise more, but end up delivering less and in ways which are more detrimental to the environment and society.
Most often though, the company and the government remain in uneasy “partnerships”, and the ineptitude of governments leaves the company in the unenviable position of having to mediate between the government’s competing desires.
There are many other tensions integral to the extractive industries which I could cite. The most obvious one perhaps is between the need for good stewardship of mineral resource and the urgent need for funds. Minerals can only be dug up once, and despite recycling, can really only be sold once by the nation which owns them.
Prudent stewards of this patrimony would husband this resource very carefully, and avoid using royalty receipts to fund recurrent expenditure. They would treat mineral revenues as scarce capital, to be invested in projects which capitalise society – infrastructure, education, governance improvements, etc. But outside Norway and perhaps Alaska, this approach is all too rare: governments find it all-too difficult to resist the temptation to use royalties as just another form of tax income, thus creating unsustainable expenditure patterns and buying favour unsustainably with the electorate – or with “clients” in a patronage-based political system. But although mining companies need to be aware of this tension, they are less likely to be in a position of straddling the fault lines and mediating between the opposing interests, as they so often are in the three examples above.
Given all the above, it is no great surprise that mining and drilling are so controversial. They encapsulate all too neatly the contradictions and opposing forces in modern society. Perhaps there will always be a Gollum, and society will always find ways to project its Gollum on someone else. Perhaps we should cut miners some slack. No, wait, perhaps we should close those evil drillers and diggers down! But more seriously, what this means in practical terms is the need for the staff of miners and drillers to be thick-skinned, but above all principled, politically savvy and – well – good at mediation, I guess.
A few days ago I posted an article about the good progress being made by the World Bank, coming to terms with the difficulties inherent in supporting the right kind of progress in what the Bank calls Fragile and Conflict-affected Situations (FCS). I highlighted not only the good signs, but also some of challenges faced. On the same day Joel Hellman, the enlightened Director of the Bank’s Center on Conflict, Security and Development (CCSD) – the unit charged with supporting implementation of the 2011 World Development Report on the same theme – published a fascinating blog post, Surprising Results from Fragile States.
While my article was based on my impressions as an outsider, Joel’s was an insider’s empirically based comment on the interesting phenomenon that some of the Bank’s projects in FCS appear lately to have been more successful than those elsewhere. One of the comments added to Joel’s blog by a reader, notes that DFID has had similar findings. This seems to run counter to the received wisdom that development is harder in such contexts. So what is the explanation?
Joel identifies four hypotheses: projects in FCS are seen as “harder” so they are getting more time and attention; projects in FCS are simpler and smaller than projects elsewhere, so more feasible, because the level of ambition tends to be lower; project implementation is done differently in FCS, notably projects are often implemented more independently of the client government and its systems, so less entangled; and finally, that projects in FCS are evaluated to a different (lower) set of standards than projects elsewhere. Joel’s final point is that we need to find out more, and that his four hypotheses are a starting point for more debate and research.
This is an excellent example of the role of the CCSD in the Bank – leading and stimulating debate on critical issues linked to FCS. In his article Joel wonders aloud whether the Bank is implementing the right projects well in FCS, or simply implementing projects well. This is a critical point. It has been said many times over the years that all organisations are in some respects a hammer seeking a nail, i.e. they know what they do well and they seek opportunities to do it well. In my own criticism of the Bank and other international development organisations over the years I have used this metaphor many times. (Though to be fair, I have also consistently used it about the NGOs I have worked for too.)
The 2011 WDR, the establishment of the CCSD and aspects of its ongoing reforms all point to a recognition within the Bank of its need to adapt, to work more effectively in FCS. But it would be extremely worrying if this adaptation were to become an exercise in discovering the answer to the question “what can the Bank as we know it today, or with minor tweaks, do differently in FCS?” In other words, if the Bank adapts organically to accommodate fragility, as Joel’s hypotheses allow as one explanation for the phenomenon he describes.
The correct question is surely a different one, along the lines of “in what ways can fragility be reduced in FCS; in what ways can this be stimulated by international institutions; and is there a role in this process that the Bank could usefully play?” In other words, what tools, other than the hammer, are needed; which of these might the Bank learn how to use; and what internal changes would be needed to enable this? One of the themes of the Bank’s reform strategy is to become more of a “connector” than an implementor, and this seems very appropriate in the face of the many of the challenges in promoting resilience in FCS. After all, the Bank as an economic institution knows very well that it should only intervene when it has a competitive advantage vis as vis the outcomes which are desired. So in its quasi-monopoly position it needs to step aside with honesty and humility when it does not have such an advantage – since there are few other institutions which can outcompete it in the market.
This also has implications for the way the Bank describes and measures success. One of the next items in its ongoing reform process is the review of its measurement systems. As my colleagues at International Alert have written, all the Bank’s measurement systems – e.g. the Post-Conflict Performance Indicators framework (PCPI), IDA Results Measurement System and Scorecards – all need to be updated to reflect the latest thinking on reducing fragility and increasing resilience. I suspect Joel is right, that part of the explanation for better results in FCS is an organic moving of the goalposts – after all, that would only be human and the Bank is essentially a large collection of humans, despite what some of its critics sometimes say! It’s tremendously important that the Bank focuses very carefully over the next few months in making sure that its scorecards integrate fragility and resilience as mainstream factors – and not just for the obvious “Fragile States” because, after all, recent events have shown us that plenty of countries not previously listed as fragile (Egypt, Syria, Mali…) lacked sufficient resilience to avoid major outbreaks of violence. The scorecards need to reflect the goals and progress towards the goals, and the eradication of poverty and increasingly shared prosperity are only going to be sustainable if resilience is increased in FCS. So the scorecards need to reflect progress in that.
Last week I spent some time in Washington D.C., on the fringes of the World Bank/IMF autumn meetings. I was discussing International Alert’s recommendations for making the next round of the Bank’s International Development Association (IDA 17) funding as effective as possible in the fragile and conflict-affected countries which make up an increasing proportion of the IDA caseload. From what cab drivers told me, the autumn meeting came at an opportune time, since the impasse over the US federal budget has limited tourism and official travel considerably, hence is having an impact on their incomes. Given many D.C. cab drivers are originally from places like Pakistan, Ethiopia and Somalia and frequently send money there, this will be having an impact on the livelihoods of their relatives back home.
But the Bank is also supposed to have an impact on poverty and development in more direct ways, and for years there have been voices saying it is out of date. International Alert where I work has long been calling on the Bank to up its game in fragile contexts, where in the past it has sometimes inadvertently undermined good governance and therefore peace. Based on my impressions during this visit I was quite inspired by some of the Bank’s new thinking; but not enough entirely to undermine my scepticism that such a huge institution is really the best mechanism for transferring resources from wealthy to poorer countries.
On the plus side of the balance sheet the Bank has adopted – for the first time, a senior Bank official said – clear high-level goals against which to judge its options:
- End extreme income poverty &
- Promote shared prosperity with a focus on the bottom 40% by income, in each country
… both of these to be achieved with a view to their social and environmental sustainability.
It has also developed a three-part strategy to achieve these goals, viz.
- Work with client governments to identify and focus clearly on the 2-3 most important factors inhibiting progress towards the goals, in each country
- Marshall the World bank Group’s resources and departments much more effectively – “working as one World Bank Group”
- Maximise development impact through partnerships.
This new strategy, under the leadership of Bank President Jim Yong Kim, has created a palpable buzz among staff and others. Meanwhile, other encouraging elements of the Bank’s current reforms include:
- Official recognition, since the landmark publication of the 2011 World Development Report on Conflict, Security and Development, of the need to work differently in what the Bank calls Fragile and Conflict Affected Situations (FCS), and that this means adopting very different approaches – including a different approach to risk and an understanding that programmes in FCS cost more, are slower, and should be designed specifically to help reduce fragility and increase reslience
- The establishment of the Center for Conflict, Security & Development which is shepherding the Bank through some of the conceptual and operational changes it needs to make in FCS, through planned changes in its results and success indicators, staffing and capacity, incentives, risk appreciation, operational systems, funding and support instruments, and relationships
- Recognising the need to enhance citizen participation in governance, and that the kind of infrastructure projects the Bank often supports provide opportunities to do this, by involving people in project planning, implementation and evaluation through what the Bank calls “social accountability” mechanisms. The Bank has persuaded 32 countries to joint the Global Partnership for Social Accountability which means, in its own words, that part participating governments have thus “allowed the Bank to give grants to civil society organisations in their country, to hold them to account”.
- A recognition – I would not call it humility, yet – that the Bank may not be better placed than others to help provide solutions, and that its optimal role may be as a connector rather than a provider
- The announcement of $400m in savings, to remove some of the fat that has accumulated over the years
- A plan to rejig the Bank’s standard country office organogram, to minimise the perverse incentives which currently mean that country programmes tend to avoid innovation and stick instead to what they already know
I had conversations with people at a variety of levels and roles in the Bank, and found myself encouraged by their account of these and other changes. Including an Executive Director (ED) – one of the people to whom Jim Yong Kim reports, in principle – who shocked me (in a good way!) by saying that one of the things she was asking for was more honesty from Bank staff about the challenges inherent in client government policies, attitudes and practices – something which is difficult when a staff member is drafting a document which the client government will read. Alert has been calliing for “a more honest conversation about development” for years, so it was good to hear someone at the very heart of the development establishment saying the same.
All this is encouraging, but….
… there were also plenty of reminders that the Bank is a resilient institution which is by nature conservative and resistant to change. The very same ED who was so enlightened and enlightening about the need for honesty also said that the Bank should limit its focus to what it already does well – surely at odds with the idea of the revolution in Bank approaches which is being talked up publicly. And I also heard senior officials repeat publicly that the Bank is not and must not be political. Again, how to square this with its highly political role in providing cheap dollars to imperfect governments, and to its avowed intent to support citizens to hold their governments to account.
I know from International Alert’s work with some Bank country programmes that they are beginning to adopt or try out new ways of working in FCS: in Kyrgyzstan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example. But convincing examples were given by some people at the D.C. meetings of a continued sense of resistance to change: of strategic suggestions not taken on board by country teams because of old ways of thinking; and of civil society consultations held but then ignored. I can’t vouch for these but I am not surprised.
I was also slightly concerned that so much of the focus of the new Bank strategy (one out of three strategic areas of emphasis – or potentially 33% of strategic effort) is on itself, “working as one WBG”. I remember when Koffi Anan came in as SG at the UN, and told the UN agencies to work better together. For the next few years they spent an enormous amount of their time on “working together”, to the extent that one often felt they had forgotten whose lives they were supposed to be helping improve.
I also find it hard – very hard indeed – to picture the World Bank “amplifying citizens’ voices”. Not because I doubt the logic and the sincerity of the idea, but because such work is so incredibly subtle, and the Bank is – by its nature – so ham-fisted because it’s so damned huge. Civic society work is surgical; it requires a surgeon’s deft touch, her responsiveness to unexpected events, and her sharp array of tools. This will be hard, and will require some massive shifts in the power dynamics within the institution – to rebalance the power of economics, engineering and the classic social sectors – in favour of governance and other societal factors.
Ultimately the most difficult element of the reforms is about the Bank’s relationship to its clients: to the often not very legitimate or citizen-responsive governments which it advises and to which it lends money. This is what the ED quoted above was partly referring to when she spoke of the need for – and difficulty of – honesty. Figuring out how to manage its relationships with clients more adeptly is one of the institution’s biggest challenges, especially in FCS as outlined in International Alert’s 2011 report Peacebuilding, the World Bank and the UN. No government represents its people’s interests perfectly, but this is a particular problem in fragile situations, where democracy may be nascent or absent; so how can the Bank ensure its programming choices are the right ones? This challenge requires political skills of the highest order.
Reformers in the Bank – and those around it with a voice – need to keep their feet on the gas pedal of change for some time to come, and I am tempted to suggest in doing so that they focus on:
- Leadership: continuing to promote and model the kinds of changes which are being made, from Kim Yong Jim on down
- Decision-making: decentralizing decision-making as far as possible down the line, mainly to country offices, and holding them to account for discarding some of the useless practices for which people still get promoted, and adopting new ways of working in line with the new bank strategy
- Staffing: broadening the mix of skills to be fit for the Bank’s purpose of today, by enhancing economic, financial and project management expertise with softer, anthropological and political skills and talents at all levels
- Accountability: identifying and using the right scorecard indicators - both generic and context-specific – to guide Bank staff in the complex work of reducing fragility and improving resilience in FCS.
The Bank’s senior staff are presenting their new strategy as a revolution, not an evolution. They are right to do so, because the Bank is in danger of becoming irrelevant, 70 years after it was established, and their reforms are the minimum which is needed to bring it up to date. Because of this, and because of the innate resilience and resistance of the Bank to change, I am tempted to recall what Lenin once forcefully pointed out, that you can’t have a revolution without firing squads. Those charged with changing the Bank have difficult task on their hands: needing to change approaches by their shareholders, client governments and staff. They have the most control of the last of these, and may need metaphorically to shoot a few of them (if I may be permitted to mix my historical references) “pour encourager les autres….”
Welcome news, apparently, in Obama’s announcement today to postpone his decision about how to respond to the chemical attack in Damascus. Because there is no sense in firing a barrage of missiles as a response to the use of chemicals. Perhaps Obama’s reason was his not wanting to be in Russia next week during or just after a US-led attack on Russia’s ally. Perhaps he was given pause by the UK Commons vote on Friday. Or perhaps he is not so stupid after all, and has listened to wise counsel.
Commentators have been saying how complex this question is. Regarding Syria, they are right. It is a horrendous situation in which there no easy choices, for Syrians and Syrian families, and for governments around the world. If we are honest, there are no easy answers for Assad either: even if he wanted to step down, the aftermath would likely not be a humanitarian picnic for many Syrians. And I doubt, frankly, he has enough authority to be allowed to step down, even if he wanted to.
But in terms of how Obama might respond to what was clearly a war crime, there are at least some aspects which are much less complicated. Three fairly obvious factors Obama might take into account:
1. It’s a war crime. Crimes are not punished by lynchings or retributive, or simply demonstrative missile attacks, but by due process. Sometimes that takes a while. You build the rule of law by following the rule of law. Have patience – after all, there’s no massive call from US voters to intervene militarily now.
2. Attacking one side in a war means you are taking sides. Even a child knows that from the school playground. Either choose a side and support it, or fire an equal or proportional number of missiles at both/all sides. Don’t pretend that you can weigh in against the regime, doing significant damage to its military capability, without having some impact on the course of the war. Or if that is really what you plan to do, don’t pretend it’s a genuinely meaningful attack. You can’t have it both ways.
3. This looks like a civil war that is going to last a long time. Lahkdar Brahimi, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Syria, says he is reconsidering whether there is any point or value in his post; that he has no plans currently to go to Syria. He is said to be briefing that he sees no likely openings for a peace process in the short term. If the war is going to last a long time, the international community should recognise its unfortunate inability to pull off some kind of peace in the short term. But it should stop wringing its hands, keep working towards a medium term solution, and above all focus on limiting the wider impact of the Syrian war (which is already worrying enough in terms of increased violence in Lebanon and Iraq, and instability more widely). Despite the understandable emotional response to the terrible crime that was committed in Damascus with the use of chemical weapons, and especially against children and other non-combatants, geo-political decisions must be based on cold-hearted analysis, underpinned by principles and values, not on passion and certainly not on a sense of disempowerment and frustration. Minimising regional spillovers – which are surely just what Al Qaeda most wants to happen – has to be more important than an immediate retributive, corrective or simply demonstrative response to the fact that the Assad regime crossed a “red line” (which it anyway crossed several months ago, and nothing was done then, so why now?)
Behind all this there is a much more difficult debate about responsibility and the “responsibility to protect” – which is complicated. Poor people are dying in the USA because they have no access to jobs or health care, and this arguably contravenes the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Should the international community intervene? Of course not, but I use this example to show how much more nuanced and complex things are, than they seem when expressed via the rhetorical devices deployed by the likes of Kerry and Cameron over the past few days.
Assad and others must surely pay the price one day for the crimes they have committed. Let’s aim to use due process to hold them to account. In the meantime, the international community must continue to seek ways to bring this war to an end in ways which minimise the suffering of Syrians, and minimise the impact on other people in the region.
The international development sector has evolved positively, though the process of “development” is still pretty mysterious. Different international NGOs contribute in different ways, but are too often constrained by the need to turn development into over-simplified projects in order to obtain funds. With projects comes the need for bureaucratic systems which often end up driving the way NGOs function, even when they have other unrestricted funding which doesn’t need to be projectised. One of the key drivers of development is leadership, support to which is hard to projectise, and hence gets insufficient attention. So perhaps this is the kind of thing that international philanthropists like Mo Ibrahim, Bill Gates and George Soros ought to support. In this article I suggest a way they could do so. It might only cost them $3m per year, or they could endow it in perpetuity for twenty times that amount.
The nature of “international development” is evolving, as ever. The 2011 World Development Report, the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, the debate about what will follow the Millennium Development Goals post-2015 – these and other documents and processes in the global discourse reflect the (more important) changed practical approaches on the ground which illustrate that “development” policy and projects are resolutely more sophisticated and political than they used to be. When I first worked for an international development organisation, I planted Acacia trees innocently in the drylands of eastern Sudan. Honestly, most of them likely died and not much difference was probably made in people’s lives over the long term, although we employed several hundred people, thus improved their incomes for a while. Nearly thirty years on, the international organisation I now work for conducts advocacy on how shadowy economic practices can be reformed in support of sustainable peace, facilitates dialogue among politicians, and helps the process of reconciliation and healing in post-conflict societies. International NGOs have certainly evolved.
International organisations help facilitate change in developing countries in many different ways: building clinics, training teachers, adding to civil society capacity, monitoring and witnessing human rights, to name just a few. One can criticise or praise any or all of their approaches depending on one’s point of view. But given the absence of any proven path to development, there are no empirical grounds for saying that this or that is absolutely the right or wrong way to go about it, at least not generically. So provided the right permissions and support have been given by the authorities and more broadly within the society where they work, and they adhere to certain basic principles and values, there’s legitimately a fairly broad and deep “ecology” of international organisations, each with its niche, all working to promote what they see as progress.
It is genuinely hard to hold them to account for their contribution to progress writ large, because such progress is non-linear in nature, and is virtually impossible to track and verify at a societal level, at least not within short time frames. But one can at least ask them to explain their rationale very clearly, and hold them to account for having an approach which is congruent with their own particular explanation of how development progress happens. Each should also have a convincing account of why its particular approach is the right one to support and engage with.
To take a simple example: an organisation which builds schools needs to have a convincing explanation of a) how school building contributes to progress in the contexts where it operates, and b) why building schools represents a good investment compared with other options. Similarly for organisations investing in health care, agricultural skills, vocational training, peacebuilding, and so on.
Explaining what we mean by progress
My personal explanation for how progress towards a better society probably happens is explained in detail elsewhere. Suffice it here to say that I see it as a combination of interrelated and largely organic processes which between them lead to a fairer, safer, more democratic society in which prosperity is widely shared, people have the wherewithal to live a decent life, and differences are resolved without violence.
Without being certain, but with a fair degree of confidence, I’d say the factors and processes likely to contribute to this kind of development include an educated population with increasing confidence and voice, creativity and initiative; the application of the rule of law to an ever-widening circle of people; increasing social mobility; a growing economy in which a growing share of the population participates; an increasingly dynamic civil society which brings together people across ethnic and other social divides in pursuit of common enterprise; increasing control of violence by increasingly accountable institutions of state; and the evolution of broadly supported values and institutions which underpin all these factors and processes.
I work for International Alert, which unusually among international NGOs (INGOs) stitched its heart to its sleeve several years ago by publishing its programming framework. This sets out Alert’s philosophy of what a better society looks like, and explains how its work aims to contribute to peace and prosperity in fragile and conflict-affected countries. Alert’s explanation is close to my own, and even though I can’t guarantee that we are helping people make progress towards the kind of society we describe, we can at least be held accountable by others for following approaches which match our publicly declared theories of change.
The perversity of projects
One thing I know I share with others working for INGOs is the frustration that comes with funding. We obviously need funding for our work, but acquiring it leads us perforce to create the bureaucracy needed to manage, report on and be good stewards of the resources entrusted to us. Because so much funding is provided in the form of support to projects, we are also more or less compelled to adopt a way of working constructed around projects. What this means is we chop our work up into bite-sized chunks which can be “purchased” by institutional donors like the UK Department for International Development (DFID), the US Agency for International Development (USAID), the EU, the UN, etc., and managed and implemented discretely. These institutions thus become our clients or customers, even though they in no way represent the people whose lives we aim to benefit. (This creates a strange situation in which we are accountable to rich country taxpayers, rather than to the people for whom we work. But this has been much written about and I won’t pursue it further here.)
Another pernicious effect of project funding is that it pushes us to create artificial narratives of development progress, in terms which can be counted, tracked and measured in the short term. Andrew Natsios has written eloquently about this phenomenon and I recommend his essay The Rise of the Counter Bureaucracy, which explains how funding arrangements skew development programmes away from what is most effective towards what is most “countable”. Civil servants approving project funding are placed in a difficult position: they are obliged to oblige NGOs to present their work in two to five year chunks replete with predictable activity budgets – construction, training, etc., etc., etc…. – because this gives them the data they need to report to their ministers, and which their ministers need in their turn to report to parliament… So when looked at from afar, much of the international development sector resembles a massive flotilla of projects, each sailing along at its own speed and in its own direction. Most projects are at least partly successful on their own terms, but what does it all add up to? Meanwhile, large amounts of time, energy and other resources are expended on the design, launching, navigation, tracking and maintenance of all these boats. And perversely, once organisations develop the systems and culture of projects, they even use them to allocate their scarce “unrestricted” funds – the money they raise for general purposes, the donors of which don’t require it to be projectised at all.
Many of the obstacles to development are structural in nature, which is merely a jargon way of saying they are hard to change. One of the things needed to shift them is leadership. Leaders – at whatever level in society – are people who stand up and take a risk for their vision of change (or sometimes, to prevent change.) Not all leaders are good people with the right vision, of course. But leaders with vision, a commitment to the right kind of values and progress, and the ability to bring others with them, are surely one of the overlooked factors and drivers of development progress in their societies.
When I look back over my career in international development and peacebuilding since 1985, it is often such individuals who stand out: the villager who galvanised his fatalistic community to restore the orchards which had been devastated by drought; the father of an abducted girl who shamed NGOs into adopting a more courageous approach; women who have stood up to warlords; the girl who persuaded her mother and other mothers in the community to protect their daughters better; the HIV-positive activist who mobilised a movement demanding changed government and societal responses to the epidemic; the two students who took it upon themselves to create accessible learning materials for science students across the country; the civil society leader who persuaded and pushed political leaders to become more transparent, and was shot; the streetfighters who stopped fighting one another and reached across their religious and ethnic differences to bring peace and collaboration to their city; and so the list goes on…
It’s a high gain venture when it works, supporting women and men with the capacity to influence their society and its prospects for peace and prosperity in a seminal way. Even the best leaders can use some support. But it is very hard to obtain project funding for “providing support to leaders”. First, it’s not one of the categories overseas aid departments, ministers and parliaments readily recognise or know how to count, and secondly it’s an unpredictable game at best, so any support provided is a high risk venture.
My pitch to Mo, George or Bill
Given the frustrations of project funding, I sometimes imagine that I am trapped in a lift with Mo Ibrahim, George Soros or Bill Gates, who asks my advice on how to spend his money in support of international development. In such an instance I’d tell him of the imaginary international NGO, let’s call it Leaders 4 Change (L4C). It has a clear, simple and narrow remit:
To identify and provide catalytic support to leaders in civil society, in fragile, underdeveloped countries.
It only operates in a limited number of countries, taking a long-term approach over many years in each. Let’s say a maximum of ten countries at a time.
By providing tailored support and assistance to the right people, it helps them bring about the kinds of changes which kindle progress in their societies – e.g. changes in political discourse, high leverage policies, and political culture. L4C draws on its international, non-parochial reach and knowledge to provide them with solidarity and disinterested advice. It also provides them with small grants for learning, travel, etc., to expose them to ideas and skills. And it brings them together with others in similar circumstances from whom they can learn and on whose advice they can draw.
In each country, it has only two staff: a creative, analytical political activitist-facilitator – let’s call him or her the Catalyser – and an administrator-logistician providing support. Catalysers are not normally nationals of the country in which they operate, to help ensure their objectivity and independence – and to protect them from harassment. They are rare individuals with integrity, political acumen, empathy, humility, a generalist mindset and a talent for political economy analysis, strategy, and entrepreneurial activism. From a combination of theory and their own experiences (and what they learn with and from L4C colleagues), they have a good sense of how societal change occurs. Thanks to Mo (or George, or Bill) they do not have to be bureaucrats or fund-raisers. They sign up for at least 5 years, to make sure they have enough time to understand the context, an appropriate strategy, identify and build relationships with appropriate partners, and to make a difference. Their role is to develop a strategic country analysis for L4C, and based on that to engage influentially in civil society to encourage and contribute to debate and action. Each strategy is tailored to the context, seeking high leverage changes, with indicators for measuring progress and impact. These strategies might include for example the kinds of things I identified above: promoting an increase in the circle of people and/or issues covered by the rule of law; imbuing parts of the education system with a culture of creativity and initiative; increasing transparency in governance; reaching across ethnic, gender or caste lines; or working with parents to help their sons learn non-violent approaches to conflict.
A key part of the methodology is what I call loitering with strategic intent. This means knowing more or less what kinds of opportunities you seek, and hanging around the kinds of situations where they might occur, thus being ready to create, seize and exploit them. It means engaging in civil society, not just supporting or “strengthening” it (a common jargon of INGO projects). Needless to say perhaps, loitering with strategic intent is hard to fund through projects.
The catalyser identifies key leaders and potential leaders in civil society, and finds creative ways to support them. They might be NGO leaders, religious leaders, young politicians, who could benefit from small catalytic support. L4C develops personal relationships with them and gradually identifies ways to support them, e.g. by strategic advice and accompaniment, matching them with mentors (perhaps abroad), providing other learning opportunities, or providing small grants training to try out their ideas.
Catalysers are expected to fail from time to time – perhaps by choosing the wrong leaders to support (you have a kiss a few frogs before you find your prince), perhaps occasionally ruffling a few political feathers.
Like its country offices, L4C’s head office is also small, consisting of a CEO, a head of finance, an administrator-logistician and the occasional intern or two. Two country programmes are the subject of external, independent reviews each year (so every programme is reviewed every five years). These are shared across the organisation to ensure lessons are learned. The CEO also visits every operating country at least once every two years to monitor, advise, and learn. S/he works with colleagues and partners to publish a major report every two years based on lessons learned, sharing important ideas and knowledge about societal change processes. These are widely disseminated among NGOs, donors, etc. and their publication is looked forward to by those in the know. Finally, a small board of international trustees drawn from civil society, academia, government and business provides oversight and governance, and commissions a thorough annual external audit.
This L4C does not exist of course, but if it did it would have to be funded through endowments, and no project fundraising would be allowed. Assuming a programme covering ten countries, at a rough estimate this would cost less than $3 m per year, which at a 5% average rate needs a modest perpetual endowment of less than $60m. What do you think, Mo, Bill and George?