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How peace gets stronger in society

January 28, 2015

I am writing an International Alert report about how peacebuilding can be more routinely and effectively integrated into economic development, for publication in mid-year. I.e. going beyond conflict-sensitive business practice, to promote peace-conducive economic policy and economic activities. I plan to publish a few blog posts over the next few weeks related to this, and am particularly interested in feedback, challenge, ideas and examples for the report. In this post, I summarise five ‘lessons learned’ which seem particularly relevant to this subject. Very interested in your comments and feedback, either posted here or to, for which, thanks in advance.

Some of Alert’s learning about how change happens in fragile societies can be captured in terms of five broad lessons of relevance to anyone seeking to embed peacebuilding within economic development:

  • Change is indirect, multi-dimensional and incremental
  • Sustainable significant change often implies changes in the political economy
  • Many important changes happen from the particular to the general, rather than vice versa
  • The importance of opportunities and opportunism…
  • … and of leadership and agency.

1. Change is indirect, multi-dimensional, and incremental

Important changes happen indirectly, making it hard to plan long-term processes of change with confidence. To add to the complexity, the implications of actions in one area or sector spill over readily into others; and of course not only is progress non-linear, but is also liable to checks and reverses.

For example the enactment of a land reform law intended to open land access to wider sections of society leads to violent local responses on the part of landowners against those newly entitled to land, or their co-option of political leaders into a land-owning cabal to neutralise the new law. This turn increases the rate of urbanisation, which supports industrialisation, but also the prevalence of gang-dominated political economies in new urban areas. This in turn favours improved citizen-engagement by newly-urban populations wanting to reduce levels of violence, and so in the longer run contributes to improved governance, the re-capture of the monopoly of violence by an increasingly accountable state, and increased stability and prosperity.

This game of development snakes and ladders makes planning hard. But it also shows that change is incremental, and that one can recognise specific and simpler steps forward within larger, complex causal networks. These, at least, can be planned and implemented.

2. Sustainable significant change often implies changes in the political economy

For significant changes to be sustainable within society (at whatever scale), tends to require actual changes in the way power is held and resources are allocated, and thus in the spheres of institutions, values, interests and incentives.

Changes to governance systems in Mali through the decentralisation project of the 1990s are now seen not to have increased accountability and responsiveness as intended, because budgets were not genuinely decentralised institutionally; the locus of local decisions over important local resources such as land was never really moved to the new system, hence there was no interest or incentive for local power holders to take account of it; and thus the value of democratic accountability and responsiveness was neither felt nor embraced (indeed, was probably undermined). On the other hand, the economic incentives provided to the elite in parts of eastern Europe linked to accession to the EU, provided genuine incentives to adopt changed economic practices and institutions which later became open to others, in what remains a work in progress.

However, trying to ‘change the political economy’ directly is probably a fool’s errand – or at least a mission reserved for risk-taking political leaders seizing rare historic moments of opportunity. Political economies do change, but they usually evolve rather than undergo major disruptions, because of the power of incumbency, or because new incumbents exploit the system which ‘works’, rather than trying to change it. When the features of the political economy do change, it is as a response to changed circumstances which require adaptations to incentives, interests, values and institutions in order for the powerful to retain and use their power. Thus theories of change in the political economy need to identify the changes in circumstances which may lead to these adaptations.

3. Many important changes happen from the particular to the general, rather than vice versa

Despite the grand language of political science, and the tendency among some politicians, economic developers and peacebuilders to define their ambitions in terms writ large, important changes often happen at first at a relatively narrow or granular scale, and are later generalised.  It is well documented that communities demanding more control of their affairs, or civil society demanding a voice, can be a more sustainable mechanism for systemic political change, than a top-down ‘decentralisation’ process or the formal recognition of the role of NGOs.  Work on a specific economic sector or sub-sector – or even a particular project in a particular locality – if promoted in a way conducive to peace, can have knock-on impacts on other sectors through systemic change.

4. The importance of opportunities and opportunism…

Moments occur which are propitious for change, and these are opportunities for progress, provided they are seized and good leadership is engaged. The risks of conflict associated with the arrival of a large mining or oil project in a fragile context, for example, are well-known, and can be illustrated with many examples: the experience of conflict linked to oil production in Nigeria’s Delta over many years is probably the best known.

On the other hand, the arrival of a large mining or other economic project, with multiple stakeholders and potential winners and losers, can also serve as an opportunity to demonstrate good governance, since the project itself needs such a high degree of participatory governance, to succeed. By engaging multiple stakeholders and respecting their interests, those leading such a project can create an experience of participation and win-win compromise which may be relatively rare in the context, and improved relationships among citizens and between citizen, state and economic actors which can be built upon for other governance purposes.

Likewise, new technologies, the end of a period of violent conflict or reconstruction after a natural disaster represent opportunities to use or test new approaches. It has been suggested that the response to the pacific tsumani disaster in 2004 contributed positive progress for peace in the long-running civil war in Aceh, but the opposite in Sri Lanka, because of different approaches and different circumstances. Likewise the unexpected death of a political figure can provide opportunities; or a change in external circumstances. Changes in drugs policy in Europe or the USA could have a significant impact on the political economy, incomes, access to land, and other factors in drug producing nations affected by conflict.

5. … and of leadership and agency

Finally, and despite the preceding paragraph, leadership and agency are also essential in determining when changes happen, and the nature of those changes; and can be critical in harnessing opportunities to progressive ends.

This might be done by politicians and government, as in the case of structural changes to the rural economy underway in Rwanda, designed to promote economic growth and long-term stability; by businesses, as in the development of roads and the fair allocation of jobs by investors; by civil society activists promoting local livelihoods, education, etc.; or by international agencies operating within the country in question; or by international actions with cross-border impacts, such as the implementation of anti-money laundering measures or moves to legalise drugs. Despite concerns about ‘doing-no-harm’, and the complexities and limits of cause-and-effect models, the role of progressive agency remains critical, at whatever level or scope.


Much of the foregoing appears to render ‘theories of change’ very limiting and limited as ways to think about progress, unless they are either very short term and project-based, or contain multiple possible scenarios of cause-and-effect, and remain under regular review. Despite the best intentions of Karl Marx, the whig historians, and Francis Fukuyama with his End of History, there is no room for a teleological perspective in either economic development nor peacebuilding: both peace and economic development require a combination of circumstance and agency.

One final point here: despite what I have said above, people want the changes they want, and as soon as possible. So one of the important elements for promoters of peace-conducive economic development to bear in mind is the need to seek short-term changes which are reasonably progressive in delivering sufficient dividends to new beneficiaries, and seem like incremental steps in the right direction, while maintain a sufficient flow of benefits to incumbents and enabling further change to occur, as in the following diagram.

three outcomes


Seizing the new opportunity for peacebuilding in Sri Lanka

January 26, 2015

Now that we’ve had a little time to digest the democratic ouster of Mahinda Rajapaksa by Maithripala Sirisena as president of Sri Lanka on 8th January, what are the peacebuilding opportunities and challenges?

Rajapaksa’s regime was effective in many ways: it had defeated the twenty-five year Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebellion in a crushing military victory in 2009; it implemented a great deal of infrastructure improvement, including in the war-ruined north; attracted much inward investment from elsewhere in the region; and improved living conditions for the growing middle class.

But its manner of governing proved its undoing. The Rajapaksa family circle dominated not just the reins of government, but also large swathes of the economy, seeming far more corrupt than earlier regimes. The cost of living rose sharply recently, partly as a result of the government taking out huge foreign loans – some of which were transparently used to promote the family’s economic and political interests. President Rajapaksa’s governing clique was closely allied to Sinhala Buddhist hardliners, and he did little to foster reconciliation with the ‘defeated’ Tamil minority, while allowing new conflicts with Sri Lanka’s Muslim minority to be stoked. His modernisation agenda paid scant attention to the needs of tens of thousands of poor families whose homes were razed to make way for new economic projects; and the new infrastructure built in the post-war north was designed with little involvement of the people living there, who were simply expected to take it or leave it. Human rights violations allegedly committed during the final stages of the civil war, and afterwards, were not investigated. A common popular comment on his rule was that “he simply went too far” – and this is also given as one of the reasons why security forces and political allies refused to go along with the coup he is alleged to have attempted, when he realised he would lose the election.

President Sirisena is popularly known by his nickname “Maithri”, or “blessings”, but we should be careful not to expect too much. In a political system known for shifting loyalties, the strength of his power-base will be determined by the parliamentary elections due in April; he may not show his full hand until after then, for political reasons. The coalition which he led in the presidential elections includes a variety of unnatural bedfellows, all of whom must be satisfied. And the margin of his victory was small, with 51.3% of the vote. While in a nice piece of symbolism he was sworn into office by a Tamil judge, and he has promised to rebalance the political institutions in favour of the judiciary and parliament, and to investigate alleged human rights violations by the state, it is not clear how far he will go in promoting much-needed national reconciliation. Although he won the election largely on an anti-corruption ticket, it will be hard to root out the corruption which is endemic in the political system; or to hold together a wide coalition without allowing some members to ‘benefit from power’.

I have written before about how political systems and political cultures tend to be resilient to change. Ironically, even though he is not personally from a political elite background, the natural result of President Sirisena’s election could eventually be a restoration of the pre-Rajapaksa status quo, in which a narrow elite political class ran Sri Lanka in a way which allowed its members to retain their political and economic dominance while providing technocratic government but failing to resolve political issues like the need for nation building and inter-community reconciliation, and the need for jobs for young people; nor to prevent a 25-year civil war. If that were to be the case, there are risks of more instability and insecurity down the road.

Expectation management will be key, and beyond that from a peacebuilding perspective, it therefore seems critical to seize this opportunity to:

  • Open up government to as much transparency as possible
  • Prevent conflicts and promote reconciliation between Tamils and Sinhalese, and with Muslims
  • Increase the genuine power of local government, so that people can participate better in decisions which affect them
  • Create a policy environment which supports economic opportunity for young people from all groups
  • Support the emergence locally and nationally of young leaders from diverse backgrounds who are committed and have the talents and skills to promote a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka – the next generation of politicians.

Making SDG #16 work for peace

December 10, 2014

This article, written in August, was included in the UK UN Association’s recent publication Global Development Goals: Partnerships for Progress


The proposed SDGs are no substitute for an activist, context-based approach to development. But they represent a marked improvement on the MDGs, not least by the recognition that development is meaningless unless it includes human security, governance, inclusion, justice and peace. So all development activists should aim to integrate these in their initiatives. Fortunately, this is relatively simple, as almost all of the more than 150 proposed sub-goals are connected to goal #16. Thus, progress on goal #16 will be achieved not only by specialists in peace, justice, security and governance, but by all development actors, provided they take it seriously into account.


The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were too narrow, and they undervalued the political aspects of development in favour of more technical issues. They also failed to recognise that development processes are context-specific, and cannot be defined from a vantage point in New York. Despite their unstrategic nature, in the absence of a clear alternative they became for many the default narrative of what “development” looks like, and acted as a set of perverse incentives.

The Open Working Group’s (OWG’s) proposal partly addresses these problems. It is broader than the MDGs, and it accepts that “development” will look different in every context, and must be led by the people and countries concerned, within a system of global cooperation and partnerships.

Crucially, the proposed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognise the importance of peace, good governance, justice and security – critical building blocks of human progress which are glaringly absent from the MDGs – in goal #16: Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.

But the proposal fails to lay out an overall narrative of what “development” actually means: it reads as an incoherent list of seventeen goals and over 150 subsidiary targets sparkling like as many coloured lights festooning a Christmas tree. This is particularly relevant here because without an overall narrative, the issues included in goal #16 appear to have been somewhat marginalised. Surely any student of history would allow that peace, governance, justice and security represent more than one-seventeenth of the story – i.e. deserve more attention than merely being thrown together to make one out of seventeen goals?

The OWG also failed design a system in which the SDGs can provide incentives for positive change, built around carrots and sticks and based on subsidiarity, i.e. the principle that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, doing only what cannot be done effectively at a more local level. Incentives for change are especially important for goal #16, to encourage powerful incumbents to adopt more inclusive and accountable governance – which might undermine their access to power.

Justice, good governance, security and peace do not lend themselves to short-term goals and targets. The English took seven centuries to progress from Magna Carta, which provided for habeas corpus and limited the power of the king in 1215, to universal adult suffrage in 1928. Certainly things are moving faster nowadays, and England’s is not the path to follow, but progress on goal #16 will inevitably be linked to changes in the political economy, which are seldom linear. Nor is progress on peace, justice, security and good governance made in the abstract, rather in relation to factors included elsewhere in the SDGs: this provides an important clue as to how to operationalise goal #16.

With all this in mind, how might goal #16 be used, and by whom? Broadly, I would suggest five mutually supportive pathways for this.

  1. Activists

Reducing violence, promoting the rule of law, combating corruption and bribery, building effective institutions, ensuring responsive and inclusive decision-making, ensuring public access to information, and promoting non-discriminatory laws and policies…. These kinds of targets can only be achieved by the efforts of activists in the countries concerned, i.e. people in politics, the civil service, civil society or business who are committed to change. They can:

  • Use their government’s commitment to goal #16, in public and private advocacy, as a reference against which to monitor and encourage progress
  • “Domesticate” goal #16, by formulating strategies which make sense in the national and local context, and develop locally relevant indicators and milestones against which these can be publicly measured and used for accountability
  • Collaborate with and seek support from outsiders: such as peers seeking similar changes in other countries, and international agencies with relevant expertise.
  1. Businesses and others associated with economic projects

Economic growth is partly achieved through investment projects which need careful governance if they are to avoid having negative impacts on human security, justice and peace – especially in land- and natural resource-based sectors. So they provide concrete opportunities to enhance governance, security, peace and justice, on issues which matter to a diverse range of stakeholders. Businesses, governments and civil society can promote popular participation in planning and execution; ensure benefits are transparently and genuinely shared and reinvested; and that communities are protected from harm. Given the international nature of many economic sectors, there is an important role for international institutions to play here too – for example the UN Global Compact and the Voluntary Principles for Security and Human Rights.

  1. International development institutions integrating goal #16 into their programmes

International development institutions – the International Finance Institutions, the UN, donors and NGOs – will continue to focus the bulk of their efforts on the other sixteen goals. Initiatives focused on social protection, food security, climate change, health, education, water and sanitation, etc. are linked to goal #16, and can be implemented in ways which either enhance or diminish peace, security and governance. From the location of a community well, through the management of schools and the elaboration of education curriculums, to national health policies: all need to be well-governed, and designed and implemented conflict-sensitively, with explicit and careful strategies for social inclusion. Thus all “development” actors can integrate goal #16 into their strategic assessments, project designs, and evaluation frameworks.

  1. International institutions monitoring progress

While most interventions will be initiated and conducted in specific countries and localities, international bodies have a critical role to play by:

  • Conducting empirical research to measure the changes taking place, comparing these with the published strategies, and publishing the results internationally and nationally so they can be used to hold governments and others to account, and to adapt strategies where necessary
  • Building up an international dataset showing how progress towards peace, justice, security, inclusion and better governance happens – a narrative of change – and sharing this widely.
  1. Governments, international institutions and other international actors collaborating on supra-national issues

The progress made in international peacekeeping and peacebuilding in the past few decades must to continue: the UN, regional blocs and informal groupings of nations must continue to seek ways to reduce the risk of intra- and inter-state war and to intervene more effectively and earlier to prevent it, and to end it when it occurs. Meanwhile, many of the structural factors enabling violence, corruption, poor governance, etc. are international in nature, and require an international response, often through international institutions and agreements. International institutions play a particularly important role providing leadership, knowledge and solidarity, and enforcing norms, for example on human trafficking, money laundering, drug and arms trade, and all forms of organised crime; as well as in holding licit businesses to common, high standards of behaviour.


The proposed SDGs are no substitute for an activist, context-based approach to development. But they represent a marked improvement on the MDGs, not least by the recognition that development is meaningless unless it includes human security, governance, inclusion, justice and peace. So all development activists should aim to integrate these in their initiatives. Fortunately, this is relatively simple, as almost all of the more than 150 proposed sub-goals are connected to goal #16. Thus, progress on goal #16 will be achieved not only by specialists in peace, justice, security and governance, but by all development actors, provided they take it seriously into account.


What was he thinking? Tony Blair and Save The Children

November 26, 2014

Last week Save the Children presented Tony Blair with a ‘global legacy award’ in New York, in recognition of his leadership in international development. This has led to a wave of negative comment, mainly asking how a man who played such a leadership role in waging ill-advised wars with negative humanitarian consequences could be so celebrated. Many Save the Children staff have signed an internal letter criticising the award as being “morally reprehensible”, potentially endangering the charity’s reputation, “inappropriate and a betrayal to Save the Children’s founding principles and values”.

I do not intend here to add to the criticism of Save the Children (SCF). I have often worked with SCF over the years, and have in general found it to be a decent, diligent organisation which makes a difference for the poor and marginalised people for and with whom it works. At times it has also been at the forefront of new development and humanitarian thinking and practice. Overall, if it has an attractive brand allowing it the space and funds to do more good work, I’d say that’s something to celebrate.

But I do sympathise enormously with the SCF staff who signed the letter protesting the award. They worry that Blair’s toxic brand will undermine SCF’s brand, and thus their work. I expect many of them also feel personally embarrassed to work for an organisation which is tone-deaf enough to make an award of this nature to a man of Blair’s reputation. I know that in their situation, I would.

It’s worth pointing out that this was an award and an “Illumination Gala” (sic) organised by Save the Children’s US branch. To European eyes, this kind of glitzy schmaltz seems off-key, but in the USA it is a normal part of charity fund-raising and PR, and you can bet people paid large sums for tickets to the gala, hence contributing useful funds to Save the Children’s coffers. In the US, if you organise a fund-raising dinner, you need a key name; and to big up the event and give a sense of coherence, you give her or him an award. (The dog who plays Hollywood canine character Lassie was also honoured at this event, for goodness sake!)  And let’s not forget that Blair was always more popular in the USA than in the UK, especially during the Blair War years. They never had to suffer him as their prime minister, after all.Lassie attends the Save the Children awards in New York

The SCF staff who signed the letter no doubt have justified questions that need answers from their leadership. That’s an internal issue. In my view, there is no doubt that giving Blair the award was a mistake, and therefore a poor decision on the part of someone or some people. I – and probably most others – only heard of the award yesterday, as a result of publicity over the staff letter. But in the end, SCF’s brand is resilient, and will recover, as it has no doubt done before in the past hundred or so years since the organisation was founded. Perhaps there is after all no such thing as bad publicity. SCF has become better and better over the last few years at getting itself on TV whenever there is a humanitarian disaster, and that, plus the good work they do, is surely worth more than this blip of poor publicity.

The question in the title of this blog post – what was he thinking? – is not directed at anyone in SCF (nor at Lassie…), but at the great man himself. Surely Blair must have anticipated the negative publicity this would engender? Or has the man a completely tin ear? If he really is committed to international development, it would have been far better for him quietly to thank SCF for their invitation and let them give the award to someone less controversial, meanwhile getting on with the quiet business of international development of which he is such a strong supporter.

But he did not, and the clue to Tony Blair, surely, is in the words of his acceptance speech. In it, as usual, he said some important and truthful things about the need for better politics and institutions, the humanitarian impulse, and optimism. But he managed to smuggle two advertisements for his own charities (the same number of mentions of SCF, at whose gala he was being decorated…), and several references to his own great leadership while in office. But the dead giveaway was when he drew the audience’s attention to his belief that “change … only happens through Change Makers”. I think we know to whom he was referring.

Now, his acceptance of the award risks leading to a barrage of bad publicity. To add insult to injury, Tony Blair’s office has now responded to an article in the Guardian with a full-on, aggressive message and this looks likely to lead to a public spat. Oh dear.

In his speech, Tony Blair quite rightly emphasised the need for good governance, good politics, institutions, right-thinking leadership, defiance, ambition for and acting in the public interest, volunteerism, and striving. I agree with all of that, and I suspect that were Blair and I to debate what development looks like and how it happens, we would largely be in agreement. But that worries me, because I would hate to been seen to be in agreement with a man I distrust and dislike so much. And that, I think, is how many of those who work for and support Save the Children are probably feeling now.

Metaphors in peacebuilding: the need to take good care with our language

September 21, 2014

We use metaphor in language all the time, usually without noticing. That is the nature of language. But it brings risks of misdiagnosis and ineffective solutions in peacebuilding.

In the past I have blogged about the need for clarity in the analysis and practice of peacebuilding – and in other dimensions of activism for social change. Politicians can perhaps be excused being vague, as they often need to maintain a broad church, and peacebuilders at times need to keep some of their analysis to themselves, to retain their licence to operate. But both should surely be as accurate and precise as possible in the language of their analysis. Unfortunately this is not always the case, which brings risks of misdiagnosis. This blog post explores this issue.

But first, an amateur detour into linguistics. Back in the 1970s, Julian Jaynes published his fascinating The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, in which he proposed that for physiological reasons, humans did not develop a concept of self until around 2000-1500 BC. No doubt this has since been overtaken, and perhaps undermined, by later scholarship, but Jaynes’s thesis remains interesting. Not least in the way he calls Homer as a witness in support of his argument.

What I also found interesting in the book was his notion that at heart, almost all language is metaphor. He explained this by suggesting that the coining of new terms is therefore usually done with reference to existing words and terms, hence is by definition metaphorical. For example, if one already has the word “arm” for the human organ, one can use it to describe the (new) concept of an inlet in a lake; or one can use the existing term “island” in describing anything which is isolated (oops, I did it again!). Looking back at this and the previous paragraph simply reinforces the idea, from “detour”, through “overtaken”, “undermined”, “support”, “found”, “coining”, right through to “looking back” and “reinforces”….

Luckily for poets, metaphor is ubiquitous in everyday language. It follows, therefore, that as the terms of art evolve for specialised ideas and disciplines, they tend to borrow from existing usage. For example governance as a political concept was first described in terms of steering the ship of state – hence derived from the latin gubernator, or helmsman; and “elasticity” as an abstract economic concept is clearly rooted in a physical idea.

Bricklaying for peace?

I mention this here because it explains the inevitability of using pre-existing terms, hence concepts, in defining the terms of art for peacebuilding. The word peacebuilding itself is an example, and one which nicely shows the dangers, since “building” can straight away give the incorrect impression that peace can be constructed according to a pre-ordained blueprint. In reality, peace is an outcome of iterative, indirect, often meandering processes which defy linear models of cause and effect. Translation of the term into French serves to emphasise the problem: since construction in French does not carry the same metaphorical usage as ‘building’ in English, the term is often translated as consolidation de la paix, which brings new problems, as consolidation with its connotations of a mission already half-accomplished, implies a less complex and ambitious project than what is usually needed for sustainable peace to emerge.

Building is also problematic in other usage in the field. Resilience is a popularly used term these days, to describe the ability of polities, states, communities, businesses, organisations, cultures and systems to respond to and survive political, economic, social and environmental stress. It’s an apt metaphor, evoking elasticity and responsiveness, as opposed to brittleness and fragility. The difficulty comes when we rightly consider how to reduce fragility and increase resilience, and define this as “building resilience”: this mixing of metaphors may wrongly imply that we have tools (as a builder has) with which to add more resilience to a situation, just as we might add on a room to a house. Resilience is a function of the complex interplay between many factors, endogenous and external (human and social capital and other assets, the quality of governance, the nature of relationships, the openness of the economy, the degree of gender equality, and so on). So while it certainly can and does increase, this happens through relatively long-term processes which need to be teased, cajoled, enabled and promoted, rather than “built”. The idea of statebuilding is similarly problematic, as it tends to focus minds on the aspects of an effective state which can be constructed (technical capacity, physical infrastructure and systems) at the expense of equally important aspects such as civic engagement, leadership, ethics, and the culture of transparency and accountability – elements which need to evolve, and require the right circumstances in which to do so.

Lines, levels, scope – and lifting

As agents of social change we rely on metaphor to convert abstract ideas into a picture we can see and in which we can “intervene” – posit our agency. For example, we talk of “progress”, which derives from the idea of physical movement from A towards B. And the linearity of this image makes it very hard to avoid falling into the trap of seeing societal change in simple, linear form – even among those who know that is not how societal improvement processes occur. I see this problem repeated quite often in other metaphorical usage in the peacebuilding field.

It is very common, for example, for strategic analysts to examine a particular peacebuilding issue  from different perspectives. In doing so, they frequently speak of the “community level” and “national level”. This is fine insofar as what they actually mean is “as seen from grassroots level” and “as seen from the national capital/government”. Level is clearly a term – a metaphor – of vertical differentiation. But this is usually insufficient, and in fact the difference they ought to be considering is often one not of level but of scope, in which they need to understand their issue as seen from different perspectives across the community, or across the nation.

To illustrate, let’s imagine an analysis of land tenure. The analyst’s aim is to identify the conflicts associated with land, and possible solutions. By speaking of the “community level”, s/he is potentially missing some of the important differences of interest and perception which exist within local communities, in which herder-farmer, male-female, landed-landless, old-young and wealthy-poor distinctions will play an important role. And by using “national level” – implying the state and central government – s/he may miss some of the opportunities for linking issues and finding solutions between different communities within the country.

And finally, one more example which is a bête noire of mine. Government and non-governmental agencies around the world love to talk of “lifting people out of poverty”. It’s easy to see why, as it emphasises the agency of the lifter, not the lifted, and thus serves as a reminder that we should support whoever is doing the lifting. But it is completely misleading as it implies people can be dropped back into poverty at any time, and that poor people play no role in the process. In other words, the change risks being unsustainable. If improved income, wealth, living standards, justice, security and a greater degree of choice and freedom is the antidote to poverty, then presumably these goods must be accrued gradually by individuals and households at least partly by virtue of their own efforts, within a national and community policy framework which supports and enables them to do so. This is a very different picture from lifting them up, and is thus more likely to allow for the design of effective programmes.


None of this is to deny the power of aptly-chosen metaphors in conveying analysis. Perusal of the executive summary of a recent International Alert report revealed we deployed lenses, fragility, silos, shadows, nexuses, targets, rafts, networks, triggers, roots, joined-up responses and many other images usefully to get the point across well. But it is because metaphor is so powerful that we have to take extra care in choosing the right images, otherwise we inadvertently draw misleading charts on which to base our navigation of peacebuilding processes.

Jam today, versus honey tomorrow: temporal trade-offs and the SDGs

September 6, 2014

The SDG framework needs to reflect the fact that development processes are non-linear, and involve trade-offs between immediate and future benefits.

Those few readers who follow my blog will have become accustomed to – perhaps bored with – the notion that ‘development is history looking forwards’. By which I mean, we should see ‘development’ as a collection of the kinds of processes of societal change and improvement such as we claim to discern in our analysis of the past. A fairly obvious point, but one I make from time to time, to reinforce the idea that development is a complex set of interconnected historical processes of change: technical and political.

Looking at development in this way – as ‘future history’ – is also a way to remind politicians and development or peacebuilding practitioners of the risk of hubris inherent in their attempts to help people change the course of their (future) history. Especially given that we know it is virtually impossible to predict chains of societal change with any confidence or precision. (After all, most of the outcomes we can now discern in history were probably not intended at all, at least not by those who helped set off and facilitate the chains of causation we now claim and describe.)

Thinking recently about this in relation to the draft Sustainable Development Goals prepared this year by the UN Open Working Group, set me off on a related new line of thought. This takes me outside my comfort zone as it’s quite a philosophical line of inquiry. The logic, as I see it (and I welcome comments and refutations of this rather clumsy argument), is:

  1. The concept of ‘development’ is fundamentally about creating a better future. It must be, because:

the results of any ‘development’ initiative will not be achieved until after they are implemented (i.e. in the future), and

‘development’ is an ambitious and long-term concept which by definition will take several lifetimes to ‘achieve’. For example, in ‘rights-based development’, it is impossible for all the rights of all people in a particular society to be fulfilled immediately (if ever).

  1. Therefore, ‘development’ initiatives must necessarily be strategic, i.e. designed to increase the likelihood of a future ‘good’, rather than simply improve lives today.
  2. Given we know ‘development’, like most societal change, happens in a non-linear way, the initiatives which are optimal for achieving future goals, are unlikely to be the most optimal for achieving immediate benefits.
  3. Given that any ‘development’ initiative is therefore but a step on a longer road, or a brick in a larger wall, is logical that people should be willing to forgo benefits today, in favour of benefits which will accrue to their community in the future.
  4. This logic however is premised on three conditions:

There is no feasible, more effective alternative available

The forecast future improvements are reasonably likely to transpire

The “beneficiaries” undergoing the opportunity cost are aware of and accept it.

Once the conditions are outlined, it’s immediately clear that this is more of a thought experiment than a practical notion, especially in relatively fragile and undemocratic societies where poorly informed people with limited political voice, are concerned. And because – as mentioned already – longer-term development processes are notoriously unpredictable, and non-linear.

Nevertheless, I find it a useful line to explore, as it reinforces the idea that development policy and practice needs to take a strategic and future-oriented perspective, aiming to benefit people today to the extent possible, but within an explicit trajectory of enabling an improved future. (Rather as politicians fighting a war insist on the very severe shorter-term cost of longer-term victory).  This is why human capital development is such an obviously attractive development initiative, as it benefits the child or adult being ‘capacitated’, who – it is reasoned – will also be a force for social good as a result.

Or, I suppose, we could just go back the simpler a-political days of yore, designing short-term, immediate impact policies and projects, and hoping that the bigger picture of future history takes care of itself.

Why is this relevant to the SDGs?

Because they appear to be falling into the same trap as the MDGs, of confusing ends which strategies, or as eloquently put by Simon Maxwell in his recent blog post, of confusing intrinsic with contributory goals. The point is that if we genuinely believe in some bigger idea of societal progress, then it immediately becomes a political question at two important levels: of prioritisation and of strategy. These are intrinsically political questions, because there are seldom uncontested answers to either of them.

The current SDG draft reads as an incoherent list of seventeen goals and over 150 subsidiary targets, sparkling like as many coloured lights festooning a Christmas tree. It is anything but a framework. If one of the challenges of the next few months is to try and give it some meaning as a strategic framework, then I would suggest that those involved need to take into account the need for the framework to recognise the difference between strategic interventions and the intended goals; and that one of the explicit assumptions must necessarily be that there are short term trade-offs inherent therein.

This matters because, once it passes through the 2015 general assembly, the SDG framework enters the minefield of national politics. Famously, while long-term businesses may have a low intrinsic discount rate, individuals (electors) and governments usually do not: they value immediacy of outcomes and benefits, and nowhere more so that in a democracy with its 4-5 year electoral cycle, or a fragile state where the patronage which maintains leaders in power needs to be fuelled. The SDGs need to be fit for that real world (where, as soldiers say, no plan survives contact with the enemy). So we need to be pragmatic about what they do and don’t contain. But if they are to be more than just humanitarian goals, it is really important that they reflect the real nature of historical development processes, and the intention of creating a better future history. One way to do that is to differentiate between jam today, and honey tomorrow.


Ways of seeing the Middle East

June 24, 2014

A legitimate and useful way to see the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East is as conflicts of nation and state formation. This means among other things, examining the nature of the political settlements there, including the terms of the relationship between the governed and those in power. Obama has implied as much in his comments on the current situation in Iraq. But this analysis also services as a stark reminder that the USA and the West have limited policy options, and in the end are likely to continue backing the devils they know.

Most of us were taken by surprise by the way the conflict in Syria appeared to burst its banks in the past few weeks, overflowing into Iraq and now threatening Jordan – even though it’s long been part of the narrative that this might happen.

In reporting this newly expanded conflict, journalists have made much of the idea that this is in part a conflict of state formation. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, tribal allegiance, western-manufactured post-Ottoman states, oil, Balfour, the Great Game, the juvenile nature of the states involved, and of course sectarian enmities – all have been brought out of the cupboard to explain the idea that national boundaries in the Middle East might be in the process of being redrawn. The consensus in liberal western media (a good example was in this week’s Economist) seems to be: stick to the lines we drew in the sand.

It is of course right to describe the conflict partly in terms of unreal borders, and of nations and states built on sand. A historical view of the region suggests there would be every likelihood of a redrawing of borders, absent outside interference seeking artificial stability à la status quo, even without some crazy idea of a caliphate stretching from the Philippines to the Gambia as per ISIS propaganda. But “state formation” – perhaps nation formation is more accurate in the first instance – is not only or mainly about borders. It is about the identity of the country, about the way people belong, and about the way political and economic power is held and wielded there.

A key element of this is the culture and nature of politics, and the nature of the political-economic settlement: who is in, and who is out, at every level. In Obama’s initial response to the ISIS advance a couple of weeks ago, he put his finger on this when he said that any solution should include a different – more inclusive – way of governing (and thus of being governed) in Iraq. He was talking about the need to change the sectarian nature of governance – effectively a need to revisit the political settlement which the USA had perhaps unwittingly established. What he saw was the need for the settlement to include and represent all broad identity groups, some of whom had been alienated, and thus driven into alliance with ISIS for want of alternative access to political and economic power.

This element of state formation – and we are now firmly in the territory of state formation, rather than nation formation, as this is about the relationship and the accommodation between the governed and the governing state – is hardly unique to the Middle East. Ukraine and other post-soviet countries are going through similar processes. Indeed, all states are in constant (if mercifully often peaceful and gradual) evolution. The recent rise of the Tea Party in the USA, the UKIP in the UK, and Five Star party in Italy to name but a few, are examples of how the nature of even relatively mature liberal states is being reviewed, tested and perhaps renewed at present, in response to dissatisfaction with the status quo. Arguably this already happened in the UK in the late 1940s, and again in the 1980s. In the right circumstances, and if non-violent and progressive in nature and outcomes, it’s both a natural evolution and an essential element of resilience. By the same token, where this evolution is held back, violence sooner or later erupts.

It’s critical this angle on the conflicts in the Middle East be clearly and well-reported. Not the least because it has an important consequence for outside intervention, or lack thereof. The USA’s decision to unlock its suspended military and security assistance package to Egypt, following the latter’s recent “restoration of democracy” is a useful reminder that in amongst the nice rhetoric from the West which has at times accompanied the Arab Spring, realpolitik will usually win out. Pace Obama’s words about inclusive governance, when faced by a choice between the allowing the people of the Middle East to define their own futures (as the Western rhetorical response to the Arab Spring at first had it), or helping bad leaders beat back the likes of Isis and thus support them in their own bad use of power, the West will likely once again be forced to admit that there is no easy middle ground. It has tried to find a middle ground in Syria and is not feeling too good about where that approach has taken it.

But perhaps that’s really what ISIS and its fellow travellers really want: to set things up to show young Moslems that western power really is always going to remain aligned with a tyrannical, haram form of rule which resists the people’s voice, and thus foment a continued undercurrent of violent rebellion around the world which, even though it may never achieve the establishment of the crescent Caliphate, at least continues to undermine the enemy.

Perhaps we can all be forgiven for feeling disappointed in the inability of Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, John Kerry and their allies to sort things out. But it’s quite a knot they are tasked with untangling.


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