Uganda’s President Museveni signed the long-heralded Anti-Homosexuality Act into law this week, reinforcing the existing legal repression of homosexuality there. Uganda thus joins many other countries which seem to be re-emphasising or strengthening the legal and lawful harassment of people because of their sexuality. It is not just an African phenomenon. I was in Tbilisi last year when violent anti-gay demonstrations took place; and Russian political and civil society seems overwhelmingly anti-gay, from recent news coverage.
From a human rights perspective, this is plain wrong, even though I recognise that from a cultural perspective, the majority of Ugandans (96%, apparently) and others do still seem to believe that homosexuality is as wrong, just as I believe their intolerance, marginalisation, harassment and intimidation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender (LGBT) people is wrong.
I’m a supporter of democratic governance, in which laws should be passed by an elected parliament or similar assembly, reflecting the views, values and interests of the electors. But I feel no discomfort in arguing against the laws of this nature which reflect a majority view in Uganda or wherever else, because democracy does not mean majoritarianism. Governments represent every citizen, not just those who voted for them. A fundamental element of democracy is that MPs, the judiciary and the executive have a common and separate duty to pay attention to the needs and rights of minority groups; and where they don’t, civil society has to step in and remind them.
Many of the countries which outlaw LGBT behaviour are what’s known as Fragile and Conflict-Affected Countries(FCAC), thus of interest to peacebuilders such as myself. Peacebuilders tend to be seekers of compromise. In the rich tapestry made up of different forms and types of civic activism, peacebuilders are often more able to turn a blind eye to imperfections in the search for a workable compromise than, say, human rights campaigners who might take a more absolute approach. So one might expect us to turn a blind eye to the intolerance and repression of LGBT people and communities in fragile contexts – as indeed we so often have done, sometimes saying that there are more pressing issues or interest groups to attend to with regard to peace processes. But this wave of new or newly-reinforced laws targeting LGBT behaviour and identity seems like an important reminder that this is an inadequate response, and here are four core practical reasons why.
Marginalisation creates conflicts. First, on a very basic level, marginalising and criminalising the identity and behaviours of particular groups of people creates unresolved (and unresolvable) conflicts in society. If a peaceful society is one in which conflicts are managed and where possible resolved, then a society which creates unresolvable conflicts is by definition not at peace: this makes the issue of intrinsic interest to peacebuilding.
Intolerance begets violence. Second, a society which mistreats its minorities – of whatever stripe – because of the features which define them as minorities (and provided they are not, by virtue of their minority identity markers, harming people), is an intolerant society. An intolerant society is one more likely to solve its differences and conflicts – whatever they may be about – through repression and violence; and repression and violence tend to beget more violence. Tolerance is intrinsic to peace, and so intolerance is of intrinsic interest to peacebuilders.
The majority shoots itself in the foot. Third, by marginalising a group of people, any community reduces its ability to contribute good ideas, along with economic, political, social and cultural value to the common good. So it is undermining its own ability to make progress, to the detriment of all members in the long run.
Hurting others hurts the hurters. Fourth, a society which mistreats minority groups does so through the actions of its institutions and individuals. However strongly the belief running through society that this or that identity or behaviour is wrong, surely the act of marginalising, repressing or otherwise harming individuals damages the perpetrators, making them less effective members of the community and contributors to the public good? It certainly undermines the ability of the institutions involved to treat others fairly, enable good, balanced decisions in the public interest – in a word, corrupting them.
Of course these four reasons are in addition to the much more basic issue which is that all human rights infringements are wrong, wherever they take place, and ought to be challenged.
While it is clearly important for peacebuilders to pay more attention to the marginalisation and repression of LGBT people, it’s not always so obvious how we should do so. It’s been said that one of the reasons that pushed Museveni to sign the new law this week was the reaction of people in his power base to foreign (aka western) interference. So it’s not obvious that outside peacebuilding organisations can or should try to tackle the issue head-on. Indeed, my own experience is that in many countries international organisations’ partner organisations, and often their own local staff, may be more aligned with Museveni’s view than with mine. So we do have to tread carefully. But we cannot keep ignoring the issue as we have too often done before.
EU and African leaders meet in early April for one of their regular summits. What are some of the things should they focus on, for peace?
The EU is in the process of developing the next phase of its Pan-African Programme (PAP), in the context of the EU-Africa Partnership and Joint Strategy, and is also preparing for April’s EU-Africa summit: Investing in People, Prosperity & Peace. Reading the EU’s recent PAP consultation document a few days ago stimulated a few thoughts not just about the EC’s Pan-African programme priorities, but also towards the summit itself. These are premised on the idea that the EU and its partners in Africa have a commitment to positive peace, i.e. not just the absence of fighting but also the non-violent management and resolution of conflicts, and therefore the need for effective institutions, policies and attitudes.
The EU-Africa Partnership, or the EU-AU Partnership?
The EU-Africa Partnership and its accompanying Joint Strategy are broadly consistent with a peacebuilder’s perspective. As one would expect, given the EU’s own genesis as a peacebuilding project and the African Union’s (AU) heavy focus on peace, the Strategy explicitly emphasises peace and security, along with a variety of cross-cutting issues of relevance to peace, including migration, economic development, gender, human rights and the inclusion of civil society, as well as national, continental and global governance.
It’s worth pointing out that at a fundamental level the partnership seems slightly curious: how does the EU, an established intergovernmental arrangement with a legal personality and institutions, maintain a meaningful partnership and a joint strategy with Africa, a physical continent with no legal or political personality? Perhaps it is time to change this arrangement from the African side, to convert it into an EU-AU Partnership and Joint Strategy, to make it less unequal and more institutionally meaningful?
Post-2015 MDGs and the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals
The Joint Strategy highlights the importance of common policy work by the EU and Africa. As part of this, perhaps the EU and the AU could play a joint leadership role in promoting the ideas which emerged from the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, and which are incorporated in the New Deal for Engaging in Fragile States, as summarised by the five Peace and Security Goals (PSG) which between them address legitimate politics, livelihoods, security, taxation and government services, and justice. While the New Deal itself has been problematic, the five PSGs provide a powerful framework within which to consider development in fragile situations. It’s a conceptual framework which needs to be integrated into the post-2015 MDGs, and political support from Member States will be needed to make sure this happens. Meanwhile a lot of effort is still needed if this conceptual framework is to be exploited for positive change in fragile countries. The EU is the main global donor by volume, while most fragile situations are in Africa. Therefore there’s surely a powerful case to be made that the EU and the AU jointly promote the PSGs as part of the international post-2015 policy debate, while also working together to promote them on a very practical basis on the ground in African countries.
The AU continues to devote most of its peace and security attention to crisis prevention and response, rather than to building a capacity within Africa to manage and resolve conflicts non-violently in a positive peace framework. Thus the EC’s PAP consultation proposals, with a focus on peace, democracy, human rights and civil society, are very welcome. But perhaps they could go further than they currently do, and explicitly reference the need to promote better functional relationships between citizens/civil society and African governments, regional economic communities (RECs) and the AU, and by being more explicit about the need to strengthen the capacity within African countries to manage and resolve conflicts non-violently, both in formal institutions and in civil society.
This would fit in with the idea of promoting the PSGs and the New Deal, and would help ensure a good strategic balance in the Partnership between supporting continental initiatives, as well as the critically important national and sub-national dimensions of peace, security and good governance.
Addressing extremism and especially Islamic extremism is a major component of EU-African relations, not the least in Somalia, the Sahel and the Maghreb. There is a real risk that European/Western actions in Africa in pursuit of legitimate European “home security” needs will create security problems for Africans, as has already happened in Mali. It seems reasonable therefore to expect that the communiqué emerging from the April Summit will contain a commitment to working in a joined-up way to promote initiatives which are designed to build local resilience and foster progress in Africa, even while protecting Europeans and Africans from the threats posed by extremism and terrorism.
Demographics and Youth
Both Africa and Europe are dealing with challenges linked to demography. Broadly, Europe has an aging population and low birth rates, thus a rising dependency ratio; Africa has a young population with high birth rates, thus currently a high dependency ratio (although this is reducing, and expected to reach optimal levels for economic development in the next twenty years). Put simply, young Africans need jobs, and Europe needs more young people, thus there is a natural flow of labour towards Europe, although this is problematic as youth unemployment is also high within the EU.
The role of young people in society is important for peace and security because, as we have seen in West African civil wars, the Arab Spring and in youth unrest within the EU, young people who see an uncertain and difficult economic future ahead of them can be a destabilising influence in a number of different ways. Many young people on both continents are or perceive themselves to be excluded from political debate and processes, so risk becoming alienated. Demographic issues linked to peace and security, and especially those related to young people, should surely therefore be more explicitly included in the Partnership, the Joint Strategy and in other documents. Delegates at the April Summit will discuss issues of employment, youth and peace; it’s important that these are linked together and not treated as separate issues.
Conflict-sensitive economic development
Economic development is at the heart of the Partnership, is very much on the Summit agenda, and is addressed repeatedly in the PAP consultation document – e.g. in connection with employment, with trade and with natural resource management. It is by now well-recognised that in fragile contexts, economic development strategies, as well as the projects and comportment of individual companies, especially extractives and agribusiness, need to be conflict-sensitive. This means they need to take account of actual and latent conflicts, and be designed to contribute to reducing or managing these. For example anything in Africa which touches on issues of access to land or water or the provision of infrastructure or jobs, can have a major influence on the potential for peace and conflict. The idea of promoting conflict-sensitive and peace-promoting economic development should surely be a core element of the Partnership, by the inclusion of a joint commitment to promoting peace-supporting economic development, and improving peace and security through improved trade, infrastructure and labour mobility, and by promoting conflict-sensitivity in the exploitation of natural resources, particularly in the agribusiness and extractive sectors. We hear all the time that African economic growth will be increased and sustained over the next few decades; the EU provides a great deal of economic developement aid; and one way or another, many of the world’s large investors and companies are regulated within the borders of the EU. Therefore it’s of great importance that the Summit should consider this issue, and that the Europeans and Africans should make a joint commitment to peace-conducive and conflict-sensitive economic development.
Climate change is on the April summit agenda. Little is certain about the impacts to be expected in Africa due to climate change, except that adaptation will be required, and that adaptation brings with it a high risk of instability. The Summit is a great opportunity to highlight the need for more knowledge about these risks and how to respond to them, as well as increased access to and better targeted resources. Peaceful and equitable adaptation demands an approach which embraces governance, security, economic development, agriculture and environment, and so it is a very real cross-cutting issue appropriate for the Partnership. The Partnership is a great opportunity to support research on how adaptation to climate change can be leveraged for improvements in governance, the economy, human rights and environmental stewardship, as well as flexible programmes designed to build resilience to the economic, societal and political consequences of environmental stress within African societies as they unfold. Again, it would be a shame if the Summit fails to make such a commitment.
The Partnership and the Joint Strategy contain many of the right headings and sub-headings, and the planned EU-Africa Summit is a great opportunity to explore and make important commitments for peace. Let hope this happens.
Tonight the Sochi Winter Olympics officially began with a spectacular, ambitious and virile (though at times also somewhat camp) opening ceremony in keeping with the more than $50bn reputedly spent on these games.
Sochi is in the Russian Caucasus, a region well-known for instability and conflicts since long before it was annexed to the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and still well-known for conflicts today. So it’s perhaps appropriate that the Olympics are being held there, given the common association of the Olympics with peace. But are the Olympics really about peace?
The famous “Olympic truce” from ancient times is actually a bit of a myth. It was often more about safe passage for athletes, pilgrims and officials heading to the Games, than a real truce between warring parties. Yes, the ancient Olympics were an opportunity for people from rival polities to gather, to take part in cultural events and watch sporting events between young athletes. But they were also intensely political occasions, offering opportunities for dialogue and negotiation in which old alliances were broken and new ones forged, sometimes leading to new conflicts and bouts of warfare as the balance of power in Greece was re-calibrated from time to time.
In the modern era too, we should not forget that the Olympic Games have an important political, even geo-political dimension. The USSR boycotted the ‘bourgeois’ games completely until the 1950s when the Kremlin finally realised it was missing a PR opportunity. There have been plenty of other politically motivated boycotts over the years. In 1956 there were three simultaneous boycotts: over the participation of athletes from Taiwan, over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and over the Suez Crisis. And of course there were tit-for-tat Cold War boycotts by West and East respectively, of the summer games in Moscow and Los Angeles.
Other obvious political exploitation of the Olympics includes the Nazis using it for propaganda in 1936, and the Palestinian terrorist attack at Munich in 1972. To this day, Iranian athletes are forbidden from competing directly with their counterparts from Israel in every Olympics. Meanwhile individual athletes use their moment in the sun to make political points, as witness the public embrace between two Georgian and Russian competitors in 2008 just after the war between their countries, and the Black Power salutes made by two US sprinters on the podium in Mexico in 1968.
And of course local and national politics are always in play. Public funds are seen as being diverted from more appropriate uses to the Olympics infrastructure. Over 2 million people have been displaced from their homes – many forcibly – to make way for Olympics infrastructure over the past two decades, and there is always a lively debate among people in host cities and countries about the long-term benefits versus disadvantages of being hosts. Incumbent and opposition politicians alike do their utmost to leverage political position from the relative success or failure of their games.
So the Olympic Games, in addition to being a marvellous sporting occasion and an opportunity for people from all over the world to mingle and learn about each other – both physically and through TV and other media – are also a useful lens through which to examine issues of a more political nature.
My International Alert colleague Larissa Sotieva has written eloquently about the interplay between the Sochi Olympics and notions of Russian and Caucasian identity. I won’t repeat it all here but she captures very well how Sochi provides a showcase not just for sporting excellence, Russian state vanity and national ambition, but also for the racism prevalent among many ethnic Slavic Russians regarding the peoples of the Caucasus whose territories their ancestors invaded and colonised.
International politics are well represented at Sochi, where no heads of democratic states turned up for the opening night, and the US officials who were present wasted no time in raising human rights issues in their public utterances. Russia’s neighbour Georgia initially decided to boycott the games – though changed its political mind later.
Both the North and South Caucasus suffer from instability. In the North Caucasus this manifests largely as Islamic-hued rebellions against Moscow and Moscow’s local satraps; and in the independent South Caucasus republics, as unresolved territorial disputes between neighbours, including unrecognised breakaway territories. Many Russians are fed up with the difficulties of maintaining control of the N Caucasus region with its poverty, its patchwork of ethnicities and its broken, mountainous and often remote terrain. The slogan “stop feeding the Caucasus” is becoming popular among metropolitan Russians in response to what they see as money wasted trying to stabilise a region they see as backward and ultimately untamable. The current stagnation of the Russian economy is widely predicted to last a long time. Once the Olympics are over, it is reasonable to assume that Moscow will resort to less expensive ways of asserting its rule, and focus much more on the “homeland security” of the Russian heartland, than on the security of Caucasians in their homeland. Moscow’s methods of security provision are seen as ugly enough now, but could become much uglier, post-Sochi.
What about the South Caucasus, that collection of countries and unrecognised territories which emerged from the break-up of the USSR and subsequent wars: Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, along with Ngorny-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Moscow sees these as part of its “near abroad”, and is unlikely to give up its desire to be regional patron, any time soon. The run-up to Sochi 2014 has given Russia good reason to avoid ruffling too many feathers in the region. Indeed, relations with its closest neighbour Georgia have improved considerably since the recent change of government there. But many observers expect it to take the gloves back off, after the games are over, and reassert itself in its neighbourhood.
And although Moscow and Washington have not seen eye to eye of later over Syria and Ukraine, their relations with regard to Georgia and the South Caucasus have been lately on a more even keel than they were a few years back. Perhaps once the games are over, there’ll be a return to more obvious tussling between them over influence in the region. This is unlikely to be very conducive to building peace in the region.
The list could go on. There is plenty of politics on display in and around Sochi 2014. The Olympics and Peace? I don’t really think so.
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.