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Making SDG #16 work

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.

How might the ancient sages have responded to the latest SDGs proposal?

June 6, 2014

The Open Working Group released the zero consultation draft of 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 212 Targets this week. Examining them from the perspective of four criteria (Is there a coherent narrative, is peace included, is anything obviously missing, and will they work?), I conclude that although the ancient sages might well counsel us to abandon this SDG enterprise as a fool’s errand, there remains room for optimism about the outcomes.

So, I am imagining a conversation with one of the ancient sages. I ask him (they are all men, right?) how we might go about creating a political map defining progress for over 7 billion people between now and 2030. He’s a bit out of date, so I give him a bit more detail. I explain that we all live in more or less sovereign, more or less countries, which more or less coincide with states; how some are small and others large; how some are democratic, some far from it, and some are somewhere kind of in between. I talk about what links and what separates us. I explain a bit about how we’ve harnessed energy in support of a better life, and how we’re plundering the planet to do so. I sketch a few word pictures of humans living very different kinds of lives, and explain how inequality presents itself in the modern world. I talk a bit about the different demographic profiles of different countries, and about cultural similarities and differences. And few other salient details, too.

Assuming it’s not Plato (who’d probably say: easy, leave it to me and my mates, we’ll let you all know what to do in due course), I am fairly certain that my interlocutor would at some point stop me and say: don’t do it, mate, it will never work

But we are doing it, of course. That’s what the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are meant to be: a political map for everyone on this planet for the next 16 years – for what could be more political than the question of how to define “progress”?

The zero draft of the SDGs was released by the UN’s Open Working Group (OWG) this week. The intention of the OWG’s chairs is that this zero draft – essentially a short covering note and preamble attached to 17 goals and 212 targets if I counted right – is to create a negotiation database. After a few days of “informal-informals” in mid-June, the OWG will complete its work by presenting its final draft to the Secretary General. The assumption at that point is, if it’s not in, it won’t be; but that plenty of what’s included in the OWG’s report will be dropped and clustered and otherwise amended in subsequent negotiations. That’s when the real negotiations will begin.

So the 17 goals and 212 targets are not yet a framework, merely the building blocks thereof. What can we infer, from the document the OWG chairs have now released?

I can identify four basic criteria against which to judge the SDG process and its eventual output. First, is there a discernible concept of progress emerging, and if so, does it make sense? Second, does it reflect the importance of peace as an integral component of human progress? Three, is there anything obviously missing? And four, will the proposed model work as a tool for incentivising and monitoring progress?


  1. The concept of progress

It would be a little unfair to critique the present list from this perspective, as it seems to be intended merely as a list of the potential components of a concept, rather than claiming to provide one now. Looking at the list of goals, there is clearly an intention to be comprehensive, with the inclusion of poverty, hunger, healthy life, education, equality and especially gender equality, water and sanitation, energy, sustainability, economic growth, decent work, industrialization, climate change, conservation of land and sea, biodiversity, peace, rule of law, effective institutions, inclusion, and a global partnership for sustainable development. Phew!

But what I like about this list, is also what’s slightly concerning about it. It is reassuring that the list does not yet try to be a set of equivalent parameters. Far from it, in fact: promoting sustainable industrialisation, ending poverty everywhere, and strengthening and enhancing the means of implementation and global partnership for sustainable development – three of the goals – seem to come from three very different categories, and they would sit uneasily with one another in a fruit bowl. That seems like a good thing at this stage of the game, when it’s important for ideas to retain as much intrinsic and political meaning as possible, before they get smoothed out into a set of similar seeming apples that can sit in the same bowl. As the bearded sage might have told me, confusion is a critical stage on the road to enlightenment, so one should avoid trying to impose too much order on ideas before one needs to.

At the same time though, this categorical diversity is a cause for worry, because by avoiding the creation of any kind of conceptual framework for human progress at this stage, the OWG provides no real criteria for deciding what matters most, among the 212 targets or the 17 goals. So those seven billion of us not directly involved in the negotiations may be forgiven for feeling a little anxious on two grounds. First, have the drafters more or less given up on trying to create a coherent narrative of progress? That would be worrying because without one, it does seem a little pointless to create a set of goals: it is a truism that goals and targets only make sense when they emerge from and are justified by a coherent strategic narrative. And the second grounds for concern are that without a narrative, what is to protect any of these goals we particularly care about, from being removed during the next phase of negotiations?

Like others, I have personal narrative for development, and of course I’d be very happy to see that adopted. But it’s only one of many, even I am not convinced it’s right, and I certainly wouldn’t be looking for it or expecting to see it used by the OWG. But while I recognise the immense difficulty of getting agreement, I would have liked to see some semblance of conceptual shape provided to link these diverse goals. At International Alert we recognised this problem some years ago, which is why we proposed a simpler system without goals as such.

Ultimately, a big tent can be a good thing, unless it’s so big it has no structure and blows down when the wind blows.


  1. The importance of peace as an integral component of human progress

Everyone with a particular fetish or sectoral preference looks for his or her preferences in the list. I look for peace. It’s still there, goal #16: Achieve peaceful and inclusive societies, rule of law, effective and capable institutions. Good.

There is cause to worry slightly though, as the scuttlebutt is that quite a few countries are set against this goal. And by lumping peace in with rule of law and good governance, it does run the risk of being thrown out with the bathwater by governments who fear that by agreeing to good governance and the rule of law they create a rod for their own backs which will be wielded in collaboration by their civil society and the international community.

And there’s another reason to be concerned about whether peace will keep its place in the list. The introductory text references the usual UN instruments and makes it clear that the SDGs will reaffirm these. Oddly though, it does not include the Millennium Declaration – which clearly enshrines the international community’s existing commitment to peace. And where the preamble singles out certain elements for special mention – the centrality of people, equity, inclusivity, etc. – they do not give peace the same status, merely “reaffirming” it.

Saferworld has today released a more detailed analysis of what is right and wrong with goal #16, which provides more depth than I can here.

So we do need to keep a close eye on goal #16 over the next few months.


  1. What’s missing?

Given the lack of any clear conceptual shape, it is hard to see what’s missing. Rather like looking at a Christmas tree festooned with coloured lights and baubles, and asking if there are any specific lights or baubles missing. Given that gender, women and girls gets a goal of its own, and given the demographic s of the next few years, I did wonder whether young people and perhaps old people ought to be more visible in the goals. But I think we can assume that an “inclusive” set of goals has them covered.

A useful aide memoire is provided by the five generic peacebuilding and statebuilding goals, all of which ought to be reflected. Legitimate Politics, Security and Justice are more or less captured by the targets attached to goal #16. Services are covered throughout, and Taxation in goal #17, and Participatory Economic Growth is also clearly there. Good.


  1. Will the model work?

Even if the concept of development or progress is understandably not yet clear, I would have expected a little more clarity about the hierarchical structure of the goals and targets. After all, for a goal or target to make sense, there must be some hint as to how it will be used, who is responsible and who is accountable, etc. Otherwise, how to judge its utility? As I have written before, this new SDG framework should be built on the principle of subsidiarity, i.e. the idea that goals, targets and plans are set at the most appropriate level, with the default level as near to the ground as possible. In subsidiarity, each layer of authority is presumed to be subsidiary to the layer below it. In Alert’s earlier work on this issue, we recommended that the top level goals should be kept to a minimum number – we suggested six, and certainly not 17 – and should be drafted in terms of a broad vision of a more developed society (at whatever level), rather than as 15-year achievables. This, we felt, would allow easier global agreement, and would also reflect the idea of subsidiarity in that other entities below the global level would in most cases need to set their own plans, goals and targets every few years, in the direction of travel of the global vision. Elsewhere I’ve explained in more detail how this might work in practice.

But given that decision to opt for 2030 goals, I would have expected the goals and targets to make sense within a 15 year timeframe. Unfortunately the wording of the goals alone, let alone the targets, makes it clear that these are not really 15 year goals at all. End poverty in all its forms everywhere, by 2030? Attain gender equality everywhere, by 2030? End hunger and achieve adequate nutrition for all, by 2030? What planet are they living on? Have they not seen what is happening in Syria? Have they not seen the statistics from India, from Africa? Do they not understand how the barriers to these goals work, and how hard they will be to lift, remove or overcome? While I understand that political incentives within the UN pull in the direction of creating such unattainable goals, this kind of language will seriously undermine the credibility of these goals, just as happened with the MDGs years ago.

This problem can easily be fixed: by removing the idea that these goals will all be met by 2030, and changing them into aspirational aims, with no pre-determined end date. Thus for example, we agree on the need to end hunger for all, we recognise it is a major endeavour that will take several decades: now, what can we do over the next 15 years to make strong progress in that direction, at global, regional, national and sub-national levels?

As explained earlier, this change would also reinforce the idea of subsidiarity. And in respect of subsidiarity, the language of the preamble is already encouraging: the goals are to be global in nature and universally applicable in all countries, while taking into account different national capacities and levels of development, and respecting different national policies and priorities. I see the possibility of subsidiarity in that text. And the framing of many of the goals and targets also supports that interpretation. The actions needed to meet some goals are more clearly global in nature (e.g. climate, marine conservation) and the language to some degree reflects this. And on other – less “global” – areas too, many of the targets are quite rightly about the development and implementation of policies and systems – most of them national – which can enable progress towards the goal. Many of these are broad and leave plenty of room for national priorities and policies to be defined. Some, however, are a bit too prescriptive: Reduce retail and consumer food waste, and production and post-harvest food losses, by 50%; equal access for all to tertiary education; improve water efficiency by x% across all sectors….


So where does this leave us? The optimist in me says that the OWG’s initial list contains within it the potential for a framework with narrative meaning and coherence, with the right measure of ambition and realism, valuing peace and good governance as core public goods, and with the potential to be built around an incentives model which emphasises subsidiarity. If those involved in turning this list into the actual framework can wield Ockham’s razor with purpose, dexterity and a firm hand, they could achieve such a result. And to some extent the politics of this SDG process have the potential to support that: because national governments will in general – and quite right too – resist the call to sign up to globally defined prescriptions they do not have a democratic mandate for.

Meanwhile however, the sceptic in me says Ockham’s razor works best, wielded in a quiet space by one or two people, rather than in the crowded market place of the UN. So a more likely outcome will be a hodge-podge of goals and targets not brought together in any kind of real narrative, not making sense as a 15-year incentives and monitoring framework, but probably one which is quite comprehensive, and in which peace and governance do survive. And although the ancient sage whose advice I seek died long before William of Ockham sharpened his tool, I think he would probably agree.

Meeting the redefined development challenge in Mali

June 4, 2014

The nature of the development discourse has changed in Mali. It is framed not just in technical terms, but increasingly in terms of the political culture, and other complex ideas. But are those playing a leadership role fitting their programmes and approaches to this new framing? Perhaps not yet.

The peace process in Mali has been seriously undermined again, over the past couple of weeks. Fighting broke out in Kidal, and quickly spread to other parts of northern Mali as the MNLA rebels overran the Malian army and retook several towns, watched by the French and UN peacekeepers who seem to have decided there was no peace for them to keep. Yet another chapter in the ongoing crisis in what was not so long ago seen – through a distorting lens, to be sure – as one of the jewels in the crown of donor-supported development processes in Africa.

I lived in Mali for four years in the 1990s, and had the privilege to return there for a few days in late May, during which I took part in conversations and debates about development and peacebuilding, with NGOs, academics, civil servants and international donors. One thing that struck me was how much broader and deeper these conversations have become, compared to the ones I recall from twenty years ago. It is routine nowadays, to hear people describe their development challenges not simply in terms of access to education and health services, economic opportunity, accountable governance, etc. – i.e. the usual suspects which I recall from back then – but also in terms such as the need to:

  • Change the culture of politics from one of consensus to one of genuine debate, diverse ideas, and wide participation
  • Match statebuilding efforts with nation-building efforts
  • Deal with corruption, and with the way international drug-smugglers are taking advantage of Mali’s fragility, poverty and geography – and in so doing making a fragile situation worse
  • Cut the links with international terrorists
  • Promote citizenship and create a Mali more fit for the 21st Century.

And yet there is also a palpable sense among people that things are reverting to business as usual, despite the lack of resolution of the rebellion in the North. As always, the way we frame things is a powerful element in determining the kinds of solutions we identify. With that in mind, some of the “framing” issues which emerged in our conversations in Bamako included the following.

Connecting the disconnect

The prevalent analysis tends to highlight disconnects, and especially the disconnect between the North and the rest of the country. After all, the eco-climatic, economic, social and cultural differences between the north and the rest of Mali really are substantial; and there is a history of repeated civil unrest in and from the north. And of course, a lot of the outside assistance and interference is currently focused on the north – which is indeed where the latest fighting has again broken out.

But it’s important to bear in mind that there are other disconnects which merit attention too, if Malians are to make progress towards a more sustainably peaceful and prosperous nation: between Malians and the state; between competitors for different uses of land; between different language groups; between generations; between progressives and conservatives; between those benefiting from the status quo and those who do not…

In any case, “the North” probably includes as much diversity and difference as there is between the North and the rest of the country. It is important that the Great Reconstruction now underway does not get sidetracked by le problème du Nord. The challenge is nationwide. A Mali fit for the 21st Century certainly needs to be one in which the people of the North are equal citizens – with all the obligations and rights so entailed – along with those in other parts. But a Mali for the 21st Century needs to provide all its citizens, not just those in the North,  with continuously improving access to voice, participation, economic opportunity, justice, security and general well-being. Good citizenship implies good, functional relationships between citizens as well as between each citizen and the state.

A critical element of this seems to be the need to ensure that decisions are taken as close as possible to the people on whom they have an impact, i.e. the idea of subsidiarity in governance, which I’ll come back to later.

The need for transformation

Another feature of the prevalent analysis is that Malians need to undertake a transformation. This is commonly expressed as the need for “a Mali fit for the 21st Century” – with greater internal equality, better infrastructure, decentralised governance, enhanced human capital and a more dynamic economy: one in which, for example, rice imported all the way from Thailand is no longer cheaper than rice grown at home. The recipe for creating this new Mali tends to include the usual development policies and programmes (education, health, revenue improvements, decentralisation, etc.) along with something that’s less familiar: the need for dialogue.

The problem of consensus

Another common, if not yet quite so prevalent feature of the analysis is “the problem of consensus”. This has two different elements: the familiar idea of an elite group, whose members have carved up political and economic opportunities among themselves, thus excluding others with the potential to benefit and to add value to public good; and the more particularly Malian phenomenon, whereby some of the important – and much-lauded conflict-management – cultural institutions like cousinage and plaisanterie, tend to be tools and instruments for maintaining the status quo, rather than for actually dealing with the challenges of change Malians say they need to confront. And of course this nourishes a corrupt political economy.

Le Mali Réel et le Mali Légal = le Mali Fragile

One of the most fascinating ideas I encountered in Bamako was the juxtaposition of Le Mali légal with Le Mali réel. The idea being, that there is a kind of fictional Mali, illustrated by the modern institutions of state, which operate with very limited influence on how things work, and on the way the political economy is shaped. This is the Mali with which the outside world formally engages, and into which donors largely pour their money. But the real Mali, in which most people mostly live their lives, is defined by a host of less visible institutions which, while they flex and adapt over time in response to external stimuli, do so merely as a self-preservation reflex, and tend to be conservative in character, keeping things largely the way they are and were.

The problems with this schizophrenic state of affairs are legion, but a simple way to encapsulate them in the here and now is that this dysfunctional combination of “real” and fictional institutions is not up to the task of dealing with the sheer pressure and volume of change faced by Malians, nor of allowing them to make a smooth transition towards a “Mali fit for the 21st Century”. Hence the country’s vulnerability and fragility.

And it is into this fragile Mali – le Mali fragile – that external forces such as international criminal gangs smuggling drugs, arms and tobacco, international Islamist elements, and Western anti-terror and anti-smuggling forces, have inserted themselves. With predictable results.

Levers and Projects

And so we have a complex but nevertheless fairly accessible analysis which is quite widely shared, even if enough of those with an interest in not doing enough to change things, tend to remain in positions of influence and power – which of course puts a brake on change. But there’s another problem, too. It is that those who do have an interest in doing something about this problem are too often falling back into what one might call “project” mode. Politicians, technocrats and civil society activists everywhere always look for levers they can get their hands on; and therefore they tend to limit their diagnosis to describing the problematique – or part of it – in a way which lends itself to being “fixed”, “addressed”, “resolved”, etc. The same is true in Mali today. I will illustrate what I mean with a few examples.

Decentralisation, or subsidiarity?

It has long been an article of faith that one way to “fix” the problem of governance in Mali is through the Decentralisation project. Hence, new local government areas were created, local councils elected, etc. The problem is, these local councils tend to go through the motions of consultation and planning, rather than fulfilling their accountable governance role as it is written.

In any case, if decentralisation is the answer, then centralisation must be the problem. Yet le Mali réel has never really uniformly centralised its governance, whether under the French or after they left. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that many important political decisions (about land and other resources, for example) have remained in the hands of local institutions all the way through, despite the bastardisation of many of those institutions by colonial and post-colonial power. Yet decentralisation is something that can be projectised, so that is what has been done.

More relevant surely – though harder to projectise – would be to set out with the intention to enable an evolution of Mali’s governance based on the concept of subsidiarity. This means starting with what is really there (how things really work) and building upon that, so that successive layers of governance are subsidiary to the ones below them, with the result that decisions are made, actions taken, and accountability applied, at the most appropriate level and distance from the centre, according to the issue in question. Thus, what is local is done locally, and what is national is done nationally. Where new institutions are needed, they can be created, but any reforms should be based on what is already there – not what ought to be.


If transformation is really to be sought, then presumably it will depend on leadership – on individuals with a vision take a chance and a risk for their vision. This, I imagine, needs to happen at multiple levels, organically, across society. But how do development projects and programmes foster and enable that to happen, if the idea is to foster diverse and competing visions?

I know it is all too easy to pontificate from afar, but I must nevertheless admit to a sense of disappointment, in that there was an awful lot of “il faut” going on. What do I mean? In a lot of the discussions I was privileged to  participate in and listen to, most speakers seemed to imply that it was up to someone else to fix things, to behave differently, and so on. “Il faut ceci,….. il faut cela” – rather than “Il faut que je….” or “Il faut que nous…..”. So there does seem to be room for identifying and supporting leaders throughout society.

Dialogue: instrument, or outcome?

One way to do so, and indeed one of the recommendations emerging from various analyses in Mali is the need for dialogue. Indeed, my own organisation International Alert recommended this, in our recent report: Supporting Peaceful Social, Cultural and Economic Change in Mali. This makes good sense from two perspectives: Mali’s many problems deserve solutions developed through wide participation; and because dialogue seems like an important antidote to the political culture of consensus – on which ironically there is a consensus that it needs to change! 

The problem here is the confusion between dialogue as an instrument of consultation, and the integration of dialogue as an outcome. Doing dialogue is not necessarily going to result in embedding dialogue into the political culture. Some of the projectised dialogue processes which are becoming widespread in Mali now, may actually be counter-productive, if they leave people with the feeling that they have simply been consulted; rather than with the idea and habit of using dialogues more often themselves. In the worst case and ironically, those whose ideas are rejected in the consultation, may see dialogue as yet another tool for the consensus culture which dialogue proponents want to transform….

A theory of change in which more dialogue is the result, rather than the main activity, of a project, might be focused not on running dialogue sessions in order to find out what people have to say about an issue, but rather to bring together, usually at a local level, those with an interest in that issue, to determine what they can do, whether as a group or as individuals. And to contribute to supporting, enabling and identifying the leadership which is surely the most critical component of challenging and leavening a culture of consensus around the status quo.

The role of internationals

Mali’s future will be as part of a regional and global future, but it will ultimately be mapped and created mainly by Malians. Nevertheless, Mali remains a country highly influenced by outsiders: donors, the UN, the AU, ECOWAS, etc. Donors still provide a large proportion of public funding, and the international community in general has disproportionate influence and power right now because of the weakness and fragility of Mali’s institutions.

This raises an interesting challenge. Donors are described as partenaires de développement techniques et financiersas per the outdated Paris Declaration which wilfully ignored the politics of development. Now, it is quite right and understandable that Malians want to remain in charge of their destiny, and limit the role of their international partners. But this creates a problem: because if the analysis of Mali’s development challenges is now being framed in terms of subsidiary governance, changing the political culture, reforming social behaviours, taming international crime, etc., these are not just financial and technical issues. So if donors and other internationals are to contribute to helping Malians with their development processes, they can only be genuine partners in that endeavour, if they are partenaires, non seulement techniques et financiers, mais aussi politiques, institutionnels, sociaux et culturels…

.. And this paradox takes us right back to the problem of le Mali réel et le Mali légal. If donors and other internationals are to be useful in Mali, they need to be working in le Mali réel; as long as they, and the development discourse in general, reverts to le Mali légal, it seems likely that diagnosis and solutions will remain inadequate.



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