Skip to content

Are Mobility and Fragility Here to Stay?

October 1, 2015

Last night I attended an informal discussion at the British Council in London, about migration. This was addressed by Prof. Alexander Betts of the Oxford Refugee Studies Centre. The discussion was under Chatham House Rule, but I doubt Prof. Betts will mind me reporting that among other things, he explained the phenomenon of increased migration volumes is above all driven by a combination of fragility and increased mobility. I interpret this to mean: a fragile state is a state which lacks the institutional capacity to gather to itself and fairly wield the monopoly of violence, and to protect and provide other basic services and opportunities to its people. If they can, they seek better circumstances elsewhere. And mobility has become easier and easier, so more and more people can do so.

I think he is right. Fragility is not going away any time soon, most obviously in parts of the Middle East, Africa, Asia and the ex-Soviet Union. Because fragility is by its very nature, something which takes time to evolve into its opposite –  resilience – and may never. Indeed, the combination of increasing demographic, environmental  and resource pressures, along with the raised citizen expectations which come with improved education and global communications, seems if anything to be reinforcing fragility.

This led me to two reflections. First, there is a massive risk that Europe, and the West generally, will respond to the current “migration crisis” by shoring up fragile, unfair, repressive regimes, because of their fear of being “overrun with migrants”; and reflecting their inability to reduce mobility, except temporarily. This would in may ways be a natural response by democratic governments heeding voters’ fears and concerns. But it might just be putting the lid back on the pressure cooker. So as a policy it ought at least to be leavened by a considerable investment in mitigation measures: education, livelihood, peacebuilding, civil society development, etc.

Second, it seems likely that the combination of increasing mobility and fragility (or at least, comparative fragility) are with us for some time to come: perhaps a couple of generations. So I imagine the world is simply going to have to come to terms with changed paradigms of sovereignty. A post-Westphalian international order. Perhaps we are heading towards a world in which the idea of Schengen – international borders drawn more faintly on the map – becomes a ‘new normal’. I find this hard to imagine: what will citizen mean, how can democracy work, who pays taxes where, does a ‘refugee’ continue to be different from an ‘internally displaced person’, what will become of the superpowers?…. and a host of other questions, too. But that’s perhaps my failure of imagination, rather than a reason to question the logic of my analysis. Because I only see the numbers of people wanting to move to where they may have better living conditions going up, not down.

A warm welcome to the Sustainable Development Goals on International Peace Day

September 21, 2015

This post also appears on International Alert’s website

This week, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will be adopted by the UN General Assembly. This represents the culmination of a great deal of consultation over the past few years, involving hundreds of thousands of citizens around the world, along with governments, civil society and international organisations, and business leaders. Phew!

For International Alert, this journey more or less began with our publication in 2010 – the tenth anniversary of the Millennium Declaration – of Beyond the MDGs. I feel somewhat proud that we – along with the Lancet – were more or less the only organisation who came out clearly at that time to say the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were inadequate, and that a far better model was needed, to frame, encourage and cajole the right sustainable development efforts.

Our critique was that the MDGs were too narrow and too technical, and thus failed to take account either of the politics of change, nor the need for politics to change. They were unstrategic (and statistically illiterate), in that they assumed goals could usefully be created and measured globally, for phenomena which occur (and change) mainly locally and nationally. As such, they created perverse incentives in terms of measurement and resource allocation. And – though this was probably never intended – they also unfortunately created the impression that “development” could be reduced to a small and exclusive set of goals, rather than being the result of a complex, messy, mainly organic web of societal processes which resist intentionality, and certainly cannot be controlled. Thus the MDGs undermined the accuracy of the development discourse. Finally, as a peacebuilding organisation, we felt the MDGs ignored too many of the factors which determine whether societies can co-exist and manage their inevitable conflicts without recourse to violence. Since publishing our 2010 report, we have continued to argue for a more appropriate way to frame development aims and strategies as part of the SDGs.

So we welcome the arrival of the SDGs this week. No-one can complain they are too narrow this time. (Indeed, many people are concerned that this new smorgasbord of 17 goals and over 160 accompanying targets is too broad and unwieldy – though we are not.) Strategy for peaceful development obviously cannot be defined globally, as it has to be based on specificities of each context. But if one were to do so, one would certainly emphasise the need for progress towards more fairness, participatory and responsive governance, inclusive economic development, access to justice, safety for all, and increased personal and family well-being. All of these, one way or another, feature in the SDGs, and so does peace itself, which is a great way to celebrate International Peace Day today.

There remains a risk, however, of the SDGs being misused in the way the MDGs often were: as a strategic framework to be applied to specific nations and circumstances, rather than as a set of interconnected aspirations which, taken as a whole, paints a kind of impressionist picture of the better human society the world’s leaders are voting for this week. This would not only be dumb – reflecting the absurd idea that national goals can be set globally – but also profoundly anti-democratic, as very few of the world’s citizens are even aware of the SDGs, much less have they voted for them. Indeed, far too many of the world’s citizens still live under governments which pay little attention to their needs and interests in any case.

Fortunately, this risk of SDG-abuse is mitigated – perhaps almost removed – by the vast spread of issues specifically referred to in the SDGs. This list runs from high level public goods expressed in broad terms (peace, security, gender equality, poverty, sustainability, accountable institutions, resilience, innovation, seeds diversity, etc…) to more concrete elements (less hungry people, more children educated, reduced numbers of people living on low incomes, greater access to land, reduced numbers of children stunted and wasted, improved numbers of people with access to market information, reduce mortality rates including of violent deaths, strengthened controls of tobacco and other drugs, improved national and international systems for a variety of purposes, full numeracy and literacy, an end to human trafficking, more people with access to safe drinking water, sanitation, decent housing and urban parks, less waste, less carbon pollution, less overfishing, less corruption, etc. ….).

It’s very a long list, but not a bad list: any of us could find important issues which are missing, under-emphasised or poorly framed. For example in Alert’s view the targets which have been agreed under Goal 16 (Just, peaceful societies…) fail to make the link between peace and service delivery, livelihoods, or inclusive politics as well as the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals do. But on the whole, the SDGs do cover most of the right things. The important point to make here, though, is that the SDGs are so comprehensive and diverse, that nobody could pretend that every, or any country, ought to try and prioritise everything on the list equally, at the same time. This is why it will be hard to people to misuse and abuse the SDGs in the way they did with the MDGs.

Another advantage is that list is so long and unwieldy that it automatically becomes a political list, since politics is largely the art of negotiating and agreeing priorities. So rather than being primarily a device through which the “international community” can force or hold individual governments, states or nations accountable to adopt goals, targets and strategies parachuted in from outside, it becomes a kind of menu of ‘what the world wants over the long term’, from which politicians and citizens in civil society in a particular context can point to the issues each sees as important, and argue their case. This represents a considerable step forward, compared with the MDGs.

So, we extend a very warm welcome indeed to the SDGs, and we will be paying attention in particular during the next year or so to how they are being used: whether or not those in positions of power are using them intelligently as a device to encourage debate about the best pathway to peaceful development; and whether those in positions of less power, who might be able to use the SDGs to argue for or against pernicious policies and programmes, have the information, opportunity and capacity to do so. In the end, all development is political, and the SDGs by their nature should lend themselves to the kinds of debates about choices and priorities which are not only needed to determine the best way forward in specific circumstances, but also provide an experience of the kind of political debate which characterises a more “developed” society anyway. A win-win!


Peace in our cities

September 2, 2015

(This article also appears at

Peace is not just when people aren’t fighting: it’s when they have the ability to resolve or manage their conflicts or differences and make progress, without recourse to violence. This requires strong, functional relationships within and between societies. It also means people have access to political systems allowing them to influence decisions which affect them, to economic opportunity and justice, to the means to stay safe from harm, and to a decent living environment, health, education, and other services. It will be no surprise therefore if I say that peace is far from being realised today, and especially in places like Central African Republic, Myanmar, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, the Middle East and North Africa, Mali, Philippines, parts of India and the ex-Soviet Union, and in communities in countries such as Mexico, Honduras, South Africa and Brazil, characterised by violent crime. Peacebuilding is the art of strengthening and supporting the capacity to resolve or manage differences and conflicts in such places, and internationally.

Urban violence is all too real for many urban residents today, and accessible on international media for those lucky enough to live further away. We experience, see and hear of violence in Athens and Beirut where people protest against a situation over which they lack control; in Syrian cities divided and destroyed in war; in some of the cities in North, Central and South  America where the rule of law takes second or third place to more sinister forms of governance.

More than half the world’s population now lives in towns and cities, and we can confidently predict this proportion will continue to grow apace, as families and individuals seek to improve their prospects by leaving the land. This is of great importance to peace and peacebuilding. Why?

First of all, let’s not forget urbanisation has important intrinsic benefits for peace. Cities enable economic growth and development, the efficient provision of human services, collaboration in civil society, the breaking down of traditional ethnic barriers and identity differences, improved gender equality, and the holding of those in positions of local power to account. Cities allow a certain kind of freedom which is less evident in rural life – especially perhaps for the woman or man whose identity or status is rigidly fixed in the rhythms and culture of farming and pastoral community. It’s no accident that the word civilisation comes from the same root as city (as in Roman civitas). In Greek too, language holds interesting clues to connections: Aristotle saw cities as “places of virtue”, where people’s natural political tendencies (polis = city -> ‘politics’….) could come to the fore in ‘public (=political) life’.

However, Aristotle’s perspective was no more liberal than the advantages of cities are automatic. And the advantages of cities are particularly intransigent when a transition – especially a mass transition – to city life takes place. Indeed, such circumstances often lead, at least initially, to the opposite result.

The dislocation process itself can create or exacerbate conflicts, among people who have left some of their rural/traditional conflict management mechanisms behind, and have not yet developed a suitable replacement for them – or who aren’t yet recognised within the systems which exist in their new environment. Mechanisms for the control and guidance of young people often work less well in the anonymity of the city environment. Even where decent governance systems do exist – often not the case – these can be swamped by the increase in demand. Critically, the networks of resilience – the visible and invisible infrastructure – which link and support people and institutions, often take a generation or more to develop, as ethnic and rural markers of identity slowly erode and are slowly replaced by new urban identities which a modern-day Aristotle might recognise, and which help shape the city which in turn shapes its inhabitants. The ‘enablers of peace’ enumerated above – good governance, economic opportunity, justice, etc. – may be unavailable to many, who thus become frustrated, even angry. The opportunity to exercise agency in the social, political and economic spheres may be denied them. Among the results: cultural dislocation, a search for alternative opportunities and mechanisms, crime, gangs, shadow governance systems, and all-too-often violence within the home and outside it. Not peace.

Urbanisation and the urban environment are therefore of great interest to peacebuilding organisations like International Alert. Hence our decision to focus on Peace in our Cities as the theme for our 2015 Talking Peace Festival, taking place throughout September. This month-long programme of activities looks at our work, and at peacebuilding in urban environments more broadly, through a series of events: music-making, public discussions, technology hacks, art, comedy, food, and a photo exhibition.

This is an opportunity to showcase both the issue – the need for peacebuilding in cities around the world – including in “developed” countries like the UK – and our own work; to stimulate discussion about problems and solutions. The photo exhibition, for example, highlights work from four countries. It shows how we use dialogue to strengthen communication and collaboration across some of the sectarian divisions in Lebanon; how we have supported business, young people, and local government, to work together to resolve conflicts in Kampala before they become violent; how we are improving the understanding among policy makers of what drives young men from poor quartiers of Tunis towards terrorism, so they can do more to prevent this drift; and how we have helped improve the integration of young people of Somali, Pakistani and Iranian descent in London. All these are examples of developing the “invisible infrastructure” which supports peace in urban environments.

These are just four examples, and much more can and needs to be done, to smooth the transition of urbanisation, reduce the degree of alienation to which it too often leads, and enable the realisation of the benefits of living in cities for peace. The good news is, this is not rocket science: our partners in businesses, civil society organisations, music and art communities, and local governments – have all demonstrated that you don’t have to be a specialist peacebuilding organisation to make this work. We hope others will also join in.

Peace gets a bit more deeply embedded in the SDGs – but can we go further?

July 9, 2015

Last month in response to the then Zero Draft Outcomes Document for the UN Summit which will adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September, I blogged that peace was present but not sufficiently embedded in the SDGs. I flagged my concern about its embeddedness with reference to the fact that peace, at number 16, was last in the list of substantive goals, and was not referenced in the “supremely ambitious vision” towards which the SDGs are supposed to be waymarkers. As any regular readers know, I have long been arguing that “global goals” is a fairly odd idea, which may have as much chance of producing perverse and negative consequences, as positive ones, in the lives of those of us who live out our lives more ‘locally’ than ‘globally’ – i.e. everyone on the planet.

So the preamble and vision matter, perhaps more than the goals themselves. It will be to these textual foundations that SDG-scholars will turn in years to come, to resolve arguments of interpretation about specific goals and targets – just as constitutional lawyers use preambles and background text to help interpret what the framers of constitutions intended, and religious scholars adduce circumstantial factors about the lives of prophets and divines, in support of their interpretations of holy sayings and books.

I am therefore very happy to note than in the latest version of the zero draft (zero plus one?), released on 8th July, the Outcomes Document seems, in this respect at least, somewhat improved. Not only does the new version include this substantive reference to peace right up at the front, on page 1:

Peace –  All people yearn to live in peaceful and harmonious societies, free from fear and violence. We want to foster peaceful, safe and inclusive societies; to strengthen governance and institutions at all levels; to ensure equal access to justice; and to protect the human rights of all men, women, boys and girls…

… but it also now includes a more inspiring, political and comprehensive vision, as follows:

Our visionIn these goals and targets, we are setting out a supremely ambitious and transformational vision. We envisage a world free of poverty, hunger, disease and want, where all life can thrive.

We envisage a world free of fear and violence. A world with universal access to quality education and to health care and social protection, where physical, mental and social well-being are assured. A world where access to safe and affordable drinking water is a basic and universal human right; where food is safe, affordable and nutritious; where there is adequate and accessible sanitation. A world where human habitats are safe, resilient and sustainable and there is affordable, reliable and sustainable energy.

We envisage a world of universal respect for human rights and human dignity, the rule of law, justice and equality; of respect for race, ethnicity and cultural values; and of equal opportunity permitting the full realization of human potential while promoting shared prosperity. A world in which every woman and child enjoys full gender equality and all barriers to their empowerment in our societies have been removed. A just, equitable, tolerant and socially inclusive world.

We envisage a world in which economic growth, consumption and production patterns and use of all natural resources – from air to land to oceans – are sustainable. One in which development and the application of technology are climate-sensitive, respect biodiversity and are resilient. One in which humanity lives in harmony with nature and in which wildlife and living species are protected.

In the text above, I have highlighted the phrases which seem like substantive additions for peace, compared with the previous version, but you can check for yourself, as the previous version was:

In the goals and targets which we have agreed, we are setting out a supremely ambitious vision. We envisage a world free of poverty, hunger, disease and want. A world, for example, of safe and nutritious food; of affordable drinking water; of universal access to basic education; of physical, mental and social well-being. A world of universal respect for human rights and human dignity; of justice and equality; of respect for race and ethnicity; and of equal opportunity permitting the full realization of human potential while promoting shared prosperity. A world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality and all barriers to their empowerment in our societies have been removed. A just, equitable, tolerant and inclusive world. And one in which humanity lives in complete harmony with nature.

My proposal – in my previous blog post – was simply to add to the vision the idea of, a well-governed, just, equitable, tolerant, inclusive and peaceful world

The editors of this new draft have not gone quite so far, and I am still sorry not to see peace and good governance clearly included, since as we all know, the absence of fear and violence is not sufficient for peace; and good governance should surely be a critical feature of any future society in which billions of people need to find a way equitably to share their access to natural resources without violence.

But this draft is most certainly an improvement. As I wrote last month, the main components of peace are already present in the vision, so I would not wish to complain too much. Nevertheless, it is important to name the whole, as well as its components, lest people miss the forest for the trees, or the hive for the bees. I find myself imagining the bemusement with which SDG scholars or, worse still, young people who will have come of age between now and 2030, might look back at the UN’s “supremely ambitious and transformational vision” and ask why on earth, and how in heck, its framers had missed out on such important public goods.

Is it too late to get the words ‘peaceful and well-governed’ in there by the time of the UN Summit in September, I wonder?

Sustainable Development Goals – how deeply embedded is Peace?

June 4, 2015

The ‘Zero Draft’ of the Sustainable Development Agenda –  whose main elements are the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) –  was published by the UN this week. Entitled Transforming our World by 2030: A New Agenda for Global Action, it contains seven pages of introduction, 17 SDGs accompanied by a still-staggeringly long list of 169 targets (including around 20 which have been slightly revised, compared with the previous version), and a short section on “follow-up and review”.

I’ve written before about this panoply of goals and targets, and will simply reiterate here – while unashamedly mixing metaphors – that I see this Christmas Tree of 169 coloured lights and baubles as a glass at least half full. That’s because it is so much better than the narrow and overly technical Millennium Development Goals which the SDGs will replace, come January 2016, and because from a peacebuilder’s perspective, it contains much that we have wished and argued for.

Looking at the this latest draft, I welcome the retention (there had been fears in some quarters that it would be dropped or massively diluted) of 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.

Peace is gained and maintained by people living in fair and well-governed societies which allow and encourage economic mobility and opportunity, access to justice, participatory and responsive governance, widespread social welfare and well-being, and which keep people safe. So it is good to see all these elements visible in the draft.

As to the “Follow-Up and Review” section, I am first of all very happy that this is not entitled “Implementation”, as I don’t think this framework has enough of a genuine mandate for that, at least not yet. I live in the UK, but I have yet to hear any of my country’s politicians debating how the UK will meet these “universal targets” to which it is about to sign us up, nor whether we will need to effect new legislation or government policy to come into line with them. And the situation is much the same elsewhere.

So it is quite right, that what promises to be a useful international 2030 Agenda should be reviewed nationally from time to time – and ideally in line with electoral cycles, where they exist – so people in different contexts can debate and decide which of the 169 targets are most important for them. Normally, I would expect these debates to be difficult to resolve – because prioritization among political options is hard, by nature, and especially in a context of limited resources. By informing such debates, the SDGs can make a contribution to governance beyond any specifically “good governance initiatives” which they engender here or there…

So, very much a glass half full, from my perspective. Indeed, what is emerging from the (suitably) long drawn-out SDG gestation process seems far more in line with what International Alert was proposing as far back as 2010, that we probably dreamed at the time would be possible. However – and you sensed a however, right? – I do have a substantial concern about the place of peace in the high level rhetoric of the document.

The Agenda is (perhaps subliminally) marginalising the need to focus the collective global mind and energy on building and sustaining peace over the next 15 years. Not only does Peace appear right at the end of the list of the goals – indeed, it is the last substantive Goal in the list – but it is entirely missing from the 2030 Vision contained in paragraph 15 of the Agenda:

In the goals and targets which we have agreed, we are setting out a supremely ambitious vision. We envisage a world free of poverty, hunger, disease and want. A world, for example, of safe and nutritious food; of affordable drinking water; of universal access to basic education; of physical, mental and social well-being. A world of universal respect for human rights and human dignity; of justice and equality; of respect for race and ethnicity; and of equal opportunity permitting the full realization of human potential while promoting shared prosperity. A world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality and all barriers to their empowerment in our societies have been removed. A just, equitable, tolerant and inclusive world. And one in which humanity lives in complete harmony with nature.

Now, I would be the first person to claim that simply including the word ‘peace’ is too easy, and to advocate for the components of a just peace to be made explicit. From this perspective, the draft Vision has a huge amount to recommend it. It reflects most of the elements in the fourth paragraph of this blog post. But surely, in a document grandly entitled Transforming Our World – A New Agenda for Global Action, we would expect to find an explicit reference to our desire for a more peaceful world? I mean, look around at the world of today: at Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Congo, South Sudan, Sudan, Myanmar, India, Central African Republic, Palestine, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Philippines and elsewhere where armed conflicts remain unresolved – not to speak of the countless locations in apparently more stable and peaceful countries, where neither the state nor society has yet figured out how to bring peace to neighbourhoods and cities…

Yes, peace does get mentioned in the Introduction, but it needs to be more visible and central to the Vision – as it was in the Millennium Declaration. So if there were just one thing I would recommend the drafters change, it would be to amend their paragraph 15, as follows:

In the goals and targets which we have agreed, we are setting out a supremely ambitious vision. We envisage a world free of poverty, hunger, disease and want. A world, for example, of safe and nutritious food; of affordable drinking water; of universal access to basic education; of physical, mental and social well-being. A world of universal respect for human rights and human dignity; of justice and equality; of respect for race and ethnicity; and of equal opportunity permitting the full realization of human potential while promoting shared prosperity. A world in which every woman and girl enjoys full gender equality and all barriers to their empowerment in our societies have been removed. A well-governed, just, equitable, tolerant, inclusive and peaceful world. And one in which humanity lives in complete harmony with nature.

DFID at 18 years of age: how should a young adult behave?

May 8, 2015

The Department for International Development (DFID) turns 18 this year. If this week’s general election had taken place later in the year, it would have had a chance to vote. But beyond voting, the transition from adolescent to adult is marked by other factors in life: the need to take responsibility for oneself and others, the need to mix energy and ambition with seeking and taking advice from those who perhaps know what you don’t, and to explore and develop relationships. In this blog, I look at DFID in relation to these factors, as it enters adulthood.

Energy and ambition

Like most young people, DFID has enormous reserves of energy: a numerically depleted but still highly capable cadre of staff, and something like £11 bn of funds to spend every year – a figure more or less guaranteed to rise annually at least in line with inflation. Looking ahead, as privileged young people no doubt do, our eighteen year-old must be asking: what will I achieve during my life? For DFID, the answer must surely be pretty clear:

  • To respond, and help others respond to humanitarian disasters across the world so that children, women and men can survive, prosper and crucially, ‘build back better’, so that they are more resilient and less vulnerable to future problems, whether naturally- or man-made.
  • To support the flourishing of people and societies in difficult places. This means, surely, contributing to help people make progress so they have increasingly equitable access to the means for peace and prosperity through:
    • Legitimate politics and the opportunity to participate in decisions which affect them
    • Sustained income and the opportunity to accumulate economic assets
    • Justice
    • Safety and security
    • The opportunity to stay healthy and build their knowledge and skills.

With this set of long-term goals, our eighteen-year old has a yardstick against which to judge her decisions and actions. They also seem to be in keeping with the manifesto commitments of the Conservatives, who look likely to lead the new UK government.


But she is only eighteen after all, and will need plenty of advice about how to pursue this vision. From whom should she seek advice?

For all too long, many of DFID’s teams in the countries where it operates have become stuck in an endless round of internal bureaucracy and meetings, and meetings with fellow donors and international agencies, diplomats, host government representatives, a small and unrepresentative sample of ‘usual suspect’ ‘local voices’ based in the capital, and international visitors. It is rather as if our eighteen-year old spends most of her time with her peer group, and not enough time with those with a different set of experiences and perspectives. Somehow she needs to seek opportunities to hear from a much wider variety of local voices, from across civil society, from across the country and its various gender and other identity groups including the downtrodden and those who tread them down. She probably also needs to speak with historians and anthropologists, with artists and journalists, and with people who have already tried to make the changes she wants to support, to find out what has worked and why. I’d suggest that DFID staff also need to spend a good five years or more in their postings, so they accumulate enough knowledge and wisdom from others, to be able to make effective decisions. And finally, DFID needs to rebalance its spending so that staff have sufficient time to network, and play a more hands-on role in programmes: that means either less programmes or more staff.


As every young adult knows, when you are old enough to vote, you are also old enough to take responsibility for your life. I think this means DFID has to own up explicitly to what it can and can’t do. It needs above all to change its contract with the UK taxpayer from one underpinned by a narrative of humanitarian assistance posing as development, to one underpinned by a new narrative of supporting incremental, non-linear, messy and political processes which often don’t succeed in bringing about the kinds of institutional changes which are needed for sustainability.

By ‘humanitarian assistance posing as development’, I mean the heavy focus of DFID’s development narrative on economic and welfare outcomes (the second and fifth, in my bullet list above), at the expense of outcomes to do with governance, justice and safety. Yes, these are harder to change, but without them, what hope is there for the sustainability of the welfare and livelihoods improvements? What hope is there for citizens of future Syrias to avoid the catastrophe Syrians are going through?

DFID needs to find a way come clean with its political masters – the UK taxpayer – about the difficulty of achieving the results that matter, the long-term, non-linear processes of change which might make the crucial difference for human flourishing in difficult contexts, the high likelihood of short-term failure, the fact that the size of the UK’s overseas development budget is not the most important measure of its importance, and that smaller, high quality programmes with the labour-intensive involvement of DFID staff and their more agile NGO partners are often more useful that large dollops of cash funnelled through governments, private firms and multinational agencies with insufficient clarity and accountability.

I feel obliged to quote, for probably the tenth time on this blog, Andrew Natsios’ very wise commentelsewhere I’ve called it Natsios’s Law –  that a fundamental problem for development programming in an era of increasing demands for accountability for results, is that the most easily measurable interventions are often the least transformational, while the most transformational are often the least measurable. DFID, with the support of the rest of the development community, needs to fess up to this, and take the political heat that will entail, at least at first. History – development – does not happen in a neat and tidy way that can be organised as a series of ‘projects’….

And perhaps hardest of all, it’s probably time to own up about how much aid money gets diverted, one way or another.

At bottom, unless DFID, as a young adult, starts speaking the truth, it will lose the respect and in the end, the support of those it needs to have a successful and fulfilling life – as defined by its own ambitious goals.


And finally, our young adult needs to explore the heady world of relationships. As the fairy tale has it, you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find your prince – and probably later on, you find out he wasn’t the right prince, and you didn’t need a prince, anyway…  DFID, newly confident at 18, can afford to reach out confidently to those around her and offer to do things together. Among these, are the other parts of the UK government which face outwards towards the rest of the world, and who can help poor and vulnerable people abroad improve their lives. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is akin to DFID’s parent really, and an agency DFID has long had a slightly mistrustful relationship with, as many adolescents do with their parents. Now she is grown up, they can have a more mature relationship, defined by mutually agreed goals and how to achieve them: aid and diplomacy need to work hand in hand.  Other HMG agencies with which DFID needs to collaborate include the Home Office (e.g. on reducing the underlying causes and impacts of extremism and international crime abroad), The Dept. of Business, Innovation and Skills (improving livelihoods abroad, regulating the behaviour of UK-listed companies abroad…), the Ministry of Defence (safety and stability of people living in fragile countries), and the Dept. of Energy (dealing with climate change). There are others, too.

One of the problems for the adolescent DFID was always a) that it was less confident than the others, which were after all much older than her, and b) the fear of losing some of the cherished (and now ring-fenced) ODA budget. Now, surely, at eighteen years old, and with a trust fund most people her age would kill for, DFID can offer to share. Looking again at DFID’s ambitions listed above, it’s clear that there’s a role for many different HMG agencies, and NGOs from many sectors, in making progress towards them, so DFID needs to accept this and get better at sitting down with government colleagues to discuss strategies without gaming the discussions to avoid ‘losing out’ – as is currently too often the case. To be fair, it is normal behaviour of ministries in Whitehall to game any cross-Whitehall process to maximise their own glory and budget. But DFID can help change that. What matters – surely? – is the outcomes for people living in inadequate circumstances, and only that, rather than the mechanisms for achieving them, provided the right values are kept.

Growing up in the UK during the Northern Ireland troubles, and as an Englishman with little contextual knowledge about them, I always felt instinctively that the Protestants needed to give more, and give first, since they seemed to have so much more to start with. DFID, with the lion’s share of a government commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on ODA in perpetuity, is in a similar position: it must be the first to reach out to others who might be well-positioned to help meet its aims: be they other arms of HMG, NGOs, international agencies, or others, provided they can do so with the right values, and competently. After all, any DFID staff member will tell you privately that it’s not all being wisely or well-spent now…

Is the safety of all, the highest law?

April 23, 2015

Taking part in a seminar yesterday organised by Nick Wright at the University of East Anglia on improving security, facing excellent questions from post-graduate students and listening to the thoughts of fellow panellists Dan Silvey and Alexandra Hall, gave me a chance to take a step back and think broadly about the issue. Four among the elements that stood out:

In thinking about security, it’s helpful to think back to Cicero’s often quoted Salus populi suprema lex esto – let safety be the highest law – a phrase he’s known to have used at least 18 times, including in his work on constitutional law, De legibus. Not just because of the importance he accorded the issue, but because I think  salus means safety, not security – and that’s a far more useful way to think about the issue. ‘My safety’, or ‘our safety’ refers to the state of being safe, being unharmed – whereas ‘my / our security’ too-readily brings to mind the forces of security and keeping people safe. Broad but clear and measurable outcome, versus partial and narrow set of processes which contribute towards it… This matters because safety is largely and usually enabled not so much by agents or forces of security, but by much less tangible factors: knowledge, relationships, status, access to capital and income, independence, freedom, societal norms and endowments, and so on. Assets of one kind or another, by and large. So in thinking about strategies to improve people’s safety, one should usually focus at least as much on these kinds of factors, as on the security forces.

Second, improving people’s safety is replete with tensions which need to be understood and managed. These include the tensions between investing limited resources in ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ security measures – where the former normally have the loudest voice; between the safety of elites and more marginalised people in any community or society; between the safety of the community or society as broadly understood, and vulnerable individuals including young women within it; between the safety of industrial infrastructure (think oil companies in Nigeria…), and people living around them; between the safety of people at home (homeland safety) and those abroad whose safety might be compromised by ill-thought adventures; and between short-term and long-term needs, where measures to achieve the former may undermine the latter.

Third, the idea of improving people’s safety is usually likely to be a ‘wicked problem’, i.e. non-linear, multi-dimensional, and impossible easily to problematize in a way which is accurate and complete, and which allows for a clear ‘solution’. Wicked problems need to be addressed incrementally, with adaptive approaches and a readiness to redefine the problem as and when things become clearer…

Fourth, and going back to Cicero here, his phrase helps explain why coherent and joined-up approaches to security are often so hard to achieve – and why the tensions mentioned above often persist unresolved. In saying that the safety of the people is the highest principle (constitutional principle, or meta-norm, being the most likely meaning of lex in the context of De legibus), he was indicating that it’s what leaders are most held accountable for by their constituencies. And what he actually meant was the safety of the Roman people was the highest principle for Rome’s leaders. Hence, anyone’s first principle in representing his or her constituency – according to Cicero at least, but I suspect that public opinion and the media in most places would agree – will be to support processes most likely to keep his or her people safe. Thus any government’s foreign policy will be guided by homeland security first and foremost; businesses will be guided first and foremost by their business needs; political and community leaders by the needs of the people which the most power over them (so not the vulnerable or marginal), and so on. Hence, perhaps, the willingness of EU politicians to let non-European migrants drown at sea – because those migrants don’t vote, and those who do vote don’t seem to care enough about them to push their leaders to do the right thing.

Hence, the importance of activists, international principles and organisations, enlightened laws and civil society organisations with the voice, energy and agency to stand up for the higher principle that the safety of all people equally is the highest principle. I’m not a Latin scholar but perhaps: Salus omnis populi suprema lex esto?


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 201 other followers