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Will the post-2015 goals be any use?

April 4, 2014

The post-2015 development goals need show how to reduce fragility and increase resilience in conflict-prone contexts. They also need to be designed as a system of genuine incentives for participation and transformation.


The UN’s Open Working Group is nearing the end of its work and will soon make its recommendations for a set of global goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) next year. These will, presumably, guide people and institutions across the world in determining how to continue building increasingly prosperous, well-governed, secure, healthy, just, equal, well-educated and well-adjusted societies over the next fifteen years. As if this were not enough, they will also – presumably – attempt to square the circle between shared economic growth and sustainability, during a time when population and consumption demand continue to rise rapidly. Oh, and they also somehow need to accommodate the very different political perspectives of countries as diverse as China, Finland, Nigeria and the Maldives. Quite some task.

I was invited to take part in a public discussion at the Centre for Development Studies at the University of Bath last night to discuss all this. Alongside me on the panel was Graham Brown of the CDS, Simon Maxwell, Senior Research Associate of the ODI, Lee Webster of Womankind Worldwide, and Hugo Gorst-Williams of the DFID. This was a really useful opportunity for me to “read myself back into” a subject I was personally more engaged in two or three years ago, than today. I found that for all the progress made in the post-2015 discussions since then, my sense of what the post-2015 goals ought to and might be like, has remained fairly constant.

Asked by the organisers to raise what I felt were important issues in the post-2015 process, my points were simple. The MDGs are deeply flawed: too narrow, too technical, statistically inept, unstrategic, and quite probably anti-democratic; they have acted as perverse incentives, and have been (mis-)used to create a fundamentally wrong idea of what “development” is.

A useful way to think about development is as “history looking forwards”, which brings to mind the question, “how will future generations describe the progress we are now making?” They will not, I think, define it mainly in terms of the goals and targets contained in the MDGs: they will describe institutional change, personal leadership and courage, major political acts, changes in values and culture, international trends and movements, and so on. They will certainly have something to say about how we responded to the challenge of climate change. The fact that we can’t easily make predictions about these kinds of things does not mean we shouldn’t recognise their importance for development: indeed it helps remind us of the hubris inherent in trying to create framework to describe what we think development ought to look like over the next fifteen years. Especially since even Francis Fukuyama now recognises that the “end of history” is not yet upon us after all, and there is no known blueprint to follow.

The post-2015 framework in fragile and conflict-affected countries

The first point I chose to raise was that development in fragile and conflict-affected countries needs to be very carefully thought through. Such places, more or less by definition, face significant institutional challenges, and – as the word fragile implies – development initiatives can cause damage if not carefully wrought or applied. Fortunately, before they became distracted by their challenging experiment, the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States, the governments and IGOs participating in the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding had some useful reflections about how to frame “development” helpfully in fragile contexts. They saw this as being about reducing fragility – aka building resilience, and through resilience, peace – and identified five strategic axes which they saw as important for the governments and people in such contexts. Known as the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals (PSGs), these were about:

  • Legitimate politics
  • Inclusive economic growth
  • Justice
  • Security
  • Taxation and service delivery.

If these five issues are not prominent in the post-2015 framework, it will not be a useful one for the people living in fragile and conflict affected contexts, who want and deserve an opportunity to participate in peaceful progress.

Getting the model right

My second point was not about the content of the new framework, but about its structure. Two phrases much used (indeed, probably overused) in connection with the new framework are “transformative agenda” and “no more business as usual”. This is great rhetoric, and it implies that incumbent beneficiaries and custodians of the status quo will have to accept – in fact will probably have to drive – the process of change. Any student of human nature knows this is counter-intuitive: turkeys don’t usually vote for Christmas, and this is the paradox we tried to capture in the title of a 2010 International Alert publication called Working with the grain to change the grain.

Hugo Gorst-Williams of the DFID said last night that one of his criteria for the post-2015 framework is quite simply that it should work. To me this means inter alia the post-2015 framework needs to be devised and constructed explicitly to provide incentives for transformation. It must incentivise people to do things differently. The great global conversation being conducted about post-2015 does not pay enough attention to this – it remains far too focused on everyone’s need to get his or her favourite issue (security, gender equality, population, climate, education, etc., etc.) into the mix. As Simon Maxwell said last night, we should beware of holding the whole enterprise hostage for the sake of our particular pet issue.

If the model is designed to maximise incentives for change, what should it look like? I leave the fine detail to those cleverer and better versed in international governance knowledge than me, but grosso modo I reckon it should be constructed with the following criteria in mind:

  • Simplicity, so it is accessible to as many people as possible who can use it as a reference in their own debate about development and progress: civil society, politicians, technocrats, business people, etc.
  • It should encourage wide and continuous participation, therefore should leave most questions open to debate and decision.
  • It should be defined around development – or, as I prefer, progress – and NOT about aid. Aid matters, but it is not the primary driver of progress: that label properly belongs to circumstances, leadership, human capacity, technology and politics.
  • It should be able to accommodate valuable but fuzzy developmental aspirations which do not lend themselves to easy, numerical targets: well-being, psycho-social health, functional relationships in society, etc.
  • It should reflect the idea – borrowed from the concept of subsidiarity – that decisions should be taken as far from the centre (in this case, New York) as appropriately possible. Local initiatives need to be enabled by national and global initiatives, but local initiatives need to be taken locally.

With this in mind, I envisage a model with three key elements:

  1. A globally defined vision, derived from the Millennium Declaration (which was long ago agreed by the UN General Assembly, thus limiting the horse-trading now needed), containing a set of broad, aspirational components. These would be in succinct narrative – not numerical form – and would embody a set of broad cross-cutting “goods” such as equality, human rights, quality, availability, access, and the importance of institutions. My best guess as to the right list would not be a million miles away from thePSGs:
    • Justice
    • Security
    • Livelihoods
    • Well-being
    • Governance.

This vision would be described in normative, aspirational terms – equal access to justice for all, for example – while recognising that travel towards such aspirations will take time, will happen differently in different places, and that its eventual achievement cannot be taken for granted, and thus requires the sustained exertion of political will.

  1. National and sub-national planning and accountability frameworks whereby these global aspirations are taken into account – alongside other issues like the expressed wishes of the electorate, environmental factors, the economic cycle, and regional trends and pressures – in setting goals and targets for progress towards those aspirations. Clearly these should be part of, rather than artificially established alongside, the planning and accountability systems and processes at play in each country – though can also be used as a tool for improving these.


  1. Some kind of supranational / international monitoring/auditing process which reviews the degree to which each country demonstrates progress in intent and execution in the direction of travel towards global aspirations. This could be done regionally under the auspices of the regional IGOs, along the lines of the African Peer Review Mechanism, or by the UN or a new independent body.

A DFID friend told me recently that in his view, the post-2015 discussions are now passing “from policy to politics”. If so, the space for NGO advocacy is probably decreasing fast. My view is that we should not use too much of that precious space in continuing to argue for the content of the new goals: the excellent High Level Panel Report report contains most of what is needed, and many of the government delegations involved – not least, that of the UK – are well-versed in what matters most, and better versed than most NGOs in the tactics and timing of international negotiation. Instead we should be using it to argue for the right model within which the post-2015 goals and targets should sit.

Will the post-2015 goals be useful?

Taking part in yesterday’s debate was indeed a useful opportunity re-acquaint myself with the state of the post-2015 discussions, so I thank the CDS for that. I won’t further abuse your time by reporting on what other panelists and audience members said. Suffice it to say that I learned a lot, and there were varying degrees of scepticism, cynicism, pessimism and optimism in the room, llustrating the benefits of simply having a debate about what constitutes progress. At the end of it all, an audience vote was held on a number of the points raised. The one that most interested me was on whether voters felt the post-2015 construct was likely to provide an adequate framework for societal development complete with genuine incentives. Only 13% felt that it would; 52% felt that the vision might be adequate but the incentives would not; and 27% felt that neither the vision nor the incentives would be good enough; with 8% undecided. That range probably reflects how I feel about it myself.

I don’t really think we need global goals, though if we are going to have them, they should be as useful as possible.  We are living in an era when global agreements are becoming both more important and harder to achieve, so perhaps there won’t be enough agreement to reach a post-2015 consensus in the end. But as I have said before, whatever the outcome of the post-2015 process, the conversation about what constitutes human progress is an important one, at a time when the technocratic post-Cold War era is thankfully giving way to a more politicised era.

Soft Power

March 28, 2014

The House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s influence published its report this week, comeplete with mind map and pages and pages of evidence.

Their report urges the UK government and others with influence to continue to maximise the UK’s international influence through “soft” channels, and recognises the wide ranging ways in which UK institutions are networked for good in the world. The report appears to recognise the end of the Western domination and recommends the UK to be part of the way the worlds governance is changing. It also suggests a formal review to learn the lessons of the Afghanistan adventure, and suggests that “smart power” is the better way forward.

I appeared before the committe for International Alert, and we also submitted written evidence as follows:

Written evidence submitted to the House of Lords Select Committee on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence

By Phil Vernon, Director of Programmes, International Alert

9th August, 2013

Acting as a witness to the Committee on 29th July informed my own thinking on the topic under discussion, leading me to submit this short formal note to the inquiry on behalf of International Alert.

  1. Soft power is Joseph Nye’s rather precise definition of how to achieve one’s objectives through attraction and co-option, alongside or instead of other means such as coercion and purchase. For Nye, foreign aid is purchase power, and as such not strictly a soft power tool. Was he right?
  2. It’s rather hard to examine power in the abstract, as it can only really be measured in relation to a specific policy goal or objective. The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) is mandated to reduce poverty overseas – a difficult but relatively narrow purpose. But if you look at the actual policies and work of DFID, other UK government departments, the EU of which the UK is a leading member state, other international organisations of which it is a member, and other UK-based entities including NGOs and businesses, it is not a great stretch to argue that one of the UK’s international actual policy goals is an increasingly and sustainably prosperous, peaceful and liberal world. If such an unwritten goal does exist for the UK – and I believe it does – then it would ultimately be good for UK business, good for reduced UK defence spending, good for the achievement of globally shared public goods such as atmospheric carbon reduction, and good from a moral perspective as well.
  3. So the debate about whether aid is an effective soft power instrument comes down ultimately to a debate about whether aid can legitimately be seen as soft power (rather than “purchasing” power as Nye would have it), and whether it actually does help create a better world.
  4. Several conclusions emerged from the discussion which took place during the Committee’s public session on 29th July, informed by questions and comments from the Committee and fellow witnesses, as follows.
  5. If the currency of soft power is values, institutions, culture and policy as Nye says, then soft power is exercised through the choices the UK makes and the actions it takes, and not only by what it says. While words are important means of communicating values, institutions, culture and policy, their impact is fatally undermined when they are inconsistent with actions.
  6. Churchill is said to have called the Marshall Plan “unselfish and unsordid”. No doubt some aid is motivated by selfish concerns, and some may even have a sordid side. There are always tensions and trade-offs, as well as overlaps, between different policy goals. But he was right that aid is fundamentally an unselfish act. By allocating a chunk of the government budget to overseas aid – along with substantial amounts of private giving by UK citizens – we are sending a message of international solidarity that must increase the UK’s international stock, and thus its soft power to influence the directions and nature of progress in specific places and more broadly. For example, the main reason the UK was asked to co-chair and thus help frame the outcomes of the UN High Level Panel on Post-2015,was because of our prominent role in aid and our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI as aid.
  7. As a relatively prosperous, liberal, democratic and peaceful nation, the UK has much to offer a world wishing to evolve in those directions. It offers models from which others can draw ideas for their own political and economic evolution, while avoiding some of our errors. There is every reason to believe that those seeking to take the Arab Spring in these directions will be attracted to and reach out to the UK.
  8. Incremental improvements towards peace, prosperity and liberal democracy are non-linear and as such cannot be “bought” or coerced. So if aid is an instrument of power and influence it must at least partly be a soft power instrument. But we should avoid focusing the discussion only on “aid” as money, and rather think about how the UK’s engagement taken as a whole, helps to create a more peaceful, prosperous and democratic world, including, e.g.:

o    Eliminating the money laundering and other nefarious financial practices which are still done in the UK

o    Contributing to improving international frameworks and systems for supra-national governance and mutual support among nations

o    Improve the regulation of UK-listed businesses operating in developing contexts, so their behaviours contribute to the right kind of progress there

o    Working in partnerships with those in developing countries – governments, businesses, civil society – as well as other outsiders who have the capacity to influence outcomes there such as international donors and multilateral organisations.

  1. Rather than limiting the discussion to the “UK’s soft power”, we should see it as an issue of “using soft power as part of an international approach to progress”, i.e. not to improve the UK’s standing, as some of the Committee members put it, but rather to use the UK’s standing in collaboration with others, to contribute to progress in the wider world.
  2. In other words, the UK’s co-chairmanship of the High Level Panel on post-2015 development should be seen both as an achievement, thanks to UK aid policy, and as a means to a bigger end. This is itself served not only by the UK’s aid policy, but also by other governments’ aid, and not only by aid but also by a range of other policy instruments, choices and actions.
  3. Progress towards a more democratic, peaceful and sustainably prosperous world is non-linear, and is by no means assured or even probable. It benefits from a long and sustained process employing diverse and complementary approaches whose effectiveness remains an article of faith to some extent: we do not (yet) have a well-founded set of metrics. This is because the non-linear nature of progress means we cannot be certain that seemingly promising changes are sustainable, or that apparent set-backs are not in fact opportunities. To illustrate using an obvious example: an apparently democratic election may or may not be a sign that democratic values are becoming embedded in society. We won’t be able to judge success for some years yet.
  4. The UK’s sustained support of Rwanda’s government and people is a case in point. To some, Rwanda’s government is a repressive, undemocratic regime bent on maintaining the dominance of a single party and a single ethnic group, and as such undeserving of the UK’s support. To others, Rwanda’s leadership is very carefully managing a process which it hopes and plans will lay the foundations of a stable and democratic country, based on a realistic assessment that it is too early to liberalise fully. There is no way of knowing for sure, which of these scenarios is most accurate. The UK must carefully judge how to respond, and do so with all due care and diligence. This means inter alia that if it wishes to support progress in Rwanda it must deploy not funds merely, but also politically astute civil servants and diplomats able to engage with the government and civil society there and interpret events and processes as they evolve, tailoring UK’s engagement the while.
  5. The risks due to this uncertainty – which is reflected in similar and different ways in all fragile contexts where the UK might wish to support development progress – seem worth taking, provided it exercises all due diligence and care in the choices it makes, and monitors and adapts its approaches along the way. This is expert, labour-intensive work. Diligence and care are not best served by understaffed government departments, which suggests that DFID’s drive to reduce transaction costs and the FCO’s drive to “do more with less” may be counter-productive.
  6. Finally, if I am right in elucidating from its various postures and actions that the UK has an unwritten goal of contributing to an increasingly and sustainable prosperous, peaceful and democratic world, then perhaps the government should make that a more explicit policy goal against which it can test its policies, and for which it can be held to account. This would have the added benefit of forcing the UK to evaluate its contribution to the global common weal – and thus its long-term interests – alongside its promotion of the UK’s narrower and shorter-term interests such as trade.




A taxi driver’s guide to peace in the Philippines

March 28, 2014

A version of this blog post also appeared on International Alert’s website

The Philippines government signed a Final Peace Agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) yesterday in an impressive ceremony in Manila, after decades of fighting and instability. I asked my taxi driver in Manila what he thought about this.

“I don’t know,” he said. “They haven’t really explained what it’s all about. Will all of the Moros agree? I still wonder whether people who have lost their sons will be ready to forgive. Maybe this is just another deal between the people at the top which will bring little improvement in the little people’s lives.”

Meanwhile last week there was a major development in the other long-running conflict in the Philippines, when two high level members of the National Democratic Front (NDF) and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) were arrested. Unlike the MILF conflict, which is about the rights of the Moro people of the Southern Philippines for regional autonomy, the NDF conflict is about class and ideology, and is nationwide in character. It is rooted in a Marxist struggle against an oligarchic political system, possibly reflecting our taxi driver’s final point, above.

At first sight, these two events seem markedly different, perhaps even diametrically opposed: on the one hand, a peace agreement signed after a long period of negotiations; on the other, the government acting to detain two cadres of the NDF with which it is also engaged in a long-running peace negotiation. Indeed, some commentators have denounced the arrest as undermining the peace process.

Yet both events cam be seen as opportunities for peace. The Government-NDF peace process has for some time been making little progress. One of the reasons for this seems to be that the NDF side is divided about how to proceed, while the Government is trying to pursue a coherent, single approach. So there has been a lot of speculation this week that these arrests might pave the way for the peace talks – or at least some behind-the-scenes exploratory conversations to be resumed.

The Government-MILF agreement is also an opportunity for achieving peace over the long term—and everyone is awed by the crucial tasks ahead. It provides for the establishment of an autonomous Bangsamoro government and sets out the process through which this can take place.

After years of civil war and instability, there are many reasons to be optimistic about this. But as the taxi driver suggested, there are also reasons for concern. Not all of the Bangsamoro people are happy with the deal that’s been struck, and the technical process for establishing the Bangsamoro autonomous government is strewn with a number of political obstacles which may trip it up. No peace agreement by itself secures peace: that is done by the way people respond to their new situation, and it requires a concerted effort usually going way beyond and much deeper than the specific terms of the agreement.

Taking full advantage of the opportunity for peace in Philippines will require a sustained effort on the part of central and local governments, by the rebel movements, as well as in civil society and the business community, over several years. Some of the factors they will need to take into account were identified at by my taxi driver. They include:

  • A recognition that much of the unaddressed conflict in the Philippines is not between rebels and government – so-called vertical conflict – but rather what’s sometimes known as horizontal conflict, between different groups and factions in society. These unresolved conflicts may simmer and all too easily erupt, and have the potential to undermine the official peace processes.
  • There is a communication gap, in that most people – and not just my taxi driver – really don’t know what the implications of the Bangsamoro peace agreement are. Even local government leaders in and near the proposed Bangsamoro aren’t well-informed, let alone private citizens. In such circumstances there is ample room for rumours and misunderstandings to derail progress towards peace.
  • The political economy of the Philippines needs to evolve – even if Marxism is not the answer. Almost thirty years after Marcos fell from office, far too much political and economic power remains in the hands of far too few people. Rent-seeking behaviour and other forms of corruption – the bane of broad-based economic development and therefore of peace and stability – remains prevalent up and down the system. Far too much of the economy is outside the tax system, not just because it consists of small-scale informal transactions, but also because it is hidden by the shadows in which smuggling, drugs and arms dealing, and other illicit transactions occur.

“We all need to participate in peace”, as my taxi driver said, “not just the ones signing the agreement tomorrow.”

LGBT and Peacebuilding

February 26, 2014

Uganda’s President Museveni signed the long-heralded Anti-Homosexuality Act into law this week, reinforcing the existing legal repression of homosexuality there. Uganda thus joins many other countries which seem to be re-emphasising or strengthening the legal and lawful harassment of people because of their sexuality. It is not just an African phenomenon. I was in Tbilisi last year when violent anti-gay demonstrations took place; and Russian political and civil society seems overwhelmingly anti-gay, from recent news coverage.

From a human rights perspective, this is plain wrong, even though I recognise that from a cultural perspective, the majority of Ugandans (96%, apparently) and others do still seem to believe that homosexuality is as wrong, just as I believe their intolerance, marginalisation, harassment and intimidation of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual or Transgender (LGBT) people is wrong.

I’m a supporter of democratic governance, in which laws should be passed by an elected parliament or similar assembly, reflecting the views, values and interests of the electors. But I feel no discomfort in arguing against the laws of this nature which reflect a majority view in Uganda or wherever else, because democracy does not mean majoritarianism. Governments represent every citizen, not just those who voted for them.  A fundamental element of democracy is that MPs, the judiciary and the executive have a common and separate duty to pay attention to the needs and rights of minority groups; and where they don’t, civil society has to step in and remind them.

Many of the countries which outlaw LGBT behaviour are what’s known as Fragile and Conflict-Affected  Countries(FCAC), thus of interest to peacebuilders such as myself. Peacebuilders tend to be seekers of compromise. In the rich tapestry made up of different forms and types of civic activism, peacebuilders are often more able to turn a blind eye to imperfections in the search for a workable compromise than, say, human rights campaigners who might take a more absolute approach. So one might expect us to turn a blind eye to the intolerance and repression of LGBT people and communities in fragile contexts – as indeed we so often have done, sometimes saying that there are more pressing issues or interest groups to attend to with regard to peace processes. But this wave of new or newly-reinforced laws targeting LGBT behaviour and identity seems like an important reminder that this is an inadequate response, and here are four core practical reasons why.

Marginalisation creates conflicts. First, on a very basic level, marginalising and criminalising the identity and behaviours of particular groups of people creates unresolved (and unresolvable) conflicts in society. If a peaceful society is one in which conflicts are managed and where possible resolved, then a society which creates unresolvable conflicts is by definition not at peace: this makes the issue of intrinsic interest to peacebuilding.

Intolerance begets violence. Second, a society which mistreats its minorities – of whatever stripe – because of the features which define them as minorities (and provided they are not, by virtue of their minority identity markers, harming people), is an intolerant society. An intolerant society is one more likely to solve its differences and conflicts – whatever they may be about – through repression and violence; and repression and violence tend to beget more violence. Tolerance is intrinsic to peace, and so intolerance is of intrinsic interest to peacebuilders.

The majority shoots itself in the foot. Third, by marginalising a group of people, any community reduces its ability to contribute good ideas, along with economic, political, social and cultural value to the common good. So it is undermining its own ability to make progress, to the detriment of all members in the long run.

Hurting others hurts the hurters. Fourth, a society which mistreats minority groups does so through the actions of its institutions and individuals. However strongly the belief running through society that this or that identity or behaviour is wrong, surely the act of marginalising, repressing or otherwise harming individuals damages the perpetrators, making them less effective members of the community and contributors to the public good? It certainly undermines the ability of the institutions involved to treat others fairly, enable good, balanced decisions in the public interest – in a word, corrupting them.

Of course these four reasons are in addition to the much more basic issue which is that all human rights infringements are wrong, wherever they take place, and ought to be challenged.

While it is clearly important for peacebuilders to pay more attention to the marginalisation and repression of LGBT people, it’s not always so obvious how we should do so. It’s been said that one of the reasons that pushed Museveni to sign the new law this week was the reaction of people in his power base to foreign (aka western) interference. So it’s not obvious that outside peacebuilding organisations can or should try to tackle the issue head-on. Indeed, my own experience is that in many countries international organisations’ partner organisations, and often their own local staff, may be more aligned with Museveni’s view than with mine. So we do have to tread carefully. But we cannot keep ignoring the issue as we have too often done before.

EU-Africa: A Partnership for Peace?

February 24, 2014

EU and African leaders meet in early April for one of their regular summits. What are some of the things should they focus on, for peace?

 The EU is in the process of developing the next phase of its Pan-African Programme (PAP), in the context of the EU-Africa Partnership and Joint Strategy, and is also preparing for April’s EU-Africa summit: Investing in People, Prosperity & Peace. Reading the EU’s recent PAP consultation document a few days ago stimulated a few thoughts not just about the EC’s Pan-African programme priorities, but also towards the summit itself. These are premised on the idea that the EU and its partners in Africa have a commitment to positive peace, i.e. not just the absence of fighting but also the non-violent management and resolution of conflicts, and therefore the need for effective institutions, policies and attitudes.

The EU-Africa Partnership, or the EU-AU Partnership?

The EU-Africa Partnership and its accompanying Joint Strategy are broadly consistent with a peacebuilder’s perspective. As one would expect,  given the EU’s own genesis as a peacebuilding project and the African Union’s  (AU) heavy focus on peace, the Strategy explicitly emphasises peace and security, along with a variety of cross-cutting issues of relevance to peace, including migration, economic development, gender, human rights and the inclusion of civil society, as well as national, continental and global governance.

It’s worth pointing out that at a fundamental level the partnership seems slightly curious: how does the EU, an established intergovernmental arrangement with a legal personality and institutions, maintain a meaningful partnership and a joint strategy with Africa, a physical continent with no legal or political personality? Perhaps it is time to change this arrangement from the African side, to convert it into an EU-AU Partnership and Joint Strategy, to make it less unequal and more institutionally meaningful?

Post-2015 MDGs and the Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals

The Joint Strategy highlights the importance of common policy work by the EU and Africa. As part of this, perhaps the EU and the AU could play a joint leadership role in promoting the ideas which emerged from the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, and which are incorporated in the New Deal for Engaging in Fragile States, as summarised by the five Peace and Security Goals (PSG) which between them address legitimate politics, livelihoods, security, taxation and government services, and justice. While the New Deal itself has been problematic, the five PSGs provide a powerful framework within which to consider development in fragile situations. It’s a conceptual framework which needs to be integrated into the post-2015 MDGs, and political support from Member States will be needed to make sure this happens. Meanwhile a lot of effort is still needed if this conceptual framework is to be exploited for positive change in fragile countries. The EU is the main global donor by volume, while most fragile situations are in Africa. Therefore there’s surely a powerful case to be made that the EU and the AU jointly promote the PSGs as part of the international post-2015 policy debate, while also working together to promote them on a very practical basis on the ground in African countries.

Positive peace

The AU continues to devote most of its peace and security attention to crisis prevention and response, rather than to building a capacity within Africa to manage and resolve conflicts non-violently in a positive peace framework. Thus the EC’s PAP consultation proposals, with a focus on peace, democracy, human rights and civil society, are very welcome. But perhaps they could go further than they currently do, and explicitly reference the need to promote better functional relationships between citizens/civil society and African governments, regional economic communities (RECs) and the AU, and by being more explicit about the need to strengthen the capacity within African countries to manage and resolve conflicts non-violently, both in formal institutions and in civil society.

This would fit in with the idea of promoting the PSGs and the New Deal, and would help ensure a good strategic balance in the Partnership between supporting continental initiatives, as well as the critically important national and sub-national dimensions of peace, security and good governance.


Addressing extremism and especially Islamic extremism is a major component of EU-African relations, not the least in Somalia, the Sahel and the Maghreb. There is a real risk that European/Western actions in Africa in pursuit of legitimate European “home security” needs will create security problems for Africans, as has already happened in Mali. It seems reasonable therefore to expect that the communiqué emerging from the April Summit will contain a commitment to working in a joined-up way to promote initiatives which are designed to build local resilience and foster progress in Africa, even while protecting Europeans and Africans from the threats posed by extremism and terrorism.

Demographics and Youth

Both Africa and Europe are dealing with challenges linked to demography. Broadly, Europe has an aging population and low birth rates, thus a rising dependency ratio; Africa has a young population with high birth rates, thus currently a high dependency ratio (although this is reducing, and expected to reach optimal levels for economic development in the next twenty years). Put simply, young Africans need jobs, and Europe needs more young people, thus there is a natural flow of labour towards Europe, although this is problematic as youth unemployment is also high within the EU.  

The role of young people in society is important for peace and security because, as we have seen in West African civil wars, the Arab Spring and in youth unrest within the EU, young people who see an uncertain and difficult economic future ahead of them can be a destabilising influence in a number of different ways. Many young people on both continents are or perceive themselves to be excluded from political debate and processes, so risk becoming alienated. Demographic issues linked to peace and security, and especially those related to young people, should surely therefore be more explicitly included in the Partnership, the Joint Strategy and in other documents. Delegates at the April Summit will discuss issues of employment, youth and peace; it’s important that these are linked together and not treated as separate issues.

Conflict-sensitive economic development

Economic development is at the heart of the Partnership, is very much on the Summit agenda, and is addressed repeatedly in the PAP consultation document – e.g. in connection with employment, with trade and with natural resource management. It is by now well-recognised that in fragile contexts, economic development strategies, as well as the projects and comportment of individual companies, especially extractives and agribusiness, need to be conflict-sensitive. This means they need to take account of actual and latent conflicts, and be designed to contribute to reducing or managing these. For example anything in Africa which touches on issues of access to land or water or the provision of infrastructure or jobs, can have a major influence on the potential for peace and conflict. The idea of promoting conflict-sensitive and peace-promoting economic development should surely be a core element of the Partnership, by the inclusion of a joint commitment to promoting peace-supporting economic development, and improving peace and security through improved trade, infrastructure and labour mobility, and by promoting conflict-sensitivity in the exploitation of natural resources, particularly in the agribusiness and extractive sectors. We hear all the time that African economic growth will be increased and sustained over the next few decades; the EU provides a great deal of economic developement aid; and one way or another, many of the world’s large investors and companies are regulated within the borders of the EU. Therefore it’s of great importance that the Summit should consider this issue, and that the Europeans and Africans should make a joint commitment to peace-conducive and conflict-sensitive economic development.

Climate adaptation

Climate change is on the April summit agenda. Little is certain about the impacts to be expected in Africa due to climate change, except that adaptation will be required, and that adaptation brings with it a high risk of instability. The Summit is a great opportunity to highlight the need for more knowledge about these risks and how to respond to them, as well as increased access to and better targeted resources. Peaceful and equitable adaptation demands an approach which embraces governance, security, economic development, agriculture and environment, and so it is a very real cross-cutting issue appropriate for the Partnership. The Partnership is a great opportunity to support research on how adaptation to climate change can be leveraged for improvements in governance, the economy, human rights and environmental stewardship, as well as flexible programmes designed to build resilience to the economic, societal and political consequences of environmental stress within African societies as they unfold. Again, it would be a shame if the Summit fails to make such a commitment.

The Partnership and the Joint Strategy contain many of the right headings and sub-headings, and the planned EU-Africa Summit is a great opportunity to explore and make important commitments for peace. Let hope this happens.

Peace and the Sochi Olympics

February 7, 2014

Tonight the Sochi Winter Olympics officially began with a spectacular, ambitious and virile (though at times also somewhat camp) opening ceremony in keeping with the more than $50bn reputedly spent on these games.

Sochi is in the Russian Caucasus, a region well-known for instability and conflicts since long before it was annexed to the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and still well-known for conflicts today. So it’s perhaps appropriate that the Olympics are being held there, given the common association of the Olympics with peace. But are the Olympics really about peace?

The famous “Olympic truce” from ancient times is actually a bit of a myth. It was often more about safe passage for athletes, pilgrims and officials heading to the Games, than a real truce between warring parties. Yes, the ancient Olympics were an opportunity for people from rival polities to gather, to take part in cultural events and watch sporting events between young athletes. But they were also intensely political occasions, offering opportunities for dialogue and negotiation in which old alliances were broken and new ones forged, sometimes leading to new conflicts and bouts of warfare as the balance of power in Greece was re-calibrated from time to time.

In the modern era too, we should not forget that the Olympic Games have an important political, even geo-political dimension. The USSR boycotted the ‘bourgeois’ games completely until the 1950s when the Kremlin finally realised it was missing a PR opportunity. There have been plenty of other politically motivated boycotts over the years. In 1956 there were three simultaneous boycotts: over the participation of athletes from Taiwan, over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and over the Suez Crisis. And of course there were tit-for-tat Cold War boycotts by West and East respectively, of the summer games in Moscow and Los Angeles.

Other obvious political exploitation of the Olympics includes the Nazis using it for propaganda in 1936, and the Palestinian terrorist attack at Munich in 1972. To this day, Iranian athletes are forbidden from competing directly with their counterparts from Israel in every Olympics. Meanwhile individual athletes use their moment in the sun to make political points, as witness the public embrace between two Georgian and Russian competitors in 2008 just after the war between their countries, and the Black Power salutes made by two US sprinters on the podium in Mexico in 1968.

And of course local and national politics are always in play. Public funds are seen as being diverted from more appropriate uses to the Olympics infrastructure. Over 2 million people have been displaced from their homes – many forcibly – to make way for Olympics infrastructure over the past two decades, and there is always a lively debate among people in host cities and countries about the long-term benefits versus disadvantages of being hosts. Incumbent and opposition politicians alike do their utmost to leverage political position from the relative success or failure of their games.

So the Olympic Games, in addition to being a marvellous sporting occasion and an opportunity for people from all over the world to mingle and learn about each other – both physically and through TV and other media – are also a useful lens through which to examine issues of a more political nature.

My International Alert colleague Larissa Sotieva has written eloquently about the interplay between the Sochi Olympics and notions of Russian and Caucasian identity. I won’t repeat it all here but she captures very well how Sochi provides a showcase not just for sporting excellence, Russian state vanity and national ambition, but also for the racism prevalent among many ethnic Slavic Russians regarding the peoples of the Caucasus whose territories their ancestors invaded and colonised.

International politics are well represented at Sochi, where no heads of democratic states turned up for the opening night, and the US officials who were present wasted no time in raising human rights issues in their public utterances. Russia’s neighbour Georgia initially decided to boycott the games – though changed its political mind later.

Both the North and South Caucasus suffer from instability. In the North Caucasus this manifests largely as Islamic-hued rebellions against Moscow and Moscow’s local satraps; and in the independent South Caucasus republics, as unresolved territorial disputes between neighbours, including unrecognised breakaway territories. Many Russians are fed up with the difficulties of maintaining control of the N Caucasus region with its poverty, its patchwork of ethnicities and its broken, mountainous and often remote terrain. The slogan “stop feeding the Caucasus” is becoming popular among metropolitan Russians in response to what they see as money wasted trying to stabilise a region they see as backward and ultimately untamable. The current stagnation of the Russian economy is widely predicted to last a long time. Once the Olympics are over, it is reasonable to assume that Moscow will resort to less expensive ways of asserting its rule, and focus much more on the “homeland security” of the Russian heartland, than on the security of Caucasians in their homeland. Moscow’s methods of security provision are seen as ugly enough now, but could become much uglier, post-Sochi.

What about the South Caucasus, that collection of countries and unrecognised territories which emerged from the break-up of the USSR and subsequent wars: Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia, along with Ngorny-Karabakh, South Ossetia and Abkhazia? Moscow sees these as part of its “near abroad”, and is unlikely to give up its desire to be regional patron, any time soon. The run-up to Sochi 2014 has given Russia good reason to avoid ruffling too many feathers in the region. Indeed, relations with its closest neighbour Georgia have improved considerably since the recent change of government there. But many observers expect it to take the gloves back off, after the games are over, and reassert itself in its neighbourhood.

And although Moscow and Washington have not seen eye to eye of later over Syria and Ukraine, their relations with regard to Georgia and the South Caucasus have been lately on a more even keel than they were a few years back. Perhaps once the games are over, there’ll be a return to more obvious tussling between them over influence in the region. This is unlikely to be very conducive to building peace in the region.

The list could go on. There is plenty of politics on display in and around Sochi 2014. The Olympics and Peace? I don’t really think so.

Gollum II

November 27, 2013

Last month I blogged about mining companies as Gollum. I suggested that human society finds it impossible to choose between having its cake (sustainability) and eating it (natural resource-based development), and that mining and oil companies are our Gollum (the character in JR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings who is torn between morality and greed), somehow representing our inability to choose a sustainable development path.

Having spent time with a mining company over the past couple of weeks, I realise I was partly wrong. Not about the cake – or perhaps to be faithful to the Gollum metaphor I should say the ring: we certainly hold development and sustainability goals which aren’t currently compatible; we certainly want national revenue growth and local autonomy; and there are also competing desires in mineral producing nations for market pragmatism and resource nationalism.

What I was wrong about was the identity of Gollum. I said in my earlier blog that the mining and oil/gas companies were our Gollum, wrestling with the competing desire for sustainability and wealth. A more accurate picture would draw ourselves - human consumer society – as Gollum, wrestling collectively and constantly with the decision about whether to keep our cake or eat it. It is inescapably difficult for individuals, families, communities or politicians alike to choose between the better way of life which strips the earth of its resources and contributes to dangerous climate change, and a more environmentally sustainable approach which allows for less (or slower) improvement.  Why should poorer communities and nations wait for a better life if they can have it now? Why should those with a better standard of living sacrifice it? So it’s no wonder we put this decision off, effectively asking future generations (and others alive today we cannot see) to solve it and live with consequences of our choices.

So if we are ourselves Gollum, wanting to possess the golden ring, even though we know how dangerous that will be, where does that leave the mining and oil/gas companies – the diggers and drillers?

In my previous blog I suggested they need to see themselves as mediators - mediating between our difficult options – and develop the appropriate skills and approaches to play this role. I’d go further now. Given that our desire for goodies and an improved standard of life seems to outweigh our sense of responsibility to future generations, and given the role of miners and oil/gas companies in supplying the coal, oil and gas which fuel both development and climate-changing pollution, it seems they have to take on at least part of the leadership role in society which we and our politicians will not.

This is a deeply unfair burden to bestow on corporations, especially since – as was explained to me recently – they have no real, material existence beyond the obligations between shareholders and company officers. But given we have so bestowed it, responsible companies have little choice but to accept it as part and parcel of corporate responsibility.

It is for each company – or at least its directors and senior staff – to define how it meets this leadership challenge. But in general I would suggest that each company needs as a minimum to define publicly two things at a high level:

  1. The ethical framework within which it will require its directors and staff to make decisions where the trade-off between sustainability and development is present.
  2. Its role and contribution as a development actor - so that it can use this to help it understand the positive societal benefits it creates, and set these against the negatives.

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