This blogpost draws on a short paper prepared by a group of International Alert colleagues and I, which we have just published on Alert’s website. 2013 is the 50th anniversary of formal collective action in Africa, first through the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) and more recently the African Union (AU). African history is also at a kind of “hinge moment”: the post-colonial period is over and the African Renaissance is underway, economic growth has been steady for a decade, and the number of wars and coups d’état has declined. This anniversary year is an opportune time to take a look at how the AU can enhance its contribution to sustainable peace.
The OAU was a vehicle for pan-African solidarity at a time of liberation struggle. Its successor the AU is part of the international peacebuilding system. It has made a significant contribution to peace in Africa, but so far this has been focused primarily on preventing and reacting to large scale violence – what is sometimes known as “negative peace”.
Negative peace is when people have stopped fighting, but have not necessarily addressed their conflicts or differences, often because they lack the institutions or capacity to do so. Negative peace is thus often temporary. Positive peace on the other hand is when people and societies are successfully dealing with the unavoidable differences and conflicts which are part and parcel of human coexistence, without violence. It is recognisable not just by the absence of violence, but by the presence of functional relationships between people and peoples, between people and the state, and between states; and by the existence of dynamic institutions capable of mediating those relationships. Peacebuilding aims above all to strengthen these, which requires a sustained, long-term approach.
In our paper we explore how Africa is looking, from a peace perspective. The AU has made important contributions, but we suggest that it could do more – and perhaps also work differently – to promote the conditions for “positive peace”.
Peace in Africa
The incidence of major violence in Africa has decreased, but many challenges remain, not least because it takes years to build positive peace. Coups d’état have become more rare. Elections are becoming more and more normal, but alone they do not make democracy, and large parts of Africa are still governed through clientelism in ways which entrench structural violence. The period of transition when governance is neither autocracy nor democracy but somewhere in between, sometimes known as anocracy, is often marked by instability. This will be a feature for some time to come, its effects exacerbated by tensions between “traditional” and “modern” systems of governance.
Economic growth has recently been spectacular, boosted by increased natural resource revenues. Real income per capita has gone up by more than 30% and foreign direct investment has tripled in the past decade to $50bn per year, roughly equivalent to the value of remittances and to the value of aid. The consumer market is growing slowly too, e.g. there are roughly three mobile phones for every four people.
The challenges of peace include sustaining this growth, adding new economic sectors, and increasing economic participation. Much of the rural economy is dominated by smallholder farming and extensive livestock rearing. There is a tension between the short-term need for stability, maintained by the prevalence of peasant farming, and the need for agriculture to become more commercially oriented, which would entail a rationalisation of land ownership which risks causing instability. Current growth depends on inherently unsustainable commodities; this will not create or spread wealth without more value-added processing or production in the country of origin. Many countries are susceptible to the “resource curse”, making them prone to instability.
The number of people will roughly double between now and 2050, putting pressure on resources especially where climate variability makes agriculture unpredictable. Because of the “youth bulge”, the dependency ratio is high, which is a drag on entrepreneurship and growth. But sometime after 2025 the dependency ratio should become more conducive for economic growth – the so-called demographic dividend. Already young people are claiming political, economic and social space, but there are limits to what they are allowed to achieve or what is available. Ever-increasing numbers of educated young people with high expectations of economic and social improvement are chasing too few jobs. This is a source of frustration and has been linked to conflict. And there is no obvious prospect of full employment in the near future. Where political systems are inadequate to contain and manage their frustration, instability can result.
With their reliance on commodities and their relatively fragile governance, African countries are vulnerable to external trends and influences. Globalisation has undermined the power of the state internationally, and empowered licit and illicit international economic actors whose activities often undermine livelihoods and governance. International mining, oil and agribusiness companies help increase GDP but often reinforce clientelist governance. International peacekeeping has proven critical in helping stop wars in several countries, but has also prevented the resolution of some conflicts. International aid provides important funding and expertise but also distorts policy, exchange rates and governance. Global terrorists and criminal networks increase rates of violence and undermine governance, as do Western actions and policies against them; and liberal international trade norms impede African governments from nurturing their economies.
Africans are dealing with an enormous amount of change; with opportunity and frustration, both of which need good management to maximise the potential for progress and avoid instability. Many of the countries which emerged blinking into the sunlight at the end of the colonial era have now arrived at a point where their people are better educated and informed, and have higher expectations of the political economy. Economic growth means most governments are less dependent on aid, but face rising inequality among people with increasingly democratic expectations. The number of active conflicts has decreased. And from a positive peace perspective, progress is being made. Yet significant challenges remain.
The AU and peace
Peace and security are major priorities for the AU, and are highly subsidised by the donors whose support is crucial given the limited funds available from member states. The AU’s founding documents reinforce the idea of positive peace: its vision is of an Integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its citizens and representing a dynamic force in the global arena. Its Constitutive Act clearly identifies democratic governance, the rule of law, equality and human rights as critical public goods to be promoted and safeguarded by the AU; and the Responsibility to Protect doctrine is implicitly included.
The AU has made important contributions to peace. It has led or co-led peacekeeping missions or similar interventions in Sudan, Comoros, Somalia, Madagascar, Mauritania, the DRC and Burundi. It has brokered and mediated talks and agreements between Sudan and South Sudan, in Guinea, Kenya, and Ivory Coast. It has responded quickly to coups d’état, facilitating a swift return to constitutional rule. It maintains an early warning watch across the continent. It has developed a series of charters, outlining norms in areas relevant to peace including governance, gender equality, human rights and youth – though many of these still need to be ratified and domesticated by member states. The AU is spearheading work clarifying international borders. It has articulated a framework for post-conflict reconstruction and development. It is working with the UN and the Regional Economic Communities (RECs) to develop the African Peace and Security Framework, including an Africa Standby Force, comprised of military and police units ready to respond in crises. Its African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) plays an important role, promoting and monitoring progress towards good governance.
Alongside this progress, the AU faces three important, interrelated challenges.
Getting the balance right between crisis response and peacebuilding Despite its mandate, the AU has been overwhelmingly reactive and crisis-oriented, often more in line with the concept of negative peace than with building positive peace. This reflects the need and understandable desire among member states to prevent fighting and bring it to a speedy end when it occurs. It also reflects the interests of the wider international community, including donors, for “African solutions to African problems”.
Peacebuilding is highly political. The AU’s member states, represented by incumbent governments, understandably prefer not to have outsiders interfering in their internal affairs. Thus some aspects of peacebuilding are seen as off-limits. It is unlikely a member state government would be willing to accept outside interference in its mining or oil sector, even though mining and oil often contribute to instability. Similarly with other aspects of governance: 40% of member states have not yet signed up to the APRM, and of those who have, only half have been peer-reviewed. Positive peace implies a need to rebalance the AU’s peace efforts away from crisis anticipation and response, towards a longer-term, more societal orientation which promotes better quality and more equal access to decision making, the economy, justice and security.
Finding the right niche The AU is part of a complex international governance system along with the UN, RECs and states, each with more or less clearly defined normative roles. In an imperfect, rather than a normative world, this is complicated, for example by unequal influence among member states, by the relatively undemocratic nature of some member states, by unequal capacity among different RECs, and by the influence of external powers whose preferences have an influence on those of the AU, including their desire to reduce external military involvement in peacekeeping operations in Africa. It is also complicated by differences in peacekeeping doctrine between the AU and the UN. At times the AU seems to be replicating or replacing both the UN and the RECs, when it could be playing a more complementary role. Differences between the positions of member states, and tensions between the AU and RECs, UN, and Western powers have complicated approaches to crises in Ivory Coast, Somalia and Libya. No other regional intergovernmental organisation tries to promote peace and security on such a massive (perhaps impossible) scale as the AU, with 54 relatively underdeveloped member states.
Linking up with African civil society The APRM’s executive director recently bemoaned that the APRM was “unknown to the majority of [African] peoples and the rest of the world”, and this is true of the AU more generally. There are numerous obstacles to African civil society engagement with the AU. Few Africans are able to visit the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa; African civil society and the AUC both lack resources to improve their mutual engagement easily; and it is not always in the interest of member state governments to promote the AU’s priorities like democracy and good governance, at home. Although the AU has liaison offices in around a dozen countries, these lack the resources to represent the ideas and mission of the AU in its entirety. The voice of each member state in the AU is primarily the voice of its incumbent government – which tends to exclude important perspectives and groups in society. Women’s voices are particularly ill-represented, and the AUC has few staff with expertise in gender issues.
The AU has already shown it makes a significant contribution to peace, but it could do more. E.g. by:
Getting the focus right The AU is resource-constrained, covers a huge continent, and sits within a complicated international architecture, so it is most effective when focused on the right issues and the right niche. Arguably its comparative advantage is less in implementing expensive and complex peacekeeping missions and technical programmes, than in operating politically and in close collaboration with the UN and the RECs. Within these relationships, the AU is well-placed to mediate, provide political and analytical support to others, and promote common peacebuilding frameworks.
Emphasising a long-term peacebuilding approach The AU is well-positioned to help member states put in place the norms, institutions and other conditions for positive peace. Its charters provide a basis for sustained AU leadership promoting improved governance and other peace-supporting goods, such as access to justice, security and economic opportunity, conflict-sensitive trade and the implementation of free movement across borders. The AU can help Africans work out how to meet the challenges of anocracy, for instance by adapting and implementing the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States.
Strengthening links with civil society The AU is distant and little-known. This disempowers Africans who have little idea of what their governments have agreed to on their behalf. The AU can improve collaboration with civil society, for example in promoting good governance. To do this with limited resources means using creative methods, for example allying itself with NGOs and using social media to publicise its various charters, enabling citizens to push for the charters to be ratified and put into practice by their governments. It can make better use of its Liaison Offices.
Anticipating new threats to peace Africa faces common and/or new threats to peace, such as how to engage young people as effective citizens; international terrorism, piracy and organised criminality; and the risks attendant on anocracy, natural resource exploitation and climate change. All these need to be addressed at least partly at a supranational level – even anocracy, since porous borders and the Responsibility to Protect means my neighbour’s instability is my problem too. The AU can take a lead in helping member states and RECs to work out how to respond to these and other emerging threats.
Providing African leadership African states, citizens and businesses will benefit from further visionary political leadership at a continental level to help protect them from external influences which might undermine progress towards positive peace, and to help seize opportunities for progress. This means coming up with African solutions where feasible and, where not, negotiating joint solutions with external agencies and powers – such as on Islamist terrorism and the illegal drug trade.
In an earlier post I wrote about how mining companies have evolved to take into account the needs of their host communities. I suggested ways they can broaden the application of their “social programmes” to understand, embrace and contribute to development at a higher, societal level than simply serving some of the expressed needs of the local or host community.
Having just returned from spending a week discussing related issues with staff of one of the large and relatively enlightened international miners, I’d now go further. One of the questions we discussed was whether the mining industry needs to re-label itself as a “development industry”.
While this was a controversial idea for some people, who saw it as suggesting a dangerous drift beyond their core business, for me it’s a no-brainer. Indeed, I’d go as far as to say that mining already does see itself as a development industry. A glance at the websites of a few randomly selected examples yielded the following:
We deliver natural resources that are at the heart of everyday life and are central to the development of society. (Xstrata)
We … work in partnership with our stakeholders to promote sustainable development. Our goal is to maximise our positive contributions, alongside governments and society, and reduce any negative impacts. (Anglo American)
[…] we continue to meet the changing needs of our customers and the resources demand of emerging economies at every stage of their growth…. [We] establish long lasting relationships with our host communities where we work together to make a positive contribution to the lives of people who live near our operations and to society more generally. (BHP Billiton)
Our products help fulfil vital consumer needs and improve living standards. (Rio Tinto)
These quotes were all readily available within moments of landing on the respective home pages. Clearly mining companies already see themselves as agents of development and progress. In any case, we are long past the point where progressive companies saw their role in value creation as being limited to shareholder value. They know they create value in many other ways – through their products, their culture, their taxes, employment, goodwill, etc. – and contribute to the creation of value by others. The correct question is probably not “is mining a development industry”, but “how to maximise mining’s contribution to development?”
Maximising mining’s contribution to development
Answering this requires us to define “development”, which is of course somewhat contested and ideological. After all, it is about the nature and arc of human progress, which is what political parties often seem to argue over. But when one looks closely at most different ideologies today, they seem to diverge more in the question of development process than in development outcomes. So for the purposes of this blogpost, I’ll use the simple and quite widely accepted view that broadly speaking, a more developed society is one in which people have sustainable and fair opportunity to participate in decision making which affects them, and in economic activities allowing them a decent standard of living and a chance to accumulate assets; feel and are safe from harm; have access to impartial justice and to the services and other requirements of well-being such as health, education, water, shelter, and a decent living environment. This is in line with the globally agreed Millennium Declaration, so not too controversial.
I don’t propose to explore here the difficult question of how these outcomes are arrived at. Development processes are pretty context-specific in any case, and (if we are honest) often quite random in nature, so it can be unhelpful to make generic prescriptions. But one thing we do know is that the way to achieve a particular outcome is not necessarily, or not only, by working on that issue. So for example one doesn’t necessarily achieve better access to justice or security simply by working on “justice sector” or “security sector” issues, nor better participation in decision-making simply by working on “governance sector” issues. The arc of development or human progress is more complex than that, and pretty much everything is organically linked to everything else. Improved governance can be a result of bringing local stakeholders together to examine and debate the costs and benefits of a mining or other economic project, and contribute to discussions about how the project will fit into local development plans, as much as through introducing or improving democratic elections.
So, what does a developmental mining company do?
So how does a responsible mining company contribute to the development arc as part of its core business? Alternatively put, this question has two parts: which mining company operations offer the opportunity to contribute to development, and how best to do so?
In a real sense, pretty much everything a large mining company does, provides an opportunity to contribute to progress. Raising funds, employing staff, acquiring land, procuring goods and services, investing in infrastructure, restoring mined land, dealing with waste, selling products, paying taxes and royalties, obtaining licences, establishing relations with governments, local communities and others, and so on. All these and more can be done in ways which promote progress. Naturally this is a twin-edged sword, i.e. they can also be done in ways which hinder, or even reverse progress, which is one of the criticisms often levelled at mining. So how can a company maximise its contribution, and minimise its negative impact?
International Alert has published and offers detailed guidance on this. But looked at more simply, there are two main elements to it. First, the miner needs to understand as well as it can, the context in which it is operating or planning to operate, from a developmental perspective: what is the actual or potential development arc, and where do we fit in? The company needs to see itself as a stakeholder in a wider set of dynamics, rather than seeing others mainly as potential stakeholders in its plans. This means looking not just at the local communities living around the potential site of the mine or other planned infrastructure, but at society more widely. In South Africa for example, one could argue that pretty much all development needs to take account of and contribute to certain key processes such as the evolving post-apartheid settlement with its delicate balance between stability and empowerment; and improved security for and empowerment of women and girls. In Liberia, the equivalent issues might be post-war reconciliation and an improved social contract between citizens and the state. In China the equivalent issues might be ensuring that the 500 million people who have been left behind in the race for growth are treated fairly, even as the urban middle class continues to to earn and save more, and achieve more openness and less repression.
All these examples are of course arguable and partial, and I include them only to illustrate my point that a responsible miner extracting minerals in South Africa or Liberia needs to take account of its impact on such factors, make a judgement about what is good and bad, and adopt strategies to maximise the goods while minimising the bad. And if the same company is selling products to China it needs to make a judgement about its impact on the key issues there, too. So questions like “how do we help strengthen the social contract in Liberia, improve the lot of rural Chinese people, and redress the imbalance between races and genders in South Africa through our core business and work practices?”, become not just relevant, but critical. And similarly at an even higher level, as in “how do we minimise our contribution to climate change and help enable peaceful adaptation to the environmental changes caused by climate change?”
The second element of the “how to?” part of this question is that, given that none of these issues are simple or black and white, the miner needs not only good political and development expertise to help analyse and resolve them, but also a clear idea of its core values or ethics, to guide decision making. These sit alongside other influential factors like shareholder value, government regulations, and semi-voluntary frameworks like the Voluntary Principles on Security and Human Rights, Free Prior Informed Consent and the UN Global Compact, to provide a reference point for those faced with difficult decisions.
Company narrative and incentives
In the background alongside these, I would suggest that some companies need to rework their internal narrative too. In addition to the usual explanation about excellence, shareholder value, long-term assets, health and safety, low unit costs and so on, this broader narrative explains how the company sees itself in the world, how it creates value in society, that it is a stakeholder in others’ projects and plans, a good corporate citizen and an actor alongside others. This will help move miners’ staff away from the company-centric and often rather transactional approach epitomised by the concept of “social licence to operate”.
Finally of course, incentives are key to everything. The progressive mining companies of the future will be those whose systems and culture reward staff who operate in line with the changed company narrative. Dare I also say that the mining companies of the future will have a far more evident feminine side to them, compared to now? I don’t necessarily mean there will be more women on staff and a better gender balance across all functions and departments, although that will certainly be the case. I mean rather that the qualities we tend to think of as feminine will be more useful – qualities like empathy and consensus-building – and will therefore be rewarded with promotion and influence.
In conclusion then, it’s clear that miners are already agents of development; that they are doing and can do more to contribute to the arc of human progress locally and in society more broadly, by recognising their developmental role, making sure they understand well the development priorities in the contexts where they work, and knowing why and how they contribute to them as part of their core business.
Back in mid-2010, in time for the MDGs-plus-10-years summit, International Alert (where I work) published a review of the MDGs which criticised the Millennium Development Goals for being too narrow and too technical; for confusing ends with means; for being top-down and for being used in statistically illiterate ways; and for creating perverse and unhelpful policy incentives. We proposed an alternative model, drawn from our work since 1986 on peace and conflict in over 25 countries, and drawing also on historical accounts of how societies have made progress towards some of the elements of the Millennium Declaration. Our model was constructed differently from the MDG model, with two main elements.
The first was an overarching vision very much in line with the Millennium Declaration, which described how people can live together prosperously, peacefully and fairly. We felt this was something broad enough and perhaps relatively simple to get agreement on.
The second key element was the principle of subsidiarity: the idea that planning, decision-making and implementation should be done at the least centralised scale possible – but in ways that are coherent with the overarching vision. We’ve built on this thinking in our advocacy and contributions to the post-MDG debate, since.
We recognised of course, that ours would be just one among many competing suggestions, and that even if our model were to be adopted, the content of the vision would also be contested. Since we were among the first to produce our suggestions for post-2015, we knew very well that our proposal would be swamped by an avalanche of others. So we also made recommendations about the process for determining the post-2015 goals – essentially that the process should be both wide and deep – engaging people from across the world, and going beyond the usual suspects in the development sector.
Looking from afar at the High Level Panel meeting on post-2015 in Bali last week, I feel the discussions about post-2015 goals are taking place in many ways as we suggested. Although I am doubtful that our proposed model combining an overarching vision and subsidiarity is getting much traction, the process of debate and discussion since 2010 about the kind of goals the world needs has become increasingly noisy, messy, and rich – as it should be. While the usual suspects are still far too evident – i.e. too much of the noise is still being made by “development experts” and single issue campaigners – there is at least a healthy debate going on, expressing diverse views. Back in 2001, when the MDGs were coined, the minting was done by UN and other technical experts, based mainly on data they were already tracking, with a few narrow political issues thrown in. Mostly the work was done behind closed doors, under instruction to avoid anything controversial – and certainly to ignore most features of the powerful Millennium Declaration which had been agreed by the UN General Assembly in 2000 – but about which many Member States had subsequently developed buyers’ remorse.
The avalanche of proposals we predicted has indeed come to pass. Twitter and the blogosphere are rife with comments and information about the process, and with suggestions for and comments on the content of debate. Every abstract noun – and also fortunately some concrete nouns too - associated with the cause of development and poverty elimination has been the subject of briefings, tweets, blogs, learned papers and presentations. Human rights, planetary boundaries, gender, water, women, youth, food, business, accountability, sanitation, security, livelihoods, commons, family planning, maternal and child health, resilience, peace, prosperity, trees, migration, governance… you name it, we’ve heard about it.
To some extent this is like dressing a christmas tree with more and more baubles. But what’s most encouraging is that many of these single issues are being discussed in terms which recognise their interactions with other factors, and which recognise that ultimately, this is about the politics of change or no-change in places where real people actually live and make the best decisions they can, and not about international talking shops. To take just one recent example, an article by Peter Sutherland on migration – yes, a single issue and thus potentially another bauble on the tree - made the basic point that ”to succeed, the post-2015 agenda must break the original mould. It must be grounded in a fuller narrative about how development occurs – a narrative that accounts for complex issues such as migration…”, before explaining how important migration is to people’s and families’ development and coping strategies. This is just the kind of thinking which was so obviously missing from the narrow narrative symbolised by the MDGs, as we pointed out in our 2010 report.
So how is the High Level Panel doing?
The High Level Panel has now wrapped up its final formal discussion, in which it addressed how to build a global partnership and the means of implementation, and will proceed to prepare its report. As the Panel says in its Bali Communiqué, it has consulted with women, young people, MPs, formal and informal sector businesses, civil society, academia, the UN, governments, and others over the past year or so. It’s good that the process for discussing the next set of goals is so much more open and participatory than before. Because the conversations are enriching in themselves, for all who take part in them, even if all the good ideas don’t find their way into the next set of goals.
The Panel’s communiqué highlights the need for a global agenda which is transformative, people-centred and planet-sensitive, based on a set of principles including respect, equity and shared responsibility. It highlights economic growth and prosperity, social inclusion and environmental sustainability. It identifies five key areas for action with regards global partnerships and means of implementation:
- Reshaped and revitalized global governance and partnerships
- Protection of the global environment
- Sustainable production and consumption
- Strengthened means of implementation – though really this is about money
- Better data availability and accountability in measuring progress
These are all good and fine. The commitment to environmental protection and sustainable production and consumption are particularly important as markers, given the risks we are taking with our planet. Global governance in which governments and others are accountable for their commitments and actions as contributions to a fairer and more peaceful world would certainly be a reshaping of the current systems. A better regulation of international financial flows to avoid money laundering and tax evasion, as mentioned in item four, would be a major step forward. And better data – and better data availability – can be critical elements of accountability and effectiveness.
But the document is all to easily read as a bit of a fudge. Where is the global commitment to improved national and local governance? Where is the recognition – surely basic to any proposed replacement for the MDGs - that the new goals need somehow to be linked to international carrot-and-stick incentives? Where is the understanding that it is hard to square the circle when you have sustainability, environmental protection and economic growth all in the same document? Where is the mention of peaceful co-existence – another public good which is hard to square with some approaches to economic growth and environmental sustainability, at least in the short term? Where are the references to important elements of the peace and statebuilding goals: such as better politics, justice, security, taxation and public services?
Above all, where is the understanding reflected that “strengthened means of implementation” and “reshaped global governance” will count for nothing without activism by civil society and governments alike, i.e. people taking a leadership risk in pursuit of the huge transformation which is needed if the Panel’s vision of ending extreme poverty in all its forms in the context of sustainable development and sustained prosperity for all is to be anywhere near met. The main “means of implementation” are always going to be individuals and civil society (and I don’t just mean NGOs!) working to make change happen in their lives and communities.
I’m not sure we could or should have expected more from a series of High Level Panel meetings and communiqués. And to be fair, this particular meeting was focused mainly on global partnerships and means of implementation, so should not be seen as the be all and end all. So perhaps we should reserve judgement until we see their final, full report.
In the meantime, for me the glass is definitely half-full rather than half-empty, because of the rich and lively conversations going on around the world as a consequence of this formal post-2015 process – whether or not they lead to what I’d regard as the right model. Ultimately, the main finding of International Alert’s 2010 essay on the MDGs was that they represented a defunct and perverse narrative of development and human progress, and that we needed to come up with a new narrative more reflective of what societal progress really entails. Following the various conversations taking place around the post-2015 goals, I can see elements of this broader and more political narrative taking shape. Many of them may not find their way into the new set of goals – they may be too difficult for some Member States to accept. So be it. But in the meantime let’s keep this very lively conversation going because, whatever gets agreed to in the high level halls of power, it’s activists who will make the difference.
Resilience is a wonderful metaphor. It somehow conveys in a single word the qualities of bending without breaking, of healing after an injury, of tensile rather than brittle strength. Oak and palm trees are resilient to the power of strong winds, before which they bend and then straighten again. Resilient people pick themselves up after being knocked down, draw on their reserves of ideas and strength to deal with difficult challenges, or hunker down until the gale has blown itself away. Resilient economies bounce back, and resilient ecosystems restore themselves after the fire or the flood has passed.
Resilience is not necessarily a good thing, of course. Patrimonialism and corruption can be resilient to change, as can power dynamics which sanction the marginalisation and harm of women, children or vulnerable people. American academic Andrew Nathan writes of the Chinese Communist Party’s “authoritarian resilience”, i.e. its ability to adapt and continue to thrive despite its authoritarian, undemocratic approach to power. But most often resilience is used to describe positive and useful features of society.
International Alert is a peacebuilding organisation. We say peace is when people anticipate, manage and resolve the inevitable conflicts which arise in and between societies, and do so without violence; and we describe communities and societies as resilient when they do so. Their resilience in the face of stress is largely due to the nature of relationships and institutions, which provide them with tensile, rather than brittle strength. Freedom and equality of opportunity are key indicators of relationships and institutions conducive to peace.
Organisations and thinkers in the humanitarian sector have long seen resilience as a quality to be sought after by communities vulnerable to natural disasters: the storms, droughts, floods and famines after which they need to bounce back. Resilience is central to the idea of Disaster Risk Reduction. My colleague Janani Vivekananda, in her research in South Asia over the past couple of years, has looked at how households and communities respond to environmental stress linked to climate change. She finds that communities those most able to cope with stress are resilience in terms of their economic and physical assets, but also their range of opportunities and choices, their access to social capital, their links to relatives elsewhere; and in terms of the quality of governance. Good governance is good for resilience.
The 1990s vogue for livelihood security among international development organisations also made a great deal out of the need for resilience. Economic assets, knowledge, access to services, good governance, gender equality and social capital were all seen as elements of resilience to insecurity.
Meanwhile the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding, a club of rich and poor nations and intergovernmental organisations, identifies reducing fragility and promoting resilience as key to the emergence of peaceful and developmental states and societies.
Nassim Nicolas Taleb (e.g. Anti-fragility – things that gain from disorder; published last year by Random House) explains that resilience is demonstrated best in decentralised and organic societies which can flex and respond locally to stress, and least in over-centralised and rigid societies where individual and local initiatives are discouraged. This is no doubt one reason why, as Andrew Nathan recently wrote, “the resilience of the authoritarian regime in China is nearing its limits”.
So, resilience is not merely a useful metaphor, but one which expresses a powerful idea which we would do well to try and understand. If societies resilient to stress are less vulnerable to disaster and violent conflict, and if critical factors in their resilience include freedom and equality, then building resilience to stress must presumably be an ambition worthy of us all.
Even so, resilience seemed to go into hibernation among international development actors a few years ago, before coming back in to fashion again more recently. And last week an article published by IRIN pointed out that it is fading out of fashion again. Resilience, as an idea, seems to lack resilience. Or perhaps in Darwinian terms its own resilience resides in its ability to hunker down or hibernate from time to time…..
If resilience is such a useful analytical concept, and such a critical feature of human security, why is it going out of fashion again, just at a time when international discourse implies there ought to be a growing consensus on the need to promote resilience as an antidote to the fragility and brittleness which – it is widely agreed – affect too many countries and regions and blight the lives of those living there?
The IRIN article implied some development experts feel resilience is too plastic a concept to be relied on. Others were concerned that ‘resilience’ in the wrong hands can be applied at too coarse a scale of analysis, and give rise to programming which is insensitive or blind to the vulnerability of some members of society, and which may thus unintentionally reinforce their vulnerability or marginalisation. An example was given of a family’s coping strategy in which a daughter is married off at a young age.
These are valid points that require a response. To my mind they are a good reminder of the need for accuracy in describing analytical concepts, and the need to combine values with intellectual tools. If actual coping strategies have a negative impact on vulnerable people, then policy and programme responses can seek ways to mitigate or prevent that outcome.
But if “resilience” is indeed headed for another period of hibernation, I suspect there is a deeper reason why. It is a very powerful conceptual approach and analytical tool, allowing a broad, comprehensive analysis of the extent to which households, communities, regions, countries, societies or states are able or unable to deal with, survive and bounce back from natural or man-made stress. For those with patience, the concept lends itself to participatory approaches to identify factors which increase or limit resilience (or, for those who prefer the glass half-empty approach, factors which increase or reduce fragility and brittleness). So far, so good.
The problem is, those seeking levers through which to make significant changes which can be measured in terms of the typical lifespan of development projects, are unlikely to find them easily in a resilience analysis. Resilience is – almost by definition – not something that can easily be “built”, and certainly not built to order. The clue is in the word itself – resilience is something to be found in the nature of societies, hence a quality which grows organically. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains, it is the effect of finely woven networks. Resilience comes from education, and especially the kind of education which helps young people develop their curiosity and ability to adapt and continue to learn. It is to be found in networks of diverse reciprocal relationships between individuals and groups, on which they can draw to get ideas, help, resources in time of need. It is to be found in the freedom of men and women to make their own informed choices, and to participate in politics. It is to be found in competent and accountable governance, in a free, functioning press, in fair-systems of justice, and so on…, and from the interwoven combination of all of the above.
Unfortunately, those in power in more fragile, less resilient societies often see these kinds of features as good in theory, but unwelcome in practice. Rather like St Augustine who prayed for chastity – ‘but not yet, O Lord’ – they’d often prefer to enjoy the spoils of power for now. Meanwhile those in international development organisations who support these kinds of features in principle, are unable to promote them because they simply do not lend themselves sufficiently to logframes, short-term projects, and the like. Our development institutions and organisations may not be adequate to the task of promoting resilience in fragile societies. And so ‘resilience’ may be destined to pass back into hibernation. That would be a shame. Because ironically, it describes the problem of underdevelopment, human insecurity and inadequate governance too accurately to be useful.
To many disinterested observers last week’s Kenya elections seem like a victory not only for President-elect Uhuru Kenyatta, for his Jubilee Alliance, and for the Kikuyu and Kalenjin tribes represented by Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto. But also for impunity, because both Kenyatta and Ruto are indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity and – while they are presumed innocent until proven guilty – such overwhelming support for two people in their situation must surely be interpreted partly as vote against international justice.
Perversely though, this might be a good result for justice both in Kenya, and internationally as seen through the prism of the ICC,and for democracy in Kenya. Because with this result, things have become more complicated, with justice and politics intertwined in a complex tangle. It is when dealing with such complexity and disentangling the various elements that one gets to the nub of and internalises the real meaning of justice in the real, political world.
- For the ICC and its international backers, dealing with the President and Vice-President of a sovereign country and signatory to the ICC’s Rome Statute will force it to become less lazy than in the past. Slogans will certainly not be enough to disentangle this knot.
- Kenyatta and Ruto – assuming they have at least some desire to rule with legitimacy (and knowing that many of their supporters and opponents will make ruling difficult for them if they don’t) – will need to take the ICC indictments very seriously as part of their political discourse, as well as how they deal with it as indicted individuals.
- Kenyan institutions – Parliament, judiciary, churches, civil society, etc. – and their leaders will be forced to consider how to deal with the fact that their president is both democratically elected and a possible human rights violator. Complicated and, again, needs more than slogans.
- The African Union and other regional and international bodies will also need to work out how they approach this delicate situation in which the head of another Member State is facing trial at the ICC.
All this is going to generate tremendous debate. Much will be biased, ill-informed and ill-judged. But however events unfold, the accompanying public and private debate has the potential to deepen some Kenyan future voters’ understanding of democracy and its choices and challenges; and to deepen the comprehension of us all as to how international mechanisms of justice interact with national political and justice mechanisms. Because we’ll largely have to fall back on first principles. I have written in an earlier blog post that the democratic pendulum swings long and slow - i.e. our innate understanding, as electors in a democracy, of how our democracy system works, is built over time by observing out of the corner of our eye, how the votes we collectively cast in the past lead to often long-delayed and often perverse outcomes and implications. Voters in the UK had to come to terms with extreme implications of earlier voting decisions, under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, which was painful, and we are no doubt learning something now, subliminally, from our current experiment with coalition politics. This may also be such a moment in Kenya, and provided Kenyans in the elite and at grass-roots avoid letting the complications they will now face, lead to violence, I see the outcome of this election as potentially laying another strong foundation layer for democracy there. Because democratic values emerge from difficult times, not easy ones.
There has been a great deal of noise, confusion, and at times sound and fury, over Value for Money (VfM) among overseas development NGOs based in the UK, of late. This is because so many of us depend on UK government funding from DFID, which has been taking VfM more seriously since the last election – and not surprising it has, given the degree of scepticism about overseas aid among UK taxpayers, some MPs, and journalists.
We in the NGO community are a bit scared because many of us:
1. lack confidence that others feel as strongly about our work as we do
2.don’t understand VfM very well, and we get confused messages from different DFID staff we encounter (many of whom don’t seem to understand it very well, either – indeed a senior government economist said publicly at a meeting I attended at the end of 2011, that if he were to name a single government department not well-set up to integrate VfM it would be DFID, because of the nature of DFID’s work and the professional and ideological profile of many of its staff…)
3. fear that VfM analysis will somehow demonstrate that what we are doing is not valuable enough
4. don’t have strong enough design, monitoring and evaluation, and so aren’t clear enough about the results of our work, nor about the degree to which those results can be attributed to our contribution
5. imagine that VfM is something so complicated that we won’t be able to understand, much less use it
6. fear that somehow the VfM agenda will result in our sources of funds drying up.
I work for an NGO partly funded by DFID, and by other donors who are paying more and more interest in VfM. So I am scared too. On the other hand however, VfM surely isn’t all that complicated, at least conceptually?
What is VfM? As far as I can see, at base it’s just a simple fraction which expresses the outcomes of a project in terms of their value, as a ratio of their cost:
VfM = Value/Cost
To do this, the cost either has to be translated into the currency in which the outcome has been valued, or the outcome has to be assigned a monetary or economic value, so they can be compared. Not surprisingly, the former is usually easier than the latter. (E.g. in an education project it is easier to assign a monetary value to the outcome of 100 children educated to grade 7, than to convert the project budget into “educated children” units. The great advantage of money as a concept being its fungibility).
Of course in practice this is complex, and especially so if the project is a complex one and its outcomes are qualitative in nature; even more so if one decides to include the costs (including opportunity costs) of other project stakeholders and participants. But all that can be handled with the right skills, methodology and with that important economist’s tool: assumptions.
I like to think that the purpose of VfM can be boiled down to two essential scenarios. First, when comparing different possible outcomes which could be achieved with the same amount of investment, it is useful to have a tool to aid the comparison. Especially when the two outcomes are different – as different as apples and pears at least, but perhaps as different as apples and, say, lightbulbs. And more especially when taxpayers’ money is being used and so an attempt at objectivity is essential for accountability purposes. So, for example, if for a given sum of money we could achieve 100 children educated to a certain level in Uganda, or stabilise 100 km of sand dunes menacing an irrigated plantation in Mali, which should we choose? Of course we will use non-VfM criteria too, but VfM can help compare these alternative investments.
Second, when comparing two different ways to achieve the same outcome, then a value for money assessment helps decide which is the best approach. If we can help rival communities in Sierra Leone resolve a land dispute peacefully for either £50,000 or £60,000, then – other things being equal - we should opt for the £50,000 project.
The common feature here is comparison; so the key point to bear in mind is that VfM is and can only be a relative measure. Once the comparison has been done, the monetary value assigned to the apple or the lightbulb no longer has any relevance or meaning, and is discarded, as it is merely an artefact of an economic comparison methodology. No more. No less.
The advantages of VfM if used appropriately and skilfully are clear:
- It encourages – even requires – rigour and clarity about costs and outcomes
- Ironically it makes very explicit, for those in doubt, that development outcomes come in all kinds of currencies – economic, environmental, social, political, security, and so on. The clearer we are about these outcomes, the clearer everyone will be that development – human and societal progress – is not just about economic growth or schools or health, but about a complex mix of inter-related factors. “Value” is a powerful non-jargon word with an intrinsically powerful meaning in normal speech: it focuses attention on how valuable, how important it is for individuals, communities and society to improve the way they live.
- It helps maximise value for public money (duh!)
But there are real difficulties too:
- Not all NGOs have (or have easy access to) the skills and capacity to do VfM analysis
- As Andrew Natsios (ex-head of USAID) so eloquently said, the most effective development initiatives are the least easily counted and measured, while the ones most easily counted and measured are often the least effective; so VfM may be hard to apply to the most effective initiatives
The risks of adopting VfM in the overseas development sector have been well-rehearsed. Ironically, it adds to the cost of designing and implementing projects, as it is time-consuming, and thus may detract from other critical aspects of design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation, lowering quality. And there is a real risk, as outlined by Natsios, that VfM (mis)applied over time will create incentives for donors and the recipients of their money to drop the less countable (and thus more effective?) interventions in favour of the more countable (and less effective?) ones. A further risk is that because VfM is driven by donors, it will be focused mainly on their costs – or the costs they fund – and will therefore fail to capture the costs including opportunity costs incurred by others, even when these costs are not justified by the project outcomes as seen through others’ eyes.
So, what to do?
NGOs with sufficient access to alternative sources of funding can of course decide that applying VfM is not worth their while. But for most of us, we simply have to work out how to integrate VfM into our project planning, monitoring and reporting cycles – but in a way which works best for the kinds of interventions that work best. That means we have to be as clear as we can about the costs and outcomes of our projects, and become as adept as we can at applying the simplest VfM methodologies available to them, so we can confidently demonstrate to donors and potential donors that their investment of taxpayers’ funds in our projects is a good one.
Meanwhile we need to remind ourselves and anyone else that VfM is just a tool for comparison – nothing more, nothing less. No-one should be praising or criticising the value of a particular outcome or set of outcomes merely in monetary terms, unless they are doing so with reference to an alternative.
And finally, let’s not make VfM into something bigger than it deserves to be or – by its own logic – more costly than the benefits it brings.