The SDG framework needs to reflect the fact that development processes are non-linear, and involve trade-offs between immediate and future benefits.
Those few readers who follow my blog will have become accustomed to – perhaps bored with – the notion that ‘development is history looking forwards’. By which I mean, we should see ‘development’ as a collection of the kinds of processes of societal change and improvement such as we claim to discern in our analysis of the past. A fairly obvious point, but one I make from time to time, to reinforce the idea that development is a complex set of interconnected historical processes of change: technical and political.
Looking at development in this way – as ‘future history’ – is also a way to remind politicians and development or peacebuilding practitioners of the risk of hubris inherent in their attempts to help people change the course of their (future) history. Especially given that we know it is virtually impossible to predict chains of societal change with any confidence or precision. (After all, most of the outcomes we can now discern in history were probably not intended at all, at least not by those who helped set off and facilitate the chains of causation we now claim and describe.)
Thinking recently about this in relation to the draft Sustainable Development Goals prepared this year by the UN Open Working Group, set me off on a related new line of thought. This takes me outside my comfort zone as it’s quite a philosophical line of inquiry. The logic, as I see it (and I welcome comments and refutations of this rather clumsy argument), is:
- The concept of ‘development’ is fundamentally about creating a better future. It must be, because:
the results of any ‘development’ initiative will not be achieved until after they are implemented (i.e. in the future), and
‘development’ is an ambitious and long-term concept which by definition will take several lifetimes to ‘achieve’. For example, in ‘rights-based development’, it is impossible for all the rights of all people in a particular society to be fulfilled immediately (if ever).
- Therefore, ‘development’ initiatives must necessarily be strategic, i.e. designed to increase the likelihood of a future ‘good’, rather than simply improve lives today.
- Given we know ‘development’, like most societal change, happens in a non-linear way, the initiatives which are optimal for achieving future goals, are unlikely to be the most optimal for achieving immediate benefits.
- Given that any ‘development’ initiative is therefore but a step on a longer road, or a brick in a larger wall, is logical that people should be willing to forgo benefits today, in favour of benefits which will accrue to their community in the future.
- This logic however is premised on three conditions:
There is no feasible, more effective alternative available
The forecast future improvements are reasonably likely to transpire
The “beneficiaries” undergoing the opportunity cost are aware of and accept it.
Once the conditions are outlined, it’s immediately clear that this is more of a thought experiment than a practical notion, especially in relatively fragile and undemocratic societies where poorly informed people with limited political voice, are concerned. And because – as mentioned already – longer-term development processes are notoriously unpredictable, and non-linear.
Nevertheless, I find it a useful line to explore, as it reinforces the idea that development policy and practice needs to take a strategic and future-oriented perspective, aiming to benefit people today to the extent possible, but within an explicit trajectory of enabling an improved future. (Rather as politicians fighting a war insist on the very severe shorter-term cost of longer-term victory). This is why human capital development is such an obviously attractive development initiative, as it benefits the child or adult being ‘capacitated’, who – it is reasoned – will also be a force for social good as a result.
Or, I suppose, we could just go back the simpler a-political days of yore, designing short-term, immediate impact policies and projects, and hoping that the bigger picture of future history takes care of itself.
Why is this relevant to the SDGs?
Because they appear to be falling into the same trap as the MDGs, of confusing ends which strategies, or as eloquently put by Simon Maxwell in his recent blog post, of confusing intrinsic with contributory goals. The point is that if we genuinely believe in some bigger idea of societal progress, then it immediately becomes a political question at two important levels: of prioritisation and of strategy. These are intrinsically political questions, because there are seldom uncontested answers to either of them.
The current SDG draft reads as an incoherent list of seventeen goals and over 150 subsidiary targets, sparkling like as many coloured lights festooning a Christmas tree. It is anything but a framework. If one of the challenges of the next few months is to try and give it some meaning as a strategic framework, then I would suggest that those involved need to take into account the need for the framework to recognise the difference between strategic interventions and the intended goals; and that one of the explicit assumptions must necessarily be that there are short term trade-offs inherent therein.
This matters because, once it passes through the 2015 general assembly, the SDG framework enters the minefield of national politics. Famously, while long-term businesses may have a low intrinsic discount rate, individuals (electors) and governments usually do not: they value immediacy of outcomes and benefits, and nowhere more so that in a democracy with its 4-5 year electoral cycle, or a fragile state where the patronage which maintains leaders in power needs to be fuelled. The SDGs need to be fit for that real world (where, as soldiers say, no plan survives contact with the enemy). So we need to be pragmatic about what they do and don’t contain. But if they are to be more than just humanitarian goals, it is really important that they reflect the real nature of historical development processes, and the intention of creating a better future history. One way to do that is to differentiate between jam today, and honey tomorrow.
A legitimate and useful way to see the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and other parts of the Middle East is as conflicts of nation and state formation. This means among other things, examining the nature of the political settlements there, including the terms of the relationship between the governed and those in power. Obama has implied as much in his comments on the current situation in Iraq. But this analysis also services as a stark reminder that the USA and the West have limited policy options, and in the end are likely to continue backing the devils they know.
Most of us were taken by surprise by the way the conflict in Syria appeared to burst its banks in the past few weeks, overflowing into Iraq and now threatening Jordan – even though it’s long been part of the narrative that this might happen.
In reporting this newly expanded conflict, journalists have made much of the idea that this is in part a conflict of state formation. The Sykes-Picot Agreement, tribal allegiance, western-manufactured post-Ottoman states, oil, Balfour, the Great Game, the juvenile nature of the states involved, and of course sectarian enmities – all have been brought out of the cupboard to explain the idea that national boundaries in the Middle East might be in the process of being redrawn. The consensus in liberal western media (a good example was in this week’s Economist) seems to be: stick to the lines we drew in the sand.
It is of course right to describe the conflict partly in terms of unreal borders, and of nations and states built on sand. A historical view of the region suggests there would be every likelihood of a redrawing of borders, absent outside interference seeking artificial stability à la status quo, even without some crazy idea of a caliphate stretching from the Philippines to the Gambia as per ISIS propaganda. But “state formation” – perhaps nation formation is more accurate in the first instance – is not only or mainly about borders. It is about the identity of the country, about the way people belong, and about the way political and economic power is held and wielded there.
A key element of this is the culture and nature of politics, and the nature of the political-economic settlement: who is in, and who is out, at every level. In Obama’s initial response to the ISIS advance a couple of weeks ago, he put his finger on this when he said that any solution should include a different – more inclusive – way of governing (and thus of being governed) in Iraq. He was talking about the need to change the sectarian nature of governance – effectively a need to revisit the political settlement which the USA had perhaps unwittingly established. What he saw was the need for the settlement to include and represent all broad identity groups, some of whom had been alienated, and thus driven into alliance with ISIS for want of alternative access to political and economic power.
This element of state formation – and we are now firmly in the territory of state formation, rather than nation formation, as this is about the relationship and the accommodation between the governed and the governing state – is hardly unique to the Middle East. Ukraine and other post-soviet countries are going through similar processes. Indeed, all states are in constant (if mercifully often peaceful and gradual) evolution. The recent rise of the Tea Party in the USA, the UKIP in the UK, and Five Star party in Italy to name but a few, are examples of how the nature of even relatively mature liberal states is being reviewed, tested and perhaps renewed at present, in response to dissatisfaction with the status quo. Arguably this already happened in the UK in the late 1940s, and again in the 1980s. In the right circumstances, and if non-violent and progressive in nature and outcomes, it’s both a natural evolution and an essential element of resilience. By the same token, where this evolution is held back, violence sooner or later erupts.
It’s critical this angle on the conflicts in the Middle East be clearly and well-reported. Not the least because it has an important consequence for outside intervention, or lack thereof. The USA’s decision to unlock its suspended military and security assistance package to Egypt, following the latter’s recent “restoration of democracy” is a useful reminder that in amongst the nice rhetoric from the West which has at times accompanied the Arab Spring, realpolitik will usually win out. Pace Obama’s words about inclusive governance, when faced by a choice between the allowing the people of the Middle East to define their own futures (as the Western rhetorical response to the Arab Spring at first had it), or helping bad leaders beat back the likes of Isis and thus support them in their own bad use of power, the West will likely once again be forced to admit that there is no easy middle ground. It has tried to find a middle ground in Syria and is not feeling too good about where that approach has taken it.
But perhaps that’s really what ISIS and its fellow travellers really want: to set things up to show young Moslems that western power really is always going to remain aligned with a tyrannical, haram form of rule which resists the people’s voice, and thus foment a continued undercurrent of violent rebellion around the world which, even though it may never achieve the establishment of the crescent Caliphate, at least continues to undermine the enemy.
Perhaps we can all be forgiven for feeling disappointed in the inability of Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, John Kerry and their allies to sort things out. But it’s quite a knot they are tasked with untangling.
The Open Working Group released the zero consultation draft of 17 Sustainable Development Goals and 212 Targets this week. Examining them from the perspective of four criteria (Is there a coherent narrative, is peace included, is anything obviously missing, and will they work?), I conclude that although the ancient sages might well counsel us to abandon this SDG enterprise as a fool’s errand, there remains room for optimism about the outcomes.
So, I am imagining a conversation with one of the ancient sages. I ask him (they are all men, right?) how we might go about creating a political map defining progress for over 7 billion people between now and 2030. He’s a bit out of date, so I give him a bit more detail. I explain that we all live in more or less sovereign, more or less countries, which more or less coincide with states; how some are small and others large; how some are democratic, some far from it, and some are somewhere kind of in between. I talk about what links and what separates us. I explain a bit about how we’ve harnessed energy in support of a better life, and how we’re plundering the planet to do so. I sketch a few word pictures of humans living very different kinds of lives, and explain how inequality presents itself in the modern world. I talk a bit about the different demographic profiles of different countries, and about cultural similarities and differences. And few other salient details, too.
Assuming it’s not Plato (who’d probably say: easy, leave it to me and my mates, we’ll let you all know what to do in due course), I am fairly certain that my interlocutor would at some point stop me and say: don’t do it, mate, it will never work…
But we are doing it, of course. That’s what the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are meant to be: a political map for everyone on this planet for the next 16 years – for what could be more political than the question of how to define “progress”?
The zero draft of the SDGs was released by the UN’s Open Working Group (OWG) this week. The intention of the OWG’s chairs is that this zero draft – essentially a short covering note and preamble attached to 17 goals and 212 targets if I counted right – is to create a negotiation database. After a few days of “informal-informals” in mid-June, the OWG will complete its work by presenting its final draft to the Secretary General. The assumption at that point is, if it’s not in, it won’t be; but that plenty of what’s included in the OWG’s report will be dropped and clustered and otherwise amended in subsequent negotiations. That’s when the real negotiations will begin.
So the 17 goals and 212 targets are not yet a framework, merely the building blocks thereof. What can we infer, from the document the OWG chairs have now released?
I can identify four basic criteria against which to judge the SDG process and its eventual output. First, is there a discernible concept of progress emerging, and if so, does it make sense? Second, does it reflect the importance of peace as an integral component of human progress? Three, is there anything obviously missing? And four, will the proposed model work as a tool for incentivising and monitoring progress?
- The concept of progress
It would be a little unfair to critique the present list from this perspective, as it seems to be intended merely as a list of the potential components of a concept, rather than claiming to provide one now. Looking at the list of goals, there is clearly an intention to be comprehensive, with the inclusion of poverty, hunger, healthy life, education, equality and especially gender equality, water and sanitation, energy, sustainability, economic growth, decent work, industrialization, climate change, conservation of land and sea, biodiversity, peace, rule of law, effective institutions, inclusion, and a global partnership for sustainable development. Phew!
But what I like about this list, is also what’s slightly concerning about it. It is reassuring that the list does not yet try to be a set of equivalent parameters. Far from it, in fact: promoting sustainable industrialisation, ending poverty everywhere, and strengthening and enhancing the means of implementation and global partnership for sustainable development – three of the goals – seem to come from three very different categories, and they would sit uneasily with one another in a fruit bowl. That seems like a good thing at this stage of the game, when it’s important for ideas to retain as much intrinsic and political meaning as possible, before they get smoothed out into a set of similar seeming apples that can sit in the same bowl. As the bearded sage might have told me, confusion is a critical stage on the road to enlightenment, so one should avoid trying to impose too much order on ideas before one needs to.
At the same time though, this categorical diversity is a cause for worry, because by avoiding the creation of any kind of conceptual framework for human progress at this stage, the OWG provides no real criteria for deciding what matters most, among the 212 targets or the 17 goals. So those seven billion of us not directly involved in the negotiations may be forgiven for feeling a little anxious on two grounds. First, have the drafters more or less given up on trying to create a coherent narrative of progress? That would be worrying because without one, it does seem a little pointless to create a set of goals: it is a truism that goals and targets only make sense when they emerge from and are justified by a coherent strategic narrative. And the second grounds for concern are that without a narrative, what is to protect any of these goals we particularly care about, from being removed during the next phase of negotiations?
Like others, I have personal narrative for development, and of course I’d be very happy to see that adopted. But it’s only one of many, even I am not convinced it’s right, and I certainly wouldn’t be looking for it or expecting to see it used by the OWG. But while I recognise the immense difficulty of getting agreement, I would have liked to see some semblance of conceptual shape provided to link these diverse goals. At International Alert we recognised this problem some years ago, which is why we proposed a simpler system without goals as such.
Ultimately, a big tent can be a good thing, unless it’s so big it has no structure and blows down when the wind blows.
- The importance of peace as an integral component of human progress
Everyone with a particular fetish or sectoral preference looks for his or her preferences in the list. I look for peace. It’s still there, goal #16: Achieve peaceful and inclusive societies, rule of law, effective and capable institutions. Good.
There is cause to worry slightly though, as the scuttlebutt is that quite a few countries are set against this goal. And by lumping peace in with rule of law and good governance, it does run the risk of being thrown out with the bathwater by governments who fear that by agreeing to good governance and the rule of law they create a rod for their own backs which will be wielded in collaboration by their civil society and the international community.
And there’s another reason to be concerned about whether peace will keep its place in the list. The introductory text references the usual UN instruments and makes it clear that the SDGs will reaffirm these. Oddly though, it does not include the Millennium Declaration – which clearly enshrines the international community’s existing commitment to peace. And where the preamble singles out certain elements for special mention – the centrality of people, equity, inclusivity, etc. – they do not give peace the same status, merely “reaffirming” it.
Saferworld has today released a more detailed analysis of what is right and wrong with goal #16, which provides more depth than I can here.
So we do need to keep a close eye on goal #16 over the next few months.
- What’s missing?
Given the lack of any clear conceptual shape, it is hard to see what’s missing. Rather like looking at a Christmas tree festooned with coloured lights and baubles, and asking if there are any specific lights or baubles missing. Given that gender, women and girls gets a goal of its own, and given the demographic s of the next few years, I did wonder whether young people and perhaps old people ought to be more visible in the goals. But I think we can assume that an “inclusive” set of goals has them covered.
A useful aide memoire is provided by the five generic peacebuilding and statebuilding goals, all of which ought to be reflected. Legitimate Politics, Security and Justice are more or less captured by the targets attached to goal #16. Services are covered throughout, and Taxation in goal #17, and Participatory Economic Growth is also clearly there. Good.
- Will the model work?
Even if the concept of development or progress is understandably not yet clear, I would have expected a little more clarity about the hierarchical structure of the goals and targets. After all, for a goal or target to make sense, there must be some hint as to how it will be used, who is responsible and who is accountable, etc. Otherwise, how to judge its utility? As I have written before, this new SDG framework should be built on the principle of subsidiarity, i.e. the idea that goals, targets and plans are set at the most appropriate level, with the default level as near to the ground as possible. In subsidiarity, each layer of authority is presumed to be subsidiary to the layer below it. In Alert’s earlier work on this issue, we recommended that the top level goals should be kept to a minimum number – we suggested six, and certainly not 17 – and should be drafted in terms of a broad vision of a more developed society (at whatever level), rather than as 15-year achievables. This, we felt, would allow easier global agreement, and would also reflect the idea of subsidiarity in that other entities below the global level would in most cases need to set their own plans, goals and targets every few years, in the direction of travel of the global vision. Elsewhere I’ve explained in more detail how this might work in practice.
But given that decision to opt for 2030 goals, I would have expected the goals and targets to make sense within a 15 year timeframe. Unfortunately the wording of the goals alone, let alone the targets, makes it clear that these are not really 15 year goals at all. End poverty in all its forms everywhere, by 2030? Attain gender equality everywhere, by 2030? End hunger and achieve adequate nutrition for all, by 2030? What planet are they living on? Have they not seen what is happening in Syria? Have they not seen the statistics from India, from Africa? Do they not understand how the barriers to these goals work, and how hard they will be to lift, remove or overcome? While I understand that political incentives within the UN pull in the direction of creating such unattainable goals, this kind of language will seriously undermine the credibility of these goals, just as happened with the MDGs years ago.
This problem can easily be fixed: by removing the idea that these goals will all be met by 2030, and changing them into aspirational aims, with no pre-determined end date. Thus for example, we agree on the need to end hunger for all, we recognise it is a major endeavour that will take several decades: now, what can we do over the next 15 years to make strong progress in that direction, at global, regional, national and sub-national levels?
As explained earlier, this change would also reinforce the idea of subsidiarity. And in respect of subsidiarity, the language of the preamble is already encouraging: the goals are to be global in nature and universally applicable in all countries, while taking into account different national capacities and levels of development, and respecting different national policies and priorities. I see the possibility of subsidiarity in that text. And the framing of many of the goals and targets also supports that interpretation. The actions needed to meet some goals are more clearly global in nature (e.g. climate, marine conservation) and the language to some degree reflects this. And on other – less “global” – areas too, many of the targets are quite rightly about the development and implementation of policies and systems – most of them national – which can enable progress towards the goal. Many of these are broad and leave plenty of room for national priorities and policies to be defined. Some, however, are a bit too prescriptive: Reduce retail and consumer food waste, and production and post-harvest food losses, by 50%; equal access for all to tertiary education; improve water efficiency by x% across all sectors….
So where does this leave us? The optimist in me says that the OWG’s initial list contains within it the potential for a framework with narrative meaning and coherence, with the right measure of ambition and realism, valuing peace and good governance as core public goods, and with the potential to be built around an incentives model which emphasises subsidiarity. If those involved in turning this list into the actual framework can wield Ockham’s razor with purpose, dexterity and a firm hand, they could achieve such a result. And to some extent the politics of this SDG process have the potential to support that: because national governments will in general – and quite right too – resist the call to sign up to globally defined prescriptions they do not have a democratic mandate for.
Meanwhile however, the sceptic in me says Ockham’s razor works best, wielded in a quiet space by one or two people, rather than in the crowded market place of the UN. So a more likely outcome will be a hodge-podge of goals and targets not brought together in any kind of real narrative, not making sense as a 15-year incentives and monitoring framework, but probably one which is quite comprehensive, and in which peace and governance do survive. And although the ancient sage whose advice I seek died long before William of Ockham sharpened his tool, I think he would probably agree.
The nature of the development discourse has changed in Mali. It is framed not just in technical terms, but increasingly in terms of the political culture, and other complex ideas. But are those playing a leadership role fitting their programmes and approaches to this new framing? Perhaps not yet.
The peace process in Mali has been seriously undermined again, over the past couple of weeks. Fighting broke out in Kidal, and quickly spread to other parts of northern Mali as the MNLA rebels overran the Malian army and retook several towns, watched by the French and UN peacekeepers who seem to have decided there was no peace for them to keep. Yet another chapter in the ongoing crisis in what was not so long ago seen – through a distorting lens, to be sure – as one of the jewels in the crown of donor-supported development processes in Africa.
I lived in Mali for four years in the 1990s, and had the privilege to return there for a few days in late May, during which I took part in conversations and debates about development and peacebuilding, with NGOs, academics, civil servants and international donors. One thing that struck me was how much broader and deeper these conversations have become, compared to the ones I recall from twenty years ago. It is routine nowadays, to hear people describe their development challenges not simply in terms of access to education and health services, economic opportunity, accountable governance, etc. – i.e. the usual suspects which I recall from back then – but also in terms such as the need to:
- Change the culture of politics from one of consensus to one of genuine debate, diverse ideas, and wide participation
- Match statebuilding efforts with nation-building efforts
- Deal with corruption, and with the way international drug-smugglers are taking advantage of Mali’s fragility, poverty and geography – and in so doing making a fragile situation worse
- Cut the links with international terrorists
- Promote citizenship and create a Mali more fit for the 21st Century.
And yet there is also a palpable sense among people that things are reverting to business as usual, despite the lack of resolution of the rebellion in the North. As always, the way we frame things is a powerful element in determining the kinds of solutions we identify. With that in mind, some of the “framing” issues which emerged in our conversations in Bamako included the following.
Connecting the disconnect
The prevalent analysis tends to highlight disconnects, and especially the disconnect between the North and the rest of the country. After all, the eco-climatic, economic, social and cultural differences between the north and the rest of Mali really are substantial; and there is a history of repeated civil unrest in and from the north. And of course, a lot of the outside assistance and interference is currently focused on the north – which is indeed where the latest fighting has again broken out.
But it’s important to bear in mind that there are other disconnects which merit attention too, if Malians are to make progress towards a more sustainably peaceful and prosperous nation: between Malians and the state; between competitors for different uses of land; between different language groups; between generations; between progressives and conservatives; between those benefiting from the status quo and those who do not…
In any case, “the North” probably includes as much diversity and difference as there is between the North and the rest of the country. It is important that the Great Reconstruction now underway does not get sidetracked by le problème du Nord. The challenge is nationwide. A Mali fit for the 21st Century certainly needs to be one in which the people of the North are equal citizens – with all the obligations and rights so entailed – along with those in other parts. But a Mali for the 21st Century needs to provide all its citizens, not just those in the North, with continuously improving access to voice, participation, economic opportunity, justice, security and general well-being. Good citizenship implies good, functional relationships between citizens as well as between each citizen and the state.
A critical element of this seems to be the need to ensure that decisions are taken as close as possible to the people on whom they have an impact, i.e. the idea of subsidiarity in governance, which I’ll come back to later.
The need for transformation
Another feature of the prevalent analysis is that Malians need to undertake a transformation. This is commonly expressed as the need for “a Mali fit for the 21st Century” – with greater internal equality, better infrastructure, decentralised governance, enhanced human capital and a more dynamic economy: one in which, for example, rice imported all the way from Thailand is no longer cheaper than rice grown at home. The recipe for creating this new Mali tends to include the usual development policies and programmes (education, health, revenue improvements, decentralisation, etc.) along with something that’s less familiar: the need for dialogue.
The problem of consensus
Another common, if not yet quite so prevalent feature of the analysis is “the problem of consensus”. This has two different elements: the familiar idea of an elite group, whose members have carved up political and economic opportunities among themselves, thus excluding others with the potential to benefit and to add value to public good; and the more particularly Malian phenomenon, whereby some of the important – and much-lauded conflict-management – cultural institutions like cousinage and plaisanterie, tend to be tools and instruments for maintaining the status quo, rather than for actually dealing with the challenges of change Malians say they need to confront. And of course this nourishes a corrupt political economy.
Le Mali Réel et le Mali Légal = le Mali Fragile
One of the most fascinating ideas I encountered in Bamako was the juxtaposition of Le Mali légal with Le Mali réel. The idea being, that there is a kind of fictional Mali, illustrated by the modern institutions of state, which operate with very limited influence on how things work, and on the way the political economy is shaped. This is the Mali with which the outside world formally engages, and into which donors largely pour their money. But the real Mali, in which most people mostly live their lives, is defined by a host of less visible institutions which, while they flex and adapt over time in response to external stimuli, do so merely as a self-preservation reflex, and tend to be conservative in character, keeping things largely the way they are and were.
The problems with this schizophrenic state of affairs are legion, but a simple way to encapsulate them in the here and now is that this dysfunctional combination of “real” and fictional institutions is not up to the task of dealing with the sheer pressure and volume of change faced by Malians, nor of allowing them to make a smooth transition towards a “Mali fit for the 21st Century”. Hence the country’s vulnerability and fragility.
And it is into this fragile Mali – le Mali fragile – that external forces such as international criminal gangs smuggling drugs, arms and tobacco, international Islamist elements, and Western anti-terror and anti-smuggling forces, have inserted themselves. With predictable results.
Levers and Projects
And so we have a complex but nevertheless fairly accessible analysis which is quite widely shared, even if enough of those with an interest in not doing enough to change things, tend to remain in positions of influence and power - which of course puts a brake on change. But there’s another problem, too. It is that those who do have an interest in doing something about this problem are too often falling back into what one might call “project” mode. Politicians, technocrats and civil society activists everywhere always look for levers they can get their hands on; and therefore they tend to limit their diagnosis to describing the problematique – or part of it – in a way which lends itself to being “fixed”, “addressed”, “resolved”, etc. The same is true in Mali today. I will illustrate what I mean with a few examples.
Decentralisation, or subsidiarity?
It has long been an article of faith that one way to “fix” the problem of governance in Mali is through the Decentralisation project. Hence, new local government areas were created, local councils elected, etc. The problem is, these local councils tend to go through the motions of consultation and planning, rather than fulfilling their accountable governance role as it is written.
In any case, if decentralisation is the answer, then centralisation must be the problem. Yet le Mali réel has never really uniformly centralised its governance, whether under the French or after they left. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that many important political decisions (about land and other resources, for example) have remained in the hands of local institutions all the way through, despite the bastardisation of many of those institutions by colonial and post-colonial power. Yet decentralisation is something that can be projectised, so that is what has been done.
More relevant surely – though harder to projectise – would be to set out with the intention to enable an evolution of Mali’s governance based on the concept of subsidiarity. This means starting with what is really there (how things really work) and building upon that, so that successive layers of governance are subsidiary to the ones below them, with the result that decisions are made, actions taken, and accountability applied, at the most appropriate level and distance from the centre, according to the issue in question. Thus, what is local is done locally, and what is national is done nationally. Where new institutions are needed, they can be created, but any reforms should be based on what is already there – not what ought to be.
If transformation is really to be sought, then presumably it will depend on leadership – on individuals with a vision take a chance and a risk for their vision. This, I imagine, needs to happen at multiple levels, organically, across society. But how do development projects and programmes foster and enable that to happen, if the idea is to foster diverse and competing visions?
I know it is all too easy to pontificate from afar, but I must nevertheless admit to a sense of disappointment, in that there was an awful lot of “il faut” going on. What do I mean? In a lot of the discussions I was privileged to participate in and listen to, most speakers seemed to imply that it was up to someone else to fix things, to behave differently, and so on. “Il faut ceci,….. il faut cela” – rather than “Il faut que je….” or “Il faut que nous…..”. So there does seem to be room for identifying and supporting leaders throughout society.
Dialogue: instrument, or outcome?
One way to do so, and indeed one of the recommendations emerging from various analyses in Mali is the need for dialogue. Indeed, my own organisation International Alert recommended this, in our recent report: Supporting Peaceful Social, Cultural and Economic Change in Mali. This makes good sense from two perspectives: Mali’s many problems deserve solutions developed through wide participation; and because dialogue seems like an important antidote to the political culture of consensus – on which ironically there is a consensus that it needs to change!
The problem here is the confusion between dialogue as an instrument of consultation, and the integration of dialogue as an outcome. Doing dialogue is not necessarily going to result in embedding dialogue into the political culture. Some of the projectised dialogue processes which are becoming widespread in Mali now, may actually be counter-productive, if they leave people with the feeling that they have simply been consulted; rather than with the idea and habit of using dialogues more often themselves. In the worst case and ironically, those whose ideas are rejected in the consultation, may see dialogue as yet another tool for the consensus culture which dialogue proponents want to transform….
A theory of change in which more dialogue is the result, rather than the main activity, of a project, might be focused not on running dialogue sessions in order to find out what people have to say about an issue, but rather to bring together, usually at a local level, those with an interest in that issue, to determine what they can do, whether as a group or as individuals. And to contribute to supporting, enabling and identifying the leadership which is surely the most critical component of challenging and leavening a culture of consensus around the status quo.
The role of internationals
Mali’s future will be as part of a regional and global future, but it will ultimately be mapped and created mainly by Malians. Nevertheless, Mali remains a country highly influenced by outsiders: donors, the UN, the AU, ECOWAS, etc. Donors still provide a large proportion of public funding, and the international community in general has disproportionate influence and power right now because of the weakness and fragility of Mali’s institutions.
This raises an interesting challenge. Donors are described as partenaires de développement techniques et financiers – as per the outdated Paris Declaration which wilfully ignored the politics of development. Now, it is quite right and understandable that Malians want to remain in charge of their destiny, and limit the role of their international partners. But this creates a problem: because if the analysis of Mali’s development challenges is now being framed in terms of subsidiary governance, changing the political culture, reforming social behaviours, taming international crime, etc., these are not just financial and technical issues. So if donors and other internationals are to contribute to helping Malians with their development processes, they can only be genuine partners in that endeavour, if they are partenaires, non seulement techniques et financiers, mais aussi politiques, institutionnels, sociaux et culturels…
.. And this paradox takes us right back to the problem of le Mali réel et le Mali légal. If donors and other internationals are to be useful in Mali, they need to be working in le Mali réel; as long as they, and the development discourse in general, reverts to le Mali légal, it seems likely that diagnosis and solutions will remain inadequate.
Reconciliation is a voluntary process which cannot be mandated from above. Reconciliation among people is best enabled in an environment where citizen and state enjoy functional, trusting and reconciled relationships. This raises an important question for Rwanda, where the desire of the state to remain strong for security reasons, may impede reconciliation.
In 1994, the terrible genocide in Rwanda took place, an episode which tests anyone’s ability to describe, much less understand, the awfulness people committed against their neighbours. A tenth of the people were brutally killed, tens of thousands were raped and otherwise tortured. Well over a million fled into exile. I still vividly recall traveling through eerily deserted “liberated areas” of northern and eastern Rwanda at that time, on empty roads through burgeoning fields of beans and maize, ready for harvest but destined to die and dry on the stem. Wole Soyinka said at the time that the Rwandan nation was ‘clinically dead’, and questioned whether it could ever be restored to life.
Twenty years on, it is a tribute to the people and government of Rwanda (perhaps to the inherent resilience of humanity), that they have made such progress in recovery. Despite its few advantages in terms of natural resources, this landlocked country is a star development performer – e.g. the World Bank reports that “the poverty rate dropped from 59% in 2001 to 45% in 2011 while inequality reduced from 0.52 in 2005 to 0.49 in 2011”, while real GDP growth averaged over 8% annually between 2001 and 2012. It has also found a way – through its gacaca alternative justice system – to deal with tens of thousands of cases against people suspected of involvement in the genocide. There are moving examples of person-to-person reconciliation, wherein perpetrators and victims from 1994 have found ways to live and work together, despite the terrible combination of hurt, sorrow, guilt and shame.
Plenty of problems persist. Poverty remains a major problem despite the progress made. The rump of the genocidaires remains at large in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in the form of the FDLR movement, and the Rwandan government has persistently found itself intervening in the DRC – often through paramilitary proxies – as part of its approach to national security. Unresolved conflicts over land – one of the underlying causes of the genocide in this small, crowded country – persist. The integration of returning refugees (exiles and the children of exiles from earlier episodes of blood-letting, as well as from 1994) is a work in progress. And the number of people still traumatised by the events of 1994 remains a major problem for them as individuals and for the recovery of their communities and the nation, despite some extraordinary stories of reconciliation.
The culture of governance
Of the many notable characteristics of Rwanda today, one feature which cannot fail to escape notice is the strength and dominance of the state. As compared with others around it, the Rwandan state is powerful, with what other governments likely see as an enviable ability to execute its intentions and plans. International donors who have supported Rwanda’s recovery – no doubt at least partly out of a sense of shame and guilt at having failed to protect Rwandans in 1994 – have become increasingly concerned at the government’s intolerance of, and reputed willingness to silence, opposition voices. While they may have understood the need for firm control in the years following the genocide, they are now becoming uncomfortable that progress towards open, democratic rule and free speech has not matched the improved performance in service delivery and other aspects of development.
Francis Fukuyama in The Origins of Political Order, explains how hard it is to shift the political culture of a nation. For example he describes the resilience of the Russian governance system towards Peter the Great’s reforms – few of which persisted long after Peter’s death. Given the decimation of the population, the wholesale disruption of the economy, the return of tens of thousands of long-term exiles, and the coming to power of a victorious liberating army, one might imagine that the political culture in Rwanda would have changed markedly in the past few years. And in some respects it has, with virtual male:female parity in elected office, a zero-tolerance approach to petty corruption, and a marked improvement in service delivery compared to the Habyarimana government of the 1980s and early 1990s.
But one thing which does not seem to have radically changed is the top down-ness. When asked in 1994 why he had participated in the genocide, one man answered that he had done what he was told, and explained that “in Rwanda an order is heavier than a stone”. While this is likely partly an excuse, it does reflect a very real truth about the top-down nature of the political culture at that time. International NGO projects in Rwanda in the 1980s were able to achieve unheard of and enviable rates of popular participation in water, health and agriculture development projects. But this was not because of their special methods and skills, but because they only needed to convince the bourgmestre – the local mayor – of their need for numbers, and he would mobilise the people to participate. A few years ago the EU required all of its country aid programmes to work with their host government counterparts to implement a governance review, i.e. to assess the level of “good governance” in the country. Each had a different experience. Some found it difficult to get their counterparts to co-operate at all, and most found it even harder to persuade their counterparts to agree a plan for “governance improvements”, much less implement it. Meanwhile, the person responsible in the Rwanda EU delegation simply shared the checklist with his counterparts, they completed it rapidly, identified around a hundred necessary improvements, and had implemented most of them within a year. Rwanda remains, it seems, a place where an order is heavier than a stone, and a place where the state keeps a tight rein.
Those who expect Rwanda to somehow morph rapidly into a fully-fledged liberal democracy are surely guilty of unrealistic expectations. After all, the rapid introduction of a multi-party democratic system in the early 1990s was one of the factors behind the genocide. A victorious mostly Tutsi rebel army which has taken control of a country where Hutus had massacred nearly a million mostly Tutsis is hardly likely to feel that liberal democracy is the best political system through which to ensure security, going forward: on the contrary, it is likely to prefer a more controlling and less open approach to governance, to minimise the risk of further episodes of violence. But some Rwandans do have expectations of political liberalisation, and so do Rwanda’s international partners. There is no law of politics which mandates the evolution of every country towards liberal democracy. Far from it, in fact. But if one assumes for the sake of argument that liberal democracy is the direction in which Rwanda will go – it already has many of the trappings thereof: elections, councils, parliaments, and so on – then some of the big questions are about how this might happen, and how long it will take. Given what Rwanda and Rwandans are still recovering from, and the complexity inherent in democratic political systems, it seems pretty reasonable from an objective, external perspective that the process will take many years, yet.
Horizontal and vertical reconciliation: each enables the other
If so, this will be frustrating to some Rwandans, and thus may generate instability in a place which least needs it. Much has been written and said about this. But there is another problem, linked to the recovery process. If many Rwandans remain unreconciled, that must surely be a slow-burning coal damaging or preventing the restoration of the weave of society – a weave which Rwandans need to be strong and resilient, to enable them to realise their potential and meet their ambitious development aims. The difficulty is that reconciliation has to happen in both the vertical and horizontal planes. That is to say, on the vertical plane citizen and state need to be reconciled and enjoy open and functional relationships, even as the same is true between citizen and citizen (the horizontal plane). The vertical and horizontal then feed each other in a mutually enabling process. Ultimately it is hard to see how the reconciliation process between Rwandans can be complete, until their relationship with the state becomes more open and relaxed. While a genocide can tragically be mandated and implemented top-down, the same is not true of reconciliation, which depends completely on the willingness of people, and is hence a voluntary affair.
Many people have argued for a loosening of the reins in Rwanda from a human rights perspective. Others have argued back, that loosened reins will undermine the security of citizens, who have a human right to be safe. These are difficult trade-offs without a doubt, and I intend no contribution in this article, to that debate. What I do suggest is that, as those steering the political process in Rwanda consider the best way forward, and how much openness they are willing to risk, it is important that they consider how reconciliation is best enabled, and in particular the need for this to be a vertical as well as a horizontal process.
NB this blogpost represents the author’s personal view, not that of International Alert.
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
- 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:
- 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:
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.
- 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.
- 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.