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From the technical to the political

March 20, 2011

Over the past few days I’ve been spending time with a Kenyan organisation which has an important role in peacebuilding. They are helping heal some of the wounds in Kenyan society caused by violence after the last presidential election, and by other actual and perceived injustices.

Meanwhile, there’s a massive amount of change going on in Kenya, with the coming into force of a new constitution which implies no less than a radical shake-up of  the systems and culture of governance. Some of these changes will be very hard to implement, because they strike at the heart of the political economy, threatening vested interests and injecting a degree of uncertainty into the political calculus. They include new levels of government with new powers, new constituencies, new land laws, and so on. Ironically therefore, the new constitution which heralds a more equitable and more transparent governance – surely a major ingredient of peace – may create new conflicts in Kenyan political society as it beds down, a process likely to take some years.

And Kenyan political society has a habit and a history of manipulating elements of the population to act on its behalf, sometimes violently, to protect its interests (surely the opposite of what politicians are supposed to do?). To some degree that’s what seems to have happened in 2007-08 when violence broke out in some areas after the election results were announced. Therefore any conflicts due to the coming into force of the new constitution over the next few months and years will need to be carefully managed so they don’t become violent, and this too is one of the things which the organisation I’ve been spending time with is trying to cope with: for example anticipating where flare-ups may occur, and supporting local efforts to avoid them.

I was impressed –  humbled – when I met one of the local groups working on this last week. This is a group of local leaders who have come together to help build and keep the peace, in an area with a history of conflict over land, and where some ethnic groups regard themselves as indigenous, and others as interlopers; and in a country where politics and ethnicity have long been intertwined. They explained how they had taken active steps to minimise violence, working across ethnic and religious lines; and how they had made it possible, once the post-election violence died down, for people who had been displaced to return safely home. I met a man who’d fled the violence, and who bore witness that he’d have been unable to return home without their intervention.

Sitting in a small room in a small rural town with members of this local group, our discussions were almost entirely political in nature. We talked about political manipulation; about which politicians from which parties would be likely to form coalitions in next year’s elections; about ways that the impending prosecution of six Kenyans by the International Criminal Court might affect local and national politics and conflict dynamics; and so on. It was fascinating, even though I am quite sure that as an outsider I only understood 10% of it all.

The intensely political nature of the discussion made me reflect on other discussions I’ve had as a development worker with local groups in a dozen or more countries in Africa over the past quarter-century, and how the nature of those conversations has changed. In Sudan in the 1980s I must have worked and talked with thousands of villagers, figuring out with them how to grow tree seedlings and plant or replant forests and gum arabic orchards. Land use and access to land were clearly issues, but I don’t remember discussing the politics of it in any significant way with the farmers involved.

Looking back at the intervening years, I can see that little by little, politics did become more prominent in the “development work” I was engaged in. Whether it was about access to land in Rwanda, governance of public resources in Mali, the management of forests and schools in Ghana, the voice of civil society in Benin, the rights and protection of civilians in northern Uganda, or the ability of local women to stand up to armed groups in Congo; the conversations I have had with those involved at the sharp end have become less and less technical (how to plant trees) and more and more political (who has power on this issue? Can the balance of power be altered for better outcomes?)

So that makes me ask a question. Is this simply the journey of an individual (me) through time, becoming slightly less naive as the years go by; or perhaps becoming more interested in the political, and therefore seeing it where he had not seen it before? Certainly that’s part of the explanation.

I’d like to think that a more important part of the explanation is that the “development community” – the UN, the World Bank, local and international NGOs, donors, politicians and civil servants, etc. – has been making this journey too, and probably much faster than I: understanding more and more that the process of development is at least as much  about political change as about technical change; understanding more and more that progress is measured as much by how much political voice people have, as about the kind of crops they grow.

If I’m right, and this evolution of understanding is something affecting wide swathes of the development sector, then we face a great challenge in figuring out what to do with this knowledge. Back in 1985, when I understood my role as helping to grow and nurture tree seedlings in arid parts of Sudan, it was relatively simple to see what to do and how to go about it. But when the challenge expresses itself in terms of a transformation of the way people govern and are governed, how does one begin?

The Kenyan organisation I have been visiting for the past week or so seems to have part of the answer to this: identify local leaders with vision and values and support them as they work through the issues confronting them; and thus by precedent establish ways to live together peacefully and productively as they and their fellow Kenyans continue on a political journey towards a future where the values underlying the new constitution – transparency, equity, unity, integrity, dignity, justice, democracy, non-discrimination – are no longer an aspiration but a lived reality.

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