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Unpicking the language of the New Deal

May 12, 2012

International aid donors and the poorer governments they fund have overlapping, but far from identical interests. They overlap in their common desire to spend donor money in support of development progress, broadly put. But they often differ on what are the best development choices, and on issues like the need or opportunity for compliance with human rights and good financial stewardship norms. Meanwhile donors have to pay attention to their tax-payers’ and media opinions about aid if they want to stay in office, while recipient governments are often keen to use aid money to oil the patronage systems that they hope will keep them in power. (It’s an over-simplification, but broadly accurate to distinguish between politicians in the West being “in office”, whereas those in many poorer countries where the offices of state have yet to become institutionalised are more likely to be simply “in power”.)


The overlap between the interests of donor and recipient governments is often quite narrow, but they usually conspire to present it publicly – and perhaps also to themselves – in ways which make it seem much wider, and to minimise their differences. (The Paris Declaration is a good example.) It’s politics, after all. And as in politics more generally, one way they do this is by finding formulas of words amenable to different interpretations. Last year’s agreement between the governments of 19 conflict-affected and “fragile” countries (the g7+), and many of the main bilateral and multi-lateral donors is a case in point. As I’ve discussed in an earlier post, the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and Statebuilding (IDPS) produced two key high level outputs last year: a set of five Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Goals (PSGs), and the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States.

Choice of words matters

The five PSGs are pretty good. True, they are skewed more towards statebuilding than peacebuilding, but they are intellectually cogent. They cover legitimate politics, livelihoods, taxation and government services, security and justice. Taken together, they provide a useful generic framework in which to plan and monitor progress in the evolution of peaceful and peace-promoting states which are both responsible and responsive to the societies in which they sit. I.e. less fragile, in the current jargon; or more resilient.


The New Deal also seems to tick many of the right boxes. It refers to the PSGs, defines a generic process for reducing fragility, and talks about a partnership between fragile country governments and donors. But after reading it more closely, it is easy to be sceptical. The document is quite schizophrenic. It seems to have been written using the language of peaceful, responsible and responsive statebuilding from the donors’ perspective, while for the governments of fragile countries it seems to be more about making sure that donors agree to give them the money in support of their plans to build their states. The difficulty with the latter is that such governments are – by the definitions of the PSGs they have signed up to – not yet fully legitimate representatives of their people. So by implication one should not simply take their plans as being the right plans. In this sense the New Deal is redolent of and a worthy descendant of earlier fudged incarnations such as the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness and the Accra Agenda for Action. Just as with those earlier agreements between donors and developing country governments, the pitfalls of the New Deal might be superficially hidden by a clever use of words.


I can see three kinds of problem with the use of language in the New Deal: political sleight of hand, sheer wrongheadedness where generic language has been used without due attention to operationability, and the unhelpful choice of words. All of which undermine the high purpose which the New Deal purports to promote.


1. POLITICAL SLEIGHT OF HAND – the choice of verbs reveals a lot

By sleight of hand I mean cases where the document at first seems to use the right language – claiming the broad overlap between donors’ and fragile governments’ interests – but where on closer inspection the language used reveals the narrowness of the overlap and even undermines it. In fact this is the main problem with language in the New Deal.


A blatant example appears on page one, which introduces the idea of a partnership – a “deal” – between fragile countries, donors and intergovernmental organisations (IGOs). At first sight the language is good, with its references to mutual trust, peacebuilding and statebuilding goals, constructive state-society relations, and so on.


But hold on a minute, even on page one the underlying use of words gives away who is really committing to what – and it’s pretty clear that the high-minded purpose of the IDPS is under threat. The document is supposed to represent the commitment of fragile states, donors and IGOs to a common purpose. But when it describes their commitment to “support inclusive country-led and country-owned transitions out of fragility…” it is quite clearly signposting that the commitment is being made by the donors and IGOs, not by fragile state governments themselves. The use of the verb support gives it away: if the g7+ governments were truly committed to transitions out of fragility, they would be using verbs like “lead”, not “support”. Similarly on page three the g7+ governments only commit themselves to “support political dialogue and leadership” – … er, if they don’t commit to provide leadership on this, surely there is something missing here, and their commitment is in great doubt?


Another nice touch is in the use of the word “country” as the modifier of a number of critical phrases. Transitions will be “country-led and country-owned”, in pursuit of a “country-led .. vision and … plan”, and a “country-compact [will] … implement the plan”. This language reflects a genuine challenge, and the importance of widening the circle beyond the government, its allies, and external donors. But although the document does clearly cite the need for mechanisms of participation, these do not come across very powerfully as a fundamental component of the New Deal, which mostly appears to use “country” to mean “government”. 


In the printed document of around 160 lines, I only counted 16 or 10% which had clear references to mechanisms for participation, and in truth these are mostly generic statements of aspiration, whose light tone belies the difficulties involved in meeting them. By contrast, the entire document constantly repeats and reinforces the need for cooperation between donors and fragile state governments – after all it is a New Deal between them, while civil society is on the outside, looking in.


There is a 12-line paragraph on the proposed “compact” between governments and citizens of fragile countries and their international partners, on how to reduce fragility. This gives lip service to the need for citizen participation, citing the need for a “broad range of views from multiple stakeholders and the public, to be reviewed annually through a multi-stakeholder forum” – as though that were the simplest thing to achieve in a country like the DRC for example. The ten remaining lines of the paragraph are then deivted entierly to the details of the far simpler arrangements for donor-government collaboration. The underlying message is clear: citizen participation is a good thing, but less important than donor-government collaboration.


In similar vein, the document declares a joint commitment to “support the greater transparency of fiscal systems”. Again, it hardly seems enough for the g7+ governments to support greater transparency – they should be implementing, or ensuring, or improving transparency….. So it’s clear that the actual commitment is from donors (for whom support is a very relevant verb in this context), while the g7+ governments have made no worthwhile commitment at all. Meanwhile, as if to confirm that transparency is really the business of international aid, rather than a critical aspect of good governance, the reference point for transparency is the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI). The IATI is doubtless a worthy international effort to make aid more transparent. But let’s be clear that in the context of the New Deal it is merely a distraction from the far more important national and local, constitutionally-based transparency standards which citizens of fragile countries need if they are to hold their governments to account. One would have to think that the g7+ governments are once again failing to make a worthwhile commitment.


All in all, the underlying message seems clear: donors commit to support democratic improvements, while g7+ governments commit to very little indeed.


2. WRONGHEADED IDEAS which are impossible to implement as stated, thus undermining the integrity of the New Deal

The second category of interesting language in this flawed document is what I call wrongheaded ideas: the inclusion of ideas which haven’t yet been fully developed, or perhaps on which there was insufficient agreement on the detail; and which therefore don’t stand up to scrutiny. Those who endorsed the New Deal agreed to use the generic PSG indicators to monitor progress in specific countries. But this is an elementary mistake. The right way to monitor and hold stakeholders to account for making progress in reducing fragility in a specific country is by the use of indicators developed to measure the goals and strategies of the country plan, based on the country fragility assessment. Generic indicators are only useful for measuring generic progress – and might be quite irrelevant in some places. It is hard to imagine the governments and people of Afghanistan, South Sudan, Liberia, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, East Timor and the DR Congo (the seven pilot countries) all devising the same pathway out of fragility. Therefore it is hard to imagine a generic set of indicators being very useful in measuring their progress. Does this agreement to use ineffective indicators undermine the sense of commitment? I think it does, whether by artful design or accident.


3. UNHELPFUL LANGUAGE impedes ownership and participation, and lessens the potential for success

A third category is what we might call unhelpful language. A premise of the New Deal is the idea that fragile states, fragile countries, fragile contexts or fragile societies – all these phrases have been used over the past few years, and probably others too – lack the capacity to manage their differences and conflicts successfully and without violence. Screeds of documents have been written about this, and fragility has proven in some circumstances to be a useful metaphor.


But like other metaphors which are designed to aid communication, it can also unhelpfully impede communication. It’s unpalatable for political leaders to have their countries, their states, and by implication their own governments, described in what seem like pejorative terms. This creates a political difficulty which will be hard to overcome when developing “a country-led assessment on the causes and features of fragility”; and a difficulty which can easily be exploited by spoilers to derail or undermine the process. I’m sure you can imagine the headlines in newspapers owned by governments or their allies: “Who do they think they are, calling us fragile? We reject outside interference.”…


This difficulty can be mitigated by focusing on positives and aspirations, rather than on negatives. If fragility is at one end of a spectrum, then resilience is at the other. If fragility provides a framework for problematising, then resilience provides a framework for creating a positive vision and plan for a better future; and without the pejorative baggage that comes with being forced to describe ones context as “fragile”. Hence, it would be far easier for governments and others to conduct a joint resilience assessment, than a joint fragility assessment. This would be positive, forward-looking, inspirational and aspirational, rather than negative and problematising. It would give governments, politicians, civil society and their international partners something to aim for, rather than something to reject; and it would be simpler and less difficult to communicate widely to the population at large. Above all, it makes logical policy sense to identify and build on the resilience mechanisms already there – every society has them – rather than start with an analysis of their absence.



Perhaps this analysis is unkind; if so, its lack of generosity is born of my own scepticism derived from monitoring earlier agreements. Nor is my intention here to criticise the drafters – no doubt they did as they were bid. Let me say very clearly that the New Deal represents much good work, and a platform to build on. The idea of complementing poverty reduction and economic development objectives with a more politically oriented focus and on justice and security is something for which I have long argued, and it is very welcome. There are many other good ideas contained in the New Deal – the focus on concrete results, the references to parliamentary monitoring and the need for a more legitimate politics, and many more. Even if the idea of a Compact, organised around “one vision, one plan” may not be realistic in the real world, it’s a commendable aspiration and is an idea which can evolve differently in different settings. So please don’t take my comments as being wholly negative.


What I wanted to clarify is that this document of agreement is also a document of divergence. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that in the field of international politics and diplomacy, provided we don’t – as happened with the MDGs, or with the Paris Declaration – start to over-sell or over-believe the rhetoric of agreement, and thus act illogically. There is a long way to go yet.


In fact, the New Deal and the PSGs probably do provide a good basis for continued discussion between outsiders (donors and INGOs) with their particular interests, and representatives of fragile state governments with theirs. One reason for this is that they are written in a way which gives incompetent and semi-legitimate governments a let-out. Because the PSGs emphasise the structural – i.e. historical, hard-to-shift, before-I-came-to-power – causes of fragility, they allow fragile state governments the opportunity to say, and with some veracity, “you can’t blame us for being semi-legitimate, and unresponsive to our electorate: that’s the best one could hope for in Rwanda [or Liberia, or South Sudan, etc….] today. We’re working on it.” The test, of course, is on whether they are actually “working on it”, and if so, whether they have the right vision and plan of action in mind. Which is where the country-specific compacts, assessments and pathways-out-of-fragility plans come in.


If the New Deal is to be useful for people living in g7+ countries, I would suggest that it should not be taken too literally as an agreement of principle, but as the basis on which practical plans and agreements can be developed in specific country contexts. In that respect it can be used as a framework in which civil society and forward-thinking members of governments can persuade their more conservative counterparts to explore policy and strategic approaches to improving resilience (instead of overcoming fragility) and thus enabling peaceful development. Donors and IGOs might also want to support these, if they can do so without undermining them. But I hope the main channels for pursuing the PSGs in South Sudan, East Timor, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Afghanistan, the DR Congo and elsewhere are not seen as aid, but as public policy, civil society and business initiatives. Ultimately, the New Deal will be useful if is used honestly as a framework within which to seek practical agreement; and useless if treated as an agreed framework which just needs to be operationalised.


A luta continua.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 11, 2012 7:50 pm

    This is weird — although I agree with the gist of this post, I disagree with every other sentence. For example, how does ‘support’ imply less commitment than ‘leadership’? If I were to be lead somewhere, I wouldn’t care a bit about how I get there — it’s up to the leader, they know better. On the contrary, if I were to be supported to find my own way, I’d probably have to put my own effort into the journey. Similarly, although I agree that the ‘failed state’ label doesn’t help, I can’t see how ‘insufficiently resilient state’ makes it easier. It a glass half-full / half/empty issue, even if you change the language ultimately what matters is how you want to see it. The question I ask is whether there is a way how a weakness can be seen by donors and recipients as a challenge and opportunity, rather than a predicament.


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