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Aid agencies should be clearer about their ethical dilemmas

May 12, 2018

Are international aid organisations paying enough attention to the ethical complexities of what they do and how they do it?

Last year, as one of my final projects before I left International Alert after thirteen years, I led a review of the organisation’s ethical approach to its international peacebuilding work, and the development of a new ethical guidance to replace the one that had last been updated in the 1990s.

Along with colleagues from various parts of the world with whom I did this, I found it a fascinating experience which reminded me of and helped clarify some of the ethical tensions inherent in international aid, while also reassuring me that my colleagues at Alert were by and large acutely aware of these, and doing their best to navigate them carefully and responsibly -if not necessarily getting enough support and guidance from senior staff such as myself.

An ethical minefield

It is, after all, an ethical minefield to bring resources from far away and offer to help vulnerable people and societies build long-term resilience to the risks of conflict and the blandishments of conflict entrepreneurs. Building such resilience often entails people and communities taking new risks – part of the price of change – but how do you make sure that everyone concerned has provided their prior, informed consent, especially given the short timeframes and unrealistic expectations inherent in most donor funded projects? Is it even possible to do so, in places where governance systems – where one would normally go to discuss and obtain such consent, and develop agreed goals and plans – are often inadequate to the task? It seems irresponsible to suggest peacebuilding ideas which aren’t fully proven elsewhere, but the truth is, very few fully proven peacebuilding techniques exist, and anyway success in one place is no guarantee the same approach will work anywhere else…

We discussed these and many other ethical dilemmas of peacebuilding, and used this process to elaborate a short ethical guidance document for Alert. At its heart, this contains the organisation’s purpose, core values, and a set of ethical principles. But what I felt most useful about the guidance was its explicit recognition of the ethical difficulties and dilemmas peacebuilders face, and the importance of debate and discussion whenever decision makers were unsure of how (or whether) to proceed in a particular case.

Another project in which I was involved last year was a joint research initiative by Alert and Oxfam on civil society in conflict-affected countries. This raised some very troubling ethical questions about how local civil society organisations are typically treated – knowingly or unknowingly – by some of their international partners. This too was a reminder of the need for more  attention to be paid to ethics in international aid outfits

What do aid agencies say about their ethics?

After I left Alert, I was asked to contribute a short essay on the question of values in overseas aid, for a document due to be published later this year. In this, I touched on the question of ethics, and spent a little time looking online for other examples of aid organisations’ explorations of the ethics of their development, humanitarian or peacebuilding work.

I was surprised not to find very much, apart from internal codes of behaviour for employees, and the like. As it happened, this issue was not central to the piece I was writing, so I left it at that. But I always intended to come back and take another look, and did so today. I picked a small number of well-known and influential aid agencies: DFID, Oxfam, Save the Children, CARE, SIDA, USAID and the OECD-DAC. My methodology was simple: I looked for easy-to-find ethics statements or ethical guidance on their websites (for example under the “What we Do” or “How we Work” tabs), and also entered “Ethics” and “ethical” into their website search functions.

Obviously this methodology – if one can even dignify what I did with that word – would not stand up I court if I were using it to judge any of the organisations involved. But that’s not my purpose here. All I want to do is suggest that more formal attention seems to be needed to the ethics of aid.

From my rather superficial search I came up with no single document published by any of these major players in the sector, which acknowledged the ethical complexities of aid, and suggested how to address these. What I found instead was as follows:

  • A plethora of policies and statements about agencies’ procurement policies, and the lengths they go to, to avoid any of their funds being misspent or stolen.
  • Codes of behavioural conduct – USAID’s is one example – which cover issues like how to behave in respect of receiving gifts from outside sources; financial conflicts of interest; the misuse of position for private gain; outside activities; seeking other employment; post‐employment restrictions, etc. Most agencies had policies about whistleblowing, modern slavery and the like, and policies about sexual ethics – perhaps some of these were a response to the recent scandals in a number of international NGOs.
  • Many, many references to the need for others to improve their ethics:  developing country politicians and civil services, international trade, mining companies, etc.
  • Some useful articles explaining why giving foreign aid is morally the right thing for rich countries to do. A good example is Jeffery Sachs’ 2017 piece in the Boston Globe arguing against Trump’s proposed aid budget cuts sets out the moral case as well as a case based on justice, quoting St Ambrose that ‘You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich,’ and the even more rhetorical John F Kennedy: ‘If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich’.
  • Specific policy guidance in particular technical areas of aid, such as  principles for research and evaluation. 
  • Some organisations did have easy-to-find overarching statements: Oxfam, USAID, CARE and Save the Children, for example. These tended to set out high level principles and/or lists of values, but there was no indication that they acknowledged the ethical complexity of the enterprise in which each has been involved for several decades, such as thorny questions about the relative power of those with or without resources. CARE was the only one to use the word “ethics” in the title of the document. But they all, including CARE, came across as rather superficial, mainly containing lists of rather similar and over-used abstract words: responsibility, transparency, accountability, integrity, respect, passion, excellence, inclusion, a commitment to learning… Indeed, some of these seemed quite glib. If an organisation is “accountable … in particular to people living in poverty”, what does that mean? To hold someone accountable is to have power over them, exercised either through a carrot or a stick. What is the carrot or stick which people living in poverty can deploy towards an NGO which makes such a claim?

It’s time to be more explicit and honest about the ethical challenges

There is nothing necessarily wrong with the statements these organisations display on their websites, and it may be that beneath these lists and rather hollow phrases there is a deep lode of organisational reflection and documentation which provides the dimensions I found lacking in the documents I was able quickly to find. Certainly my own experience is that many individuals who work for these organisations do understand and worry about the ethical challenges. But I find it somehow troubling that the international aid sector – a sector which is fraught with ethical complexity and dilemmas – seems not to take this as seriously – or not explicitly, at least – as it should. The things we say most loudly, meaningfully and explicitly are, after all, surely the things we expect our staff and other stakeholders to pay most attention to, and know us for.

One contributing factor might be the fear that acknowledging our ethical problems might put off potential supporters. After all, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the public message these aid organisations have all conspired to communicate over several decades is that they can solve poverty overseas, and that the task is simple, if huge.

But it’s time to change that. In my experience ethical guidance is most useful when it is explicit about the ethical risks, and when it recognises uncertainty and grey areas as well as red lines; when it encourages debate. After all, medical students don’t simply learn the Hippocratic Oath, they are taught why it matters in situations of unequal information and power, and how it has been applied.

International aid organisations – from donors through to international NGOs and the consulting firms who deliver donors’ projects – all need make sure that every staff member carries out her work reflectively, with an appreciation of its ethical dimensions, and in the knowledge that she is expected to put any project on hold until any ethical question has been answered satisfactorily, even if this goes against the perceived short term interests of her employer. That seems at least as important as making sure she understands the procurement and whistleblowing policies, or knows which particular list of abstract nouns her organisation has decided to put on its website. The more she and her colleagues work reflectively, with access to ethical guidance, the more the aid sector will evolve into a better enabling environment for effective and sustainable development.

No guarantee

May 11, 2018

Overnight, the valley’s turned.
Its trees and hedges, wearied by

the endless summer days, have spurned
their tender murmuring for dry-

as-paper rustling in reply
to breezes brushed with leaf more rare

than gold, beneath a cloudless sky –
a beauty he can hardly bear.

He sees leaves fade then fall; then bare
limbs silhouetted under rough

storm clouds; then spring – all he can know
is how their scent suffused the air,

the feel and soft sound as he scuffed
through dampened drifts, lifetimes ago.


Forthcoming in Kent & Sussex Folio, 2018


Winter gardens

May 9, 2018

You see your gardens in the space between
the plants, raze every weed without a trace
lest it disturb the balance of your scheme,

deadhead each stem before its flower fades,
lift every labelled bulb to plant again,
and prune your trees and shrubs as each dictates.

I grow my plants so close they all complain
they’ve insufficient room to breathe, or sun
to drench their leaves, or share of summer rain,

let young weeds grow to be what they become,
and poppy stems and seed heads twist and dry –
then rot, when frost and winter rainfall come.

I watched you tend your silence constantly,
then found a careless way to nurture mine:
we’ve made our different landscapes home, and still

we touch each other’s quiet awkwardly.
But looking now, when winter’s worked its spell
of levelling, our gardens seem as one.


Forthcoming in Kent & Sussex Folio, and 4th prize winner


Conceptualising human security in international aid

April 29, 2018

The aid system we know today emerged in the 1970s as a way to provide succour for people in emergencies, and to support human progress in poor countries through what became widely known as development. This article focuses on development, with particular emphasis on improving human security in fragile, conflict-prone contexts. It explores the meaning of human security and how human security has accrued in history, with lessons for theories of change today.

1. The complexity of development in fragile contexts
Development aid was initially often seem in relatively simple terms: building the capacity of the state and the economy, and poverty reduction. This was to be addressed through the transfer of capital and capacity. Indeed, the origin of the idea that rich countries should allocate 0.7% of their national income as aid, appears to have been a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation of the gap in infrastructure investment needed, to bring the developing countries as they were in the 1960s, up to par with the developed world (Center for Global Development (2005). Working paper no. 68. Ghost of 0.7%:
Origins and Relevance of the International Aid Target, By Michael A. Clemens and Todd J. Moss). This simplistic translation of the development challenge into a need for financial capital illustrates the rather technical way much of the aid world then saw its role.

Since then, the notion of development has become ever more complex. Western donors and multi-lateral institutions became newly interested in good governance and human rights after the end of the Cold War. Meanwhile a plethora of other concepts has entered the lexicon: climate adaptation, environmental sustainability, fragility, gender, human security, inequality, landscapes, livelihoods, middle and low income countries, the Millennium Development and Sustainable Development Goals, peacebuilding, political settlements, poverty reduction or eradication, pro-poor growth, reducing violent extremism, resilience, state building and value chain enhancement. Explanations for all of these – and a hundred others – are easily found on-line and in development studies primers.

Although perhaps confusing, this conceptual breadth and diversity is not a problem in and of itself. If we replace the overused and rather meaningless word ‘development’ with ‘progress’, this takes us closer to how non-experts might describe people’s improved circumstances, welfare and opportunities. It also reminds us that we are dealing with a politically freighted concept. What ‘progress’ means, who should benefit, and which path will take us there, are probably the three most important questions of politics – and questions on which people will – rightly – never agree. Karl Marx, Amartya Sen and Adam Smith have provided quite different answers, to pick just three influential development thinkers. Therefore it makes sense for the international aid sector to be pluralist, embracing diverse, often competing ideologies, analytical lenses and delivery vehicles, on the basis that no single concept or approach has so far been agreed. How does this apply to human security?

2. What is human security and how does it accrue?
Human security is a simple notion. At its heart is the idea that people’s security is a better measure of public good than state security – though state security, provided in the right way, remains an essential component (United Nations Development Programme (1994): Human Development Report). It also looks beneath the surface at underlying factors that influence people’s security, such as culture, incomes, social capital, gender relations and governance. Now, human security can in principle be achieved by suitably targeted services, perhaps provided by external organisations: services of protection and provision. But such services, while perhaps sustainable in the short-term, are unsustainable over a longer term. To start with, it is politically unacceptable for external agencies to provide them, supplanting and relieving the government and other members of society of their responsibilities, and raising questions about the legitimacy of all concerned (Eric A. Heinze, 2011. Humanitarian Intervention, the Responsibility to Protect, and Confused Legitimacy). Second, being protected and provisioned by others undermines human dignity and this is insufficient as a long-term response. And in any case, external agencies providing and funding them will eventually tire of the task, and move on to elsewhere.

In what, then, does sustainable human security consist? There is fairly wide agreement that human security is most likely to be sustained when people, irrespective of their gender, religion, sexual identity, age, ethnicity or other facet of identity, have fair access to:
• A voice in decisions which affect them
• Economic opportunity, including the opportunity to save or invest
• The means of safety and justice
• Opportunities for education, health and a decent living environment (International Alert. Programming Framework, 2017).

The more these conditions – which are essentially about fairness as well as security – are met, the more likely societies are to be characterised by functional and trusting collaboration between citizens and the state, and among citizens themselves. And such relationships are, ultimately the measure of peace and stability, and thus of human security.

3. How do we get there?

But if this is the desired vision, how can people living in insecure environments get there? How do societies evolve, to reflect the characteristics outlined above?

One place to look for answers to this question are in history, as we have not yet had sufficient time to judge whether human security improvements have genuinely been sustained, since the concept was introduced in development aid in the 1990s.

There are many uncertainties in the trajectory of a country’s development, and historians will never agree. Nonetheless, it is possible to tease out the kinds of changes that have taken place in the liberal societies which have made the most sustained progress in improving human security. These include opening up access to political and economic opportunities, developing an increasingly dynamic civil society, and establishing states which are accountable to and have a strong sense of ownership or membership by the people they govern, and which adopt progressive goals and policies. They also include the establishment and incremental extension of the rule of law, and new ways of participating in the economy, in politics and in civil society. For example, the evolution from personal to shareholder ownership of businesses, from ‘big man’ political leadership to the idea of ‘political office’ in increasingly representative and accountable forms of government. Of course sustained and shared economic growth is critical, as is the development of a culture that supports the exercise of initiative and encourages creativity. And perhaps most crucially of all, the control of organised violence should be transferred from the hands of powerful individuals or factions, to the accountable state (North, Douglass C., Wallis, John Joseph & Weingast, Barry R. Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009)). 

Drawing on a 2010 critique of aid in fragile contexts, co-written with Deborrah Baksh (Working with the Grain to Change the Grain. International Alert, 2010), I  look briefly at each of these, below. For reasons of space, historical examples are not given, but readers are invited to explore and validate or improve this thesis from their own reading.

Opening up access to political and economic opportunities, and developing an increasingly dynamic civil society
When ruling elites have relaxed their exclusive hold on political and economic opportunities, and progressively allowed others to participate, this is a signal of progress. This has usually happened when it was in the elite’s own perceived political and economic interests to broaden access. This process has generally entailed – and has been partly the result of – a restructuring of the economy, for example changes in land tenure, the commercialisation of agriculture, or industrialisation. Changes in the economy were then reflected in changes in politics, and vice versa. This was also accompanied by the growth and increasing dynamism of civil society: i.e. people from across society acting together in pursuit of what they saw as shared interests, which was an important factor in the development and opening up political institutions.

Establishing states accountable to and with a strong sense of ownership and membership by the people, and whose governments adopt progressive, developmental goals and policies
Societies that have been most successful in making sustained progress in human security have established some version of the nation-state, i.e. a well-defined polity with clear boundaries and citizenship, and with a large part of its population committed to membership of the nation as a primary identity (equal to or above other identities such as ethnicity, religion, etc.), and an accountable state with authority to act. This means that issues of identity have been resolved or are being managed in a way which prevents them from being obstacles to progress, and also that different polities and states have found ways to co-exist cooperatively out of self-interest.

Governments in such cases have focused, among other things, on purposeful (developmental) national economic policies. These have differed according to ideology and context, including for example protectionism, industrial planning, free trade, empire-building, etc. The point is not the particular policy choice – which depends on internal and external circumstances anyway – but the idea that purposeful policy choices in the perceived interests of the country were made and purposefully implemented.

Establishing, gradually extending and eventually universalising the rule of law
Another change was to extend the rule of law to more and more people, allowing them to participate in the economy with the confidence that they would be treated fairly. This extension of rights from the elites to others happened when it was in the interests of those who had initially established such rights for themselves – the elites – to do so, i.e. because it suited their own economic interests to allow others to participate. For example, land is an important political and economic resource in developing economies, and the sale of land by elites becomes a great deal more profitable when the potential pool of customers is widened because more people are deemed to have legal rights protecting their ownership of land.

This went hand-in-hand with the evolution of civil society. As people increasingly combined outside their narrow caste, kinship, gender and patronage circles, in pursuit of shared economic, social or political aims, they needed the protection of law instead of patronage and kinship loyalty in so doing. This created further incentives for widening the scope of the rule of law, which further encouraged people to combine, and so on.

Evolution from personal to impersonal forms of participation in the economy, politics and civil society
A critical aspect of development has been the move from leadership based on personal strength and patronage to leadership by legitimate, temporary occupants of permanent or semi-permanent offices and institutions of state. The same kind of move happened from personal buccaneering to shareholder corporations, from factions to political parties, and from kinship to other forms of civic association. This entailed the institutionalisation of governance and the creation of corporate organisations – in government, the economy, security, and civil society – and went hand-in-hand with an increase in freedom of association.

Achieving sustained, shared economic growth
Sustained shared economic growth per capita was essential for the growth of political and economic opportunity. This happened when capital was freed up: for example, through the development of a market in freehold land, allowing the possibility of mortgage and sale to realise capital for investment; and the establishment of corporations, partnerships and shareholder companies. A critical aspect of this was also the progressive de-linking of conjunctural political power from economic power, as a rules-based economy gave increasing confidence to investors that their interests would be protected even if political changes were to occur.

Developing a culture that increasingly supports the exercise of initiative and encourages creativity
Cultures have been shaped by, and in their turn have shaped, the historical development of societies and regions. Important elements in this have been, for example, the extent to which cultures have supported and encouraged indiviFig 1dual or collective enterprise and initiative, and progressively greater freedom of expression and action (Landes, David. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor. (Little, Brown, 1998).).

Transferring control of organised violence from the hands of powerful individuals or factions, to the accountable state
The control of violence, and especially of organised violence, is a critical aspect controlling access to resources. As states developed and became accountable to those they served, so they also took over the control of organised violence, and limited the capacity of others to use it for their own ends.

Adopting increasingly democratic, or representative and accountable forms of government
In places where the changes described above happened, they were accompanied by an increase in the extent to which the governed were able to choose and hold to account their governors. While confined initially to the elite, this gradually became more open, as the institutional rules of the game were strengthened, and access to the economy widened to include more and more people whose interests became critical to success and thus needed a legitimate voice in politics. Local democracy within a decentralised polity has also often been a critical feature of successful democratisation.


4. Cross-cutting features of change
The above list is hugely subject to challenge, and is certainly not comprehensive. But it summarises some of the most important development processes from history, all of which are critical to human security. Looking within them, we can identify four common features:
Negotiation. Most of these changes have come about largely through a process of negotiation. This includes members of the elite negotiating among themselves and thus creating bargains and systems for the effective management of resources, and members of the elite re-negotiating non-elites’ access to privileges and rights.
Relationships. Effective (functional) relationships are critical to progress. These include relationships among the elites, between the state and civil society, and within civil society.
Incentives. Changes have happened when it was in the interests of those with the most power, to make (or accept) those changes.
Leadership. As Machiavelli wrote, ‘There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of new order of things’. Progress happens when a number of factors come together; some of these are circumstantial, but human agency and therefore leadership are critical. By leadership, I  mean the ability and willingness to take risks, provide inspiration for change, and navigate politically towards change.

5. Implications for development aid
This summary of development processes – depicted in figure 1 – is necessarily short, incomplete and lacking in detail. It is rightly open to challenge. Nevertheless, much within it is common sense and although different ideologies interpret history differently, many of the processes summarised above are relatively uncontroversial. It seems therefore obvious that it should be reflected in ‘development’ paradigms applied to fragile of conflict-prone contexts, and in the mandate and structures of international aid institutions.

It is beyond the remit of this article to examine the extent to which this is the case. Nevertheless, we can at least draw the conclusion that successful aid programmes should:
• Frame their mandate and their policy and programme goals around historically-based theories of change.
• Use programming approaches which recognise the uncertainty of progress, centred on a long-term vision of improving human security in a given context, using adaptive strategies, rather than fixed, pre-defined pathways, to achieve this.
• Be managed by staff who are politically astute, not just proficient in technical areas of development such as health and education.
• Be willing to take risks with their own resources and reputations, while being careful not to expose others to risks they have not opted for.
• Be heterogenous and – between them – work at multiple levels and on different issues.
• Identify and leverage incentives for change, in the form of carrots or sticks.



















Comic Relief’s White Saviours: it’s not just the Whiteness, but also the Saviour part

March 23, 2018

The Guardian newspaper reported today that Comic Relief is moving away from ‘White Saviours’ in its fundraising. That’s great, and responds to long-standing criticism by Afua Hirsch and others. But if this simply means removing domestic celebrities (whether white, or not) from Comic Relief’s and Sports Relief’s TV marathons, that does not deal with the underlying problem. The problem with the white saviour trope is not just the white bit, it’s also the saviour part.

Liz Warner, Comic Relief’s CEO, says in the article that this is just the start of a process of change. That’s very welcome. So here are three other suggestions she might consider, with regards Comic Relief’s Africa programmes.

1. Transforming society, not just individuals. Ensure she is supporting the kinds of change which are transformational not just for the individuals and communities helped by Comic Relief’s money, but for their wider society. This means among other things, getting to grips with some of the underlying issues which help obstruct progress, including pernicious cultural and governance behaviours, and the systems that underlie them. This probably means funding edgy advocacy whose proponents take a personal risk to achieve change, because they are going against the norms and often against those in power, whether locally or nationally. It probably means finding creative ways to support and fund agitprop activists who aren’t sitting in the kinds of NGOs of which western donors are so fond. It probably means accepting that Comic Relief will get into trouble because they support those not liked by the status quo; or who can’t account perfectly for all the funding they’ve received.

2. Join with campaigners across Africa and in the UK who are fighting for some of the external changes needed to reduce poverty. These changes are well known, as they have been named and listed many times over past decades, so I won’t do so again. A good starting point is the list contained in Owen Barder’s October 2016 blog, where he talks about bringing developing countries into discussions about international taxation norms, improving transparency within the natural resources business sector, removing tariffs, doing more to reduce money laundering in places like the UK, reforming the UN, reducing arms sales, and many other ways that UK citizens and their government can change what they do, to make the enabling global environment more propitious for poverty eradication in Africa.

3. Stop making us cry, and bring more integrity to the story you tell us. Stop sending the message to British TV viewers, on Red Nose Day or Sport Relief Day, that they can be the saviours of poor people overseas, by giving you their money. This is where the saviour problem lies: not in using celebrities as spokespeople, because TV viewers aren’t stupid enough to think that Ed Sheeran is personally a saviour of poor Africans. What they do think, because this is what Comic Relief’s TV marathons tell them implicitly, is ‘if I send money to Comic Relief, I will be saving the poor people on the TV, whose terrible plight right now is making me cry. Once I’ve sent my money, the problem will go away and I won’t need to cry’.

While I understand that making people cry is an effective tactic for getting people to open their wallets, I question whether it is ethical to leave it at that. In this era of globalised information flow and communication, Comic Relief – along with all other overseas charities who do public fundraising – surely have a responsibility to educate us all about how poverty is sustained in other parts of the world and what – beyond projects – can be done about it, even without reaching for our cheque books and credit cards.

The great advantage for Comic Relief is that they have access to the talent which can, presumably, find clever, perhaps satirical ways to get this message across. Imagine a skit by Armando Iannucci, for example, about how money continues to be laundered by the City and what can be done about that; or about how British citizens are contributing to poverty abroad by their behaviours and their low expectations of their government, and what can be done about that?


Many congratulations to Liz Warner on taking the risk she is taking. Good luck in your fundraising through Sport Relief this weekend, and more importantly, in the journey of change you say you are leading Comic Relief along.

Practical guidance for anyone who wants to build peace

March 22, 2018

Among the key features of successful peacebuilding, one often stands out. This is that contributions to peace are made in almost any walk of life, and usually by people who do not see themselves first and foremost as ‘peacebuilders’. They may be politicians crafting legislation to help reduce economic imbalances in their society, diplomats negotiating to restore international relations and overcome a crisis, teachers building relationships between children of different ethnic or religious groups, or members of host communities taking the trouble to welcome and integrate refugees fleeing a disaster. There are thousands of ways – often commonplace ways – people contribute to reducing tensions and improving trust and collaboration among and between people, and between people and those who govern them – the essence of peacebuilding.

But how do people wishing to make a contribution to peace know how to get started? Often they either have to make it up for themselves, or else they decide not to get involved after all, for want of some basic guidance, and they and their communities are the worse for it.

Building Peace Together, a Practical Resource, was  published by the Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA) last month, and it was designed with just this challenge in mind. After a short introduction setting out some of the basic concepts of peacebuilding, it goes on to provide simple, accessible and practical guidance under 12 headings: diplomacy, democracy & politics, justice, security, communications & media, arts & culture, education, business, trade & economics, infrastructure & planning, agriculture & the environment, and healthcare.

For each topic, it explains some of the ways people can help build peace. Under Education, for example, this includes designing curricula that encourage critical thinking, or which include an inclusive and tolerant narrative of national history. Under Planning, it includes the need for urban planning to be done in a consultative way that builds fruitful relationships between citizens and the authorities, and for urban environments that minimise segregation and isolation. And under Media it suggests that responsible and truthful reporting can avoid inflaming tensions and even help to reduce them.

What’s also great is that each chapter provides specific practical examples, which hopefully will inspire non-expert readers wanting to give it a go. Each chapter also sets out some caveats and limits: for example, the need for thorough background research and thorough training for journalists, along with a reminder that politicians may resist or try to counter attempts to use the media for peacebuilding. This is important, because although all of us absolutely can contribute to peacebuilding within our own spheres of influence, we also need to understand where the risks and limits lie.

Another feature of Building Peace Together that stands out is its essential humility. The world is unfortunately awash with exhortations and commands: what we should or must do… By contrast – and perhaps this is in keeping with Quaker culture, or perhaps it’s simply a clever tactical communications approach, or perhaps a little of both – this book is careful not to be too sure of itself. For the truth is, although peacebuilding is usually successful, there are no prescriptions: each situation has to be taken on its on terms, and a suitable approach defined accordingly. Hence, the handbook suggests approaches, rather than prescribing a clear course of action. To take just one example, under Justice:

“If victims hear the testimony of aggressors, and have the truth of war crimes recorded, it may increase understanding of how violations came about, creating a basis on which future violations can be prevented.”

Note the use of the word “may”, reflecting that the authors are confident of their ground, but are responsible enough to know that the line of cause and effect in social change and peacebuilding is seldom a straight one, and that – to adapt a military maxim – no plan survives contact with the real world. Hence, they are offering the intelligent reader some decent clues and well-informed broad guidance, while quite rightly leaving it up to him or her to work out the right thing to in their particular circumstances.

The book is being translated into Arabic, Russian and French, and executive summaries are already available in Dutch, French, German and Russian. While the document is free to download, and is produced under a Creative Commons licence, I sincerely hope the QCEA has a sizeable budget for printing and distribution, too. Because this is the kind of document that ought to be physically available: in libraries, and on the desks of civil servants, business people, NGO staff, international agencies and – yes – even politicians, all over the world. Indeed, if I’m allowed a cheeky suggestion, anyone with a few hundred dollars or a printing press to spare, and who wishes to make a contribution to peace, might even consider offering to expand the print and distribution run.

This welcome practical handbook represents a genuine step forward for peace, and joins other important manuals such as Responding to Conflict’s still excellent Working with Conflict as a major resource for all those interested in making a contribution. Its importance cannot be overestimated. Congratulations to the Quaker Council of European Affairs for this initiative, and to Olivia Caeymaex, Darijn Dilia Zwart and Terri Beswick, who wrote it. I humbly suggest that all those in a position to do so, help spread the word.

Promoting collaboration between people, not just organisations

February 28, 2018

This article was included in the February 2018 newsletter of INTRAC – the International NGO Training and Research Centre – where I am a trustee. INTRAC believes, as I do, that when people come together and organise in ways that are effective, sustainable and legitimate, they make the world a better place. INTRAC’s staff and associates provide high quality support to help civil society across the world challenge poverty and inequality, empowering people to gain greater control over their own future. 

INTRAC, Peace Direct, Instituto de Comunicación y Desarollo (ICD), and Y Care International organised a webinar during the CIVICUS International Civil Society Week last November. Participants from across the world discussed responsible partnerships between international and indigenous civil society, which clearly remains a challenging ethical and practical issue.

The distinction between indigenous and international civil society is important. People from any context should be in the lead when framing the problems most in need of solutions there, and guiding international counterparts in identifying where and how to offer support. But external actors in many places still call too many of the shots, and – as the webinar report just released shows – changing this will need a sustained effort by all concerned.

The CIVICUS event led me to reflect further on this. I have been a volunteer or staff member in international development NGOs since 1985. I’ve always been conscious of my status as an outsider in other people’s countries, and tried to calibrate my behaviour accordingly – not always as successfully as I’d have liked. But I’m also a little uncomfortable with how ‘North’ and ‘South’ have come to be used in the context of this discussion: with North being code for outsiders with limited legitimacy, and South for those with more legitimacy.

A simple definition of civil society is when two or more people work together peacefully to promote or prevent something about which they jointly care. This can be short term – a group of traders mobilising to stop a fellow trader being harassed by border officials – or a longer-term initiative to advocate for a change in agricultural policy, or a women’s savings and loans group. It can be local or much wider in scope: protecting this stretch of river from pollution, or preventing global accumulation of greenhouse gases. It can be something overtly political, linked to protecting and expanding freedom of expression, or may have a simpler, social purpose: my local poetry society, for example.

If this is a useful definition, it’s one that allows for people from different contexts to work together. This is the basis of my trusteeship and support for INTRAC: the notion that collaboration across international boundaries can be beneficial. But international development norms can get in the way. Words like partnership, capacity-building, strategy, exit and sustainability conjure up images of organisations, not activists.

Looking back at my own experiences, it’s working with people I most recall – activists defined by their passion, competencies, values and actions, not by their employer. So in considering how to improve cooperation between international and indigenous civil society, I think we should focus as much on maximising collaboration between people, as between organisations. While it remains self-evident that sustainable solutions are normally those emerging locally, rather than those brought in by outsiders, this does not mean that outsiders have nothing to contribute.

To be sure, collaboration must be done ethically and responsibly. Collaboration must be freely entered into by all. Organisations must still define and enforce codes of quality and conduct for their members, staff or volunteers, and provide them with protection and practical resources. But we do need to remind ourselves, when considering big picture notions of strategy, sustainability and the like, that in the end, civil society is people coming together to work on something they jointly care about. We therefore need to ask how leaders in organisations can liberate their people to collaborate first and foremost as fellow activists, rather than as representatives of their organisations.