Latest from Duncan Green's blog
Had a thought-provoking discussion on ‘influencing’ with Exfamer (ex Oxfam Australia turned consultant) James Ensor a few days ago. The starting point was an apparent tension between the reading I’ve been doing on complex systems, and Oxfam’s traditional model of campaigning.
In my first days at Oxfam, I was told that the recipe for a successful campaign was ‘problem, villain, solution’ (heroes are apparently optional). And sure enough, if you look at good/bad campaigns, the presence or absence of all three ingredients seems pretty key.
But one of the characteristics of complex systems is that solutions are seldom obvious and often only emerge from trial and error. Elsewhere I’ve translated the offputting language of complexity theory into ‘how do you plan when you don’t know what’s going to happen?’ But in the case of advocacy and campaigns aimed at influencing government or international organizations’ policies, a better formulation would be ‘how do you campaign when you don’t have a solution?’
The first option is of course to pretend that you do anyway. Echoes of Yes Minister’s ‘we must do something. This is something. Therefore we must do it!’ (see pic). Not that Oxfam would ever stoop to such a thing, obviously.
Alternatively, stick to problems that are less complex, at least at first sight. Campaign to give people money, or bednets, or vaccines, or food (although any of these efforts in practice are unlikely to stay neat and linear for long).
But there are a number of other options:
Bearing Witness: often the best role for INGOs is to use their communications capacity to amplify the voice of people on the receiving end of bad stuff – climate change, conflict, corruption, violence against women. This fits with Matt Andrews’ argument that the role of outsiders is to identify and highlight problems, but leave the search for solutions to local players.
Keep solutions very broad brush: ‘pay tax’, ‘make trade fair’, ‘respect human rights’, ‘end poverty’, but resist being sucked into the detail. Very difficult to do in practice – how do you respond when the targeted politician or civil servant says ‘we agree, what do you think we should do?’ Responding ‘dunno, that’s your job not mine’ doesn’t get you invited back.
Default to process: I’ve been dismissive of NGOs’ endless obsession with process, but am starting to rethink. Civil society participation, transparency, accountability all make a lot of sense as campaign asks in complex systems.
Convening and Brokering: The best thing we can do may be to help bring the relevant actors together until they come up with some possible solutions to try out. Often, an INGO or other outsider can keep them in the room there even when they are traditionally hostile to each other. This kind of approach, epitomised by our Tajikistan water project, fits with the Africa Power and Politics Programme’s findings that effective work on governance is not about fixing ‘supply’ or ‘demand’, but encouraging joint efforts to find solutions to collective action problems. But this kind of work is an awfully long way from popular campaigning – would NGO campaigners even recognize it as ‘campaigning’?
Solidarity: Focus on the actor rather than the solution. I’ve always been a bit sceptical of NGOs who adopt a holier-than-thou position of ‘we support partners, we don’t impose our views’, not least because NGOs exert huge influence through the act of choosing one set of partners over another. But like default-to-process , complexity strengthens the argument for this approach.
All of these probably have trade-offs for campaigners, who are competing for attention from both press and public. Complicating your message, saying ‘we don’t have the answer’, saying ‘let’s try stuff and see what happens’ all blurs the edges of a nice crisp campaign message. But if the problem we are confronting is indeed complex, do we have any choice? Over to you, especially the campaigners among you.
Time for a spot of well-deserved nepotism. My sister in law, Mary Matheson, makes films for Plan International and yesterday won a prize at the Annecy International Animation Festival 2013. Chosen from more than 2000 entries, her animation “I’ll Take It From Here”, shot in Malawi last summer for Plan’s ‘Because I am a Girl’ campaign, won the UNICEF Award for best film promoting children’s rights.
‘We are both daunted and thrilled to see our film in the same programme as animation giants Disney Pixar (Monsters University) and Illumination Pictures (Despicable Me 2).
It’s nerve-wracking to see our film on such a big screen, having never watched it with more than five people in the room. We have no idea what to expect from this audience of 250. But their reaction is incredible. They are mesmerised as they watch and laugh in all the right places. They even clap and cheer at the end! (I should add that they do this for most films, but hey, still it’s great to hear.)’
Luckily she says she didn’t come over all Gwyneth Paltrow, and was able to talk a bit about the campaign when she won the award. Oh, and it was her first attempt at stop motion animation. Kudos, sis-in-law.
Would that all NGO shorts were anywhere near as good as this. But all too often, they are dull, worthy, predictable, patronising and plagued by excruciating 1950s Pathe Newsreel-style voiceovers. Watch and learn, people.
Politically smart aid? Of course! Political aid? Not so sure. Guest post by Tom Carothers and Diane de Gramont
How political is development assistance? How political should it be? These questions provoke divergent reactions within the aid community. For some, being political means using aid to advance geopolitical interests aside from development. Others emphasize the far-reaching political consequences aid can have on recipient countries, from bolstering dubious strongmen to undermining systems of domestic accountability. These two perspectives highlight how aid’s political motivations or side effects can limit its effectiveness in advancing developmental change.
Yet in recent years many development practitioners and scholars have been arguing that aid should become more, not less, political. What do they mean by this? They are not talking about political side effects or prioritizing geostrategic motives. Rather they are referring to efforts by development aid actors intentionally and openly to think and act politically for the purpose of making aid more effective in fostering development.
As we chronicle in our new book, Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution, donors have increasingly incorporated politics into their work in two major ways. First, they now pursue explicit political goals in developing countries, whether expressed as advancing democracy, democratic governance, or effective governance. Second, they are trying to adopt politically smart methods, moving away from the idea of aid as a narrowly technical input to considering it a facilitating agent of local processes of change, which requires aid providers to conduct political analyses, adapt programs to local political contexts, and reach a diverse range of socio-political actors within developing countries.
On the face of it, political goals appear to have advanced farther than politically smart methods. All major bilateral and multilateral donors now formally embrace political goals of one sort or another and together spend around $10 billion a year on political aid programs broadly defined. Advocates of politically smart methods, on the other hand, often feel like they are fighting for a foothold within their organizations. Political economy analysis is still far from a regular part of program planning processes and the bureaucratic structures of aid agencies tend to hinder flexible, politically savvy programming.
Nevertheless, in presenting our book at aid agencies, think tanks, and universities in Europe and the United States, we have been struck by how much more receptive many people are to the idea of politically smart methods than political goals. Some listeners are at first uncomfortable with our use of the term political methods, but when we say that we mean politically smart development, most heads nod. It is hard to argue against basing programs on solid political understanding and context-specific implementation. Political goals like democratic governance, on the other hand, still engender considerable skepticism even though they have been part of the aid agenda for two decades now.
Owen Barder of the Center for Global Development summarized this perspective well in his comments on our book at an Overseas Development Institute event. He noted the distinction between politically smart methods and political goals and said that “it seems to me that there should be nobody left who doesn’t think we should be doing the first of those. You would be insane to think how do we get better teaching in schools without thinking about the power of the teacher’s union or the role of the Ministry of Education.” But he also argued that there is less evidence that donors know how to change power relations in developing countries and “if we don’t know how to do that, why would we want to take money from something we do know how to do, which helps people live better lives, and spend it on something that we are not sure is going to work?”
Owen’s question is a good one, and it was repeated in different forms at many of the presentations we gave. So can donors adopt politically smart methods without bothering with political goals? It is an appealing idea. Trying to engender political change in developing countries is difficult and many aid interventions in this area have fallen short of their goals. Moreover, sharp debates persist both in scholarly and practitioner circles about the value of democratic governance for socioeconomic change. Scholars such as Acemoglu and Robinson make the case for the developmental value of inclusive institutions but others point to the developmental success of not just China but also authoritarian regimes in Ethiopia and Rwanda as evidence against the democratic governance consensus.
Given this lack of consensus, why not just focus on politically smart approaches to delivering the socio-economic goods we know (or at least hope) that aid programs can do well, from vaccines to food assistance to road building?
We don’t think donors can—or should—step away from political goals that easily. The initial embrace of governance by development agencies was driven by frustration with the persistent failures of aid in badly governed countries and the important insight that in many contexts sustained development progress will remain out of reach without governance progress. If donors are to be more than indefinite service providers in poor countries, they need to pay attention to building effective institutions, which ultimately translates into political goals.
Furthermore, development aid is always going to have an effect on power relations and involve political choices and values. Whoever controls foreign aid resources gains power as a result, meaning for example that choices about directing aid through governments versus through local civil society are fraught with political implications.
Embracing politically smart methods but avoiding political goals can lead donors down a troubling road. If a political analysis reveals that the easiest way to get a donor-supported economic policy reform in place is by encouraging the president to adopt it through decree rather than legislative action and citizen consultation, is that the right way to go? The only way to answer such a question is by reference to political values, and behind those values lie political goals, such as inclusive and transparent governance.
None of this means that development aid can or should be the primary mover of political change in recipient countries. There should be vigorous debate around the contribution and limits of donor efforts to promote better governance in developing countries. But the idea that donors can draw a sharp line between politically smart aid and the pursuit of political goals is an illusion, an updated version of technocratic temptations of decades past. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZK9S3vqJMZU, 35:30
Spent an intriguing evening last week speaking on a panel at the wonderful Royal Society (Isaac Newton and all that), on the links between the post-2015 agenda and science. The audience was from the government/science interface – people with job titles like ‘Head of Extreme Events’.
I talked (powerpoint here – keep clicking) about how science can help developmentistas by bringing them up to date with what science is actuallyabout. Less Newton more Darwin, in terms of moving from a 19th Century world of linear causal chains, static equilibria and reductionism, to ecological and complexity thinking. I also tried linking some of the stuff I’ve been reading on complexity thinking with the Cynefin framework. It seems to me we need different kinds of science for the different quadrants:
- Complex: complexity theory, evolutionary/ecological approaches
- Knowable but complicated: more traditional analytic research methods aimed at nailing down causation
- Known: Just identify and roll out best practice
- Chaos: no idea – any suggestions?
The reason I like this is that it helps clarify when we need to bash our brains on complexity theory, and when we can stick with the old fashioned stuff. Convinced?
My other point was to stress that science has to address issues of power and distributive impact – issues like intellectual property rights and the current efforts to restrict poor countries’ access to medicines, but also the impact of new technologies. Geoengineering seemed to resonate as an example: it’s no good thinking about it as a purely technological challenge, you also have to think about winners and losers from its implementation (if they dump a million tonnes of iron filings in the oceans to absorb carbon, it isn’t going to be off the shores of Europe…..).
But enough about me, what did other people say? David Cameron’s post-2015 czar, Michael Anderson, was strikingly interested in complexity and uncertainty – a theme which dominated the evening. He stressed the political obstacles to taking them seriously – politicians don’t want to know; the public switches channel. Correcting that needs an educational effort from scientists, but also finding good ‘proxy indicators.’
Proxy indicators are magical: they take the temperature of a complex system well enough to be useful, and they communicate directly with policy makers and public. According to Michael, the maternal mortality rate is the perfect example – an excellent proxy indicator for the overall state of health systems and a powerful means of communicating with a wider audience. Michael reckons we need such ‘canary in the mine’ indicators to help tackle complex processes such as climate change, conflict or the sustainability of oceans (apparently phytoplankton levels are the best guide to ocean health, but don’t cut it with Joe Public, so they went for fish stocks in the High Level Panel report).
The overall discussion on the role of science was a bit all over the place – I guess ‘Science’ is a very big thing. Perceptions of science are deeply split: policy-makers see it as a source of certainty – ‘what works’, ‘this we know’, ‘facts’ – that they can cling to in their daily swirling clouds of opinion and ideology. But scientists don’t agree – they are much more aware of the limitations of scientific knowledge and the messiness of the world.
Some of the conversation was more about the downstream application of science to implement policies and achieve whatever goals are agreed. For Ban Ki-Moon’s post-2015 special adviser Amina Mohammed, the issues were building scientific capacity in developing countries (entirely missing from the MDGs), linking science-blind parliaments and politicians with nascent scientific communities, and dealing with slow/bad data.
Over dinner (Chatham House rules), multi-disciplinarity got a hostile reception – people reckoned that sometimes you need a single discipline, sometimes a combo – it depends. Better, perhaps to try and adopt a ‘problem driven approach’. Identify the problem, and then see which disciplines jump to the task – shades of Matt Andrews’ ‘problem driven iterative adaptation’ again.
The conversation got heated (appropriately) on climate change, with scientists laying into the civil servants about the necessity of at least discussing the implications for growth (‘growth is exponential; the planet is finite – it doesn’t add up’), and the civil servants wearily explaining the nature of political realities – you can’t question the primacy of growth and keep your job.
And one lovely quote from Isaac Newton himself, nicked from Ben Ramalingam’s forthcoming book Aid on the Edge of Chaos: ‘I can calculate the movements of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of men.’ True that, judging by an evening with the boffins.
Dr Mohga Kamal-Yanni is Oxfam’s Senior health & HIV policy adviser, and works on financing for development, including how powerful institutions influence developing countries policies. As an Egyptian, she is also passionate about ‘the revolutionaries who opened the door for the power of the youth to change the world for the better.’
As summer approaches in Egypt, people worry about endless hot days with electricity cuts. Fridges in Egypt are not a luxury. Cooling water takes a major part of fridge space in a low/middle class homes. Loaves of bread packed onto fridge shelves save the family from daily queues.
Last year, when people complained about electricity cuts at the sweltering height of summer, the Egyptian Prime Minister, Hesham Qandil, advised them to wear cotton clothes and run only one air conditioner in a single room to save electricity. The advice was not popular, especially with those living in crowded accommodation with perhaps one fan, or with students who cannot study for their exams in the dark.
Today, Egypt is facing another fuel crisis, with vehicles queuing for hours and sometimes days outside petrol and diesel stations. The reasons for the crisis are multifaceted, but according to the IMF, Egypt’s economy is on the brink of collapse with a mounting budget deficit and diminishing foreign currency reserves – necessary to buy basic goods such as wheat and fuel. This has been the IMF message since 2011, when the then military council declined a loan.
Last year the civilian government requested an even bigger loan from the IMF ($4.8 billion instead of $3.2 billion offered in 2011). The loan raised public debate on whether Egypt needed the loan given the government’s lack of clear and transparent economic policies . Now the IMF and government are back at the negotiating table for another go. Just before the World Bank/IMF spring meeting this year, an IMF mission returned from 2 weeks’ negotiations with the government in Cairo. Its press release stated that there was ‘progress’ – yet no indication of the extent or shape of such progress. At the spring meetings several IMF and civil society panels discussed the loan and government officials had further behind-the-scene discussions with the IMF – another press statement added that “further progress was made”.
The public and official debate centres on the loan and its “conditionalities”, even though there is such a lack of information that the question arises ‘conditions on what?’. While the Egyptian public has had clear goals since January 2011 uprising (bread, freedom, social justice), the government has not proposed an economic plan to achieve them.
The lack of clear economic vision is causing public confusion over whether Egypt needs a loan at all and if so, how the loan contributes to achieving the objectives of an Egyptian economic plan. The loan itself will not solve Egypt’s deficit problems, let alone stimulate economic growth. Its role is unclear apart from opening the door for more loans from other bilateral and multilateral institutions. Many Egyptians fear that the loan will just lead to deeper debts without generating the jobs and economic growth necessary to repay the debt and achieve societal goals.
The IMF does not seem to be interested in offering technical or policy assistance to the government to develop such an economic vision. Instead, it narrowly focuses on three economic measures: removing fuel subsidies, increasing the General Sales Tax (GST), and floating the pound, despite the clear signs of unrest among ordinary Egyptians as they have already started to suffer the impact of the fuel crisis.
There seems to be a lack of understanding of the importance of diesel in agriculture, small businesses and the local transport of goods and people. Any rise in the price of diesel will be transferred to consumers and thus increase the cost of living and hinder attempts at economic recovery. Moreover, the IMF thinks that poor people will escape the impact of a rise in GST because of the exemption of food and small businesses. Yet this ignores the fact that GST on agriculture inputs will be passed on into the price to food products. Also small businesses buy their inputs from bigger businesses, which pay GST.
And other ways to improve the fiscal and economic situation are not being taken seriously by either the government or the IMF. Civil society and academics have proposed measures such as progressive taxation, taxing the stock exchange, or removing fuel subsidies for rich people and energy-intensive industry. The IMF’s typical answer is that these measures would take time and not raise sufficient revenue. Yet elsewhere, the IMF itself has advocated for the removal of wasteful and regressive fossil fuels subsidies that benefit higher-income consumers, with corresponding social protection measures in place for the most vulnerable.
What is frustrating for civil society is the lack of transparency and information on the government economic plans or details of this and other loans. The debate relies on leaked information, the experience of other IMF loans and policies in Egypt and in other countries and the little revealed in the media.
The IMF will presumably post the loan document on its website once the board approves it, but by that time it is a fait accompli and the public and civil society will be powerless to amend the deal.
If the IMF seriously wants to help Egypt, then it should:
- Help the government to develop a transparent economic plan for 3-5 years with clear goals, actions and costs. The plan should focus on fiscal and economic measures that target the rich side of society and protect ordinary Egyptians from the implementation of unfair austerity measures
- Be much more transparent (along with the Egyptian Government) about the details of economic measures and loan conditionalities
- Encourage the government to study alternative ways to address the fiscal crisis and stimulate economic recovery in the short term and economic growth in the medium term
The momentum behind the creation of a new international bank by the BRICS countries seems to be building steadily. Its leaders will review progress on the BRICS Bank at a special BRICS summit in the sidelines of the St Petersburg G20 Summit in early September. They expect to finalise plans for the Bank at the Sixth official BRICS Summit in Brazil in early 2014.
And there seems to be serious money on the table. There is agreement on the initial capital (US$50bn with 20% up front in cash and guarantees for the other 80%). That means it could rapidly become a major player – possibly the player – in development financing. China’s ExIm Bank and Brazil’s BNDES already each lend more to developing countries than the World Bank. It is not inconceivable that the BRICS Bank will soon overtake them. One possible (much smaller) model suggested by Brazilian officials is the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF).
The focus will be “infrastructure and sustainable development” – infrastructure has long been a bugbear of developing countries, who have complained that one unintended side effect of the MDGs (as well as pesky environmentalists) is to divert too much funding away from roads, electricity etc into schools and hospitals. It remains to be seen whether ‘sustainable development’ will in practice play second fiddle to infrastructure, and what the Bank means by the notoriously slippery term.
The political drivers behind the creation of the Bank are a combination of growing BRICS economic power and assertiveness and frustration with the slow pace of reform (eg over voting rights) in the World Bank and IMF, plus the lack of growth in their volume of lending.
The BRICS countries are keen to stress that the new funder will (initially at least) be complementary to the existing financial institutions, but If the BRICS continue their rise, their bank could one day eclipse the Washington-based financial institutions. Down the line, the Bank could well expand to other developing and developed countries, but the BRICS are likely to insist on retaining a controlling voice.
There are still lots of details to thrash out, including who contributes what, and whether voting shares should be proportional to contribution, or equally distributed among the BRICS.
And a lot of the issues that traditionally concern NGOs aren’t even on the table yet – environmental and social safeguards, participation, transparency, social accountability. It’s not yet clear whether the Bank will pick these up (as the Brazilians are likely to insist), or whether they say ‘nah, that’s all World Bank nonsense, we’re just going to get on with knocking stuff down and building new things in its place.’ The citizens whose taxes are actually paying for the Bank may have something to say about that.
How much influence is the Bank likely to have in the long run? Nobody knows, but it will be fascinating to watch – will it challenge the Washington ‘intellectual-financial complex’ and inject greater pluralism in debates on the role of international finance, industrial policy etc? And if it does, will the result help or harm people living in poverty? Interesting times.
More background here
And if you’re in the UK, there’s a panel discussion on the BRICS Bank, showcasing some new IDS research, in the House of Commons on 11 June. Details here
The Belgian NGO coalition 11.11.11 has published an interesting paper summarizing the views of 58 African civil society organizations in 11 different countries on ‘South South Cooperation’ (SSC) – mainly China’s growing role in Africa (see Economist stats, right – keep clicking to expand). It’s nuanced and an excellent counterweight to the simplifications of the ‘scramble for Africa’ diatribes in the Western press, which Deborah Brautigam gets so exercised about. Some highlights:
Discourse [this is a Belgian NGO, after all]: ‘CSO representatives voiced a clear positive appreciation of the rationale and core principles of SSC. This does not mean they were ‘fooled by a shiny wrapping’. On the contrary, they also expressed doubts about whether and how the discourse will be put into practice, especially since the observance of the key principles relies solely on self-compliance by emerging powers.
They pointed out that acting as equals was difficult when one party was a low income country and the other the world’s second biggest economy. They mentioned many examples of ‘win-win’ that did not mean equal benefits.
Yet they indicated that the framing of SSC gave a wholly different ‘feel’ to the cooperation. They appreciated the straightforwardness of emerging powers and the notion of reciprocity being embedded in the cooperation, especially when contrasted with the rhetoric in North-South Cooperation, which they experienced as patronising and often hypocritical.
The emphasis on respect for national sovereignty and ownership triggered particularly interesting reactions. CSOs explicitly voiced their support for the principle of non-interference and considered it to be a true asset of SSC. Yet, they also feared that the lack of conditionality would undermine the fight for good governance, democracy and respect for human rights.
This ambiguous position is partially explained by (1) bad experiences with political conditionality imposed by [northern] DAC-donors, (2) not automatically equating non-interference with the absence of political conditionality, and (3) having different expectations towards different donors, in the hopes of benefitting from complementarity.
The support for non-interference or non-conditionality in SSC should not automatically be interpreted as support for a radical shift towards non-conditionality in North-South Cooperation but does show the debate on political conditionality is overdue.
The often nuanced views and ambiguous arguments illustrate a wait-and-see attitude: emerging powers may talk the talk, but will they walk the walk?
Impact: There is some consensus on the pros and cons of SSC. Looking on the bright side, CSOs applauded the BICS [Russia apparently doesn’t count] for scaling up their cooperation with Africa while DAC-donor budgets are under pressure. In particular the BICS’ fast and cost-effective contributions to basic infrastructure, technology transfer, telecommunication and access to scholarships were highlighted.
Another often-mentioned advantage was the improved access to affordable consumer products, from textiles and shoes to affordable medical products and agricultural equipment. All in all, the BICS were valued for their quick delivery, and as a source of inspiration and expertise for tried and tested responses to development challenges.
However, in the same breath, participating CSO representatives flagged a number of clear downsides. Their number one concern was SSC’s toll on local economies. Lower prices and widespread corruption enable Chinese, Indian and South African companies to undercut local producers and suppliers, forcing them out of the market. CSO representatives didn’t feel this was compensated by gains in local employment, because of substandard working conditions, especially in Chinese companies, and the alleged import of workers.
According to them, the competition caused by SSC was even being felt in the informal economy, e.g. via Chinese street vendors. Local producers and workers were often considered worse off, but the gains for consumers were also put into question. The satisfaction with the improved access to affordable consumer products was countered by many complaints about the quality of the (Chinese) products, which according to CSO representatives were a safety hazard and a danger to public health. Several interviewees feared the rise of xenophobia (read: Sinophobia) and even violence against immigrants from emerging powers in the long run.
Additional drawbacks in the economic domain were the possibly exploitative natural resource deals with some emerging powers and the lack ofcorporate social and environmental responsibility by companies from emerging powers.
In the political domain, participating CSO representatives valued the emerging powers and SSC as a mitigating factor in skewed international power relations. Yet, they also feared the consequences of increased rivalry between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ powers, or of the competition between North-South Cooperation and South-South Cooperation. They feared that their alliance with one side would damage the relations with the other side: ‘If two elephants fight, the grass suffers.’
In national politics, participating CSOs feared that with no conditions attached, SSC undercuts the fight against corruption and for human rights and the efforts to improve leadership accountability.
CSO Involvement: Civil society is only by exception involved in the practice of emerging powers’ SSC (in contrast to private and state actors). Looking ahead, CSOs were convinced that civil society has an important role to play, both as watchdogs signalling negative side effects of South-South cooperation, and as facilitators in the implementation of SSC. They also identified the lack of transparency and the exclusive character of SSC as major obstacles to that ambition. CSOs strongly felt that coalitions with CSOs in emerging powers could provide them with the leverage to ‘break open’ SSC.’
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the new Hunger and Nutrition Commitment Index of developing countries. Yesterday, IDS published a second HANCI for the donor countries. The Index assesses governments on both their promises and performance, strokes the good guys and slaps the bad, provides arguments and data for civil society and scrutinizes aid levels.
Some of the things I liked: it combines the aid agenda with what countries do closer to home (domestic action on climate change, biofuels, and farm policies – but not, as far as I can tell, action to curb land grabs); it looks at both stated policies and how much cash governments spend.
It tackles hunger and nutrition separately, because ‘Undernutrition is not only a consequence of hunger, but can also exist in the absence of hunger, and can be caused by non-food factors. Undernutrition results from both a critical lack of nutrients in people’s diets and a weakened immune system. In a vicious cycle, poor nutritional intake can make people more susceptible to infectious diseases whilst exposure to disease can lower people’s appetite and nutrient absorption. Undernutrition in the first 1000 days of a child’s life (from conception until the age of two) has lifelong and largely irreversible impacts because it impairs a child’s physical and mental development.’
So (tadaa!) here’s the index (apologies for the slightly OTT infographic).
And yep, the UK comes top, largely due to its policy, programmes and legal indicators – spending is more patchy. This is potentially a bit tricky for IDS, as DFID funded the research, along with Irish Aid (Ireland came 5th/23), but the report tries not to gush too much, and has plenty of caveats about where these countries could do better (and acknowledges the funding up front).
Other things to note – Canada comes second because, among other things, of ‘delivering on its greenhouse gas emissions pledges’. But if my recent visit to Canada was anything to go by, it looks about to plummet down the table, as the Harper government takes a bludgeon to the aid system and reneges on climate change commitments.
The US comes in a pretty pitiful 18/23, mainly due to its relatively low spending on hunger reduction and nutrition programmes in relation to its GDP. It is also less likely than many other OECD countries to sign up to international treaties and frameworks.
The value of the index will really grow in future years, as a time series develops and allows NGOs and others to praise progress and denounce backsliders (looking at you, Ottawa). Let’s hope governments are listening.
I seem to be spending most of my life at the ODI at the moment, largely because it is producing an apparently endless stream of really useful research papers and seminars. Yesterday saw a combo of the two, as it launched Unblocking Results: using aid to address governance constraints in public service delivery (OK, maybe it still has a thing or two to learn about snappy titles…..).
The starting point for the work is that while there is a vast amount of research on the role of institutions in delivering (or failing to deliver) health, education, water etc, there is very little on the role of aid agencies when things go well. So ODI carried out a positive deviance exercise, identifying 4 success stories out of 60 initial candidates, and then delving into the reasons behind the success.
They were a rural water programme in Tanzania, a pay and attendance monitoring programme in Sierra Leone, support for the government Strategy and Policy Unit, also in Sierra Leone, and a local government programme in Uganda.
According to the report, ‘Six factors seem critical in this regard and provide clear implications for the design and implementation of aid packages that seek to address service delivery blockages. Apart from the first (windows of opportunity), they are all within the control of external partners to pursue. However, in most cases, they would also require considerable deviation from current practice.’
The six, complete with natty graphic (right) are:
Identifying and seizing windows of opportunity: plenty of overlap with my own work on shocks as drivers of change. The authors described what I now call WoOs (sorry) as the most significant common factor behind the success stories. But it’s not just a question of waiting around for a shock – prior relationships, trust and knowledge are crucial to being able to seize WoOs, as is a ready source of at least limited funding.
Focusing on reforms with tangible political pay-offs: governments listen to aid agencies when they help deliver ‘tangible goods and services that politicians could capitalise on in their campaigns.’ i.e. unless you align political self-interest with governance reform, you can forget it.
Building on what exists to implement legal mandates: concentrate on the implementation gaps that already exist, rather than rewriting current rules and laws, even if that means accepting the reviled ‘second best solutions.’
Moving beyond reliance on policy dialogue: Building on the previous point, ‘[successful] aid packages seem to focus on ‘getting things working’ rather than perfecting the framework (through the development of laws, procedures, regulations, policy processes).’ Nuts and bolts, not endless seminars.
Facilitating problem solving and local collective action solutions: yep, it’s our old friend, convening and brokering. One speaker worried about a ‘scramble to convene and broker’, which could make the per diem culture of East Africa and elsewhere look like a garden party.
Adaptation by learning: ‘Aid packages benefit from in-built flexibility that allows for regular programme adjustment based on learning and changes in the local context.’
If this sounds familiar, it’s because it is – it echoes work by Matt Andrews, the Africa Power and Politics Programme, and a lot of the stuff on ‘how change happens’ on this blog. Sue Unsworth reckons we are reaching some kind of ‘critical mass’ of research findings. Rebecca Simson of ODI helpfully summarized the so what’s for donors in this table (it’s not in the report, but Matt Andrews wisely advised them that unless they can offer a table of so whats, the donors won’t listen).
But does that mean donors are going to start adopting the lessons of such success? The obstacles in terms of ideas, institutions and incentives, are high. One useful suggestion from the seminar was to apply the same positive deviance approach to the donors – where do donors depart from standard practice and pursue enlightened approaches to governance reform, and why? As Ros Eyben has shown, an awful lot of these success stories seem to boil down to stubborn individuals in the aid sector, willing to ride the two horses of satisfying the demands of logframe/results-based aid, while operating in the real world of messy, make-it-up-as-you-go-along innovation, (however painful the result). Oh good, needs more research……
Reading the report of the High Level Panel induces a sense of giddy optimism. It is a manifesto for a (much) better world, taking the best of the Millennium Development Goals, and adding what we have learned in the intervening years – the importance of social protection, sustainability, ending conflict, tackling the deepest pockets of poverty, even obesity (rapidly rising in many poor countries). It has a big idea (consigning absolute poverty to the history books) and is on occasion brave (in the Sir Humphrey sense) for example in its commitment to women’s rights, including ending child marriage and violence against women, and guaranteeing universal sexual and reproductive health rights.
The ambition and optimism is all the more welcome for its contrast with the daily grind of austerity, recession and international paralysis (Syria, Climate Change, the torments of the European Union). In response, the report is clearly designed for a no/low cost environment, downplaying the importance of aid, talking up access to data, and revenue raisers like cracking down on tax evasion.
But then the doubts start to creep in. What’s missing is always harder to spot than what is in the text, but three gaps are already clear: The emerging global concern over inequality is relegated to national politics, and otherwise dealt with through the ‘data default’ of requiring any target to be met amongst the poorest fifth of a population, not just the population as a whole. The concept of poverty is pretty old school – income, health, education, and fails to recognize the considerable progress made in measuring ‘well-being’ – the level of life satisfaction people feel. Finally there is too little recognition that the earth is a finite ecosystem, and that we need to make a reality of the concept of planetary boundaries if we are to sustain progress in tackling poverty.
But the elephant in the room is not the text, but how this text will or will not connect to the struggles to achieve the many very laudable aims set out in the report.
Five or 10 years down the line, will the High Level Panel report be food for termites, or a watershed in human development? The shelves of international bodies are piled high with forgotten reports by distinguished panels. Do any readers remember the 2012 High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability or the UN High Level Advisory Group on Climate Financing? Thought not.
These reports sank because they failed to connect with more permanent international processes and did not tackle the critical underlying issues of power and politics that determine what good ideas make it into policy, and what are ignored.
Here the HLP report risks going the same way. It is written in the name of an imaginary ‘we’ (as in ‘it is crucial that we ensure basic safety and justice for all’), ignoring the reality that ‘we’ may not all want the same thing (which is why we need politics, after all).
The post2015 process could have lasting influence in four main ways: Firstly, making the case for improving the quality or quantity of aid (the major achievement of the MDGs). The HLP report does pretty well on that, as you would expect.
Second, international agreements can be effective in triggering long-term, under-the-radar changes in public norms and values. This is more subtle, but very important – research is piling up to show that international conventions to end discrimination against women, or on the rights of children, have permeated people’s heads (and national laws) in many countries, changing in fundamental ways, perceptions of what it is to be a woman or a child. It is very unlikely indeed that this report will have that effect, but it’s still possible if there is sufficient pressure.
That brings us to a third pathway to impact: directly exerting traction on national governments. Will the post2015 process persuade national governments to do things differently, for example by creating a ‘race to the top’ between governments, highlighting the heroes and zeroes (like the World Bank’s Doing Business rankings). Promisingly, the report urges regional reports and peer reviews – nothing annoys a leader (or wins press coverage) like being trounced by a neighbour in a league table.
Finally, the post2015 process could create stronger and broader alliances of civil society organizations, trade unions, faith institutions and others who take whatever comes out of the process and use it to put pressure on their governments, as they have done with some of the ILO conventions, or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The report now enters the treacherous waters of a ‘UN Open Working Group’. With two and a half years before the MDGs deadline, the task of those concerned with development should now be to defend the good stuff in the HLP report from dilution, while focussing far more strongly on how a new set of global goals can lead to lasting change at national level.
The report’s publication inevitably triggered an avalanche of opinion pieces. The ones I liked included Charles Kenny, a round up of reactions by Global Dashboard and (of course) Claire Melamed. Any others stand out?
Over the next few months, I’ll be getting stuck into a big Oxfam project on how we understand and work on issues of power and change. As befits its
focus on ‘how change happens’, this is already evolving in unexpected directions, such as a stress on how we support Oxfamistas to work in ‘complex systems’ (aka the real world). Last week we had 30 of our brightest sparks in a room for a half day on this – here are some of the points that came up.
First up, a great way to get people thinking about complex systems and the contrast with the illusory certainties of project planning. Ask participants ‘Think back to your expectations for your life when you were 16. Has it gone to plan?’ Then stand back, enjoy the incredulity and draw out the connections with aid work (influence of random events, importance of relationships etc etc),
Next the thorny question of ‘critical junctures’ – those shocks that contain huge opportunities for changes, to which we have generally been pretty rubbish at responding. Some CJs are foreseeable – eg elections – and there the challenge is just to get a bit more intelligent in our planning. But others – eg Arab Spring – are not in anyone’s calendar. Can we get better at seeing them as they approach?
Based on her understanding of complex systems, complexity physicist Jean Boulton (who also came up with the life expectation tip) suggested a few telltale signs:
- Increased swings and instability
- Trust your instinct/judgement
- Some early indicators might exist – these could include anything from UN Global Pulse type data harvesting from social media to the entry of intermediate/professional organizations into areas formerly dominated by radical activist groups (a sure sign that an issue is going mainstream)
- Otherwise look for ‘weak signals’ – a small sense of ‘we’re getting somewhere’, eg anecdotes of new forms of organization/actor emerging, different constituencies saying the same thing, increasing interest from newspapers, traditional leaders or social media.
But this assumes the existence of neutral observers capable of spotting such signals, whereas we NGO types are all too willing to see what we want to see – alleged ‘weak signals’ are likely to proliferate as every staffer tries to persuade their bosses that the revolution is just around the corner, so please could they have some more budget?
My conclusion was that the more realistic option is to concentrate on the foreseeable junctures such as elections, and try and get better at spotting and responding to the unpredictable events once they occur. That means feedback loops based on savvy staff rooted in local realities, empowered to blow institutional whistles, hit red buttons etc when eg food prices rocket or protest movements start picking up pace.
Persistence is the flip side of jumping opportunistically between critical junctures and it makes my head hurt. If development is in many cases long-term, then aid agencies have to think over 10 or 20 year timespans. It could well be a disaster if a complexity focus led to us hopping madly from issue to issue in a desperate search for the next Arab Spring.
But equally, if you’ve been plugging away at a project for a few years without results, how can you distinguish between a productive long haul that just needs time, and a miserable failure that is going nowhere? Whose judgement can you trust on this? If the answer is only evident in hindsight, how on earth do you make decisions in real time? Suggestions welcome!
Lots of discussion on how to use theories of change to improve our work, but the danger there is that ToCs, complexity etc will become just another toolkit – a checklist that closes down thought and creativity, rather than the opposite. Much the same happened to the logframe back in the day.
The focus needs to be on supporting staff to build the skills, imagination and ability to understand and respond to what is going on around them. That needs lots of discussion, mentoring, and maybe even some suitably non-prescriptive methods, but we need to keep the focus on the people, not the process. With due apologies to Gandhi, ‘Be the toolkit’ seemed to work as a slogan on where to keep the focus.
Another nagging question is how do you fund work based on complex systems? Can you really rock up to DFID and say ‘hey, it’s a complex system, so we have no idea what’s going to happen. Can we have £1m please?’ Answers include:
- Collecting and publishing narratives where donors get it right: the conventional picture of donors hunched jealously over their logframes, hostile to anything smacking of independent thought, is clearly nonsense. But we don’t do enough to capture some great examples of imaginative donorship, such as DFID in Tanzania or the Swiss in Tajikistan. We need to collect these stories, and work with allies in aid agencies to get them out there.
- Trust Fund: Push the trust fund model as a way of turning large chunks of aid into lots of small chunks – the right size for the kind of initiative that needs funding, but would be crushed by the big bucks and paperwork that goes with them.
- Incubation period model: Back to Matt Andrews. How do we get a prolonged experimental incubation phase accepted as a standard (and extended) part of any project application? Interestingly, DFID is starting to do this with some of its research funding – supporting a year-long inception phase during which researchers can clarify and narrow down their agenda.
And finally, a comment from Alan Hudson on my last complexity-related post has stayed with me. ‘One of the things that struck me was that we had a very fruitful exchange without a mention of “complex systems. It just wasn’t necessary.’ Which reminds me of a comment that I think is great, but always seems to produce baffled faces in seminars – ‘talking about ‘non-linear systems’ is like talking about all the ‘non-elephants at the zoo’’: i.e. since non-linearity is the norm, not the exception, why does it need to be picked out? Will the mark of success in getting complex systems taken seriously be when they are merely seen as normal and the off-putting word ‘complexity’ becomes redundant?
Some excerpts from a great overview of the Syrian conflict in the London Review of Books by Patrick Cockburn. Read the whole piece if you can. It helped confirm for me that Oxfam’s right to oppose the EU’s ending of its arms embargo. Simon Jenkins’ polemic in the Guardian also helped.
‘That Assad’s government is on its last legs has always been something of a myth. YouTube videos of victorious rebel fighters capturing military outposts and seizing government munitions distract attention from the fact that the war is entering its third year and the insurgents have succeeded in capturing just one of the 14 provincial capitals. (In Libya the insurgents held Benghazi and the whole of the east as well as Misrata and smaller towns in the west from the beginning of the revolt.) The Syrian rebels were never as strong militarily as the outside world supposes. But they have always been way ahead of the government in their access to the international media.
Whatever the uprising has since become it began in March 2011 as a mass revolt against a cruel and corrupt police state. The regime at first refused to say much in response, then sounded aggrieved and befuddled as it saw the vacuum it had created being filled with information put out by its enemies. Defecting Syrian soldiers were on television denouncing their former masters while government units that had stayed loyal remained unreported and invisible. And so it has largely continued. The ubiquitous YouTube videos of minor, and in some cases illusory, victories by the rebels are put about in large part to persuade the world that, given more money and arms, they can quickly win a decisive victory and end the war……
Assad isn’t going to win a total victory, but the opposition isn’t anywhere close to overthrowing him either. This is worth stressing because Western politicians and journalists so frequently take it for granted that the regime is entering its last days. A justification for the British and French argument that the EU embargo on arms deliveries to the rebels should be lifted – a plan first mooted in March but strongly opposed by other EU members – is that these extra weapons will finally tip the balance decisively against Assad. The evidence from Syria itself is that more weapons will simply mean more dead and wounded……
Fear of widespread disorder and instability is pushing the US, Russia, Iran and others to talk of a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Some sort of peace conference may take place in Geneva over the next month, with the aim at least of stopping things getting worse. But while there is an appetite for diplomacy, nobody knows what a solution would look like. It’s hard to imagine a real agreement being reached when there are so many players with conflicting interests.
Five distinct conflicts have become tangled together in Syria: a popular uprising against a dictatorship which is also a sectarian battle between Sunnis and the Alawite sect; a regional struggle between Shia and Sunni which is also a decades-old conflict between an Iranian-led grouping and Iran’s traditional enemies, notably the US and Saudi Arabia. Finally, at another level, there is a reborn Cold War confrontation: Russia and China v. the West. The conflict is full of unexpected and absurd contradictions, such as a purportedly democratic and secular Syrian opposition being funded by the absolute monarchies of the Gulf who are also fundamentalist Sunnis.
By savagely repressing demonstrations two years ago Bashar al-Assad helped turn mass protests into an insurrection which has torn Syria apart. He is probably correct in predicting that diplomacy will fail, that his opponents inside and outside Syria are too divided to agree on a peace deal. He may also be right in believing that greater foreign intervention ‘is a clear probability’. The quagmire is turning out to be even deeper and more dangerous than it was in Iraq.’
h/t Jon Snow
I just spent four hours reading a book. Well, a third of a book – I’m a slow reader. It’s the galleys for ‘Aid on the Edge of Chaos’, by Ben Ramalingam, due out this October. I’ll review it when it’s published, but reading it made me think about books in general, and how hard it is to read them.
The standard response of my colleagues when I review a book on the blog is ‘Wow, I’m so jealous – you’re so lucky to have the time to read them’, shortly followed by ‘Great, now I won’t have to read it – I can just read the review’. My fear is that they are typical – not many people in the NGOs read books related to their work. When Oxfam decided to close down its library a few years ago, there was barely a murmur of protest.
The discomfort I experience when reading a book during working hours may help explain why this is. Far from being a delightful act of self indulgence, I feel itchy, guilty, check my emails and blog traffic every hour or so ‘just in case’, and get a glow of relief when I find something I need to reply to. And I’m supposed to be a bookworm!
The growing distance between the rhythm of work, and the slow digestion of a book may be part of the answer – a fellow blogger once confessed he hardly ever reads books any more because of the ‘ADHD state’ brought on by his constant use of email and twitter. I have colleagues who can’t even have a conversation without compulsively checking their blackberries (although that might just be the effect I have on people). Even when it comes to the aptly-named ‘grey literature’ of papers and reports, we’re all executives now (at least in terms of only skimming the exec sums). What’s happened to our collective concentration span?
Once I manage to suppress my anxiety, and persevere, a good book delivers on many more levels that even the best paper. The writing is often better (a book is a far more personal labour of love than any research paper); you argue with the weak arguments, and assimilate the convincing ones, in a more profound process, like a day-long tutorial. And yes, I write all over them, sorry. At their best, they usher you into a whole new paradigm, profoundly changing the way you see the world. And then of course there is the surge of self-satisfaction when you finish it…..
I can’t see why papers shouldn’t in theory be able to do all of this, and maybe some can, but in my experience nothing matches the revelatory intellectual impact of books like Eric Beinhocker’s The Origin of Wealth or Ha-Joon Chang’s Kicking Away the Ladder. So if people stop reading books
once they stop being students or keen newbies in the aid world, does that mean they will miss out?
But before getting all doom and gloom, let’s see if I’m right. It’s time to fess up. When was the last time you read a book on international development. A proper book – at least 150 pages. And all of it – not just skipping to the conclusions? You know the drill – voting options to your right. And since it’s fairly safe to assume that the readers of this blog are at the wonkier end of the spectrum, I’ll take the result as the upper limit for development bookworminess.
This guest post comes from Hannah Stoddart, Oxfam’s Head of Economic Justice Policy
It feels like Oxfam campaigners have been celebrating a lot recently. First – after nearly 10 years of hard slog as part of the Control Arms coalition – we got an Arms Trade Treaty. Then just a few weeks later two of the companies we’d been targeting in our Behind the Brands campaign agreed to change their policies in response to public pressure. Then, after months of targeting the World Bank with our land grabs campaign, President Jim Yong Kim issued a public statement acknowledging that the World Bank must play a role and agreeing to improve its standards in line with human rights obligations.
So are some of the most powerful interests and institutions beginning to bend quicker in response to campaign pressure? Are NGOs getting better at campaigning? Or would they have done it anyway? These are the kinds of questions that campaigning organisations ask themselves all the time. How can we really measure the extent of our influence? And what tactics are likely to yield the best results?
I can’t speak on behalf of all organisations, or indeed all of Oxfam’s campaigns, but having managed Oxfam’s global land grabs campaign for the past year, which targeted the World Bank, I have learned some important lessons about what works.
Firstly, be a bit outrageous – there is so much noise these days that you have to shout even louder to get attention. At Oxfam, rather than just asking the Bank politely to take action on land grabs, we told them to freeze all their agricultural land investments. This is probably the last thing a Bank ever wants to do. It goes against the very essence of what they see as their job – getting money out of the door. So naturally the ask both outraged the Bank but also got us noticed.
Secondly, have an insider/outsider strategy – it’s crucial from the outset to have a strategy that mobilizes the public on the outside, but also engages critically on the inside. Alongside more populist stunts including auctioning off famous landmarks and crowdsourcing thousands of videos and setting them to a Coldplay track, Oxfam was also developing detailed and legalistic documents outlining how the Bank could improve its safeguard policies. If that sounds impenetrable and wonky, it’s because it is. Good campaigns need to be both fun and appealing, as well as being backed up behind the scenes by serious analysis.
There was one point at the recent Spring meetings in Washington when colleagues were engaged in serious technical discussions with Bank officials, while a van drove past outside bearing a huge placard entreating the Bank to ‘stand and deliver’. That seemed to me to exemplify the insider/outsider approach. It also meant we were developing relationships with officials within our ‘target’ institution who would be able to help implement the changes we were calling for.
Thirdly, think about how you will react to different kinds of ‘success’.
Though in the end – with this particular campaign – the Bank didn’t freeze its investments, we had thought through lots of different scenarios and how we would react depending on what the Bank eventually conceded. We were not fixated on only one outcome and were prepared to respond to positive developments as and when they arose. In the end, we felt we had ‘sufficient wins’ to welcome progress made, but we still criticized the Bank where we felt there hadn’t been enough progress.
Perhaps one of the greatest lessons for campaigning organisations from the Copenhagen Climate Summit in 2009 was that resting everything on one outcome compels you to announce a failure if that outcome is not achieved, even if there have been other significant successes beneath that. Sure, there was no global deal at COP15, but getting one would have been well-nigh impossible, and rarely did you hear NGOs celebrate the significant commitments that were made.
Related to this – a good campaign needs to use both carrot and stick. Powerful institutions should expect to – and indeed should welcome – being held to account in the public eye, so no campaigning organization should cave in if the target gets stroppy and accuses you of being unfair.
Equally, NGOs too often refuse to welcome progress made or cast commitments by their targets in a positive light. This can undermine goodwill on behalf of the target, and also disillusion campaigners who feel that it’s impossible to make a difference. When President Jim Kim made his statement on land, Oxfam welcomed the positive commitments made. We also published a critical blog addressing the areas where less progress had been made, but we were prepared to publicly welcome steps in the right direction. This made a big difference in building trust with people within the Bank who were supportive of our goals.
Fourthly, use online social media as a lobby as well as a campaign tool – as well as allowing much wider sharing of campaign actions and stunts, there’s also an increasing role for social media in communicating with your target. Outlining your critique and your asks in a blog means they are more likely to read it before everyone else does.
Lastly, working with allies is crucial in building legitimacy for your campaign. This doesn’t necessarily have to be through co-branded coalitions, neither does it mean aligning every single message. But it does mean reinforcing each other’s messages at crucial points – through blogs, letters, press releases and official submissions. Oxfam worked closely with Inclusive Development International in our detailed submission to the Bank calling for a land safeguard – and others also supported our asks in roundtable discussions and consultations. Equally, Oxfam puts its name to wider civil society calls for human rights to be at the heart of the Bank’s approach to development, even if that wasn’t the core message of the campaign.
One other thing.. get celebrities involved if you can – one of the best moments of the campaign was when the World Bank tweeted Coldplay. We never thought that would happen, but it shows that even the most conservative institutions are vulnerable to popstars telling them to do stuff.
There is clearly no one-size-fits-all approach to achieving change, but campaigning organisations arguably don’t reflect enough on successes when they do happen. Given decades of feeling disappointed in the global campaigning space, its high time we all reflected on what really works.
And here’s that Coldplay video again
I spent Wednesday morning taking drugs seriously. OK that’s the last of the lame do/take drug jokes. What I actually did was have a coffee with Danny Kushlick and Martin Powell of the Transform Drug Policy Foundation, and then attend a Christian Aid seminar on drugs and development. Both conversations addressed the same questions: are drugs becoming an un-ignorable development issue and if so, what should we (INGOs, aid agencies etc) do about it?
The answer to the first question is pretty obviously ‘yes’. In the rich countries the ‘war on drugs’ is getting nowhere, stymied (among other reasons) by the basic laws of supply and demand – any success in the war reduces supply, so prices rise, so supply recovers. In the producer countries, the vast sums involved ($330bn a year, by one estimate) poison politics. And increasingly, the divide between producer and consumer countries is being eroded, as drugs spill over into the slums and alleyways of the developing world – including West Africa, where transhipment and consumption are becoming major issues. Everyone gets dirty, trust is destroyed, communities turn bad. As Christian Aid’s Paul Valentin said, ‘the drugs trade cuts across everything we do – inequality, tax havens, access to services, HIV. Over half the countries we are working in are directly affected.’
And it is likely to grow in prominence: Fiscal pressures in the North will draw attention to the vast waste of money involved in criminalizing drug users and then having to pay Hilton-like amounts to keep them rotting in jail. Arguing that the drug trade is wrecking their countries, a number of Latin American governments, led by a weird combination of Uruguay (centre left) and Guatemala (ex-military president) have successfully challenged the US in getting the normally supine Organization of American States to issue a report last week that some saw as ‘the beginning of the end for blanket prohibition’. They have helped persuade the UN to bring forward to 2016 its General Assembly Special Session on reviewing global drug policy.
OK, but in development policy world, Cinderella issues seem to outnumber the real ones, and if I raise this one with the poor souls who have to try and set priorities for a large NGO like Oxfam, then (in the words of my colleague Ian Bray), ‘eyeballs will roll’. I can hear them now: Yet another topic. What do you want us to stop doing? Spreading ourselves too thin. Tough choices. What do we know about drugs policy? Etc etc.
So let’s look at this as a change process. Where are we on the journey from denial to ‘drugs policy at the heart of all we do’? Taking Matt Andrews’ book as a starting point (as I seem to do a lot at the moment), a shift of this sort takes place in 5 stages, with potential roles for outsiders at each stage
- Deinstitutionalization: encourage the growing discussion on the problems of the current model
- Preinstitutionalization: groups begin innovating in search of alternative logics
- Theorization: proposed new institutions are explained to the broader community, needing a ‘compelling message about change.’
- Diffusion: a new consensus emerges
- Reinstitutionalization: legitimacy (hegemony) is achieved.
It seems to be that the deinstitutionalization of current drugs policy is well under way(see this UN paper or World Bank report) – we can foresee a point where almost everyone accepts that it isn’t working, and it’s costing a fortune. Looked at in this way, it is probably more important for those wishing to have an impact to stop bashing the current policies, and to move on to the next stages – searching for alternatives and building a new consensus.
That’s certainly what Transform is doing, making the case for a humane system of regulation (cf pharmaceuticals) as a sensible position between the polarized lunacies of the status quo and ‘legalize everything man’. But the problem here is the huge spread of ideologies in the reform camp, from libertarian stoners to security nuts, making it very hard for any new consensus to emerge beyond ‘this ain’t working’.
But then I got to thinking about what other former eyeball-rolling issues have moved into the mainstream in recent years, and hit on climate change. Ten years ago, global warming was definitely in the ‘groan, ignore, reject’ camp within development circles. Now it is very mainstream indeed. Oxfam does a shedload of work on the ground in terms of climate change adaptation – not sure what the equivalent on drugs would be – protection committees in Tijuana?
A more relevant comparison is with influencing the wider debate, where I think NGOs have gone in two broad directions on climate change: one has been to ‘bear witness’, showing from our experience on the ground that climate change is about people, not just polar bears. I think we’ve had real impact there and coincidentally, it fits with another of Matt Andrews’ findings that outsiders are better off sticking to problem definition than trying to propose solutions.
The other area has been to engage more directly in policy debates, and there, to be honest, I’m less convinced we’ve had much impact. Partly this isbecause the climate change policy response as a whole is badly becalmed. But also because, however smart the people involved, I don’t think that plays to our strengths in terms of legitimacy.
But what if we do want to go beyond repeating ad nauseam ‘drugs are a development issue’ (and rest assured, we will immediately be grilled on what we think about legalization etc)? Paul Valentin, Christian Aid’s International Director, thought it might play a convenor/broker role in getting faith institutions to think about this (an inter-faith dialogue on drugs, development and social justice anyone?). Another option is at least to include organized crime explicitly as part of our context and power analysis work. But should we go further, perhaps making the UNGASS 2016 the focal point of a global campaign?
So let’s have a vote – not because it (or I) will have any influence on Oxfam policy, but because I want to know what you think, (and also because I want a new poll so I am not reminded every day how badly I was mashed by Claire Melamed on post-2015). Do you think INGOs should a) avoid drugs as a campaign issue, b) engage in a limited ‘bearing witness mode’ on drugs and development or c) get stuck in as a major campaign. And remember, more work on drugs means less work on other stuff.
One final comment: there is some good advocacy work going on in this area. See for example the Count the Costs initiative, which has a useful briefing on drugs and development. That kind of thing needs funders, and the Open Society Foundation and George Soros deserve a lot of credit for a lot of it. It is vital to have this kind of outlier support, not least because of the tendency for development organizations to indulge in herd behaviour. When we finally get interested in some new issue, it can save years if some smaller, more nimble outfits have been able to find the funding to develop the thinking around it before the larger organizations lumber into town.
Update: Final result of poll: ‘Big campaign’ wins by a landslide- 63%; ‘bearing witness’ second with 30%; only 7% say don’t go there (125 votes after 3 days)
Ace IDS researcher Naomi Hossain introduces the first results of a big Oxfam/IDS research project on food price volatility
If the point of development is to make the Third World more like the First, then we aid-wallahs can pack our bags and go home. Job done.
The most striking finding of Squeezed, the first year results from the four year Life in a Time of Food Price Volatility research project, is how like the people of the post-industrial North the people from the proto-industrial South now sound:
- Stressed and tired
- Juggling work and home
- Surrounded by selfish individualists, led by uncaring politicians
- In strained relationships
- Constantly pressed for time
- Never enough money, even for the basics.
So what’s squeezing them? The accumulation of five years of cost of living – particularly food price – rises, is the short answer. The early research results suggest price rises are bringing about social change by stealth, as people and their relationships to food (and each other) are being commodified faster than ever before. Policymakers seem oblivious to these changes, obsessed as they are with changes they can measure.
What does it matter if food prices rise? Economists tell us it doesn’t, at least not in the long run. Wages adjust, they say. High food prices mean more people will grow food, is the theory. People substitute cheaper alternatives for newly expensive foodstuffs.
Well, yes, wages adjust, people grow more food and substitute. But these are not costless adjustments. Wages are rising, for most people, but at a price: more dangerous jobs (work in a Bangladeshi garments factory, anyone?), less reliable work, more competition as women flood the informal sector. People don’t feel better off. Home life is less harmonious, with the unpaid work of care left undone or shouldered by harassed working mothers, tired grandparents or children. People see their wages rise but know this is a mirage: they are not, in fact, getting any better off. It is more difficult to save and so also more difficult to hope or aspire. Small wonder the period since 2008 has been replete with global disgruntlement: riots, protests, even the odd revolution.
Higher prices should mean people try to grow more food, but returns are unpredictable even while input costs rise. No sane young person wants to be a farmer when they grow up. The only appetite for growing more food seems to be in kitchen gardens: wherever people have a patch of land and the time, they are trying to avoid food markets by growing their own.
And yes, people substitute. They eat more tasteless food, protein-less staples tarted up with monosodium glutamate and e-numbers, cheap and cheerful sauces that the food companies are selling more of. They eat more dangerous food – smelly rice, broken eggs, fish of uncertain origins, pesticide-sprayed vegetables.
In these days of food price volatility, food is further from being a right than it has ever been. The change in how people relate to food – and each other – is one of kind more than quantity: uncertain and relatively high prices mean prioritising earning the cash needed for food above all else.
The squeeze is tighter in Nairobi than in London, true, but in both places, price rises force people onto the uncertain mercies of charity – NGOs and aid in Nairobi, food banks in London. Global food policy makers need to check their assumptions about adjustments to food prices, and decide whether they want the kinds of societies where cash matters above all else.
Pushing back against the squeeze on everyday lives means policies that protect people – stabilising prices for farmers and consumers and developingemergency ‘spike-proofing’ cash or food subsidies. It means policies that ensure everyone has the right to eat well and to be part of decisions about the food they eat, rather than relying on faceless global markets.
Ignoring the squeeze on everyday life that rising and volatile food prices create for people in poverty everywhere is dangerously short-sighted, and not only for people in the poor South. In the long run, we are all commodified.
And here’s Naomi introducing the report (6m video)