Latest from Duncan Green's blog
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.
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)
I’m at one of those moments where all conversations seem to link to each other, I see complex systems everywhere, and I’m wondering whether I’mstarting to lose my marbles. Happily, lots of other people seem to be suffering from the same condition, and a bunch of us met up earlier this week with Matt Andrews, who was in the UK to promote his fab new book Limits to Institutional Reform in Development (I rave reviewed it here). The conversation was held under Chatham House rules, so no names, no institutions etc.
Whether you work on complex systems or governance reform or fragile states, the emerging common ground seems to be around what not to do and to a lesser extent, the ‘so whats’. What can outsiders do to contribute to change in complex, unpredictable situations where, whether due to domestic opposition or sheer irrelevance to actual context, imported blueprints and ‘best practice guidelines’ are unlikely to get anywhere?
In his book Matt boils down his considerable experience at the World Bank and Harvard into a proposal for ‘PDIA’ – Problem Driven iterative adaptation, which I described pretty fully in my review. The conversation this week fleshed out that approach and added some interesting new angles.
PDIA needs funding, but not big million dollar cheques that come with all the paraphernalia of targets, milestones, logframes etc that are more likely to kill thought than promote experimentation and learning. Instead, it needs a trust fund approach – lots of small grants that allow incubation of local solutions to a given problem while ‘avoiding a premature results agenda’.
But does that mean that institutional reform should avoid the big aid dollars altogether? Matt thought not – he portrayed PDIA as a new and extended incubation phase, which can then take the homegrown solutions that emerge and move into the more traditional aid world of large scale, large budget programming. So the challenge for aid agencies is how to create, fund and protect a space within their institutions for small budget experimentation and incubation, sitting in parallel with the big stuff.
Timelines emerged as a useful, but undervalued tool. But these are timelines of what has actually happened in the past, not the imaginary future timelines of funding applications. Matt reckons any project seeking funding should start by building a 20 year timeline of what has happened on that issue/in that locality. If done properly, the exercise of reconstructing the timeline using documents and interviews will reveal overlapping interpretations of what actually happened and recover the kinds of knowledge and experiences that all too often go missing in Aid World as staff leave and projects are wound up. We need a decent timeline methodology – Matt uses the work of Peter Hall at Harvard but it also sounds a lot like process tracing, something our MEL team uses.
The issue of narratives is central – it lies at the heart of the response to a reductionist results agenda that privileges pseudo medical trial data over real experience. Claire Melamed likes to say ‘the plural of anecdote is not data’. True, but I think that a well researched anecdote rapidly becomes a ‘narrative’, and the plural of narrative can definitely be evidence, if not data. Matt, ODI and Oxfam are all separately thinking about the need to build a collection of rigorous, nuanced narratives on stories of power and change – we’ll be swapping notes and hopefully coming up with some ideas for working together on this. What would people recommend in terms of references on rigorous narrative methodologies?
There was a good discussion on what constitutes ‘results’. Good PDIA-type work in developing countries requires a rapid feedback loop of results, but of a different kind to those typically demanded by the aid business. Developing country politicians want to know what’s happening with their money, what has been learned, what has worked and what hasn’t, and how the project has responded. They don’t need the (often bogus) certainty and data demanded by aid planners.
I do find this all slightly baffling – politicians intrinsically know how to navigate in complex environments, respond to shocks and opportunities, using trial and error, instinct and rules of thumb. They make decision on partial information and change direction if things don’t work. That’s what politics is about. But then they become aid ministers in donor countries, and suddenly buy into a paraphernalia of logframes and a particular understanding ofresults that in some other part of their brains they must know has huge limitations in the real world. How to get ministers to think more like pols and less like aid bureaucrats?
All fascinating and thanks to Matt for kicking off and CGD Europe for organizing the discussion (am I allowed to say that under Chatham House rules? If not, please ignore). I’m thinking of writing a paper on the ‘so whats’ of complex systems, but will first wade through the draft of Ben Ramalingam’s forthcoming book before deciding whether it’s necessary.
Update: more thoughts from Matt Andrews on his blog
Asking 50 Oxfam staff what they think of resilience will get 50 different responses. These will range all the way from the Sceptics (“just the latest buzzword, keep your head down and it’ll go away”), to the Deniers (“really nothing to do with me”) to the Pioneers (“it’s obvious, we’ve been doing this for years”). But probably the biggest category would be the Unsure Interested – “well, I suspect it’s pretty important, but I’m really not clear what it means for me.”
Answering that last point is key, and at a recent Oxfam get together, a humanitarian colleague gave a wonderful example. He spoke about a tropical storm which had devastated a rural area of Honduras; Oxfam humanitarian staff had responded quickly and effectively with water and sanitation, cash-for-work, and essential household items to help people get back on their feet. But when he visited the area, and talked to the community, he found that the problem was less about flooding, and more about agribusiness.
Local communities had been displaced by massive sugar and melon plantations, denuding the land of trees, diverting water sources and thus altering the local hydrology. The companies had employed cheaper Guatemalan labourers from over the border, so people no longer had either land to farm or paid labour, leaving them without livelihoods and impoverished.
All the tropical storm did was to expose the deepening vulnerability of the community. So while Oxfam’s humanitarian response helped the community to cope with the flood, it would leave them in no better position for when the next inevitable storm/flood came.
A programme with ‘resilience’ as the desired outcome would look at the underlying factors for people’s vulnerability. Critically, it would look at power dynamics and inequality (the latter extremely high in Honduras: for index geeks, a Gini coefficient of 55). These are too often left out of the resilience debate, which so far has focused more on technical measures. Yet Oxfam’s new report, No Accident, shows that countries with higher income inequality have populations which are more vulnerable to climate change, natural hazards and conflict.
The link between inequality and vulnerability is no doubt complex and defies simple correlation or causation. But using language like ‘risk being dumped on the poor’ opens up a new way of looking at vulnerability. At the international level it’s easy to see – rich countries reap the economic rewards of pumping carbon into the atmosphere, but poor countries bear the highest burden. So whilst the impact of climate change by 2100 is estimated to cause GDP losses of 12-23% in poor countries, in the richest countries, the impact will be a range of 0.1% loss to a benefit of 0.9% of GDP.
Biofuel production and excessive speculation on food commodities is another way of exporting risk. Food price spikes cause misery and hunger for poor people yet agribusiness firm Cargill’s profits surged during the global food crisis of 2007-8 and the US drought of 2012.
And at national level, big business and local elites can manipulate markets and governments to privatise the profits and socialise the risks. Clearly big business is not always bad but it can be. In Peru, water supplies are dwindling as glaciers melt, but much is siphoned off or contaminated by mining companies, leaving local communities short of clean water.
The current response – at national and international level – is not good enough. Climate change is picking up speed, food and commodity markets are more volatile than ever, environmental degradation is increasing, and more and more people are exposed to risk – either through population growth or migration. Whilst global poverty is declining, inequality is not.
States have the legal and political responsibility to reduce the risks faced by poor people, and ensure that they are borne more evenly across society.And note that equality is NOT about everyone having the same resources and support. Disadvantaged people require more services and support simply to give them equal life chances (see pic, right).
Clearly targeted support, plus social protection, health, education – which one might call key building blocks of resilience – cost money. Brazil is bringing down its (still high) inequality through concerted efforts by the government, including major increases in the minimum wage, and social protection schemes including a universal pension and the Bolsa Familia. This is possible in part because there’s enough money – the tax-to-GDP ratio is approaching 35% in Brazil, compared to only 9-10% for Bangladesh and Pakistan. Increasing tax revenues through progressive taxation has a key role to play in redistributing risk.
In terms of the aid sector – at the risk of oversimplifying, humanitarians are good at risk, and development experts are good at power. But what we need is both. Development thinking has often been blind to the shocks, changes and uncertainties that poor people face, and naïve in assuming that development takes place in largely stable environments. Long term programmes need to internalise shocks and hazards (instead of sticking them in the risks/assumptions column of a logframe and then ignoring them) and then scale up and down as appropriate.
The newly fashionable focus on resilience can help communities not only to cope but to thrive despite the shocks and stresses, but only if the current resilience dialogue and practice is broadened out to tackle inequality, redistribute risk and stop risk dumping.
And here’s Debbie doing the increasingly obligatory video exec sum for wasters 3m piece to camera
I attended a panel + booklaunch on the theme of ‘Citizens Against Corruption’ at the ODI last week. After all the recent agonizing and self-doubt of the results debate (‘really, do we know anything about the impact of our work? How can we be sure?’), it was refreshing to be carried away on a wave of conviction and passion. The author of the book, Pierre Landell-Mills is in no doubt – citizen action can have a massive impact in countering corruption and improving the lives of poor people, almost irrespective of the political context.
The book captures the experience of the Partnership for Transparency Fund, set up by Pierre in 2000. It summarizes experiences from 200 case studies in 53 countries. This has included everything from using boy scouts to stop the ‘disappearance’ of textbooks in the Philippines to introducing a new code of ethics for Mongolia’s judiciary. The PTF’s model of change is really interesting. In terms of the project itself:
- Entirely demand led: it waits for civil society organizations (CSOs) to come up with proposals, and funds about one in five
- $25k + an expert: the typical project consists of a small grant, and a volunteer expert, usually a retiree from aid agencies or governments, North and South. According to Pierre ‘the clue to PTF’s success has been marrying high quality expertise with the energy and guts of young activists’. (I’ve now added ‘Grey Wonks’ to my ‘Grey Panthers’ rant on why the aid world is so bad at making the most of older people).
- The PTF is tapping into a zeitgeist of shifting global norms on corruption, epitomised by the UN Convention Against Corruption (2003). The idea that ‘they work for us’ seems to be gaining ground.
- The PTF prefers cooperation to conflict – better to work with champions within the state (and there nearly always are some, if you can find them), than just to lob rocks from the sidelines (although some rock-lobbing may also be required).
- It also prefers action and avoids funding ‘awareness-raising’, ‘capacity building’ and other ‘conference-building measures.’
So what works? On the basis of the case studies (chapters on India, Mongolia, Uganda and the Philippines), and his vast experience of governance and corruption work, Pierre sets out a ‘stylized programme’ for the kinds of CSO-led initiatives that deliver the goods:
- Nail down the problem: use surveys, focus groups, right to information laws where they exist
- Come up with (and implement) an action plan: get people involved with community report cards, community radio, public hearings and other approaches
- Propose ideas for ways to reform the system or reduce the opportunities for corruption, drawing on the results of (1) and (2)
- Discuss the ideas with stakeholders and amend
- Campaign to persuade officials and politicians to adopt the ideas
- Once you’ve won (bit of a leap, that – see cartoon) monitor the implementation of any measures introduced to reduce corruption.
This may look like a bit of a blueprint, but actually it isn’t – the PTF fits the model of how to work in complex systems pretty well. It acknowledges that outsiders can’t possibly understand the labyrinths of formal and informal power, or identify potential allies and windows of opportunity. Those have to come from within. By breaking funding down into small grants, and using only volunteer experts, it tries to keep power away from the consultancy/donor complex, and stay true to being country-driven. At the ODI, Pierre described the underlying theory of change as ‘the aggregation of millions of actions to reach a tipping point.’
He also expanded on the problem of aid institutions. Anti-corruption campaigning is often long-term, over 25-50 year time horizons. That means aid donors can support particular phases, but if they don’t have the staying power to see the work through, they need to avoid trying to control it. Unfortunately, ‘politicians and officials who think they can make their mark are the biggest menace for this work’.
Despite this critique, the book is a pitch for funding from the aid agencies, although Pierre believes that in the long term CSO anti-corruption work will have to find alternatives sources.
Which all sounds great, but the results debate is obviously getting to me, because I did have some sympathy with DFID’s Mark Robinson, who said at the ODI that although the UK Government (which has been a core funder of PTF) ‘is increasingly persuaded about the value of citizens’ transparency and accountability initiatives’, we really can’t be expected to judge PTF entirely on the uplifting case studies and stats collected by, errrm, the PTF.
I raised another issue: the rhythm of civil society action is almost always episodic – long periods of tranquillity (people getting on with their lives), punctuated by episodic spikes of protest. Attempts to turn this dynamic into some kind of permanent state of mobilization are probably destined for frustration and failure. Between spikes, the long term work of renewing or changing social capital, social norms and values etc takes place in the more permanent ‘grains’ of civil society – trades unions, neighbourhood associations, religious communities – that endure between spikes. It wasn’t clear that PTF understands and works with this – it seems to have permanent mobilization as its underlying model of how civil society works.
PTF seems to belong to a family of ‘post supply side’ approaches to governance, which also includes the International Budget Partnership, the research of Matt Andrews or the Africa Power and Politics Programme, as well as Oxfam’s own work on governance and accountability.
What they have in common is the need to move from ‘best practice’ to ‘best fit’, to identify and support locally driven initiatives, and to support coalitions between champions within the system and those outside. Where they seem to differ is on the prominence of civil society in these discussions – at one end of the spectrum is PTF’s perhaps excessive glorification of its role; at the other the APPP’s rather contemptuous dismissal of civil society as irrelevant to the ‘real’ Paul Kagame world of big men and decent chaps sorting out political settlements (’citizen pressure is at best a weak factor and at worst a distraction from dealing with the main drivers of bad governance.’) I would love to see APPP’s David Booth and Pierre Landell-Mills go head to head on this.
To be continued, I suspect (not least because Matt Andrews is in London this week).
A huge and chaotic conversation over how to respond to the appalling Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh (where the death toll has now passed an unprecedented 1100) is producing some important initial results, in the form of the international ‘Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh’, launched this week.
I got a glimpse of the background on Wednesday at a meeting of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which brings together big brand retailers, including garment companies, trades unions and INGOs like Oxfam to work on wages and conditions in company supply chains. The Accord got some pretty rave reviews – ‘absolutely historic’, said Ben Moxham of the UK Trades Union Congress; comparable to the 1911 Chicago factory fire, according to one of the big clothes retailers at the meeting.
So what does it say? The Accord covers independent safety inspections, publicly reported; mandatory repairs and renovations; a vital role for workers and trade unions, including a commitment to Bangladesh’s Tripartite Plan of Action on Fire Safety (a national initiative). A key, and controversial aspect is that the Accord will include a legally binding arbitration mechanism, which wins a lot of trust from civil society and trade unions, but has spooked a number of companies based in the litigation-tastic USA (not all though – part of Tommy Hilfiger’s in there, while Abercrombie and Fitch have said it they will join).
30 companies signed up ahead of Wednesday’s midnight deadline, including Primark, (who were buying clothes from Rana Plaza), Tesco, Sainsburys, M&S, Inditex (eg Zara), NEXT, C&A, Carrefour and PVH (part of Tommy Hilfiger). There are some holdouts – Walmart is insisting on going it alone and doing its own factory inspections, which is disappointing, not least because it is focussing on the short term problem and missing the need for longer-term coordinated political engagement. And of course, nothing legally binding there.
Given my current work focus, I fell to musing on the theory of change that underlay this apparent breakthrough. Obviously, the immediate driver is a particularly grisly ‘shock as opportunity’. But other factors worth noticing include:
- The ETI’s prior existence of a forum that established a high degree of trust between traditional antagonists (companies, unions and NGOs). This allowed people to get on the phone to each other and get things moving, without first having to overcome barriers of distrust.
- Prior work on some kind of accord had been going on since 2011, but had got nowhere due to lack of urgency and trust – the Rana Plaza disaster massively escalated the pressure to act.
- A nascent national process (the National Action Plan for Fire Safety), that gave outsiders something to support and build on.
- Energetic leadership from two new international trade unions, IndustriAll and UNI Global Union, helped get the right people in the room.
- The organizers set a rather arbitrary, but very effective 15 May deadlineto prevent the response getting kicked into the long grass. A number of companies are feeling bruised by the pressure for immediate action, so there will be some fences to mend there once the Accord is up and running.
An interesting underlying challenge, reflecting my ramblings last week on change, complexity and national ownership, is how to combine the catalytic effect of a massive shock, with the need for slow, painstaking construction of new/improved institutions from within Bangladesh – the only way to ensure that whatever emerges is not just another bit of corporate spin. Peter McAllister, ETI’s Executive Director, reckons that the circle can be squared if the shock is primarily used to get all the international actors lined up behind the Accord, but that the implementation process needs to be slower and nationally owned.
Next steps? The Accord lays out a 45 day period to come up with an implementation plan, involving a crucial shift from being internationally to locally driven.
The TUC’s Ben Moxham hopes the accord, and the ensuing government agreement to relax restrictions on trade unions, will help consolidate and strengthen Bangladesh’s chaotic garment workers unions (39 separate unions by his count).
Others at the meeting hope that the Accord could act as a model for both other garment exporters (Bangladesh is world number 2, after China), or for other sectors within Bangladesh – collapsing buildings are not confined to garment factories.
One last thought – in this conversation between companies, unions, NGOs and the ILO, where is the UK Government? So far pretty quiet, but you’d think that coming in behind a business-led response like this with some matching funding would be a pretty attractive ‘announceable’ for a Conservative Party minister, not least because the Accord could head off other short-term, and ultimately damaging exits like Disney, where companies stop buying from Bangladesh to protect their brand, but leave thousands of women without jobs. How about some constructive engagement, DFID?
A crucial step in fighting inequality and discrimination: the law to make India’s private schools admit 25% marginalised kids
This summer, India missed the historic deadline to implement the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009. This landmark law, the fruit of more than a decade of civil society activism, has many path-breaking clauses. For the first time, it bans schoolteachers from offering private tuition on the side – a rampant conflict of interest. It also legally prohibits corporal punishment.
Most powerfully, it insists that every private school must reserve 25 percent of classroom seats for children from poorer or disadvantaged families in the neighbourhood. This quota is by no means a silver bullet. After all, eighty percent of schools in India are government-run and in dire need of teachers, infrastructure and more.
Nevertheless, this masterstroke, which aims to piggyback on the rest of the mushrooming for-profit private schools, single-handedly opens the door for at least 1 million eligible children each year across the country to receive 8 years of free education.
Despite strident opposition from school management and parents’ associations, the Indian Supreme Court last year upheld this visionary clause. Though it may not (yet) be as internationally renowned as the United States’ Brown versus Board of Education ruling, its ripple effect will be no less important in a country as socially stratified as India.
In the last three years, apart from resorting to the courts, private schools have used every trick in the book to deny children their rightful admissions (see video). Despite a ban, some have held separate evening classes to accommodate students from poorer families. Others have sent eligible parents literally in circles over admission paperwork. As a result, last year, Maharashtra state, for example, filled only 32 per cent of reserved seats.
One bone of contention is who will foot the bill? The Act is categorical that the state will reimburse private schools only based on what it spends per pupil in government schools, which is typically much less. For-profit private schools are therefore keen to pass on the burden and increase their already inflated fees for the remainder of the class. Unfortunately, this has pitched wealthy parents against semi-literate ones, further aggravating tensions across the class and caste divides.
On the other hand, many civil society activists are disappointed that the legislation only reserves 25 percent and does not embrace the more inclusive concept of a ‘common schooling system’.
But, even this diluted, watered-down 25 percent reservation clause offers an unprecedented window of opportunity to break the shackles of centuries of social prejudice, which has pigeon-holed and stymied educational, occupational and social opportunities for generations. For the first time, there is a genuine effort to ensure that that children — rich and poor, upper and lower caste — are schooled together at an impressionable age, perhaps laying the basis for India to overcome centuries of divisions.
Even today, children of marginalized castes and tribes are less likely to attend pre-primary and primary school and the quota defines them as primary beneficiaries of the new legislation. The law also supports the entry of children with disabilities. In addition, some states have devised truly progressive rules. Tamilnadu, for instance, has recognized transgender children as eligible. Andhra Pradesh explicitly includes orphans, street and homeless children. Gujarat has clarified that teachers should be professional trained and sensitized for the proper integration of children and warned that schools which discriminate could face closure.
These gems in the rulebook could revolutionize private education in India.
Sister Cyril’s award-winning elite Loreto School in Kolkata, has over the last three decades, already showcased first-hand the transformational potential of integrating street children in mainstream classrooms.
Now, the key to the success of this dream to create inclusive classrooms lies with the burgeoning Indian middle class — to support rather than oppose — this transformative initiative to build the foundation for a more integrated India.
Swati Narayan is a social policy analyst
Savings for Change (SfC) is one of Oxfam America’s flagship programmes, reaching 680,000 members, mostly women, in 13 countries. Here Sophie Romana, Oxfam America’s Deputy Director of Community Finance, reports on some findings from an innovative qualitative and quantitative survey of the groups in Mali, published today (click through to summary or full report).
How do you save money and borrow when you live in rural sub-Saharan Africa? Millions of women do just that every week, through their Savings Group. Formed and monitored by teams of field agents from local organizations, 20 to 25 women gather every week at the same time and place to put a few cents in a wooden “savings box”. Once there is enough money in the box – i.e. the saving fund – members who need a small, short-term loan come in front of the self-managed group to explain the purpose of the loan (food purchases, life’s emergencies or working capital for an income generating activity). The loans are paid back to the group with interest, which provides them with a return. In a nutshell, savings groups provide basic financial services to poor rural women underserved or ignored by commercial banks and microfinance institutions.
But does belonging to a group actually improve the lives of members, their families, and their villages? To answer this, Oxfam America and Freedom from Hunger commissioned Innovations for Poverty Action (IPA) and the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology (BARA) at the University of Arizona to conduct a unique piece of joint research on Saving for Change groups in Mali: a randomized controlled trial (RCT) combined with a qualitative longitudinal study, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The RCT included 500 villages: in 210 of them we introduced SFC, the other 290 were “controlled” (intentionally left out of the intervention) to try and measure the difference, hence the impacts. The qualitative survey focused on 19 villages included in the RCT and interviewed members, husbands, women non-members, villagers etc… This mixed-methods approach combines the benefits of ‘quant’ and ‘qual’ to try and get under the skin of the impacts of savings groups.
The findings of the three-year study (see chart) show encouraging results in terms of increased saving (up 31%) and lending (12% more women took a loan from a savings group), increased food security, and an increased investment in livestock (households in SfC villages own on average $120 more in livestock, which buys you four goats, three ewes or one calf). The findings also demonstrate that savings groups reach the poorest of the poor with 82% of households in study villages living on less than $1.25 a day.
The results from the RCT also show that there was almost no change in income and health and education expenses. We hope that these results will come with longer study, but we are not sure.
Social capital, one of the outcomes most valued by group members, is proving to be a puzzle. The group offers a safe space for women to share family problems and seek advice from each other. Outside the meeting, women have also reported over the years that they tend to greet each other more in the village, and engage with each other more often than before they joined. But here’s our evidence puzzle: this is what the anthropological findings support, but they were not captured at all by the quantitative-RCT.
Take up rate: how do groups get created in zones where we don’t run the program?
Based on feedback from our partners and staff, Oxfam started to train “volunteer replicators” members who themselves train new groups. They have been responsible for SfC “going viral” In treatment zones the take up rate is 40.5% of women – by comparison in other similar approaches such as microcredit, the take up rate is 15% to 22.5%.
But the replicators have unexpectedly ‘spilled over’ into control villages, far away from a treatment village. This may mess up the control zones by “contaminating” the sample for the RCT, but it’s potentially good news for the women in those villages, and a testament to the attraction of savings schemes like SfC.
Depending on how strict a definition of a Saving for Change group we used (other traditional groups resemble SfC groups), we see a take up rate in control zones varying from 6% to 12% of women. So how did that happen? Did a conversation in the market lead to the replicator offering to go and create a new group there? Did a member get married, move to another village and start a group there? Did a woman decide to help her daughter in another village to set up a group? Traveling to another village to form a group is challenging for many Malian women, yet SfC groups were created with no encouragement or promotion from the project, no visits from paid field agents.
We also found that women who are more socially integrated and already have an income generating activity are more likely to join earlier, but that more marginalized women do indeed join later on. When women want to save money together, they find a way to make it happen.
Are members of SFC more resilient?
Whatever your own personal definition of resilience may be, in the Sahel any sign of resilience is a success. The study took place in the Segou region of Mali, where 40% of the households experienced a ‘shock’ last year (food price increase, drought, or illness) and 40% are food insecure (unable to produce or buy nutritious food). Households in SfC villages experienced an 8% increase in reported food security and were also eating more during the hungry season – spending 39¢ more per adult per week on food during this difficult time of year and eliminating the seasonal dip. In Mali 39¢ buys you a plate of nutritious beans or a few large cassava roots. We also found that this impact is greatest for one of the most marginalized groups of women, those women married to younger brothers in large households.
From my point of view as a program manager, I see a value in combining an RCT with a qualitative study because I need to know if the program produces the impacts we designed it for and if it does not, what needs to be corrected. However I do have a lot of questions around the findings, which I regularly debate with my Monitoring, Evaluating and Learning colleagues. That being said, would I run another RCT if a donor asked for (and funded!) one? Why not? Would I look for funding to run another RCT? Not necessarily – there are other less expensive tools to measure program impacts. But for the time being, I’ll say with the confidence that only statistical evidence can give me: belonging to a savings group does make your life better!
Sophie Romana. with Janina Matuzeski and Clelia Anna Mannino. Today also sees an important Mali donor conference. Oxfam report here.
They’re funny things, speaker tours. On the face of it, you go from venue to venue, churning out the same presentation – more wonk-n-roll than rock-n-roll. But you are also testing your arguments, adding slides where there are holes, deleting ones that don’t work. Before long the talk has morphed into something very different.
So where did I end up after my most recent attempt to promote FP2P in the US and Canada? The basic talk is still ‘What’s Hot and What’s Not in Development’ – the title I’ve used in UK, India, South Africa etc. But the content has evolved. In particular, the question of complex systems provoked by far the most discussion.
I started off with the infamous US military mindmap of Afghanistan. Although ridiculed at the time, the map looks like a genuine and nuanced effort to understand the country and is probably fairly typical of the complexity of power and relationships in any given country. The point is that such a system is complex, not complicated. Complicated means if you study it hard, you can predict what happens when you intervene. In contrast a complex system has so many feedback loops and uncertainties that you can never know how it will react to a stimulus (say $100m in aid, or an invasion….).
The crucial point is that most political, social and economic systems look like the map. Yet the aid business insists on pursuing a linear model of change, either explicitly, or implicitly because a ‘good’ funding application has a clear set of activities, outputs, outcomes and a MEL system that can attribute any change to the project’s activities – a highly linear approach. Other organizations – say forest fire managers, or the military, seem more able to cope with complexity, although I found out from a woman in one seminar who had served in Afghanistan that the power map was actually drawn up by a consultant, who was promptly sacked after showing the slide to General Petraeus, so maybe the soldiers aren’t so comfortable with complexity after all.
In denying complexity is obliged either to seek islands of linearity in a complex system (vaccines, bed nets), which may not always be the most useful or effective places to engage, or to lie – writing up project reports to turn the experience of ‘making it up as you go along’ that epitomises working in complex systems into the magical world of linear project implementation, ‘roll out’, ‘best practice’ and all the rest. That not only wastes a lot of staff time and energy, it also reduces the ability to learn about how to work best in complex systems.
So how should the aid system change? Overall, we need to think though ‘How to plan when you don’t know what is going to happen’ (my best effort at explaining complexity without resorting to jargon). Here are my bullet points, and brief explanations:
Fast feedback: if you don’t know what is going to happen, you have to detect changes in real time, but also have the institutions to respond to thatinformation (as was not the case recently in the Sahel).
Focus on problems, not solutions: Drawing on Matt Andrews’ work, the role of outsiders is to identify and amplify problems, but leave the search for solutions to local institutions. (At the World Bank, Shanta Devarajan pointed out the contradiction between this approach and NGOs’ preference for big, simple solutions – end land grabs, no to user fees. Ouch.)
Rules of thumb, not best practice toolkits: I am told that the US marines do not go into combat brandishing Oxfam toolkits and online resources on best practice. They operate on rules of thumb – take the high ground, stay in communications and keep moving. They improvise the rest. Aid workers on the ground operate far more like this than our project reports admit. If we were honest about it, we could have a better discussion on how to improve those rules of thumb.
Some possible approaches that spring to mind (and I would love to hear examples of others)
Work on the ‘enabling environment’ rather than specific projects: things like norms, rights or access to information
Evolutionary/Venture Capitalist approach: run multiple experiments and then zero in on what seems to be working best. Example, the Chukua Hatua project in Tanzania
Convening and Brokering: Get dissimilar local players together to find solutions – the outsiders’ job is to support that search, not do it themselves. Example, the TAJWSS water project in Tajikistan
But any attempt to move in this direction raises some fundamental challenges to the current structures of the aid industry:
Results for grown ups: The current approach to measuring results favours linearity. But rejecting results altogether is the wrong approach – both because even those who recognize the central role of complex systems still want to know if they’re doing any good, and because the results people control the cash. No results, no funding. We need to get much better at ‘counting what counts’, and reclaim the idea of ‘rigour’ for qualitative and other methods better suited to complex systems.
Who to employ? Risk-taking, entrepreneurial, maverick searcher types have a hard time in an aid business dominated by bureaucratic procedures and risk aversion. Moreover, working in complex systems requires deep local knowledge of formal and informal power maps, something expats on a two or three year posting are unlikely to acquire. How do we turn the tables to attract and retain searchers, and value locally embedded knowledge?
Short Term v Long Term: Funding and project cycles are short term, change in complex systems is often long term. How can we bridge the gap, for example by combining good, plausible stories about the short term, with more rigorous impact assessment in the long term (how often do we go back and study the effects of an intervention 10 or 20 years after the funding has ended?)
How to keep/build political support given that working in complex systems means acknowledging a lack of control over what takes place and limits to attribution (no you can’t ‘badge’ the Arab Spring as created by Oxfam, USAID or anyone else, sorry). It also means greater tolerance of failure – a venture capitalist approach means accepting 9 failed start-ups for every 1 big success, but imagine what aid critics would do with a 90% failure rate. And how do we communicate and sell this approach to the public after systematically dumbing down the aid and development story for decades? (From buy a goat and save the world, to a post-goat narrative….)
Ben Ramalingam has been thinking about this for years, and writing about it on his Aid on the Edge of Chaos blog. His book of the same name is due out later this year, so let’s hope it can settle a lot of these issues (and doubtless raise many more).
Just got back from a two week immersion in the US & Canada aid and development scene (well, the East Coast version, anyway). Boston, New York,Washington and Ottawa, talking at universities, NGOs, multilaterals and aid agencies and experiencing a wonk version of groundhog day + powerpoint, brought on by giving the same presentation 16 times (I’m getting pretty good at it now).
Overall impressions? Lots of really smart and committed people caught between what Oxfam America’s Greg Adams calls the ‘high and low politics’ of aid. High politics is about policy – thoughtful discussions of how to make aid better; low politics is fending off the ‘aid doesn’t work/charity begins at home’ counter attack from right wingers and fiscal conservatives.
In Canada, it felt like low politics is in the ascendant – the aid community seems besieged as the government takes the axe to a number of institutions, including ‘merging’ CIDA with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (feels more like an acquisition than a merger).
The US felt more finely balanced – lots of good reform proposals coming from the Administration, and a really interesting discussion with USAID on how to move from funding relationships to partnerships like its triangular relationship with Brazil, where USAID and Brazil jointly support aid programmes in Lusophone Africa. They’re wondering how to expand that approach as more middle income countries set up their own aid agencies.
For all my admiration for their blogging, I found my day or so at the World Bank pretty depressing in terms of politics and policy. The Bank seems stuck in a ‘technology + private sector = solution to everything’ mindset. I’m not against either, but you have to take politics, power, institutions etc at least as seriously.
I’ve already covered my exchange with Marcelo Giugnale. At my staff talk, Bank uberblogger Shanta Devarajan stated ‘poverty is a series of government failures’ and came out with examples where ‘governments intervene, but make people worse off.’ Unfortunately his conclusion seemed not to be that the Bank should help strengthen states, but that it should bypass governments/find private sector solutions to everything. An approach that is unlikely to reduce inequality and has little historical foundation, I fear.
As for the evidence debate, Shanta reckoned ‘results always have to be relative to a counterfactual – that’s what they’re about’. So how do you assess things with no counterfactual, like the fall of apartheid, or the invasion of Afghanistan? Or the impact of international conventions on the rights of women?
[update: Shanta says I got him all wrong - see his comment below]
Meanwhile a discussion with the team producing the forthcoming World Development Report on Managing Risk suggested that the Bank still cannot get past its traditional technocratic approach of ‘if a state wants to improve, here are some suggestions’. On fragile states, what if a state isn’t interested in solutions? Reply – private sector + foreign investment. Oh dear. No theory of change for how fragile states turn around, finding nuclei of good governance in otherwise fragile states, building coalitions of civil society, faith-based institutions, media, academia, traditional authorities, shifting norms in the next generation. Nope, just a fairly barren state v private sector dichotomy. Still, these were rushed conversations, and I’d be delighted to be proved wrong.
Other impressions? Great intellectual capacity at the UN, frustrated by the lack of clarity and political constraints of the system. A professor who still remembers her first class with Robert Chambers. Robert had pinned up a map of the world, with the North at the bottom. Then he just sat in a corner as his new students filed in and commented that he’d put the map up upside down. You can imagine the rest. Genius.
And a great suggestion from someone (sorry can’t remember who) – a ‘voices of the activists’ study on lightbulb moments: what were the life-changing experiences that set you on your present course – a meeting with an individual? A personal experience of violence or injustice? A seminar (hey, it happens)? Something you read? That is research I would love to read.
Dogs that didn’t bark? Surprisingly little discussion on the rise of China, depressingly little on climate change. Otherwise, my over-riding impression of the trip is the network of smart, committed people who read this blog, comment, think and argue with passion. Thankyou – you have definitely renewed my commitment to keeping this forum going, even though it can be daunting when (as this morning) I wake up jetlagged, with nothing ready to post. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.
Update: here’s the video of one version (at Oxfam America) of my ‘what’s hot and what’s not: new thinking in development’ presentation.
Had a useful discussion with the World Bank’s social media team this week, off the back of Tuesday’s post on the struggles that the UN seems to behavingin getting its people blogging (actually, the comments on that post suggest there are lots of UN blogs, but most of them seem to be outside New York).
How, I asked, has the World Bank apparently cracked it, with 300 bloggers on 32 separate blogs?
Jim Rosenberg, head of the team, argued that this all dates back to 2010, and the World Bank’s broader shift to an open access policy – a default position in favour of external publication, which is slowly gaining ground in Oxfam, but seemingly struggling to get much traction in the UN. Jim characterised the basic message as ‘if you’re good enough to talk at a conference, you should be able to write a blog post.’
The team distinguished various kinds of blog – ‘comms blogging’ to broadcast the Bank’s messages; sectoral blogging, targeting particular demographics such as youth, and ‘community of practice’ blogging for peers on themes such as education or governance (where I have a regular slot).
The discussion revealed the ‘blogging culture’ as an emergent phenomenon, unevenly distributed across the Bank. A crucial part in spreading the culture was the success of early adopters such as Shanta Devarajan and Michael Trucano. But there are still ‘dark zones’, often determined by the culture of a particular unit, or the attitude of its boss.
The Bank has tried to put incentives in place, eg including blogging as a performance objective, but it is uphill work. Many academic disciplines still disapprove. Many Bank staff are still risk averse and reluctant to upset people, especially their bosses. As a result, there are few younger bloggers, and the space is dominated by the senior experts (like Shanta). These celebrity bloggers are great advocates for blogging and very hard to rein in, and so created space for bloggers, but their very status is also inadvertently inhibiting new entrants. ‘No-one under 40 blogs at the Bank’, one staffer told me at another meeting – many of them are on short term contracts and don’t want to endanger their chance of a permanent job. Tricky.
Bloggers described a three tier risk management approach, which is very similar to my own:
- No go areas: so sensitive that blogging on them will just start a debilitating fight. Not worth it.
- ‘Professional courtesy’: run drafts past issue leads and experts to correct mistakes and avoid fights
- Let it flow: low risk areas, just go for it.
As to the comparison with the UN, some reckoned that, while the Bank has a lot of government staff looking over their shoulders, the UN system is even worse and ‘more political’. They also felt that the Bank bloggers are often recognized experts, who are leading figures in global communities of practice, and that status to some extent insulates them from internal pressures.
One of the key differences is that the Bank has worked hard to sort out its comms governance. Who can start an official twitter account? Who can blog? The system needs to have clear, transparent rules to avoid the UNICEF moment of a comms person who thought (wrongly) that the UN banned blogging by staff.
The team clammed up a bit when I raised some comments on the previous post, which argued that the Bank is doing much worse on twitter than it is on blogging. They seem to use twitter in a more top down way, to ‘amplify’ blog content and corporate messages.
What happens when bloggers screw up? The social media team sees part of its remit as rushing to their defence, and have also won some key test case battles (often, they stress, with support of management), heading off attempts to shut down the more edgy bloggers, even when the result is potentially awkward for the Bank.
The culture feels fairly macho – self-confident experts willing to blog, and shrug off any criticisms. So obvious question – how many of the 300 bloggers are women? And (tut tut) they didn’t know – some room for improvement there, I think. Interesting gender stat on twitter – men are twice as likely to tweet; women are three times more likely to take their tweets down.
There has been lots of interest in the UN post, including a nice follow up post from Ian Thorpe of UNDP. Seems like a lot of people are thinking about the challenges of blogging from within institutions.
But what we didn’t get on to, and which I would love to hear from people on, is what comes next. Is there some successor to blogging in the wings? Or will blogging just become a permanent part of the landscape, alongside more traditional channels. If so, I haven’t seen it. Please enlighten me peeps (and tweeps).
This piece appears in today’s Ottawa Citizen
The past five years has been a period of extraordinary global turbulence.
The turmoil has struck as three “shocks” — the financial crisis, a breakdown in the world food system, and the Arab Spring — combined with a slow motion train wreck in the form of the seemingly inexorable onset of chaotic climate change. Together, these are having a profound impact on our understanding of how the world works.
Just how much has changed was one of the overriding impressions from updating my book From Poverty to Power: How Active Citizens and Effective States Can Change the World, first published in 2008.
The global financial crisis was a watershed event. It triggered historic geopolitical change in the rise of the emerging powers such as China and India. It also drew attention to the risks of an excessively “financialized” global economy; but it failed to lead to a reining in of the excessive size and volatility of “hot money,” condemning us to future financial crises, possibly starting with Europe in the coming months.
Simultaneous with the financial crisis, the world witnessed a food price spike. In many countries this traumatized the lives of poor people to a much greater extent than the shenanigans on Wall Street, and reversed decades of low and falling prices, threatening long-term progress on hunger and nutrition. That has led to renewed attention to the basic issues of food and hunger, and some unfortunate side effects such as “land grabs” across the developing world by investors from rich countries.
The Arab Spring confirmed the importance of active citizens in driving social and political change, and made us think much harder about the role of women (who were very active) in majority-Muslim societies.
Taken together, these events have made us much more aware of the impact of volatility, risk and vulnerability on the lives of poor people. That leads both to a focus on trying to prevent shocks from occurring in the first place and to dampen their impacts when they occur. “Shock absorbers,” from social protection to food reserves, to help for poor farmers to adapt to climate change, have become a much more central part of development thinking.
Inequality and redistribution have become mainstream debates, with even the International Monetary Fund weighing in on how high levels of inequality imperil both growth and stability. And the levels are breathtaking. I recently calculated that the amount the world’s richest 100 people added to their wealth in 2012 ($240 billion) would be enough to end extreme poverty for the 1.4 billion people living below the international $1.25 a day poverty line ($66 billion according to the Brookings Institution), four times over! With that focus has come renewed interest in how tax systems and reforms can reduce or exacerbate inequality, both at the national level, and through the international system of tax havens.
Finally, these changes are feeding into a deeper questioning of the nature of poverty itself. As the World Bank’s path-breaking and unsurpassed “Voices of the Poor” study in the 1990s showed, to be poor is as much about anxiety, vulnerability and shame as about income levels. And that anxiety has only been heightened by the turmoil of recent years.
In response, governments around the world increasingly acknowledge the limitations of income or GDP per capita as a measure of well-being, and are developing much more sophisticated metrics — aid agencies are rather lagging behind national governments in this regard.
This more subjective, people-based understanding of well and ill-being may be one explanation for a greatly increased focus on issues of power and agency in development, often linked to issues of the basic rights that are (or are not) enjoyed by poor people. The spread of “rights thinking” on areas such as gender, disability, ethnicity and sexuality appears to be a global phenomenon, bringing significant changes in national legislation and practice in many countries. The challenge for aid agencies is to ensure that their plans and methods, including the pressure to demonstrate “results” and “value for money” reflect this more human understanding of the nature of poverty and power. As the title of my book makes clear, we need to move “from poverty to power” in both our thinking and our practice.
Are we successfully completing an “age of development” or seeing the prize slip from humanity’s hands in an economic and climatic meltdown? It is hard to recall a period when developmental optimism and pessimism co-existed to such a high degree.
The stakes could not be higher. The coming decades will show whether poverty enters the history books, joining slavery and the fight for women’s suffrage, or whether an age of chaos and scarcity starts to reverse the wonderful progress of the last 70 years.
Duncan Green is the author of the book From Poverty to Power and Oxfam GB’s senior strategic adviser. He is launching his book and giving a public lecture at the University of Ottawa on Friday May 10. The event is sold-out, but a recording of the event will be made available soon on YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/user/CCICable.
This post is written on the hoof, dashing between presentations, so please pardon the rough edges.
Yesterday I shared a platform with Marcelo Giugale, the World Bank’s Africa Director for Poverty Reduction and Economic Management (right). We were coming from very different places, some might say different planets, which is always stimulating. I did my standard power and politics spiel, focusing on multidimensional poverty, inequality and complex systems and their implications for aid agencies (more on that to follow).
Marcelo responded by saying that this was all a massive distraction, and that we should keep our eyes on the prize of ending poverty. And on this he was relentlessly upbeat, optimistic and pretty apolitical. ‘We can end poverty without blasting the system… we have the technology’ he said.
Marcelo argued that six key developments have made this possible:
- We will know the poor by name, individually. Thanks to a combination of technology and the widespread introduction of cash transfers, governments are increasingly registering all their poor citizens (the mega example being India’s biometric identity card programme – below, left). This allows them to scale up transfers rapidly in the event of shocks.
- We can determine impact, not just outcome. He defined impact as ‘that subset of outcomes that would not have happened without the intervention’ and pointed out that many of them are negative. Eg aid agencies give aid for education, so the education budget is redirected to something less worthwhile.
- ‘The time has come to link people with their natural resources.’ The World Bank seems to be getting behind the ‘doing an Alaska’ proposal to distribute natural resource revenues straight into the hands of poor people. Interestingly their power analysis suggests that the most likely way to overcome domestic political barriers (politicians not wanting to give up their slush funds) is by persuading ‘desperate oppositions’ who do not expect to win to adopt it as a last throw of the dice. Something a bit similar led to the introduction of India’s renowned Rural Employment Guarantee scheme. They think early adopters will ease the political logjam and increase pressure on neighbouring countries to follow suit.
- Equity not Equality: the way to steer a course through the politically polarized terrain of inequality is to focus on children. Hence the Bank’s new Human Opportunity Index, which asks ‘how important are a child’s personal circumstances over which he/she has no control or responsibility (e.g., gender, family income, skin colour, birthplace, etc), to his/her probability to access the services without which he/she can’t succeed in life (things like completing 6th grade on time or having potable water in the first two years of life)?’ I’m not sure about this – is it a way to get at the real causes of inequality, breaking the transmission between generations that has grown so much more rigid in recent years. Or is it a convenient way of dodging politically contentious issues of distribution and redistribution, kicking the can down the road with a new version of the kind of ‘equality of opportunity’ approach (aka the American Dream), which I thought we had left behind?
- Focus on non-cognitive skills, such as punctuality, respect and dedication to understand the reasons for success. Why? Because they are important and becoming more measurable.
- A proliferating set of ‘standards’ for public expenditure will help governments to introduce results-based payments and budgeting.
Most of this is taken from his (freely downloadable) 2010 book The Day After Tomorrow.
Several things struck me about his presentation. Firstly, the overwhelming can-do optimism is very seductive. And the emphasis on technology neatly avoids any difficult political decisions. This is a happy technocratic world of win-wins. In contrast my presentation was all about difficult politics – I’m not sure I had the best tunes.
But in the end, I didn’t buy a lot of it – by invoking the use of ‘we’, as in ‘we can end poverty, by fixing X or Y’, he reminded me of Pierre Jacquet’s great question – who is we? And why assume that ‘we’ have a common agenda?
Marcelo has a remarkably outsiderish view of the ‘we’ – in a follow-up email he defined them as “All those that care about ending poverty, not just 19th Street, but NGOs, advocacy groups, faith-based organizations, the college kid that spends a year in a developing country giving a hand, etc”.
In contrast, I would argue that these are all bit players: the key ‘we’ is within developing countries – political actors, civil society organizations, faith leaders and the rest. There, assumptions of a common agenda are likely to prove unfounded. That’s why we need to go back to school on power and politics. Which all reminded me of Matt Andrews’ critique of the World Bank’s efforts to ‘roll out best practice’ on institutional reform, including the institutions needed to introduce these new technologies.
Today I’m launching the book at the World Bank at 12.30, so expect the debates to continue……
I spent a busy few days in New York last week, talking to (well, OK, mainly talking at) about 200 UN staff at various meetings in UN Women, UNDP and UNICEF. There was a lot of energy in the room (and even outside the room – people at UNDP spilled over into the corridor), and plenty of probing viva-like questions and comments.
Which is what I expected, because intellectually, I think the UN is in an enormously productive phase. Just thinking back over recent posts on this blog, there is UNRISD on Social and Solidarity Economy, UNCTAD on finance-driven globalization, UNDP on the rise of the South, UN Women on women and the justice system and regular appearances by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food. Taken as a whole, this output is innovative and important, both challenging received wisdom and coming up with some of the new ideas and alternatives we so desperately need.
So where are the UN’s bloggers? UN staff certainly read blogs (including this one, I think a lot of people came along just to see what a blogaholic looks like in the flesh). But they hardly ever write them – the only one I regularly read is Ian Thorpe’s excellent ‘KM on a Dollar a Day’ (the KM is Knowledge Management), but that is so unbranded I’m not even sure the UN knows he’s doing it. The only official UN blog that comes up on a quick search is aimed at the general public – photos etc – not much there for wonks.
In contrast, I’m speaking at the World Bank tomorrow and suggested a chat to a few of its bloggers. Tricky they said – there’s 300 of them. Why the enormous difference? Is this about a greater degree of overall confidence and agency among Bank staff, or the institutional and political constraints operating in both institutions, or a mix of the two?
This awoke painful memories of a ‘bloggers’ breakfast‘ between CGD and Oxfam America last year. As we went round the table, CGD researchers raved about how much they enjoyed blogging, the to and fro of debate, the interaction etc. The Oxfamistas came over all Eeyore and said how anxious they felt about bloggin in case they make mistakes or get the organization (or themselves) into trouble. (To be fair, Oxfam America blogs have come a long way since then, including hiring Jennifer Lentfer of How Matters).
The UN staff seem to be in an even more extreme version of that defensive crouch, so worried about going wrong that they don’t even try. One person in a comms team even claimed that blogging is actually prohibited in the UN, only to be told that no, social media was an official priority (they’re doing better on twitter – UNICEF has 1.8m followers). And there’s plenty of would-be bloggers around – when I asked how many wrote private blogs, 4 out of 50 UNICEF people raised their hands.
So (assuming there isn’t some secret management conspiracy to stifle would-be bloggers), how could the UN start blogging, they asked? A few ideas:
Blogging only works if you move ‘from permission to forgiveness’, as the management cliché has it. But in a large institution with a reputation to protect, you can’t just let anyone start blogging under your logo – they need to earn it. How to marry risk management and the freedom and speed needed to blog? A probation period is a good compromise – for the first six months of this blog, I had to get sign off from Oxfam International for every post, then we relaxed a bit. Now if I screw up too often, I know they’ll rein me in, but if I don’t rattle a few Oxfam cages, I know I’m being too bland. There’s a balance to be struck.
Don’t force everyone to blog – if people see it as a chore, the resulting posts are guaranteed to be unreadable. Why not start with those four private bloggers and get them to kick off the blog?
Give them time: blogs take months to establish, as word of mouth spreads and readers mount up (or not – the market is merciless).
Give them a face: anonymous institutional blogs don’t usually work. Blogs need a personality. If you haven’t got anyone as obsessive as me, try the Global Dashboard model – a stable of bloggers, with an option to sign up the ones you like. That takes the pressure off a bit.
Any more tips?
This should really matter to the UN, in my view. Good research and policy papers don’t disseminate themselves, and the blogosphere is an increasingly important way to get your messages out. By self-censoring in this way, the UN is reducing the impact of some really excellent work. Consider yourselves lobbied.
This is just a subset of a much wider issue – how to attract and retain mavericks/original thinkers in large bureaucratic aid institutions. But my colleague (and uber maverick) Nicholas Colloff has complained about the growing length of these posts, so (see how interactive this is?) I’ll leave that for another time.
An edited version of this piece appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free site on Saturday
The spat between South Africa and Britain over ending its (very small) aid programme has sparked another round of debate about whether British aidshould be going to middle income countries (the last round was over aid to India, which seems to particularly rile the Daily Mail).
But whatever the rights and wrongs of ending aid to South Africa (whose economy is growing slowly, but with sky high levels of inequality and 10 per cent of all the world’s people living with HIV and Aids), aid agencies are inevitably going to have to shift money around as the world changes. Countries rise and fall, aid priorities change and new opportunities (like the opening up of Myanmar) will arise, to which aid should of course respond.
That churning process is accelerating as more and more countries reduce their dependence on aid thanks to economic growth, rising revenues from oil and gas and surging remittances from their migrant workers overseas. Those upward curves contrast with falling aid volumes. Total global aid flows have been falling for the last two years as, with the sole glorious exception of the UK, the ‘Austerians’ in what are sometimes known as ‘the formerly rich countries’ take the axe to aid spending.
What’s more, many developing country governments can’t wait to end aid – it affronts the dignity of the Big Men (as they usually are) in charge to be seen as asking for handouts. As two Ugandan ministers once proudly told me ‘when 60% of our revenues came from aid, we had to go to the World Bank on both knees. Now we’ve got it down to 30%.’ (Unfortunately, I blew it by joking ‘ah, so do you just go on one knee now, then?’ They were not amused.)
So the issue is not whether aid partnerships sometimes have to end, but how. Oxfam has some ideas on that – several pages of guidelines on ‘exit planning’ in fact. They are about ending funding to particular grassroots organisations, but they offer useful lessons for DFID and others contemplating exits from entire countries. Talk to the partner from the outset, help them fill any organisational gaps and weaknesses before you go; agree (don’t impose) a clear timetable for phasing out funding and crucially, agree what kind of relationship you want once the cash tap has been turned off. Because as one Oxfam partner from Pakistan put it, ‘We want to be treated as a “relationship” and not just as a “partner”’. Partnerships are for projects, but relationships go beyond that. We should have a relationship in the future, even if there is no project money.’‘ Sadly, the unpleasantness over DFID’s exit from South Africa means that remaining relationship has got off to a rocky start.
I imagine DFID has similar guidelines, but those can’t legislate for ministers shooting from the hip (or if conspiracy theorists are to be believed, throwing a bone to the Tory right ahead of local elections last week). Still, if civil servants in the land of ‘Yes Minister’ can’t manage their political masters, what are we coming to?
Joking aside, this matters. Aid agencies need a clear understanding of what constitutes a responsible exit. After all, aid should bequeath a legacy of trust and friendship between the UK and the rising powers of Africa and Asia, (who incidentally, we are going to need in future), but in this case that legacy has been (temporarily, I hope) squandered. Ending the aid relationship should be a moment of mutual celebration, not public mud-slinging.
Update: and here’s a new report on the subject of responsible exit
There’s nothing like an impending meeting with the author to make you dig out your scrounged review copy of his book. So I spent my flight to Boston last week reading Limits (sorry the full title is just too clunky). And luckily for the dinner conversation, I loved it.
Limits is about why change doesn’t happen, and how it could. It synthesizes the ‘groundswell’ of disquiet about the failure of the governance and institutional reforms that have been promoted for many years now by aid agencies like the World Bank. And it’s not just a whinge – there are plenty of ideas for how aid agencies can do better. The book is particularly useful for those working on fragile states – lots of the positive examples (as well as some failures) come from Afghanistan, Ivory Coast and elsewhere, although there is a bit of ‘why can’t everywhere be more like Rwanda?’ in there too.
Overall, the approach reminded me of Dani Rodrik’s great book, In Search of Prosperity, and Matt says Rodrik (a fellow Harvard prof) was influential in pushing him to nail down the always-elusive ‘so whats’.
Limits summarizes research and thinking from disparate disciplines, with lots of fascinating case studies (he’s put in the legwork to build a serious empirical basis for his conclusions). His big idea is captured in a new acronym, PDIA (Problem-Driven Iterative Adaptation), which, as he pointed out, is similar to the Participatory Institutional Appraisal idea I raised in a recent blog. I’m not sure if PDIA will catch on – it could have done with a snappier title, as could the book – but the content is really important if you are interested in aid, institutions or governance.
So what does it say? Firstly, that we have a big failure on our hands. The spate of projects and programmes around institutional reform has at best a mixed record of success; in many countries institutions have actually deteriorated in terms of effectiveness, corruption etc.
Limits argues that governments’ real motive for committing to reforms is often not about improving performance, but is actually about ‘signalling’ a willingness to ‘modernize’ (which usually means move power from state to market, deregulation and privatization, increase budget controls and accountability and reduce debt). It often involves ‘isomorphic mimicry’ – if poor countries mimic the institutions of rich ones, then – voila! – they too will become rich. The trouble is that the current aid system rewards such signalling. When the reform fails, a new government typically introduces a new round of signalling and off we go again.
Uganda is the Daniel Day Lewis of isomorphic mimicry: according to the think tank Global Integrity, it has the best anti-corruption laws in the world, (it scores 99/100), but came 126th in the 2008 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index. Oops. More generally ‘developing countries are now more likely than developed countries to boast systems that resemble international best practice.’ So if laws and best practice were decisive, Uganda would rapidly be overtaking Norway.
Such reforms as do take place happen on the fringes of real power ‘in areas that are externally visible and where reform is influenced by concentrated sets of reform champions.’ Eg the ‘ceremonial’ world of Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs). Or perhaps (at the risk of sounding like a bad loser) the MDGs…..
Aid agencies often focus on identifying and supporting a small number of champions, but Limits debunks such ‘decent chap-ism’ as an ‘illusory promise’. He quotes Brecht’s ‘Life of Galileo’: ‘Unhappy is the land that has no heroes….. No. Unhappy is the land that needs heroes.’
If not single heroes, then what kind of leadership is needed for genuine reform? ‘Institutional entrepreneurs’ are essential, but there’s a paradox – those in power benefit from the status quo, so are unlikely to support change. That can change ‘when something creates a bridge between these highly embedded agents with power and low embedded agents with new ideas.’ And they often need convenors and brokers to help them overcome barriers of distrust and status.
But there’s a further group – the ‘distributed agents’ that are required to implement what the entrepreneurs come up with. And for ownership and relevance, they need to be engaged from the outset, not as ‘adopters’.
Otherwise, ‘reforms often progress well when under the control of champions in concentrated agencies directly involved in designing change, but falter when deconcentrated agencies must implement what these agencies design.’
The book examines the broader contexts for institutional reform, pointing out that there are always ‘multiple logics’ that govern how people think and act. Sometimes one logic is dominant, at other times there are strong competing alternative logics. The job of change agents, whether internal or external, is to back the good guys when there is genuine competition, but otherwise incubate alternative logics to challenge a damaging status quo. Either approach needs a deep understanding of what is there, rather than an imported blueprint for best practice.
Matt recognizes that shocks are important drivers of change, but the argument goes into much more interesting terrain than the standard spiel. Shocks disrupt, weakening the dominant logic and testing the viability of alternatives. That creates the conditions for change, but the change process itself needs to be broad and incremental – how do discontinuity and gradualism fit together? I think the idea is that shocks create the conditions for reform, but reform itself can’t be sudden.
But there may be trade-offs, as the appetite for reform may fall away soon after a shock, so the question (which the book doesn’t answer) is what do reformers need to put in place before the window of opportunity closes, to pave the way for that longer, more inclusive process? I’ve got a horrible feeling the rise of Thatcherism may provide the perfect case study here…..
What happens after shocks is a five stage process (this is new to me, from the literature on institutional change):
- Deinstitutionalization: encourage the growing discussion on the problems of the current model
- Preinstitutionalization: groups begin innovating in search of alternative logics, involving ‘distributive agents’ (eg low ranking civil servants) to demonstrate feasibility
- Theorization: proposed new institutions are explained to the broader community, needing a ‘compelling message about change.’
- Diffusion: as more ‘distributive agents’ pick it up, a new consensus emerges
- Reinstitutionalization: legitimacy (hegemony) is achieved. We all go off to the pub.
As to what outsiders can do, again he has some sensible recommendations, while desperately trying to avoid creating a new blueprint of his own:
- Focus on identifying, highlighting and exploring problems, but leave solutions to local players. Accept that this process may take time
- Provide opportunities for local actors to reflect on problems – convening and brokering
- Focus on clearing out the obstacles to new approaches (deinstitutionalization)
- Fund flexible learning-by-doing approaches to finding solutions
Specific suggestions include Cash on Delivery Aid, stringent tests for all ‘manifestations of good, better or best practice’ and creating institutional reform trust funds that can disburse smaller grants fast in response to evolving local processes.
At those happy moments when governments buy in to the need for reform (he cites Rwanda’s decentralization and Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission (right) as examples), Andrews proposes ‘purposive muddling’ – slow, experimental and incremental approaches. Outsiders can contribute by exposing decision makers to experiences elsewhere, helping them develop hybrids best-suited to local contexts, and then test them. They can also capture and publicise successes to build momentum and buy-in.
Outsiders should also look beyond champions in positions of authority, and try and cultivate ‘mobilizers’ who connect different constituencies and spread ideas. An interesting survey of those involved in 12 different reform processes showed that leadership was far more dispersed than is customarily assumed – multiple leaders, often non-usual suspects (no-one in Afghanistan cited the president), such as those behind the scenes who brought people together and acted as catalysts.
The survey did identify external agents like aid agencies as important leaders, but only their locally-based staff, who are embedded in national contexts; no-one cares about visitors from HQ. Outsiders are more important at the start of reform processes (their influence tends to diminish after that). Not surprisingly, providing funding is their key role, with the key proviso that the funding is open ended and flexible, not tied to the ‘roll out’ of ‘best practice’. Overall however, outsiders are bit parts in the reform drama.
Discussing all this over dinner, Matt thinks we have arrived at a ‘moment’ – a coming together of dissidents from numerous disciplines to reject the logframe/best practice culture and push for something more rooted in reality. Political science, complexity theorists, aid veterans, Cash on Delivery proponents, the Development Leadership Program, the Africa Power and Politics Programme and many more are all challenging linear/blueprint thinking and proposing new and (hopefully) better alternatives.
In a nice twist, he applies PDIA to the task of persuading the aid agencies to adopt, erm, PDIA. He thinks the level of disruption to the signalling model is high, driven by growing evidence of failure. I’m not so sure. To steal from Robert Chambers ‘whose reality counts?’, for many aid donors right now, reality feels like political and financial siege, and that is fuelling the pursuit of a divisive emphasis on ‘results’. I’m not sure there will be much appetite for a movement, however well grounded in evidence, which says that the way to achieve change is to make it up as we go along (a sceptic’s version of PDIA) rather than to pursue short term, attributable results.
And (and this gets politically tricky for me), both the volume of aid and its management may also be obstacles to realigning it. Matt cites the World Bank’s ‘Learning and Innovation Loans’, which have been largely ignored, mainly because they are too small – an average of $5m, compared to $150m for other investment projects. As long as Bank staff are promoted on the basis of banking-style rules that reward the volume of aid they move, who is going to waste their time on LiLs? Then of course there is the ‘pre-programming’ model epitomised by detailed logframes and other project documents that require a pretence of predictability and linearity – all of it toxic to a PDIA approach. The increasing influence of governance indicators like the
CPIA that themselves enshrine ‘best practice’ at the heart of what we measure closes the conceptual circle and makes it even harder to conceive of new approaches.
As you may have realized from the quotes, the book’s language is pretty dense and technical. That, plus being published as an academic hardback, could easily reduce the book’s audience and impact. Any publishers willing to back a more popular version should beat a path to Matt’s door.
Finally, there is lots of overlap with my own work on power and change – the importance of power analysis/understanding local context, seizing critical junctures, convening and brokering rather than trying to go it alone, evolutionary learning-by-doing rather than single grand plans. Over dinner, we kicked around some exciting plans for working together in future – watch this space.
Crushed by my humiliation at the hands of Claire Melamed, it would just make matters worse to come back for another round of post-2015 jousting, so let’s move on.
I actually quite like blogging about meetings held under Chatham House rules, as they allow me to write about the discussion without worrying about who said what. And to take the credit for anything clever, of course.
So last week, I found myself in a heated debate on the future of aid, with a bunch of NGOs and aid boffins. The topic was ‘is it time for a re-think?’ Why? Because the aid world is changing:
- New donors, such as foundations, philanthropists and emerging economies such as China and India are starting their own aid programmes, often outside the traditional donor club of the OECD DAC
- Increasing diversity of sources of ‘financing for development’, from domestic taxation to remittances to private investment
- Austerity driving many traditional donors to cut aid, either overtly or sneakily, by trying to count lots of non-aid flows as aid, or both (see FT letter here). A reminder that in terms of its increasing aid budget, the UK is really an outlier these days – ‘we are talking in the vicarage, here’.
- The post-2015 discussions raising lots of questions about sustainable development goals and collective action on everything from climate change to tax havens, which have been traditionally fenced off from the aid discussion.
Underlying all this was a sense that the definition of aid corresponds to an old order (rich northern countries give cash for big push in the South to get public services functioning and the economy humming). That world has little to do with many of the preoccupations of modern development – fragile states and conflict, climate change, leaky financial systems, migration etc etc.
But does that mean aid needs to be overhauled? All were agreed that the current levels of aid, running globally at around $130bn a year, are a precious achievement, the only flow of resources aimed specifically at helping poor people, with a reasonably tight definition, making it easier to defend from dilution. Lots of talk of not throwing babies out with bathwater. (And tanks on lawns, heads in sand – mixed metaphors threatened to get seriously out of control.)
Which brought us to the political context – the march of the Austerians means that any decision to open up discussions on the definition of aid (which governments such as Netherlands and Germany are already doing) is much more likely to lead to a watering down/dilution of aid, with lots of other stuff being included – I pointed out that, in contrast to Pandora’s Box, the nasties will fly in when this one is opened.
Broadly, aid donors will want ‘what allows you to reach your aid target without spending any more money’, while aid recipients will want to keep everything separate, so additional cash for things like climate finance is not counted as aid. One old hand said ‘and the donors will win.’
Which made me line up on the ‘conservative’ side of the table – the risks are largely downside, so try and resist efforts to redefine aid and defend what you’ve got. Others felt that the debate was already happening, and we had no option but to engage.
Everyone was for improved data and transparency (who isn’t?) on non-aid flows, so that donors, governments and others could see what is already happening before allocating their cash (lots of praise for the new DFI/Oxfam Government Spending Watch database of how much poor countries are spending on the MDGs, with seasoned aid officials saying they had spent years trying to get this data out, without success). Another piece of good news is that Development Initiatives are working on an annual report on Investments to End Poverty, which documents all resources available for poverty eradication – watch out for it in September and see some of the material here.
Lots of discussion on the 0.7 target, with the technocrats seeing it as arbitrary and weird, and the advocates seeing its use in driving government action, even in countries that haven’t endorsed it, like the US. Interesting suggestions that 1% of government spending (a penny in the pound) might make a more sensible and communicable target than 0.7% of Gross National Income.
As for the new southern aid donors, the wonks reckoned that they are not interested in targets, but are interested in what counts as aid – one cited Turkey which, when obliged to count it, found it was giving much more aid than it had realised, partly because it had assumed a narrower.
Other interesting discussions on ‘fair shares’ – how you could modify the 0.7 target to take account of a country’s stage of development, perhaps using the UN formula for assessing members’ contributions to its budget. Anyone done that?
Overall, I did feel that there is an institutional problem here – at some point the aid discussion needs to be taken out of the OECD, even though it’s been doing a pretty good job so far. Otherwise, it risks being seen as a project of the declining North, with minimal buy in from others. But would the UN (the obvious alternative) do a better job?
My conclusion? At this political moment, I think there is a real danger in trying to stretch the debate on aid to include everything that contributes to development (we wonks always like to do this – look at post-2015). Right now the test of any proposal should be ‘what is most likely to increase rather than reduce funds going from rich countries to poor countries for good purposes?’ For example, stretching ‘aid’ to include most peacekeeping fails that test badly - irrespective of all the good sense about security and development reinforcing each other. Better to try and keep the aid definition (and debates) tight and work on the rest in other fora – Government Spending Watch, tax havens, climate change etc. We won’t win them all – for example there is clearly substantial overlap between climate finance and aid, so insisting on ‘additionality’ is very unlikely to succeed, but I see little benefit in helping others prize open the Pandora’s Box of aid.
I spend most of my working life thinking about post-2015 so this is a slightly nerve-racking experience. What if Duncan convinces me? Let me first respond to his arguments, then set out what I think is to be gained from the post-2015 circus… and then we’ll see if I’m still working on post-2015 at the end of it.
I’ll start with the magical thinking. Yes a lot of what’s being said in the name of post-2015 is a bit ‘if everything was nice everything would be nice’. But think of it this way: people everywhere, not just wonks like us – are getting involved in serious debates at national, regional and global level, about poverty, about politics, about economics and about the environment. We don’t know where it will lead yet. Some of it will lead nowhere. But don’t write off all that energy and commitment because it’s a bit unfocused, rather celebrate the fact that so many people want to get involved in political debate and action (even be, um, active citizens….).
In any case, that is about the campaign and the public debate, not the goals, and the two shouldn’t be confused. If the outcome is important, being annoyed at the tone and strategy adopted by campaigners has to be a reason to get in there and change that, not to walk away.
So is it important? Will a new agreement have any effect? It depends on what. If it’s a specific change – say a new law on land rights, or criminalisation of gender violence – in a given country you’re after, quite obviously you don’t work on any multilateral process. You work through national politics, if you’re a local organisation or in solidarity with those local organisations if you’re outside the country. Many organisations and individuals do just that, brilliantly.
But that’s not what we’re trying to do here. Both Duncan and I, and millions of other people over the years, have also taken part in campaigns, research and advocacy dedicated to improving the global context for those national politics – for example by improving global trade rules or forgiving debt. This is one of those. Multilateralism will never be the fastest or most certain route to national change, but it’s a contribution. Even if the changes are marginal in any given country, taken in lots of countries together that can add up to something quite big.
Of course you can’t know in advance, for any agreement or institution, how those global changes are going to work out in any given situation. But you have to take a punt on the basis of (almost always partial) evidence, and go for it.
And so to the evidence. Should, as Duncan suggests, post-2015ers have considered all the available options for multilateral instruments before embarking on this particular course? Well, the next time someone asks me to design a multilateral system from scratch, then of course I will do that research. Maybe we can do it together.
But this is not about fantasy multilateralism. Yes post-2015 is about goals, because that’s what’s on the table. That’s what governments, in the UN, in regional organisations, in bilateral forums, are negotiating. Other instruments are available – if it’s laws you want, have another shot at the WTO, or if it’s league tables, there’s always the HDI. They exist, they have an impact, and plenty of people work on them. But the political opportunity of post-2015 is about goals, not any of those other instruments.
So why do I (and, by the way, a large number of the world’s governments and the whole UN system, not really the ‘sidelines’) think it’s worth working on goals for post-2015? Apart from the impact on aid, which everyone seems to agree on – there are at least three other reasons to think that the current MDGs have done some good in the world, and therefore why it’s worth investing in a new agreement.
More and better information. The MDGs, and in particular the indicators linked to each goal and target, created a huge global effort to assess progress on the basis of commonly agreed metrics. Information has improved in every way since then. The common set of indicators agreed as part of the MDGs allowed us to compare countries to each other and over time. They created incentives to invest in data, and, probably, reduced the tendency to reach for GDP alone as the all-purpose indicator for human progress. And more data improved advocacy, policy making , and sometimes led to a race to the top between governments – all ways that this particular multilateral agreement has an impact at national level. A new agreement could do this for information on gender violence, or on employment, to take two examples of very important things on which the data is terrible.
More campaigning. There was campaigning before the MDGs and there would have been campaigning in their absence. But the combination of goals and targets have been used as an extra bit of ammunition for national campaigns – and again, been one small part of changes in national politics and policy. Advocates for education and for health services have probably been the keenest users of the MDGs. It’s rare to read a description of the campaign for free universal primary education in Kenya, for example, that doesn’t mention the education goal as one of the factors that helped push the politics in the right direction (pdf). Without the MDGs they would have had one fewer stick to beat governments with, and progress may well have been slower. Campaigners for universal health care, for example, think a goal or target on this would be helpful as they try to push policy in that direction in particular countries.
More and better consensus. In the 1980s and 1990s growth was king, income was the only thing that mattered, and, according to some of the architects of structural adjustment programmes, it was justifiable to actually make poor people’s lives worse in the short term in the name of ‘development’. The MDGs were the moment that the world agreed that this was not ok, and that social development, as defined in the goals, should be an equal priority for international efforts. A new agreement can make a move to achieving a similar consensus on inequality, for example, or on the need to make sure that we keep to within environmental limits. This stuff matters – look at how norms, and then laws and actions, on human rights have changed in the last 20 or 30 years.
A post-2015 agreement is not going to change the world overnight. Nothing, sadly, will do that. We can’t know in advance exactly what changes it will bring, and to who, and how. It may all end horribly and pointlessly, and even if we get a good agreement, it will be a big and unwieldy thing, with an impact that’s felt through many channels over many years. But within the range of global processes that it’s currently possible to influence, this seems to me to be pretty good investment of my time. A thousand words later, I’m still convinced. You?
So over to you for the inevitable poll. As on the results one, I couldn’t think of suitably nuanced revealing questions, so let’s just see if you agree more with Claire, me both or neither. And I think I can assure you, the result will have absolutely no influence over the post-2015 process!
I’ve been good friends with Claire Melamed for ages, but recently we’ve found ourselves on opposite sides of the post-2015 debate. As ODI’s growth and inequality supremo, Claire is deeply immersed in the ever-proliferating discussions, whereas I decided early on that I had massive reservations about the whole process. So for your amusement (and who knows, perhaps enlightenment), we’ve decided to air our differences in public. I’ll kick off,
Claire responds, and we hope that will produce a load of comments and a life and death struggle for the last word (which I shall of course win, because it’s my blog).
What’s my beef? The post-2015 discussion typifies the kind of ‘magical thinking’ that abounds in aid circles, in which well-intentioned developmentistas debate how the world should be improved. These discussions and the mountains of policy papers, blogs etc that accompany them, are often based on what I call ‘If I ruled the World’ (IRW) thinking. IRW, then I would do X, Y, Z – Rights for (disenfranchised group of your choice)! More Infrastructure! Better Data! Jobs!
The high/low point of this for me came last year, when I had to MC an interaction between 250 civil society lobbyists and the High Level Panel on post-2015 – we managed to squeeze about 80 interventions into the allotted hour of consultation, which produced a Christmas Tree (Claire’s term, much copied) of issues that had no chance of making it onto the final post-2015 agenda.
But in any case, so what if they do? Because what is missing from this is any consideration of power and politics. What, after all, is the point of the post-2015 process, beyond creating (another) international forum for debating development? The MDGs were primarily about improving the quantity and quality of aid, and arguably they were quite successful in this. What is much less certain is the extent to which they influenced government policy (as in, persuaded governments to do things they wouldn’t have done otherwise). Rich country governments have systematically ignored MDG8 (the one on global partnership), while the evidence of ‘traction’ on developing country governments is really rather flimsy (more on that here).
In particular, I was astonished to find that there is no rigorous research comparing the traction exerted on national decision-making by the various different kinds of international instrument (laws, conventions, regional league tables, norms, academic exchanges). So the post-2015 circus is busily debating what ‘should’ happen without first establishing whether/how its conclusions will affect national decision-making. And this blind spot is massive – you can go entire days in the bubble of post-2015 discussions without ever hearing anyone mention any other international instrument on development or rights.
When I raised this at a recent OECD post-2015 conference, Claire wearily replied ‘There isn’t an answer – there is no single thing that we can say ‘if you do it like that, it will have traction’. It is very hard to predict beforehand which mechanisms for any given agreement will get traction.’ So that’s a relief then, can we just ignore these annoying questions about actual impact and get back to decorating the Christmas Tree?
That really isn’t good enough. It is certainly possible to know much more than we do about attribution through more rigorous qualitative research. For example, in-depth interviews with policymakers could investigate the traction exerted by a range of external and domestic forces on their decisions. I have yet to locate such research. (And rocking up and asking developing country ministers leading questions like ‘how have the MDGs affected your decision-making?’ most definitely does not constitute rigorous research.)
So if it can’t generate national traction, what could the post-2015 process achieve?
- Aid still matters, albeit to a diminishing group of countries, and post-2015 could bolster the case for aid (under siege from the Austerians), and continue to improve its quality
- Intellectual hegemony matters, so general debates on development are always good (hey, they’re my bread and butter)
- It may help break the logjam on collective action on everything from climate change to migration (but don’t hold your breath)
But by ignoring the primacy of national politics and avoiding serious political economy questions on traction, it feels like the post-2015 process hasperhaps inadvertently relegated itself to the sidelines – a bit player in a drama that is increasingly national and beyond the reach of the aid industry.
Over to you Claire (and for the sake of my peace of mind, and a natural urge to run away and joint the post-2015 circus, this is one argument I would really like to lose).
Having had my professional and political interests shaped during the somewhat heady days of the 1980s in Sandinista Nicaragua, I’ve long been interested in the potential and limits of collective action—of people organizing and mobilizing through associations, unions, cooperatives, community organizations, fairtrade networks and so on. The Sandinista “revolution” soon gave way to the “neoliberal” 1990s. As in much of the world, collective action went on the backburner or assumed new forms via NGO networks and identity politics. Fast forward two decades and we are witnessing a significant rebound in collective action associated with workers, producers and consumers. Whether in response to global crises (finance and food), the structural conditions of precarious employment or new opportunities for cultural expression and social interaction afforded by the internet age, old and new forms are on the rise.
The term social and solidarity economy (SSE) is increasingly being used to refer to a broad range of organizations that are distinguished from conventional for-profit enterprise, entrepreneurship and informal economy by two core features. First, they have explicit economic AND social (and often environmental) objectives. Second, they involve varying forms of co-operative, associative and solidarity relations. They include, for example, cooperatives, mutual associations, NGOs engaged in income generating activities, women’s self-help groups, community forestry and other organizations, associations of informal sector workers, social enterprise and fair trade organizations and networks.
In addition to diversification, we see signs of upscaling. SSE appears to be moving beyond its niche, peripheral, project or community-level status, and becoming more significant in terms of macro-economic, commercial and social-economic indicators, as charted in a 2011 ILO report:
- In the UK some 62,000 social enterprises contribute £24 billion ($37.1billion) to the economy and employ 800,000 people.
- In Europe; 2 million SSE organizations represent about 10% of all companies.
- In India, over 30 million people (mainly women) are organized in over 2.2 million self-help groups; and the country’s largest food marketing corporation, the cooperative organization Amul, has 3.1 million producer members and an annual revenue of $2.5 billion.
- In Nepal, 5 million forest users are organized in the country’s largest civil society organization.
- The global fairtrade market has grown to €4.9 billion ($6.4 billion) and involves some 1.2 million workers and farmers producing certified products.
- Mutual benefit societies provide health and social protection services to 170 million people worldwide.
Beyond the statistics, why the growing interest in SSE? Theory and anecdotal evidence tell us that such an approach can be a key mechanism through which poor or disempowered people in society gain greater control over resources and decision-making processes that affect their lives. Economists and political scientists have long espoused the benefits that can derive from co-operation or group behaviour in terms of addressing market failures and making demands on more powerful entities. Sociologists have emphasized other virtues related to social cohesion, identity and job satisfaction.
But the contemporary interest in SSE also relates to the fact that we are living in an era that seems to be crying out for new models of development. Not only have we to deal with multiple and recurring crises (finance, food and energy), but there is growing recognition that today’s normative agenda has to be much more encompassing. Some may hark back to the glorious days of post WWII “embedded liberalism”, of welfare states protecting citizens and corporations upholding some principles and practices of “decent work”. But for all its benefits and ongoing pertinence, this model ignored some key issues related to gender equality and environmental pollution, and is struggling to reproduce itself in contexts of economic liberalization and informalization of labour markets.
The discussions and debates taking place in the build-up to 2015—the date that has been set for a new or revised set of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—signal that the old development formula of economic growth plus social protection is no longer sufficient. Other aspects, associated with the realization of rights, empowerment, equality, women’s care burden, and transformations in production and consumption patterns, need to be factored in. The theoretical attraction of social and solidarity economy lies precisely in the ways it lends itself to addressing these multiple dimensions of development. It simultaneously fosters economic dynamism, social and environmental protection and socio-political empowerment.
But achieving in practice what is promised on paper is another ballgame. SSE’s recent revival has been, organic, a largely grassroots phenomenon. And therein lies the rub—in two respects. First, collective action needs to connect at multiple scales via networks, movements and alliances. If the SSE is to be sustained, enabled and scaled-up on terms compatible with its values and objectives, action cannot remain local; it must cohere at other levels (municipal, provincial, national, regional and global) where governance, advocacy and politics play out. Second, in order to expand and really move beyond the fringe, the SSE must interact far more with states, for-profit enterprise and global value chains. Such interactions inevitably generate tensions and dilemmas given differences in development priorities and approaches, as well as differentials in bargaining power.
For a graphic illustration of these tensions, look no further than fair-trade. In 2011 there was a major split in the international fair trade movement asthe US labeling organization (then known as Transfair USA) left the international federation, FLO (since renamed Fairtrade International).
Closer integration with powerful market actors underpinned the split. Fair-trade had expanded significantly over the years but quite different approaches were being promoted. The US organization leaned towards engagement with corporations like Starbucks and was keen to source from large commercial tea and other plantations, something not possible under FLO rules. Such relationships with big business had implications for the price that buyers were prepared to pay to small farmers and the quality of sustainability standards. Meanwhile, various labeling organizations and producer groups that were key stakeholders in FLO wanted to stick to the original principles and practices of fair trade, based on smallholder empowerment and agro-ecology.
What immediate policy implications stem from this reflection? Governments and international organizations clearly need to be paying far more attention to the SSE, and question how its developmental and emancipatory potential can be realized. And they should also be asking themselves whether current priorities or biases in policy approach in the field of development are not missing, or indeed undermining, what could be a major new game in town. These include the tendency to focus on
i) individuals or entrepreneurship, rather than groups,
ii) economic, rather than political, empowerment;
iii) idealize the integration of small producers and communities in global value chains; and
iv) social (and environmental) protection, rather than equality and emancipation.
It is these and other issues we’ll be debating at UNRISD’s conference on Potential and Limits of Social and Solidarity Economy from 6-8 May at the ILO in Geneva. Please join us!
Peter Utting is writing in his personal capacity.