Latest from Duncan Green's blog
What can would-be African lions learn from the Asian tigers? It’s all about how urban elites see farmers, according to ODI.
I am both inspired and alarmed by the work coming out of ODI on ‘Developmental Regimes in Africa’. In previous posts, I’ve moaned at some length about its political infatuation with Mussolini style ‘big men’ who get stuff done. But today, it’s time for a happy face.
Sources of developmental ambition in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, by David Henley and Ahmad Helmy Fuady, is a brilliant
exposition on what would-be African lions can learn from the Asian tigers:
‘Southeast Asian countries could reduce poverty fast because their governments prioritised pro-poor agricultural and rural development in both political and budgetary terms, as well as providing sound macroeconomic management and conditions of economic freedom (especially for peasant farmers). Public investments – in irrigation, research, input subsidies, agricultural extension, price stabilisation, and rural infrastructure, education and health care – raised the productivity and profitability of smallholder farms. In Africa, by contrast, few countries have ever combined economic freedom and sound macroeconomic management with pro-poor, pro-rural public spending.’
To explore these differences, the authors look at eight countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Nigeria, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda.
First they debunk the ‘you need a massive external threat like the Chinese Revolution to make leaders cooperate and build the nation’ school of thought, concluding:
‘The impact of such threats on the political interests of decision-making elites does not fully explain the differences in policy stance between and among African and Southeast Asian countries. Differences in assumptions about the nature of the development process are just as important. This has major policy implications. It means priority should be given to changing the mindsets of African leaders by stressing that successful development elsewhere in the world has been achieved with strategies that are inclusive, pro-poor and pro-rural.’
‘Regardless of political interests and calculations, even African leaders of rural origin tend to see rural life and rural people less positively than their Southeast Asian counterparts. These different attitudes have historical roots. In Southeast Asia there is a long tradition of indigenous urbanism. In Africa, many of today’s cities are colonial in origin, and were seen as alien European enclaves for generations. An African who moved from the countryside to the city in the early twentieth century was crossing a cultural divide.
One legacy of this transformation has been a collective assumption of developmental dualism: a conviction that progress can only be achieved by a quantum leap from (rural) backwardness to (urban) modernity. In Southeast Asia the colonial experience involved less of a rupture with the past.’
This is followed by some thought-provoking ‘so whats’ for policy makers:
‘Clearly, international actors cannot create the kind of revolutionary threat that helped to inspire such policies in Asia. There is little evidence that electoral democracy can generate the same salutary political pressure on African (or indeed Asian) governments.Nor is it possible to alter colonial history or the cultural factors that have shaped the attitudes of Africa’s leaders and intellectuals towards rural and agricultural development.
However, persuading people to change learned attitudes is still easier than trying to reconfigure the national political forces that constrain their actions. Given the common perception among African leaders that policy guidance by international actors has neocolonial overtones, such guidance must be sensitive and support national policy ownership.
The most promising approach, therefore, is to help change the mindsets of African elites by drawing their attention to the fact that successful development elsewhere in the world has been achieved largely through inclusive, pro-poor, pro-rural strategies. This should take precedence over historically less well founded finger-wagging on the importance of good governance, democracy or even free trade.’
And guess what, not a single mention of aid, cooperation or donors. Cool, eh?
Innovation. Who could be against it? Not even Kim Jong Un, apparently. People working on aid and development spend an increasing time discussing it – what is it? How do we get more of it? Who is any good at it? Innovation Tourette’s is everywhere.
Most of that discussion takes place in areas such as programming (what we do on the ground) or internal management (the unquenchable urge to restructure), drawing on innovation thinking in the private sector, government and academia.
In advocacy, we see plenty of innovation already, in new themes (e.g. a range of tax campaigns in the wake of the financial crisis) and players (online outfits such as Avaaz and change.org), but also a fair amount of business as usual: the cycle of policy papers, recommendations, lobby meetings, media work and consultations grinds on, not always to great effect.
At a higher level, there is lots of really innovative thinking going on about how to operate in complex systems, such as ODI’s work on hybrid institutions, or Matt Andrews and Lant Pritchett on ‘problem driven iterative adaptation’, but that tends to be directed at the big players, like governments, bilateral donors and the World Bank, with few links to humble NGOs doing single issue campaigns.
So my question is, where/how to be more systematic in supporting innovation in the advocacy work of large international NGOs and other aid organizations? The challenge is not just to have the odd new idea, but to run the organization in such a way that they keep flowing. Some initial thoughts:
Ways of Working/Management
Steal more: If Google and other high tech innovators stay ahead of the curve by buying up startups with new ideas, why don’t we? Annual performance reviews for advocacy staff should include the question: ‘what ideas have you stolen from smaller, more agile organizations?’ After all, when I was at CAFOD, getting Oxfam to steal my ideas was one of my objectives.
Spin offs: An alternative lesson from Google is to spin off lots of start ups, and leave them to sink or swim. Over the years, we’ve had some big successes such as New Internationalist or Fairtrade Foundation. Why not make it more systematic?
Change staff culture: In INGOs, it sometimes seems like a badge of honour to be 120% committed, but that carries a risk that hard working advocacy types have no time to read, think or innovate. I am reminded of ‘political coughs’ from the 80s – overwork, no sleep, bad diet + too many roll-ups meant any self respecting activist had a permanent cough and looked like they hadn’t seen daylight for months (they often hadn’t). Contrast that with Google’s famous “20% time,” which allows employees to take one day a week to work on side projects.
Change management culture: Tim Harford, in his book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure (review here) says ‘Adaptive organizations need to decentralize and become comfortable with the chaos of different local approaches and the awkwardness of dissent from junior staff.’ How to do this? Harford comes up with a ‘Three step recipe for successful adapting: try new things, in the expectation that some will fail; make failure survivable, because it will be common; and make sure that you know when you have failed…… distinguishing success from failure, oddly, can be the hardest task of all.’
Embrace risk: Learning from Google (again): the need for aid agencies to consider their operations as a ‘risk portfolio’. Should we be more explicit in seeking a balance between safe bet activities and high risk/high return moonshots? I fear that currently we try to minimise risk on each separate activity, producing an overall portfolio skewed towards the conservative and low risk/low innovation end.
Who we work with:
Unusual suspects: who cares about our issue and has influence, but is not getting any attention from us? Grey Panthers could be huge, for example, but barely get a look in.
Finding new ideas:
Positive deviance: what advocacy by us or other orgs, has gone better than predicted? Go back and find out why.
Don’t just set up an innovation fund: According to Exfam innovation guru Nicholas Colloff ‘They quickly find themselves subsidizing things that people cannot finance any other way (which may have nothing whatsoever to do with ‘innovation’)!’
Get out more:
Give people a day a month to visit ‘the outside world’ with no greater agenda than to look and learn (and no requirement to bring anything back other than the business cards of the people they meet). The good thing about working with Oxfam is that you can get yourself invited virtually anywhere. Seek out people who are relevant but different – not other NGOistas, but say, community organizers, think tanks, faith leaders even (gasp!) right wing organizations (after all, they’ve been doing pretty well on the influencing business).
Give talks and not simply the apparently ‘important’ ones, or to the usual suspects. I get a lot of new ideas from the increasing number of meetings where I am the only NGO person in the room.
Count the source of your e-mails (even if only for a month) and see how many come from other people in your own organization (prepare to be appalled).
And scariest of all (back to Nicholas): ‘Get them reading the Daily Mail – a penance I know but the most influential paper in the UK and, in fact, difficult to stereotype! In truth, the simple act of reading something you are not familiar with is surprisingly stimulating.’
I think that may be a step too far…
So over to you for links and suggestions, examples of organizations doing consistently innovative advocacy work or anything else you think might help, including your favourite gurus.
Exfamer turned research consultant May Miller-Dawkins (@maykmd) tries to sort out diamonds from dross among the ever-proliferating ‘multi-stakeholder initiatives’.
Have you ever had to decide whether or not to join a multi-stakeholder initiative? When I was at Oxfam there was a disagreement about whether or not to join a fledgling MSI. Some staff believed that the industry was going to use the process as greenwash while others thought this was a real chance to influence the private sector, when other strategies had led to stalemate.
As MSIs proliferate, NGOs face these decisions more frequently. In the absence of a crystal ball or a track record, how can NGOs distinguish between the potential (ethically sourced, of course) diamonds, and the misleading twinkle of a cubix zirconia?
One familiar way in for NGOs is to look at the forms of participation that are being proposed – asking the same questions as in so many development programs. Who gets to participate? Who gets to decide?
As it turns out MSIs tend to legitimate their enterprise on the basis of participation. A study (ungated version here) by Phillip Pattberg and Klaus Dingwerth found that even in their own communications, MSIs emphasise their multi-stakeholder composition and the participation of particular groups even more than actual results. Of course all MSIs have “participation” (at a minimum of the private sector and civil society) as a key feature. But digging deeper, you see that the types of participation vary in important ways.
First off there are “representative” forms of participation. These focus on stakeholder representation (for example into the common chambers structure seen in Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), Roundtable on Palm Oil Sustainability and Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials) and internal representation of the scheme’s members through elected Boards (e.g. 4C Association, FSC, and many others).
Secondly, many schemes are “deliberative”. These schemes focus on dialogue and frequently make decisions by consensus (for example, the Roundtable on Responsible Soy “aims to facilitate global dialogue”, the Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol was developed through dialogue amongst a forum and then moved to an ongoing chambers structure). Some recognise the particular experience and knowledge of marginalised or oppressed groups and try to ensure that they are heard and respected (the World Commission on Dams, an early form of MSI, invested in getting the testimony of dam-affected people as well as having them represented on the Commission).
A third strand of participation is more decidedly “functional”. Here the focus is on solving problems, drawing on expertise (whether narrowly or widely conceived), or resolving conflict (for example the Alliance for Water Stewardship and the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation). The extreme of functional forms of participation would be co-option that defuses opposition without delegating real authority.
Lastly, it is important to note that participation in MSIs is not limited to those who voluntarily choose to join. Groups participate in schemes as “outsiders” in a range of ways – by refusing to join, campaigning and monitoring (for example, the Bank Information Center’s monitoring of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, or campaigning against the Fair Labor Association). In fact, some experience from social change campaigning demonstrates that civil society are more effective at influencing change in corporate practice when different groups play insider and outsider roles in MSIs.
So, how can better understanding the types of participation in MSIs guide decisions about joining or starting MSIs? Here are a few ideas:
- If the most important principle to your organisation is that people who are likely to be affected by a scheme are involved in its creation then you’ll want to have a representative design, but one which pays adequate attention to who actually participates. This can mean minimum proportions of “chambers” or voting rights to particular groups (eg producers or workers – for example the Fair Labelling Organization has 4 Producer seats on the Board) and adequately resourcing the participation of southern civil society and groups that directly represent workers, producers, Indigenous peoples and other constituencies.
- If you think the conflict between an industry and civil society is a fundamental clash of world-views, then a deliberative approach may work, provided that the process allows adequate time and respect for the kinds of knowledge and expertise that sit on either side of the divide. This may require going beyond international meetings and technical documents, to include visits, immersions, testimony and ensuring a balance of participants and presenters from all sides. Deliberative schemes can be a way to get an industry that is highly reluctant (and maybe battle weary) around the table. However, a lack of focus on the process of deliberation and decision-making in the beginning can lead to a situation where NGOs become locked into a process they have sunk significant time and energy into. To avoid this, NGOs should at least have their own exit strategies – potentially agreed with their partners or allies – if the dialogue does not produce sufficient results.
- Where you think there is genuine commitment to change in an industry, a collaborative approach may be the way to go – by starting small on pilots and programs, and agreeing to stay focused on solving specific problems. The dangers of the collaborative route can be overlooking the political dimensions of the issues at hand – including disagreements between different groups within the amorphous categories of “civil society” and the “private sector”. The fights between the NGOs and companies that get involved in MSIs can pale in comparison to the disagreements between civil society groups about the right strategy.
- Problems with scientific dimensions – such as sustainable fisheries – require expert advice. The terms of expert advice are important (is the expert committee’s advice binding on the decision-makers?). However, be wary of schemes that construe civil society input itself as “expert” input or relegate it to an expert committee with no decision-making authority. This can show that sustainability is being seen as a technical problem to be solved and different views of what sustainability may look like could be brushed aside.
- If you want to work inside a scheme but also understand that it is important that other groups are able to campaign and monitor from the outside you’ll want to make sure that the MSI is fairly transparent – that documents, minutes of meetings, and results of assessments (if they exist) are published, that there is regular consultation, and that reporting and monitoring can be verified by third parties unaffiliated with the scheme.
There is no perfect design for an MSI. However, with a couple of decades of MSI experience under our collective belts and a better understanding of their potential and limits, careful attention to the different forms of participation at the front end can hopefully lead to better results at the other.
MSI veterans and observers – what’s your experience? What forms of participation do you think means that MSIs are more likely to deliver?
‘Hope’: a new fund to promote women’s rights in the Arab Spring countries (and happy International Women’s Day)
Three years ago, weeks before the centenary of International Women’s Day, I remember sitting in my living room in Manchester, watching on TV with hope and astonishment the brave women and men who were taking to the streets in the Arab World, reclaiming their right to live a dignified life and to make free decisions about how their countries were run.
Women were at the forefront of the Arab uprising protests. Images of women protesting, interviews with young women activists, were all over global media. A window of opportunity for real change seemed wide open; the governments of Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen were overthrown, new transitional political processes were introduced and leaders sworn in. This seemed a time ripe with opportunities for the advancement of women’s rights in most Arab countries. As a woman, campaigner and activist myself, I could not but be moved and inspired by their courage.
But three years on, on the eve of International Women’s Day, the sky is darker with political divisions, economic instability, societal violence and conflict restraining the quest for women’s empowerment. However there are also glimpses of light. At best, women’s struggle to achieve the changes they aspired to resulted in successes such as the Moroccan and Tunisian constitutions of 2011 and 2014 respectively, and higher representation in elected bodies in many countries. At worst, women’s rights seem to be going backwards, for example in Egypt’s abolition of parliamentary quotas for women and increased public violence. These days, I am still a mere spectator, but this time I am a little closer to the action, since I am working directly with those women who have been campaigning during the Arab uprisings – as part of Oxfam’s Amal programme team. Let me explain.
In the aftermath of the Arab uprisings in the region, political spaces have opened and regardless of the outcomes in each country, the relationship between citizens and states has changed irreversibly. As a result of this, many new organisations, groups and movements are emerging.
They have a lot to do. Women in the MENA Region (like in a lot of other regions of the world) remain largely under-represented in all three branches of government; judiciary, legislative, and executive. Many overarching reasons lie behind this: social norms, the tribal nature of a lot of Arab countries, as well as a legal environment that often hinders the advancement of women.
But one area where such exclusion is not universal, where women are given a chance to shine, is the social and informal sector. Building on that, Oxfam is today launching an “Innovation Fund”. The fund will give small grants to new organizations with creative and bold solutions to long-lasting challenges and reach informal and emerging groups through partnerships with established organizations.
The fund is part of the AMAL (‘Hope’ in Arabic) programme, which works in four of the countries affected by the Arab uprisings: Tunisia, Morocco, Palestine and Yemen, in partnership with 13 local organizations. Oxfam and women’s organizations are working together with women – often from poor communities – strengthening their confidence, knowledge of their rights and their campaigning and advocacy skills. As I am writing one of Oxfam’s partners in Morocco, La Fédération de la Ligue Démocratique des Droits des Femmes, is mobilising civil society to call for the implementation of Chapter 19 of their new Constitution, which requires the end of discrimination and equality between men and women.
In rural Yemen too, Oxfam’s partner, the Yemeni Women’s Union is creating spaces for women to come together to share their experiences, needs and aspirations and equip them with the practical skills and confidence to influence change in their lives and communities; word about these activities is spreading fast amongst Yemeni women and more discussion sessions than anticipated are being organized as a result.
Working on women’s empowerment in Arab societies is an exciting and growing area of interest for Oxfam. The overall aims may be the same as in other regions, but the means differ. Especially following the Arab uprisings, the diversity in the region is surfacing more than ever, with those who are both proponents and opponents of women’s rights all basing their views on a mix of values derived from the family and tribal culture, religion, tradition and social norms, as well as modernity and international human rights. The key is to take account of these differences and develop adapted messages that can build the alliances and coalitions needed to bring about positive change.
Whatever the short term ups and downs of the struggle for women’s rights in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the experience of protest and organization have left a legacy among the region’s women of confidence in their ability to ‘raise the roof’ (to use the Arabic expression). It is the energy of women like these, who are hungry for change and hopeful for a better future where they can be the masters (mistresses!) of their own destiny, that Oxfam and its partners would like to celebrate this International Women’s Day.
The Innovation Fund launched today offers small grants to emerging and new women’s organizations in Tunisia, Yemen, Palestine and Morocco. Grantees will be able to access awards of and in-kind support of up to $35,000. For more information, see below.
Three years after the Arab uprisings, the energy and hunger for change – and women’s influence and strong leadership within this – is needed more than ever. This time, I am pleased to be able to do more than just watch.
Applications for the Oxfam Amal Innovation Fund will be open until 15 April. Apply using the form below, forms should be returned to Amal@oxfam.org.uk.
- Oxfam Amal Innovation Fund Application Form
- Oxfam Amal Innovation Fund Call for Proposals
- Oxfam Amal Innovation Fund Budget Template
The Fairtrade Foundation launched its first products – coffee, chocolate and tea – 20 years ago. As one of the Oxfam types who sat around in the late 80s debating whether UK supermarkets would ever stock ‘alternative trade’ products, this is a moment to savour.
We’ve come a long way. Sales in 2013 were £1.78 billion in the UK alone – half of the global total, and have kept growing despite the recession. 90% of UK consumers know and trust the FAIRTRADE Mark, and that familiarity underpins many of the subsequent trade justice campaigns on everything from ‘clean clothes’ to the WTO. 1.3 million small farmers and workers in 70 countries have seen positive impacts, from better incomes to stronger collective organisation and the social premium (£23 million from UK sales in 2013) has enabled investment in health, housing and education schemes. So there’s a lot to celebrate as we come to the end of this year’s Fairtrade Fortnight.
Bananas are one of the movement’s success stories, with a third of the UK market now Fairtrade, helped by 100% sourcing commitments from Sainsbury’s, The Co-op and Waitrose.
But all is not rosy for Fairtrade Foundation in the garden of supermarket supply chains, as its recent report on Britain’s Bruising Banana Wars highlights. The retail price of loose bananas has nearly halved in the last 10 years in the UK (though curiously not in Germany, France or Italy). But the cost of production for farmers has doubled in some regions. The double whammy of depressed prices and increased costs is causing problems at both ends of this simple supply chain.
At the producer end, poverty is still the norm. In Ecuador only a quarter of households reliant on banana plantations earn an income above the poverty line. In Colombia many employers have responded to sustained pressure on prices by replacing permanent jobs with temporary ones, putting at risk Colombia’s proud model of mature industrial relations.
At the supermarket end, every retailer spoken to by the Foundation in researching the report talked of the competitive pressure to keep banana prices low (particularly since it is one of the items used to compare one another’s retail prices and communicate back to consumers). In a 2009 interview with The Grocer magazine the CEO of Waitrose suggested that the banana price war is costing it £100,000 per week, i.e. it was selling below cost.
How can this be healthy for sustainability – economic, environmental or social? Consumers have benefited – and given that UK poverty is increasing this matters – but the direction of travel is all wrong for those who care about trade justice. Even the poorest consumers do not want those who are poorer to be exploited; 84% of people say they would pay a few pence extra if they know it will reach farmers and workers. Just 1p on the retail price of a banana could lift incomes by 20-30%. Oxfam came to the same conclusion, in its Poverty Footprint study with IPL, which estimated that just 5p on a £4 bunch of flowers could raise Kenyan flower workers’ wages to a living wage.
Tesco – keen to change its image following the horsemeat scandal – has at least committed to pay at least the Fairtrade minimum price wherever they source, though not the licence fee that pays for the premium and other investment; it needs to keep step with Asda, which was first to drop banana prices in 2002 after it was taken over by Walmart.
As it looks to the next 20 years, Fairtrade faces another challenge: competition from other ethical and environmental labels (438 of them at the last count, many of which do not back up their claims). Fairtrade stands out for its payment of a guaranteed minimum price, an additional social premium and the inclusion of southern producers and trade unions in its governance. It has responded to concerns about low plantation wages (see previous blog on wages in the tea industry) by strengthening its standard for hired labour and initiating a living wage benchmarking process.
By comparison, Rainforest Alliance (a labelling initiative with an environmental focus that is taking market share from Fairtrade) pays no minimum price or social premium, does not give priority to small farmers and is pretty weak on workers’ rights, with no commitment to a living wage or effective grievance mechanisms (it’s consulting on its standard until 11 March so why not make your voice heard). We welcome the fact that Rainforest Alliance is collaborating on a living wage benchmarking initiative, but without a commitment to this in their standard, how will its model enable higher wages to be paid?
Yet another challenge is that retailers can’t talk about price as an issue for fear of falling foul of UK and EU competition law, which prohibits agreements or practices that ‘directly or indirectly fix purchase or selling prices or any other trading conditions’.
Is this a trading and policy environment in which Fairtrade Foundation can flourish in the next 20 years? In such circumstances it is natural that the Foundation is debating changes to its system that would enable it to compete and grow sales in this tough environment. But what really needs to change is the goliath of a food system against which this ethical David is pitting itself, a system which is locked into a race to the bottom. We badly need retailers to be able to compete and cover the cost of sustainable production, so that the would-be good guys thrive.
Oxfam is on the case with its Behind the Brands campaign, in which the top 10 food and beverage companies are rated and ranked on seven issues vital to poverty alleviation. The transparent scorecard on which findings are based has attracted attention from activists and corporate investors alike, and galvanised corporate commitments on issues such as gender and land grabs that get left out of their CSR programmes.
Meanwhile the Foundation has published its own survey, rating supermarkets’ efforts to make bananas fair (researched by Ethical Consumer). I for one welcome the more assertive stance of the Foundation in taking this analysis public and spelling out the changes needed.
Of course there will be plenty of trade-offs and tensions as they do this, such as the difficulty of achieving both breadth of reach and depth of impact, and the difficulty of being radical enough for their activist supporters, while staying commercial enough for their multinational licensees. It’s not easy to meet expectations when your mission is ‘to improve the trading position of producer organisations in the South and to deliver sustainable livelihoods for farmers, workers and their communities’.
Surely it’s time – as the Foundation says – for some government intervention in the UK – to investigate the impact of banana pricing, to take action to make bananas fair, and to review whether competition law enables rights to be respected in the supply chain. Meanwhile retailers and traders should do their utmost to cover the cost of sustainable production and pay a living wage to workers.
Meanwhile, hats off to everyone involved and good luck for the next 20 years.
This guest post comes from Thomas Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, drawing from their new report, Closing Space: Democracy and Human Rights Support Under Fire
When the concept of civil society took the international aid community by storm in the 1990s, many aid providers reveled in the alluring idea of civil society as a post-ideological, even post-political arena, a virtuous domain of nonpartisan organizations advancing a loosely defined notion of the public good. Funding civil society appealed as a way for aid providers to help shape the sociopolitical life of other countries without directly involving themselves in politics with a capital “P.” Power holders in aid-receiving countries, uncertain what to make of this fuss over civil society, were initially inclined to see it as a marginal enterprise populated by small, basically feckless groups of idealistic do-gooders.
Those days are long gone. Whether in Egypt, Turkey, Venezuela, or quite vividly in Ukraine during the final months of Yanukovych’s rule, a growing number of governments now treat the concept of civil society as a code word for powerful political subversives, usually assumed to be doing the bidding of the West. Power holders often fear NGOs more than they do opposition parties, seeing the former as nimble, technologically-savvy actors capable of activating sudden outbursts of mass protest.
Manifesting this changed perspective, more than 50 countries in recent years have enacted or seriously considered legislative or other
restrictions on the ability of NGOs to organize and operate. At the core of many of these efforts are measures to impede or block foreign funding for civil society groups—including administrative and legal obstacles, propaganda campaigns against NGOs that accept foreign funding, and harassment or expulsion of external aid groups offering civil society support.
Why is this happening? In short, because civil society has been making itself felt. The lion’s share of the most significant political upheavals of the past 15 years have come about as the result of assertive citizen activism, starting in Slovakia and Serbia in the late 1990s, continuing through Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Lebanon in the early 2000s, and most recently in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere in the Arab world. The nightmare scenario for power holders in many countries has become waking up one morning and learning that thousands of ordinary citizens have gathered in the main square of the capital demanding justice, vowing not to go home until they get it.
In fact, the protest movements that have driven political change in these countries are not necessarily what the Western aid
community refers to (and what it funds) when it talks about civil society. In some of these cases, such as in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, Western-funded NGOs played only a very secondary role, at most. The protests were driven instead by much more diffuse and organic forms of citizen activism that largely bypassed the donor model of formalized, technocratic advocacy groups. Yet such complexities get swept aside by power holders nervous about simmering public discontent and inclined to blame the West for any serious protests they face.
After several years spent improvising responses to the growing pushback against civil society, public and private funders are starting to respond in more concerted ways. They are mounting tactically sophisticated pressure campaigns to try to head off repressive NGO laws in aid receiving countries. They are effectively supporting efforts on the multilateral level to reinforce the normative framework for civil society space, for example through the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. They are exploring how to employ new technological tools to physically distance international aid from the most challenging trouble spots without giving up on directly reaching civil society activists. And they are opening up important new debates about how alternative sources of civil society funding could break the habit of dependence on external support.
But many dilemmas and hard questions still lie ahead. These include:
1) How to most effectively assert the Western interest in protecting civil society space. Raising civil society concerns at the highest
diplomatic levels helps give clout to Western objections to bad NGO draft laws and other restrictive measures. Yet high-level diplomatic engagement can also have counterproductive effects. As one Egyptian analyst explained to us regarding the serious tensions in Egypt over Western civil society support, the more that senior Western officials directly pressure Egyptian officials about the need to allow Western funding to Egyptian NGOs, the more those officials are convinced that such funding must be about getting Egyptian NGOs to serve Western agendas.
2) Whether greater aid transparency is part of the answer. In response to the heightened, often almost absurdly conspiratorial suspicions in many quarters about Western civil society aid, some aid practitioners contend that increasing the transparency of aid flows will help defuse the accusations and tensions surrounding such work. Yet other practitioners seriously object to this view, fearing that too much transparency will put aid recipients in greater jeopardy and reduce external funders’ ability to carry out politically agile assistance in sensitive contexts.
3) Whether reducing aid dependency will mean aid retreat. The idea of shifting the civil society assistance paradigm away from dependence on Western financing toward technologically innovative methods of local funding like crowdsourcing is of course appealing. But some civil society activists fear that under the umbrella of changing the paradigm to protect civil society organizations under siege, aid providers will walk away from their commitment to local activists as well as civil society development more broadly.
4) Divisions among aid providers. Different aid providers fund civil society in developing countries for different purposes. A number of developmentally oriented aid organizations believe that those working on more politically assertive democracy and human rights assistance are responsible for triggering governmental pushback that ends up affecting the credibility and access of all external funders. As a result, they are disinclined to cooperate in forging common responses to pushback. In other words, the complex ongoing debate within the development aid community over how political aid should be and what working politically really means becomes even more fraught as pushback intensifies.
W(h)ither Democracy; Latin American progress; China’s tobacco problem and poor world cancer; climate change progress: a Developmentista’s Guide to this week’s Economist
Should I be worried about how much I enjoy The Economist? I get some stick from colleagues, who reckons it is surreptitiously dripping neoliberal poison into my formerly socialist soul. But it’s just so good! On a good week, there are half a dozen must-read articles on development-related issues, which I try to tweet.
But based on last week’s issue, that may not be enough. So do you think I should run the occasional developmentista’s guide to the Economist, with summaries and links?
Here’s what I have in mind, based on the 1-7 March issue:
What’s Gone Wrong with Democracy? A beautifully crafted 6 page essay by someone or other (it’s very annoying that the magazine hardly ever credits authors). It starts with the big sweep of history:
‘By 1941 there were only 11 democracies left, and Franklin Roosevelt worried that it might not be possible to shield “the great flame of democracy from the blackout of barbarism”.’
Now, after the democratic surges of decolonisation and the collapse of the Soviet Union, democracy is in trouble again. Putin’s Russia; the Iraq war; collapse of the Arab Spring; South Africa’s disillusion with the ANC; backsliding in Turkey, Bangladesh, Thailand and Cambodia. Why? The global financial crisis and the rise of China (‘85% of Chinese are “very satisfied” with their country’s direction, compared with 31% of Americans’).
This has led to disillusion in democratic heartlands such as Western Europe, and much less pulling power elsewhere.
True to The Economist’s liberal democratic values, the essay then tries to argue that it’s not all bad, pointing out lots of experimentation (eg direct democracy, shifts to long term oversight), which is reversing the decline in places like California and Finland. And anyway:
‘China’s stunning advances conceal deeper problems. The elite is becoming a self-perpetuating and self-serving clique. The 50 richest members of the China’s National People’s Congress are collectively worth $94.7 billion—60 times as much as the 50 richest members of America’s Congress.’
But I have to say the description of the downside was a lot more persuasive than the reasons to be cheerful.
I find the best way to read the Economist is to see it as a clever, but rather right wing, participant in a seminar. Learn from them, but then try and spot any ideological sleight of hand (in this case slipping in the argument that a smaller state is the best way to defend democracy) and try to identify what is missing (I couldn’t see much, in this case – do tell me what I’ve missed).
So much for the cover story, but it’s often the bits and pieces in the back half of the magazine that are particularly useful for a development wonk. This week’s selection includes:
Sustaining social progress in Latin America: The region’s recent ability to combine growth, poverty reduction and falling income inequality seems to be running out of steam. It was driven by expansion in education, rising wages and cash transfers. Now the challenge is to improve quality of education, progressive tax reform and (this is the Economist, after all) structural reforms e.g. to the labour market. ‘Keeping the fall in poverty and inequality going may require a squeeze on the rich—but done cleverly, so as not to deter growth-enhancing investments.’
Big Tobacco, Chinese Style: More than half of Chinese men smoke (but only 2% of women). Smoking is on course to kill 100m Chinese people this century. Will the government’s new anti-smoking policies curb it? Probably not – consumption taxes are too low to make a difference, and the China National Tobacco Corporation has huge influence (and wants to expand into other countries).
Cancer in the Developing World: ‘Low- and middle-income countries accounted for 57% of the 14m people diagnosed with cancer worldwide in 2012—but 65% of the deaths. Cancer kills more people in poor countries than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.’
A surge in climate change legislation at national level: Backsliding in Australia, Japan and Canada gets all the headlines, but overall ‘in 66 countries, accounting for 88% of carbon emissions, almost half of parliaments passed climate-change or energy-efficiency acts in 2013…. the world’s stock of climate laws has risen steeply, from fewer than 50 in 2000 to almost 500 in 2013.’
And finally, Inequality v Growth – a summary of the much-tweeted new IMF paper that argues that in most countries a bit more redistribution is actually good for growth (but thinks Europe may have already gone too far).
So was that useful? Do you want a regular summary? I’d do a poll but can’t work out how to do it in the new format, and all the techies have gone off on holiday, sorry.
I guess if you still hate The Economist, you could always claim this will undermine sales……
The Great Escape, Angus Deaton’s big new book: Brilliant on inequality and politics, but wrong on aid
Ricardo Fuentes (@rivefuentes) reviews The Great Escape, Angus Deaton’s big (and controversial) new book on development.
A long time ago, while finishing my college degree at CIDE in Mexico, I started working with the different editions of the Mexican Household Income and Expenditure Survey. I was assisting my then boss and mentor, Alejandro Villagomez, in a project studying consumption and savings in poor households in Mexico. It was then that I first read Angus Deaton’s work – we used his synthetic cohorts method. It made me feel much smarter than I really was.
It was also around that time when Deaton published his hugely influential book: The Analysis of Households Surveys. For a young economist interested in development microeconomics, that book was nothing short of a miracle. Clearly written, broad in scope, technically thorough and with the Stata code for the analysis in the appendix. I used it so much in the early years of my career that the cover of my copy went from blue to pale gray. It’s now missing the back flap.
So it was very exciting to hear that Deaton had a new book. The Great Escape is a detailed tour-de-force that collects most of Deaton’s academic work over the last 20 years or so, but written for the general public. The first goal of the book is then to disseminate the trove of findings that Deaton and coauthors produced in academic journals. But the book is also an instrument for Deaton to express some of his views on politics and policy. This is what’s really new in The Great Escape.
In Deaton’s own words, the core argument of the book is:
“Life is better now than at almost any time in history. More people are richer and fewer people live in dire poverty. Lives are longer and parents no longer routinely watch a quarter of their children die. Yet millions still experience the horrors of destitution and of premature death. The world is hugely unequal.
Inequality is often a consequence of progress. Not everyone gets rich at the same time, and not everyone gets immediate access to the latest life-saving measures, whether access to clean water, to vaccines, or to new drugs for preventing heart disease. Inequalities in turn affect progress. This can be good; Indian children see what education can do and go to school too. It can be bad if the winners try to stop others from following them, pulling up the ladders behind them. The newly rich may use their wealth to influence politicians to restrict public education or health that they themselves do not need.”
So, humanity’s lot has improved over the long term but this progress creates inequalities in the process. The first two sections of the book present the evidence to support the argument. To explain how progress creates inequalities in health, for instance, Deaton uses the example of cigarette smoking. He writes “The knowledge that cigarette smoking kills has saved millions of lives in the past fifty years, yet it was educated, richer professionals who were the first to quit, opening up a health gap between rich and poor”. But then, he asks “Why do these inequalities persist, and what can be done about them?”
This is, to me, the most important question in the book. While the existence of these inequalities is the result of scientific or technological progress, its persistence is the result of policy and political decisions.
Then it becomes a Catch-22. As Deaton argues, massive income inequality distorts the political process in favor of the few wealthy elites. “Growth, inequality, and catch up are the bright side of the coin. The dark side is what happens when the process is hijacked, so that catch-up never comes”. He explains how politics and inequality are intertwined in the US: “there is a danger that rapid growth of top incomes can become self-reinforcing through the political access that money can bring” and continues “If democracy becomes a plutocracy, those who are not rich are effectively disenfranchised.”
I agree with Deaton’s overall argument – it’s very similar to the idea behind our recent paper “Working For The Few”. Where I disagree, and it’s no surprise, is in Deaton’s last section, where he deals with the problems of international aid.
It is not that aid is without problems. Just by looking at the history of US food aid policy one could quickly become disenchanted. But it seems to me that Deaton is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Deaton harshly criticizes the “hydraulic” approach to aid: if water is pumped in at one end, water pours out at the other. He writes “Fixing world poverty and saving the lives of dying children is seen as an engineering problem…. Children’s lives are saved by providing insecticide-treated bed nets (which protect against malaria) at a few dollars each, or by oral rehydration therapy at $0.25 a dose, or by administering vaccinations at a few dollars each”.
The thing is, children’s lives are indeed saved by bed nets, vaccinations and ORT, all of them supported by aid (as he later, in the same chapter, accepts). It’s hard to imagine the dramatic fall in child mortality in the last decade without such aid-supported interventions. Deaton spends the chapter focusing on the negative aspects of foreign aid (and there are plenty) but minimizes the positive impacts (and there are plenty of those too). His most drastic accusation, that foreign aid undermines democracy and civil participation in receiving countries, follows a similar logic as the resource curse. And just as with the resource curse, it might be true in some instances, but by no means justifies, as Deaton suggest, the elimination of all aid forms. That conclusion is akin to suggest no country should ever exploit its natural resources, instead of making better use of them. He writes that those in favor of foreign aid argue it needs to be improved, and goes on to dismiss it as an easy answer, but to me, it’s the most complicated, and relevant, one. The resources available through foreign aid can and should be used to promote that Great Escape that Deaton celebrates.
Deaton concludes with cautious optimism about the future of humanity’s lot in the face of major threats, most notably climate change and politics captured by a small elite. It’s reassuring to read this hopeful note from someone of Deaton’s stature. And many years after first reading his writings, I’m still learning in every document he writes. Highly recommended.
Loads of other reviews in the blogosphere, but I particularly enjoyed Owen Barder’s polite but forensic probing in his Development Drums podcast interview with Deaton.
Oh dear. Be careful what you wish for. When I wrote From Poverty to Power (the book, not the blog), we came up with a nice subtitle that seemed to capture a common thread linking the very diverse topics covered in the book – ‘How Active Citizens and Effective States can Change the World.’ But now I’m starting to regret it.
At the time (the book was published in 2008), I was concerned with getting INGOs to engage more fully with states, whether at national or local level. INGOs should not just be about building civil society organizations, but also helping them engage with those in power. We certainly do more of that now, (I’m making no claim to attribution here – the book mainly just systematized what was emerging in Oxfam’s collective brain). In particular, INGOs increasingly find themselves in a ‘convening and brokering’ role, operating in the interstices between citizens’ movements and states.
But as I do my rounds and talk to staff and partners, I am increasingly kicking back against a new intellectual trap – we are in danger of constructing a binary world in which citizens (‘rights holders’) simply demand a string of actions from states (‘duty bearers’). I have at least three serious objections to this approach:
The first is that the world of politics and power is not binary. As I found in Tajikistan, NGO staff may have a default position of just seeing states and ‘people like us’ in organized civil society groups, but ask them to scratch the surface of any village, city etc and they rapidly identify a far richer ecosystem of institutions and social capital– faith organizations, savings groups, funeral societies, sports associations, respected figures (teachers, nurses, doctors). It is coalitions of such groups and individuals that drive/block change, not an over-simplified and somewhat barren bi-culture of state and civil society.
The second is that civil society itself is not monolithic. Instead, it is granular, made up of any number of more durable institutions, whether formal or (more often) informal. NGOs need to immerse themselves deeply in these ecosystems to understand their work with civil society.
The third is that in practice simply siding with rights holders to put pressure on duty bearers seldom works. In country after country, the latter, for example village officials, sidle up to us and say sotto voce ‘we really want to do our job better, but we have no idea how – can you help please?’ So we end up arranging training for the representatives of the state, not just supporting the demands of its citizens. And frequently, we go further and bring the two together to find solutions together, PDIA style.
There’s at least one other major weakness in the ‘Active Citizens-Effective States’ formula – economic power is absent. At the time I wrote the book, lots of people wanted me to include ‘cuddly private sector’ (or something like that) as a third part of the equation, and I resisted arguing (rightly, I still think) that states and citizens act together to set the rules within which the private sector emerges, operates and evolves. What I missed (especially as I read up on the literature for a subsequent PhD) was the broader issue of economic power and the way it shapes and misshapes politics, as discussed in our recent paper on inequality. That should have been more prominent.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think the ‘active citizens and effective states’ formula is a useful aide memoire. But as I lurch towards my next book (working title ‘How Change Happens’) expect things to get more complicated.
Interesting survey of US policymakers in December’s International Studies Quarterly journal. I’m not linking to it because it’s gated, thereby excluding more or less everyone outside a traditional academic institution (open data anyone?) but here’s a draft of What Do Policymakers Want From Us?, by Paul Avey and Michael Desch. The results are as relevant to NGO advocacy people trying to influence governments as they are to scholars. Maybe more so. I’ve added my own running translation in italics.
The authors surveyed all senior White House officials involved in national security under both George Bushes and Bill Clinton. 234 out of 915 responded (pretty good response rate for people this senior).
‘The gap between the scientific aspirations of contemporary international relations scholarship and the needs of policymakers is greatest the higher one reaches in the policy world. More surprisingly, this gap tends to be greater the more educated the policymaker. This is consistent with the argument that familiarity with advanced techniques instills greater appreciation for both their promise and limits.
Translation: the more pols know about a subject, the less they believe ‘experts’
Another conclusion we draw from this survey is that a scholar’s broader visibility – both in government and among the public whether through previous government service or publication in broader venues –– enhances influence among policymakers more than his or her academic standing.
Translation: get blogging, people
The primary constraint policymakers face in digesting scholarly, or any other writings, is lack of time. As one respondent put it, “any research papers that exceed 10-15 pages” are not useful to policymakers. Another noted that “I do not have the time to read much so cannot cite” many examples of useful social science scholarship.
Translation: work on those elevator pitches
We were surprised by two other findings from our survey about how policymakers get their information: First, unclassified newspaper articles were as important to policymakers as the classified information generated inside the government. This fact opens up an important avenue for scholarly influence upon policy if scholars can condense and convey their findings via this route.
Second, the Internet has not yet become an important source of information for policymakers, despite its ease of accessibility and the generally succinct nature of the presentation of its content. It could be a just a matter of time until a more web-oriented generation reaches the pinnacle of national security decision-making authority but we also ought to consider whether the internet suffers from weaknesses vis-à-vis traditional print media that dilute its influence. The plethora of internet news and opinion outlets, many of questionable reliability, combined with the lack of an authoritative source among them, may mean that the internet will continue to lag behind the elite print media because it exacerbates the signals to noise problem for policymakers.
Translation: good old fashioned press work beats social media
But our most important findings concern what role policymakers think scholars ought to play in the policy process. Most recommended that scholars serve as “informal advisers” and as “creators of new knowledge.” There were two surprises for us here: First, policymakers ranked the educational and training role of scholars for future policymakers third behind these other two roles. They also confessed that they derived relatively little of their professional skills from their formal educations. (see pie chart) The main contribution of scholars, in their view, was research. Second, and again somewhat surprisingly, they expressed a preference for
scholars to produce “arguments” (what we would call theories) over the generation of specific “evidence” (what we think of as facts). In other words, despite their jaundiced view of cutting-edge tools and rarefied theory, the thing policymakers most want from scholars are frameworks for making sense of the world they have to operate in.’
Translation: the best narrative (not the best evidence) wins
And the recommendations:
‘The most important roles for scholars to play are as both teachers and researchers, but our results suggest that both areas need careful rethinking. On the former, the findings of our survey should lead to some introspection about how we train students for careers in government service. We suspect that the focus on social science techniques and methods that dominates so much graduate, and increasingly undergraduate, training in political science is not useful across the board to policymakers. On the other hand, a purely descriptive, fact-based approach is not what policymakers seem to want from scholars either.
Three aspects of scholarship appear to be most important: First, policymakers appear to want mid-range theory. Policymakers do not reject methodologically sophisticated scholarship across the board but do seem to find much of it not useful. They prefer that scholars generate simple and straightforward frameworks that help them make sense of a complex world. They seem not so much to be looking for direct policy advice as for background knowledge to help them put particular events within a more general context. We interpret policymakers’ preference for theories over facts to the fact that like most busy people, they are cognitive economizers who need ways to make good decisions quickly and under great uncertainty. Along these lines, Henry Kissinger reportedly demanded of his subordinates: “Don’t tell me facts, tell me what they mean.”
Second, brevity is key for policymakers. We suspect that the reason that Op/Eds are so influential among policymakers is only partly due to where they are published; another important aspect of their influence is their short length. We are by no means suggesting that scholars only write in that format, but we strongly believe that research findings that cannot be presented in that format are unlikely to shape policy. Therefore, our recommended model is one in which a scholar publishes his or her findings in traditional scholar outlets such as books or journals but also writes shorter and more accessible pieces reporting the same findings and telegraphing their policy implications in policy journals, opinion pieces, or even on blogs.
Finally, a related issue is accessibility: Policymakers find much current scholarly work – from across the methodological spectrum – inaccessible. Policymakers don’t want scholars to write in Greek or French, but rather just plain English.’
Translation: tell better, clearer, shorter stories and you may actually be listened to
Some social programmes act as honey pots for busy bee researchers. A few years ago Brazil’s Bolsa Familia was the subject of choice, but it seems to have been overtaken by India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) which has researchers all over it.
A Global Insights paper from the University of Sussex has some great insights into the programme, based on a case study in Tamil Nadu involving in depth research in two villages, interviews with 109 MGNREGA workers, site organizers, village administrators and higher level officials.
First an intro to the programme:
‘In 2012-13 alone MNREGA benefitted nearly 50 million rural households across the subcontinent. MGNREGA was enacted by Parliament in 2005 and rolled out across all districts in 2008. It seeks to provide basic social security to India’s rural poor providing 100 days of guaranteed waged employment to every rural household. At the time of this research project, in late 2011, this was at an official daily wage rate of INR 119 (US$2) set by the Government of Tamil Nadu.
In Tamil Nadu, widely considered to be a ‘success’ story in terms of MGNREGA implementation, official data suggests that annual expenditure on the scheme stands at INR 41 billion (US$680 million) in 2012- 13. The average number of person days used per rural household has increased steadily, as has the total number of person days. Between 2008-9 and 2012-13, the total number of households who benefited from the scheme more than doubled from 3.3 million to 7 million.’
On to the survey:
‘In these two villages, in line with state-level data, the majority of MGNREGA workers are women (88 per cent) and Dalits (76 per cent). Compared to the village population as a whole, MGNREGA workers are less well educated (56 per cent having no education at all compared to 37.5 per cent of the village as a whole) and a higher proportion of them are divorced, separated or widowed (25 per cent, compared to around 10 per cent for the whole village population).
MGNREGA workers are drawn particularly from those households who depend on agricultural labour as their main source of income, rather than from households drawing their primary income from better paid, non-agricultural activities such as Tiruppur garment jobs or village based powerloom work.
When they are not working for MGNREGA, most workers (73 per cent) are employed as daily agricultural labourers, while a significant minority (15 per cent) has no other work at all: these are the old, weak, disabled or those with young children.
The main beneficiaries of the scheme are thus women, Dalits and villagers with little education or assets, and it is clear that in terms of reaching vulnerable rural groups, the scheme is remarkably successful in this region.
• In Tamil Nadu MGNREGA has benefitted the poorest of the poor, especially by providing a safety net and a tool for poverty alleviation. It has particularly benefitted rural women and others who depend on low paid agricultural work.
• The gendered impacts of MGNREGA are largely due to the universal, right-based and women-friendly nature of the policy, which has made it accessible and suitable for women and other vulnerable social groups.
• Working for MGNREGA suits the rural poor at different times of the year and for several reasons. In the study region the ‘pros’ of MGNREGA included its local availability throughout the year, relatively ‘easy’ work with fixed and regularly paid wages, equal pay for men and women, and the opportunity to work free from caste-based relations of subordination and discrimination.
• The scheme has produced transformative outcomes for the rural poor. It has a significant indirect effect on agricultural wages, creating a positive impact that reaches far beyond those it employs. It also improves the bargaining power of agricultural workers, most of whom are women.
• In terms of public works, the scheme has failed to create sustainable assets or to contribute to the development of the rural economy.
• Key to successful implementation is the nature of the bureaucratic and institutional organisation at the level of the state and below. In Tamil Nadu MGNREGA implementation has benefitted from cross-party support from the state government and a well-functioning state bureaucracy.
• Official MGNREGA data should be used with caution. Assessing the validity of this data by comparing it to field level observations, researchers found that in some ways the official MGNREGA data is reasonably robust, while in other – very important – ways it is highly problematic. This raises an important ‘flag of warning’ to others drawing on particular parts of the official MGNREGA dataset.’
Over to all the other MGNREGistas for their comments and links.
On 19 May 1997, the CEO of BP, John Browne, made a speech at Stanford University. Browne: “We must now focus on what can and what should be done, not because we can be certain climate change is happening, but because the possibility can’t be ignored.” This was a game changer. Browne made BP the first multinational (other than re-insurance companies) to join the emerging consensus on climate change. He also committed BP to taking action on reducing its emissions.
Regardless of what you now think about BP’s rhetoric or practices, Browne changed the way companies talk about climate change. It’s now hard to find a mainstream company that doesn’t accept climate change is happening and is linked to our (human) activities. Yet why did Browne break ranks?
The answer, I believe, is that he saw it as inevitable. The science was becoming clearer, the public was becoming engaged and politicians were beginning to scramble about for a solution that showed they had a vision. The business world was entrenched in a position that was on the wrong side of history and Browne didn’t want to be dragged kicking and screaming to the right side. If you know you’ll be moved back to the cheap seats at a stadium, why not move before the security guards drag you over?
Of course the rationale for why Browne flipped sides is more complicated than this. Maybe he saw money in solar energy, or wanted to shape the regulatory landscape around climate or had an altruistic voice that drove his decision. These probably played a role. But he also saw that climate action was becoming the new black in global politics and wanted to have the latest fashion before his friends and rivals.
The tide can turn quickly on global issues. One day, people defend child labour as being a route out of poverty, the next, it becomes unthinkable. It’s partly our role as activists and advocates to help along the debate so it reaches that tipping point sooner. That means persuading companies that the tipping point is coming. We think this is happening on living wage, as companies watch each other to see who moves first. Here’s how we did it through Behind the Brands.
We kicked off the campaign a year ago to change how the food and drinks industry buys its ingredients. This time last year, the industry was failing on a number of key issues, we chose two in particular: how it addresses women’s inequality and land rights. Scores (we have a scorecard quantifying their performance) were woeful and none of the Big 10 had an approach that addressed the plight of women working on farms around the world and none were making suppliers respect the rights of communities over land. In fact, they weren’t even paying lip-service to the importance of land rights.
We spent the last year reminding companies about these blind-spots, asking supporters (nearly 400,000 of them), investors representing billions of dollars and civil society to join us in urging the Big 10 to start addressing gender and land issues.
On land, led by Coca Cola, six of the Big 10 now endorse the principle of Free, Prior and Informed Consent on land acquisition. This is key in ensuring that communities have a say over what happens to the land they depend upon. Seven of the Big 10 have signed on to the UN Women’s Empowerment Principles, which demonstrates a commitment to ensuring that the industry starts addressing the barriers faced by women on farms and markets around the world.
Over the last year, what I’ve learned is this: build the case for why this is inevitable – make corporates worry that they’re on the wrong side of history. We alone don’t have the gravitas to do this. But companies targeted by Behind the Brands heard from pension fund managers and industry peers (such as retailers), they were asked why they didn’t have a process for understanding where land disputes might be popping up. They heard from shareholders at their AGMs and their brand managers saw that hundreds of thousands of their consumers were interested enough to contact them on social media to drive home the point. It’s the surprising number of angles that they heard from that generated the questions: “Are we missing something here? Has land rights become a mainstream issue?”.
Today we release our annual update of the BtB scorecard, which underpins the campaign. The results are encouraging. Nearly all the companies are on the right track. All but General Mills have improved their overall scores since February 2013. The top three (Nestle, Unilever and Coca-Cola) separated themselves further from the pack and saw the biggest jump in scores with overall increases of 10 percent, 14 percent and 13 percent. The companies in the middle of the pack (Danone, Mars, Mondelez and PepsiCo) saw mild improvements. There were some improvements also at the bottom of the scorecard. Associated British Foods and Kellogg’s – previously ranked 10th and 8th respectively – saw increases in scores of 7 and 6 percent respectively. As a result, General Mills is now at the bottom of the rankings.
So if you want to shift corporate behaviour, build a surprising coalition (investors, activists, industry experts) and be persistent (“they will never want you to know you’re impacting them, but trust me, they’re listening” one senior manager in the sector told me).
With business practices so important to the life of every person on the planet and so key in driving the global agenda, we need to get even sharper at making change happen in big business.
‘Over-generous tax exemptions awarded to multinational enterprises often deprive fragile states of potential revenues that could be used to fund their most pressing needs.’ Another broadside from rent-a-mob? Nope, it’s the ultra respectable OECD in its Fragile States 2014 report.
After years of growth, aid to fragile states started to fall in 2011, so the report centres around an urgent call for OECD member states to help their more fragile cousins find a post-aid arrangement that funds essential state functions and builds the ‘social contract’ with citizens.
The key is a shift from aid dependence to ‘domestic resource mobilization’ (taxes and natural resource royalties), currently averaging a feeble 14% of GDP across fragile states and far too dependent on royalties from oil, gas and mineral extraction (see chart, below). Foreign direct investment (factories, farms etc) is generally low in volume and volatile. (see graph, right – CPA means ‘aid’)
The OECD advocates a nicely balanced three-pronged approach:
- ‘Encourage a broader tax base by focussing on approaches that give citizens a voice.’ (the ‘no taxation without representation’ path to the social contract).
- ‘Support fragile states in designing frameworks to ensure fairer deals with multinational enterprises, in particular on proceeds from their natural resources; providers of development co-operation can lead by example by being transparent about the tax exemptions that benefit them.’ The report goes further, calling on OECD countries to ‘take steps to comply with global standards on money laundering, tax evasion and bribery.’
- ‘Boost citizens’ tax morale by establishing clear links between tax revenue and local benefits.’
Currently a truly laughable 0.07% of aid to fragile states goes to strengthening their tax systems. So the OECD wants the diminishing pool of aid to redress ‘weak technical and institutional capacity’ in fragile states, helping them introduce and collect direct taxes.
A guiding principle in all this will be ‘leadership and political will for reform by the host country – aid alone cannot ‘buy’ effective and lasting reforms’. Ah. Houston, I think we got a problem. The defining feature of fragile states is not that they are poor, but that they are, erm, fragile. Institutions are weak and/or subject to capture. This is the Achilles’ heel for any number of well-intentioned aid efforts, which ‘assume a can opener’ in the form of an effective state, when its absence is precisely the problem it is trying to address.
It’s not insoluble – fragile states are ramshackle coalitions of ministries, interest groups, factions etc, as well as lots of non-state groups, some of which can form part of a pro-DRM coalition willing to confront the blockers who benefit from the status quo. Shocks, scandals and financial meltdowns offer windows of opportunity, in which resistance to change may melt away. But how such change might happen needs to be thought through just as much as the what of standard reform shopping lists.
I suspect the OECD knows this full well, but can’t include it in supposedly ‘neutral’ policy papers. In any case, it’s great that they are addressing these crucial topics. Bring on the DRM.
The report’s other oversight is remittances, which dwarf other sources of capital (see graph again), but are dismissed rather too easily in the report as only relevant to middle income fragile states (yes, they do exist). If Tajikistan is anything to go by, remittances matter a lot for the poor ones too, and are an obvious point of contact with OECD states and their migration policies. But maybe that was a political hot potato too……
Following on from last week’s food riots post, some wider context. The news is full of protests (Kiev, Caracas, Cairo), but to what extent is it really ‘all kicking off everywhere’ as Paul Mason claims? Just come across a pretty crude, but thought-provoking paper that tries to find out. For World Protests 2006-13, Isabel Ortiz, Sara Burke, Mohamed Berrada and Hernan Cortes scoured online media (international and national) to identify and analyse 843 protests over the period. Among their findings are:
Protests were more prevalent in high income countries, but violent riots were mainly a low income country phenomenon (feel free to debate the arrow of causality on that one).
The main grievances and causes of outrage were:
Economic Justice and Anti-Austerity: 488 protests (public services, tax, austerity, jobs, wages, inequality, poverty, land reform, energy and food prices, pensions, housing)
Failure of Political Representation and Political Systems: 376 protests (democracy, corporate influence, deregulation, privatization, corruption, access to justice, accountability, surveillance, anti-war)
Global Justice: 311 protests (international institutions, environment, trade, G20)
Rights of People: 302 protests (ethnic/indigenous rights, right to land, culture; labour righrts; women’s rights; freedom of assembly/speech/press/worship; sexuality; immigrant rights)
Demonstrators mostly address their grievances to national governments (see table, below)- also a finding of the food riots research I reviewed last week.
Not only is the number of protests increasing, but also the number of protestors. Crowd estimates suggest that 37 events had one million or more protesters; some of those may well be the largest protests in history (eg. 100 million in India in 2013, 17 million in Egypt in 2013).
‘As of 2013, as many as 63% of the protests covered in the study achieved neither their intended demands nor their expressed grievances in the short-term’. Not sure what to make of this – is a 37% success rate good or bad compared to other forms of political engagement?
‘Repression is well documented in over half of the protest episodes analyzed in the study.’ Yeah, but that may be partly because nothing guarantees you news coverage better than repression.
Which points to some wider flaws with the study – although it does discuss numbers involved, it doesn’t weight the protests accordingly in its wider analysis, which means that media visibility trumps size. It’s reasonable to assume that a few hundred demonstrators outside an IMF meeting are going to register for this study, when a few hundred peasants in rural Malawi or China are not, so the findings are likely to be heavily skewed towards global, metropolitian protests.
Even so, an interesting exercise.
How should INGOs prepare for the coming disruption? Reading the aid/development horizon scans (so that you don’t have to)
- Everything is changing. Mobile phones! Rise of China!
- Everything is speeding up. Instant feedback! Fickle consumers! Shrinking product cycles!
- You, in contrast are excruciatingly slow, bureaucratic and out of touch. I spit on you and your logframes.
- Transform or die!
OK, I’ve embroidered a little. The even-more-awful truth is that the prose in these reports is some of the worst I come across in the aid biz, and that’s a pretty high bar. Try this: ‘This report explores whether INGOs can leverage their distinct assets to proactively create greater impact to benefit the people they serve.’ I tell you, I’m taking one for the team by reading these.
Deep breath. On with the summary:
Ahead of the Curve: Insights for the International NGO of the Future, (written by the Foundation Strategy Group, funded by the Hewlett Foundation) surveys 50 big US NGOs receiving large chunks of the US government’s $4bn annual spending via NGOs (so not Oxfam America, which keeps its distance on this). Overall, the authors are unimpressed:
‘Most INGOs are neither proactively assessing these disruptions nor fundamentally changing in response. Rigorous, long-term, multisector collaborations needed to address complex challenges are rare. INGOs continue to look at the private sector as a source of philanthropic funding, rather than as a mutual partner for scaled impact. INGOs with a higher dependence on U.S. government funding have little time, resources, or incentives to think beyond the next grant or cooperative agreement.’
The paper sees four options (sorry, I mean ‘future-oriented approaches’) for INGOs (see graphic): ‘(1) enhancing direct implementation; (2) influencing systems change; (3) harnessing the private sector; and (4) leading multisector action.’ And has some sensible recommendations for our beloved leaders:
- To influence systems, INGOs can develop the capacity of country staff to identify systemic solutions and synthesize learning to establish thought leadership positions on complex challenges.
- To harness the private sector, INGOs can develop criteria to guide partnerships, create new messaging for corporate partners, and demonstrate the benefit of shared value to donors.
- To lead multisector action, INGOs can build up the capacity to assist low- and middle-income country governments to coordinate collaborations, explore shared measurement systems, and make the case to donors about the value of collective impact.
Riding the Wave (rather than being swept away) comes from the International Civil Society Centre, with dosh from the Rockefeller Foundation and Robert Bosch Stiftung. Its focus is on what it sees as the multiple ‘disruptions’ currently threatening business as usual. At a global level, these include the breaching of planetary boundaries, but at a more prosaic level of INGO business models, they include ‘disintermediation’ (will organizations like GiveDirectly that transfer cash straight to the SIM cards of the poor make intermediary NGOs – i.e. the rest of us – redundant?) and closing civil society space in many countries (where did all our partners go?).
‘We identified three different strategies for how to position ICSOs towards disruption: the “active disruptor” actively advances potential disruption rather than trying to avoid or mitigate its effects. An ICSO that merges with a “virtual CSO” (a civil society organisation that supports projects or runs campaigns predominantly through the internet) or forms its own virtual entity might be an example of this strategy.
The “opportunistic navigator” carefully screens changes in its environment and prepares itself to quickly embark on a deep-rooted process of change should that become necessary. An example of such might be an ICSO that cooperates or partners with virtual CSOs, social entrepreneurs and other new and potentially disruptive entities in order to strengthen its awareness of change and to be prepared in case disruption occurs.
The “conservative survivor” builds on its reputation, size and bank account. This strategy tries to navigate around disruption as much as possible and is the riskiest approach once disruption becomes unavoidable. An ICSO that monitors developments and growth rates in the virtual CSO sector and reviews its own income in comparison, but otherwise takes a “wait and see” approach, could illustrate this tactic. To date, most ICSOs tend to lean towards this strategy.’
Finally, a rather breathless paper from IDS, Re-imagining Development 3.0 for a Changing Planet by Jon Morris. This is a pure distillation of a slightly different genre: a high speed canter through an apparently random series of recent trends (urbanization, capital market liberalization, identity politics, wars involving non-state actors), leading to an apparently unconnected, and largely politics-free ‘If I Ruled the World’ shopping list including gems like ‘fair trade to replace free trade’ and (fanfare please) ‘working with all people in all nations.’ Good luck with that guys.
There, I’ve given some of you back hours of your lives, but at what personal cost? Heading for a darkened room and some therapeutic screaming.
On holiday next week (probably just as well, judging by the snark-ometer reading on this post), but there is no escape for the rest of you – I’ve scheduled posts throughout.
Update: Ken Caldwell sends in a comment to say that there is an entire website devoted to this kind of thing. Check out the Baobab site
What do we know about food riots and their link to food rights? Some interesting new findings from IDS
Went off to a rain-drenched Institute of Development Studies last week for one of those great workshops where a group of country researchers come together with case studies on a similar issue and then swap ideas on what general conclusions are emerging. The topic was the rash of food riots that struck 30+ countries in the aftermath of the 2008 food price spike, marking the onset of a new
period of volatilility with big social and economic impacts (see, for example, the Oxfam/IDS project on life in a time of food price volatility, which has its second annual report coming out soon).
The starting point for the work, which is being led by Naomi Hossain, is bringing together an IDS-style ‘voices of the rioters’ approach, using focus groups and interviews, with a more theoretical ‘moral economy’ lens, drawing on the work of EP Thompson on food riots in 18thC England (right). As Naomi and Ferdous Jahan explain in their Bangladesh study:
‘People do not protest because they are hungry, but on the basis of powerful ideological justifications that arise from ideas about how food markets should work, the limits set by public opinion on the freedoms of (food) markets in times of scarcity or crises, and the idea that public authorities are responsible to act to protect people’s rights to food at such times. These are summarised as ‘moral economy’ ideas, and may be latently present under normal conditions. But it is mainly when shocks occur in the national or local food economy that they tend to be activated and articulated and to legitimate popular mobilisation.’
Case studies on Bangladesh, India, Kenya and Mozambique threw up some important stuff. I’ll link to the papers when they are finalised and published, but here are some initial impressions.
The importance of history and memory: one legacy of horrific 20thC famines in Bangladesh and India is that both the public and policy makers are highly sensitive to the issue of food security. In Kenya, the memory of post election violence in 2008 meant that protesters were much less likely to resort to violence this time around.
The blame game is complicated: rioters tend to blame private sector baddies (hoarders and speculators), and corrupt government officials, but demand solutions from those same governments, often contrasting today’s situation with an imaginary golden age of state responsiveness. The retreat of the state and rise of market mechanisms has had a multiple impact here – privatization, often to the hands of well connected insiders, seems to have replaced old forms of patronage (‘inclusive clientilism’?) with a more elitist version. Fewer people have their snouts in the trough these days. State retreat also weakens its ability to respond to protest.
The interplay between institutions, ‘politics as usual’ and violent protest. Where there are channels that poor people see as at least partly genuine, protests will often go that route, rather than the much riskier path of chucking Molotov cocktails. In India, protesters in Madhya Pradesh, with its vibrant Right to Food movement, were much less likely to go on the rampage than those in West Bengal, where such a movement is largely absent.
When violence does become the preferred option, what does it achieve? Mixed findings here – in the short term, a few government concessions (eg abandoning price rises), but few medium term improvements. What the research was unable to answer was the longer term impact of violent protest, for example in delegitimizing existing power holders and paving the way for new political groupings, as the anti-austerity riots in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s arguably did.
And (of course) a few constructive whinges:
The work thus far is surprisingly weak on gender. Perhaps more than any other topic, food bridges the public and private spheres, and is often a focus for women’s engagement outside the home. But while the leadership of peaceful civil society movements such as India’s Right to Food movement is largely female (see right), riots tend to be a young guy thing. So what happens to the gender dimension when protests turn violent? I hope there’s still time to look at that before the papers are finalised.
There seems to be a possible typology of riots emerging here:
- Defensive (drop those price rises, now!)
- Cathartic (I’ve had enough, I want to smash something)
- Genuine programmatic (politics has to change)
- Manipulated programmatic (political leader stirs up riots to pursue his agenda)
Would be good to see if that can be developed further.
Finally, for once, I started to worry if there was too much deference to history here, in particular English history. University of Tennessee historian John Bohstedt described the 18th Century riots as the ‘first draft of the welfare state’ and saw events since 2008 as an analogous process, but is that true? For example, the interviews suggest very few of the rioters describe these things as food riots – they are often triggered by something else, such as transport price hikes. Does our progressive, but still colonial historical baggage distort our understanding of what’s going on? That’s as close to heresy as I’m prepared to go today.
Update: here’s a collection of other blogs on the food riots project, c/o Nick Benequista
Somaliland v Somalia: great new paper on an extraordinary ‘natural experiment’ in aid and governance
Could someone please clone Sarah Phillips? The University of Sydney political scientist has a great new Developmental Leadership Program (DLP) paper out on Somaliland, following her excellent paper a few years ago on Yemen.
Political Settlements and State Formation: The Case of Somaliland may not sound like much of a page turner, but it is brilliant. It explores one of those natural experiments beloved of researchers – what can we learn when two neighbouring countries part company and head off in different directions (North v South Korea, West v East Germany).
Phillips compares Somaliland v Somalia – while the first has emerged from the shared chaos of the 1990s (and a brutal effort by Somalia to put down Somaliland separatists) into the sunlit uplands of relative peace and stability (some taxation, rudimentary public services, security, two peaceful presidential transitions through the ballot box, including one to the opposition), the other is the quintessential failed state. How come?
Her conclusions do not make comfortable reading, for they trample on any number of received wisdoms. Try these on for size:
Somaliland’s government has received virtually no direct financial aid, largely because it is not internationally recognized. The country itself gets a lot of aid via NGOs, UN projects etc etc, but the government has been generally outside this loop, forced to rely on local sources of funding.
Perhaps more important than the financial aspects, this meant there was no pressure to accept template political institutions from outside. Instead, Somaliland had time and political space to negotiate its own (e.g. clan-based) political settlements. The process involved a series of ad hoc, messy, consultative, and local peace conferences. In the most important conference, in 1993, one group stalled proceedings by reciting the Koran for several days. That’s not in the good governance playbook.
The peace process was almost entirely locally funded, due to Somaliland’s unrecognized status (so no bilateral aid or loans were available). That produced a strong sense of local ownership (literally). In the words of one minister, when asked by Phillips about aid ‘Aid is not what we desire because [then] they decide for us what we need’.
What’s less discussed is the power politics that underlies this transition. The second president used private loans to demobilise about 5,000 militia fighters. He offered stability (and tax breaks) to the business elite in exchange for funding demobilisation and the nascent state institutions. This was effective but certainly not inclusive – the elite came mainly from the President’s own clan. But according to Phillips, Somalilanders generally still see it as a legitimate process – that’s what leaders do.
The paper highlights the critical political importance of elite secondary schools in forging leadership. Available to a relatively small group of often privileged Somalilanders, this is in stark contrast to the donor emphasis on universal primary education. In particular, many of Phillips’ interviews led to the Sheekh Secondary School, set up by Richard Darlington, who fought in WWII as the commander of the Somaliland Protectorate contingent. Sheekh took only 50 kids a year and trained them in leadership, critical thought and standard (Darlington borrowed from the curriculum of his old school, Harrow). Sheekh provided 3 out of 4 presidents, plus any number of vice presidents, cabinet members etc. And no it isn’t a weird Somaliland version of Eton and Harrow (I asked) – it stressed student intake from all clans, especially from the more marginalized ones.
Somalilanders believe they are special, but also at risk:
‘For Somalilanders, the threat of violence was less from an external invasion than an internal combustion. This perception had profound impacts on the institutions – and the ideas about violence that undergird them – that were fostered during this period. Protection from violence was viewed as an internal matter, and if violence had been a political tool and a political choice for local actors in the recent past it was believed that it could become so again with little warning. Peace was precarious, and it rested on a tenuous balance between coalitions with roughly equivalent power. Somaliland’s civil wars in the mid-1990s provided the opportunity for local coalitions to determine that no one clan could dominate the others.’
Conclusion (with due nods to local context, can’t generalize etc etc)? There is an upside to detachment from external aid and political influence. In the right circumstances, being detached can promote co-dependence between local elites, leading to durable, authentic institutions: ‘legitimate institutions are those born through local political and social processes, and that these are largely shaped through the leadership process.’
I’ve been reflecting on Owen Barder’s recent post on the tensions for aid agencies between wanting to go to scale, and acknowledging that lasting development solutions have to emerge from discussions among local actors, based on local context.
Seems to me we have something of an aid trilemma here – I would add in attribution to the mix as a third element. You can have two out of three of the following:
- Able to go to scale (reaching millions of people, rather than a couple of hundred)
- Compatible with complex systems (inherently unpredictable, discontinuous, shaped by local context)
- Measurable and attributable (being able to say change happened and that it was due to a given intervention or action)
Interventions in complex systems that go to scale, but whose impact is largely unattributable:
- Working on the ‘enabling environment’ (rule of law, strengthening civil society, access to finance)
- Improving quality of essential services (see Lant Pritchett)
- Problem-driven iterative adaptation (Matt Andrews)
- Convening and brokering relationships/acting as a catalyst/other kinds of leverage rather than trying to do stuff on your own
Interventions that go to scale and are clearly attributable, but are not suited to complex systems
- Bednets, food aid and other straightforward(ish) service delivery
- Essential Services – quantity (getting kids into school) rather than quality (teaching them anything – Lant Pritchett again)
- Simple replicable institutions (football/soccer, Owen thinks postal services)
Interventions in complex systems that are clearly attributable, but cannot go to scale
- Locally grounded work on governance, accountability etc
- Using process tracing and other ways to measure the impact of ‘n=1’ interventions
The question then arises, what (if anything) lies in the sweet spot, namely interventions that manage simultaneously to go to scale, are clearly attributable, and respect the nature of complex systems? Owen reckons a number of CGD pet schemes, such as Cash on Delivery, tick all three boxes, but I’m most dubious on the attribution corner of the trilemma. A government reduces maternal mortality, you reward them with $x thousand dollars per life saved, but how do you know that the offer of that money had anything to do with the outcome? Social franchising might work – a core ‘project in a box’ that allows for plenty of variation according to local circumstance, like Savings for Change. Other suggestions?
What do you think – is the trilemma idea worth pursuing? I’m planning to think this through further with UNDP, Owen and others – keep you posted.
I have a love-hate relationship with The Economist – hate its lazy, evidence-free, anti-state, privatizing ‘priors’, but love the range of thought-provoking new angles, and its coverage of development. In general, the further it gets from economics, the more I like it.
Usually I just tweet links to the good stuff, but last week’s piece on ‘government to government trade’ deserves special attention. The article describes a boom in such G2G exchanges:
‘A Norwegian government agency managing Algeria’s sovereign-wealth fund; German police overseeing security in the streets of Mumbai; and Dubai playing the role of the courthouse of the Middle East.’
The trade is growing as ‘it is a natural extension of the trend for governments to pinch policies from each other. “Policymaking now routinely occurs in comparative terms,” says Jamie Peck of the University of British Columbia, who refers to G2G advice as “fast policy”. Since the late 1990s Mexico’s pioneering policy to make cash benefits for poor families conditional on things like getting children vaccinated and sending them to school has been copied by almost 50 other countries.
When China realised in the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics that it needed to improve its air-safety regulations, it could just have looked around for the best examples and come up with its own version. Instead it asked America’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to write a new rule book and to train Chinese pilots. The FAA now has full-time offices in Beijing and Shanghai. Trinidad and Tobago, which decided in 2010 to computerise its register of motor vehicles, bought a system from the government of the Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
Dispute resolution is a particularly lively part of the G2G market. Britain will soon play host to an arbitration court for Saudi Arabian disputes, helping to allay investors’ concerns about the Gulf state’s legal system. A growing number of countries, most with a history of British common law, want to become the preferred jurisdiction in their region or for a particular type of case. In 2011 Dubai’s International Financial Centre threw open its courts to disputes from any country, provided the parties agreed to be bound by its decisions. Courts in the British Virgin Islands hear a good share of all disputes involving international joint ventures.
The most radical form of G2G is the delegation agreement: the government of one country providing a public service in another, which in effect cedes part of its sovereignty. In 2003 the government of the Solomon Islands, concerned at rising violence and falling tax revenues caused by corruption, asked the Australian-led Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands (RAMSI) to take over law enforcement. RAMSI brought in more than 2,000 soldiers and other personnel and succeeded in establishing the rule of law.
Critics fret about accountability and democratic legitimacy. The 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, endorsed by governments and aid agencies, made much of the need for developing countries to design their own development strategies. And providers open themselves to reputational risk. British police, for instance, have trained Bahraini ones. A heavy-handed crackdown by local forces during the Arab spring reflected badly on their foreign teachers.
Local governments, however, both have greater incentives to trade and face fewer barriers. Rapid urbanisation creates urgent practical problems for cities: in 2009 the urban population in developing countries stood at 2.5 billion, a number expected to double by 2050. And, unlike countries, cities are not hobbled by issues of sovereignty.’
If this trend is genuine, there are both threats and opportunities for those interested in rights-based development. The threats are pretty obvious – the spread of bad ideas, the dilution of local accountability, the encroachment on national sovereignty, the Bahrain police thing.
But there are plenty of opportunities too. Involvement of European and North American governments provides a new advocacy target, targeting them to promote social and environmental safeguards, transparency, accountability etc in their G2G work (could start with Bahrain…..).
INGOs and other aid organizations could also get more proactive and push the right kind of G2G, linking up developing country governments, whether national or municipal, with positive experiences in other countries on everything from social protection to reducing road traffic accidents. I have a feeling this kind of signposting and linking is going to become an increasingly important part of our work. Bring on the exchange visits to see the speed bumps of London…..
The underlying assumptions of the Economist piece envisage a technocrats’ dreamland of exchanges of ideas and blueprints between countries, leading to progress and stronger institutions. Trouble is, the people who actually study institutions ( the ‘thinking and working politically’ crowd, Matt Andrews etc) say this isn’t how it works at all – instead, local problems lead at best to ‘hybrid’ solutions in which lessons from elsewhere are adapted to ‘go with the grain’ of local tradition. That would suggest this supposed wave isn’t going anywhere fast. Wonder who will be proved right?
Sometimes new ideas arrive like a bolt from the blue. More often they emerge through a series of conversations, reading and thinking. An element of repetition may be necessary, provided you talk to different kinds of people about the same issue (rather than having the same meeting with the same people over and over again – we call that strategic planning).
So earlier this week I ended up in a room full of scientists and research council funders, organized by UKCDS, discussing a topic dear to my heart and blog – complexity and systems thinking. The topic was how research funding can channel complexity science to improve understanding and practice in the aid/development sector. The conversation reinforced a few points, but added a few new angles.
First was the sheer difficulty of bridging the gap between complexity thinkers in academia and busy aid activists, whether in government or NGOs. One contributor talked of a ‘valley of death’ that separates pure science from ‘operationalisation’ – using the new ideas to actually do stuff.
That gulf is further deepened by an academic system that works in disciplinary siloes that seem remarkably resistant to attempts to get them to cross fertilize – even waving research funding chequebooks often fails to get economists, ecologists, sociologists etc to really work together.
I came away convinced that we need to understand these institutional barriers better, even if that does entail some navel gazing. Is it about language (economists and sociologists can’t understand each other), incentives (this won’t get me published in a peer-reviewed journal) or broader frameworks for understanding the world? It reminded me of a recent conversation at the Thinking and Working Politically seminar – unless we can understand why institutions find this so hard, and what can be done about it, we’ll probably be wasting our time.
Some suggestions for where to start: find out what research has been done on bridging similar gulfs, e.g. between pure science and industry. Study the role of individual ‘boundary crossers’, like our own Jean Boulton – is spotting and supporting the mavericks a quicker route to cross-disciplinarity than urging inertia-bound institutions and faculties to collaborate?
Second was a new (for me) way of selling complexity thinking to our political masters. This is all about making decisions in situations that are uncertain and volatile. What is ‘enough evidence to make a decision’, complete with feedback loops to detect success or failure, and adapt accordingly?
Otherwise, I banged on (as usual) about the tensions between systems thinking and the results/value for money agenda and linear planning tools; the importance of understanding the circumstances in which research influences policy; the power of case studies in showing that complexity thinking can lead to results and the barriers posed for activists by jargon and the geeks’ love of, errm, complexity. For me, the best way to discuss these issues in Oxfam is to avoid the C word altogether and ask a variant of ‘How do you plan when you don’t know what is going to happen?’ or ‘how do you campaign on a problem when you don’t know the solution?’
There was particular interest in the case study question, and how to improve our ability to capture the messy reality of change process, rather than construct an airbrushed, linear, quasi-mythical story. That means investing in real time accompaniment, and improving our ability to research and narrate how change happens.
The good news is that the research funders seem to understand the importance of it, and in many cases are already invested in supporting systems thinking. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) seems to have done most in the area (see here for details), but has not so far tried to link it to international development. Time for some cross-fertilization, I reckon.