African stereotypes were all the rage on the interweb last week: ‘Africa’s image in the West, and Africa’s image to itself, are often crude, childish drawings of reality’ argues Binyavanga Wainaina. Others think humour works better: ‘Africans shocked by uncivilized antics of European savages’, South African satirical magazine Hayibo takes aim at Europe’s elephant-massacring kings and racist-cake-cutting ministers [h/t Beyond Aid].
What else? Big new database on land grabs: ‘Researchers estimate that more than 200m hectares (495m acres) of land – roughly eight times the size of the UK – were sold or leased between 2000 and 2010. Details of 1,006 deals covering 70.2m hectares in Africa, Asia and Latin America were published by the Land Matrix project, an international partnership involving five major European research centres and 40 civil society and research groups from around the world.’ Guardian coverage here.
A handy printable logical fallacies poster, (there’s 24 of them: strawman, appeal to authority, slippery slope, ad hominem – sadly, I’ve seen them all). Should be nailed on the wall of every wonk’s office (and to their hearts) [h/t everyone]
A version of this post appeared yesterday on ‘People, Spaces, Deliberation’, the World Bank’s clunkily-named but interesting governance and accountability blog.
I’ve been catching up on our accountability work in Tanzania recently, and it continues to be really ground-breaking. Rather than churning out the standard logical framework of activities, outputs and predicted outcomes before the project even starts, the programme, known as Chukua Hatua (Swahili for ‘take action’) uses an evolutionary model of change (try out numerous approaches, drop the less successful ones, scale up and develop the winners). It’s more like a venture capitalist backing ten start-up firms knowing that most will fail, but some will win big. This has been possible partly because DFID has been willing to fund such an experimental approach as part of its Accountability in Tanzania (AcT) programme (props to them).
18 months into the programme, it’s good to see that Chukua Hatua is, errmm, evolving, according to programme coordinator Jane Lonsdale, who I caught up with recently. The first phase piloted six approaches:
1) Election promises tracking – training of ‘trackers’ in 36 communities prior to the 2010 elections. They recorded rally promises on voice recorders, took them back to the communities to agree priorities and are now following up progress against the leaders’ promises.
2) Farmer animators – training more than 200 farmers nominated by their communities, to understand principles of accountability, how to hold those in power to account, and how to share their knowledge and facilitate their groups to take action. (pic right shows some animators getting into the groove at a workshop)
3) Active musicians – training 42 musicians on principles of accountability to act as seeds of change through their music, which is widely listened to by communities.
4) Student Councils (see pic, below) – building the skills of leaders at primary school level; linking students with community ‘champions’ to help them raise issues with teachers and school management committees.
5) Community radio – creating a new space in Ngorongoro district to enable pastoralists to share information and debate.
6) In addition to the pilots, Oxfam also supported local campaigns where communities were already active, most notably in Ngorongoro.
Last September came the difficult bit – killing off the less successful experiments. We got all the partners in a room, plus a couple of other NGOs, the consultants, some Oxfam staff from outside Tanzania and KPMG (which manages the programme for DFID). The group came up with four basic criteria on which to judge the pilots:
- How much were they spreading awareness?
- How successful were they in mobilising people to take action? - How effective were they at expanding ‘spaces’ in which people can claim their rights – this includes both taking advantage of existing ‘invited spaces’ and creating new ones
- How responsive was the government (either local or national)?
Overall, the farm animators came out best. The musicians were better at awareness raising and mobilisation, but failed to get a good government response. We dropped some pilots and merged others. The student council approach was dropped and spun off to another funder (one unintended consequence of the venture capital approach – generating other fundable spin-offs).
What didn’t work and why?
Geography: The active musicians were not able to work well in Ngorongoro, because the communities were too widely dispersed to reach.
Government obstruction: The community radio never got off the ground because the government did not issue a licence.
Informal v formal power: The farmer animators’ work was unsuccessful in spreading awareness beyond the groups that the animators belonged to. This might have been due to their lack of a ‘formal’ position in community leadership.
Attitudes to youth: Students were able to make demands within their schools, but were unable to take this approach into the community– there was simply not enough respect for young people’s viewpoints.
What have we learned for the next phase of the project?
Apart from the shake-out of pilots, a number of other issues have emerged:
• The programme needs to do more to prepare for negative responses, especially from local officials (interestingly, reactions from the state have been most hostile where local opposition parties are strongest, whereas in communities dominated by the ruling CCM, officials are more open to dialogue). These have included threats by village executive officers to community members for being ‘trouble-makers’, arrests for demonstrating for electricity and closing a school for 2 days after students demanded more say in their education. Dealing with these responses will require training in negotiation skills and conflict resolution and linking citizens and partners to national organisations such as the Human Rights Defenders Coalition. The cycle of conflict and cooperation recurs in many change processes, and is always a real headache for both participants and NGOs like Oxfam.
• In Tanzania, building ‘created spaces’ is much harder than helping citizens make better use of existing ‘invited spaces’ for consultation and accountability. In such fora, the main obstacle is often lack of capacity, so the next phase will continue to work with local elected leaders. The benefits of changing the behaviour and increasing the capacity of village leaders and ward councillors are two-fold – they are more likely to support citizens demands’, and they can be a key ally in taking citizens’ issues upwards to central government.
• Although there have been some notable successes, gender bias in Tanzania is very entrenched and work with women needs to be strengthened, especially looking at women’s leadership, men’s attitudes to women and women’s participation in public spaces.
Perhaps most interesting for me is the wider impact on how Oxfam is working in Tanzania. The team is getting much more expert in understanding who has power at local level, and in the next phase will involve key local players such as faith leaders, traditional birth attendants and healers. Over to Jane for the last word:
‘I can’t differentiate programming from power analysis – they go hand in hand. We’re doing something different now, not just rolling out a load of community scorecards, or public expenditure tracking – the usual kind of governance work. We’re pushing ourselves to really think through how change happens in Tanzania and try out different things. The whole team and partners are now talking in terms of power analysis. We’ve got the same language to describe what change looks like. Everyone is picking up trends and patterns – it’s a lot better than conventional indicators.’
And here’s a nice 14m video covering the first phase of the project. In the words of the commentary, ‘they all deserve a big-up’.
The growing food crisis provoked by drought in the Sahel is affecting millions of people. This crisis has been deepened by the conflict in Mali sparked by the proliferation of arms from Libya in the wake of the fall of Colonel Gadhafi. Some 200,000 Malians have fled from the fighting, which engulfed the whole of Northern Mali from January to March this year. This situation of drought + conflict is providing some harrowing evidence of the need for effective international control of the arms trade. Oxfam has worked for ten years on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), currently under negotiation at the United Nations.
Tuareg tribes in northern Mali have refused to accept the authority of the Bamako government since independence in the 1960s, and their last rebellion ended in 2009 with Malian government forces victorious. But as the war in Libya turned against Colonel Gadhafi, Tuareg fighters from Libya’s armed forces began to return home and formed the Movement for the National Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).
The MNLA are much better armed than previous Tuareg fighters. Malian government forces have reported fighting against men armed with four-wheel drive vehicles mounted with heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons or multiple rocket launchers, and Milan anti-tank missiles. The UN has said that substantial amounts of those kinds of heavy weapons, as well thousands of rocket-propelled grenades, heavy machine guns, substantial quantities of semtex explosive, thousands of small arms and tonnes of ammunition and grenades have flowed into the Sahel from Libya. There are also persistent reports that MANPADS – single operator anti-aircraft missiles – have been smuggled out of Libya. The Libyan government had stockpiled some 40,000 of these weapons, and only 5,000 have been accounted for. Many were undoubtedly destroyed during NATO’s bombing, but several thousand have probably been smuggled out of Libya to the Tuaregs, to terrorist groups, and into the region’s black market for arms.
In addition to being better armed than ever before, the Tuareg fighters from the Libyan army are better trained and disciplined than rebels in the past. As the rebellion began, things went badly for government forces and on 21 March, army officers led by a Captain Sanogo, angered at being outgunned and outmanoeuvred by the MNLA, carried out a coup d’etat to overthrow President Toure. In the wake of the coup, all of northern Mali has fallen to the MNLA without serious fighting, and the Tuaregs declared the end of fighting and a free Azawad in early April.
In the South, the coup leaders are now working with ECOWAS and political figures in Mali to restore civilian government as soon as possible. While there is no fighting at present, interim President Traore (former speaker of the Malian parliament) has threatened to wage ‘total war’ on the north if the rebels do not submit to his authority. The army continues to call for more weapons. More fighting is likely in coming months.
How would an ATT help? For a start, in a situation like Mali, a treaty would cut off weapons heading for a conflict zone to encourage political negotiation. National legislation for Arms Trade Treaty implementation would require security sector reform and improve civilian control of the military, both vital areas of good governance that contribute to socio-economic development.
The ATT would provide simple rules, globally enforced, which would detail when an arms exporter could, and could not, send arms to a prospective buyer. If it was thought that the sale of arms might result in breaches of human rights or international humanitarian law; could damage socio-economic development of the recipient state; provoke or prolong a conflict; or lead to diversion to terrorist or into the black market – such a sale would be banned. This would apply to all conventional arms and equipment. While individual countries have such export control policies, there is no such global regulation.
It is likely that, had an ATT been in place in the past twenty years, Libya would have been unable to build up the excessive stocks of arms that are now fuelling conflict in the Sahel. And, given the transparency and reporting mechanism that will be built into the treaty, much more would now be known about just what those stockpiles contained, and where they were stored. This would have allowed effective international action to contain them in the wake of the war.
The Sahel risks being trapped in a vicious self-perpetuating cycle of hunger, conflict and bad governance. That cycle can be interrupted
at various points by action at both national and international level – building food security, fast and effective aid, and passing an ATT that will prevent the kinds of disastrous spillover Mali has suffered from the fall of Colonel Gadhafi.
Martin Butcher is Oxfam’s policy adviser on the Arms Trade Treaty
Ed Cairns, Oxfam’s senior policy adviser on conflict, summarizes a new paper, Stay on Target, which lays out the case for governments to hold out for a top quality Arms Trade Treaty as negotiations enter a crucial phase
In the age of austerity it may seem that governments can do nothing but make cuts. But they can still legislate and regulate, and try to make the market work for the public good. In the last few years, some of them have been doing precisely that in the most deadly market of all – the arms trade. From Latin America to Europe, and through three separate regional agreements in Africa, there has been an array of new regulations on the arms trade. Some of them work better than others, but that’s not the point. A patchwork of national and regional controls isn’t the best way – at least by itself – to regulate a trade that’s as global as everything else.
Many governments and NGOs realized this years ago, and have spent almost a decade campaigning for an international Arms Trade Treaty. It’s been a brave and courageous campaign. Indeed, its critics might say that it’s out of its time. A new international treaty, agreed at the UN? When hopes of the UN are a shadow of what they were in the 1990s? And ‘a la carte multilateralism’ of the G20, BRICs and regional organisations has replaced the UN as the core of more complex international relations?
All right, I exaggerate. But you know what I mean. If the UN cannot agree an arms embargo on Syria, which seems a no-brainer to most of the world, is it likely to agree an international Treaty to control the arms trade?
Right now, though, we should hold back our scepticism. The UN is not what it was, but the campaign to get it to agree an Arms Trade Treaty has been outstandingly successful. In 2003, the Treaty was just an idea in a report from one of my colleagues, Debbie Hillier. In 2006, the UN General Assembly welcomed the idea. In 2009, it started negotiations. This July, there’s a conference in New York scheduled to agree it. In the world of international law, this is greased lightning. It’s like Usain Bolt has taken over the UN.
But there’s no point in any new regulation unless it works – to make the market operate for the public good. And that applies every bit as much to a UN conference to agree a useful Arms Trade Treaty. The vast majority of governments want an effective Treaty that will have a practical impact on curbing the irresponsible arms deals that fuel human rights abuses or war crimes – or waste a vast amount of money that could be better spent on, say, development. But like every idea for effective regulation, there are those who want to water it down. On the arms trade, they’re governments like Syria and Iran, and – an odd companion – the US, which may have made a catastrophic error when it insisted that the process to agree the Treaty should be by consensus.
Because of that, and the opposition of some, it’s impossible to tell what will come out of the UN conference in July. There’s an overwhelming humanitarian and developmental logic for a tough Treaty that curbs irresponsible arms deals, covers all conventional arms and ammunition, and covers every part of this complex and sometimes sordid global market, with its sleazy arms brokers who may never touch a gun, but wheel and deal to send them to war criminals around the world.
Between now and July, there should be a clear message to those governments that have championed the idea of an Arms Trade Treaty for nearly ten years. Hold out for a good one. Don’t compromise. In the next few weeks, another one of my colleagues, Deep Basu Ray, will be publishing five short papers on the reasons why. But today is my turn. With Amnesty International, Saferworld and others, we’re publishing a paper, Stay on Target, which lays out the case for the UK Government to hold out for an Arms Trade Treaty that will actually work.
Not surprisingly, the UK, like the EU, gets piqued at suggestions that it has less influence in our new multipolar world. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, speaks of a ‘renaissance’ in British influence - not least in standing up for the values of human rights and poverty reduction. Whether that influence counts for much will be put to the test in the next few months. Under two different governments, the UK has vigorously backed the idea of a strong, effective Arms Trade Treaty since 2004. Can it help deliver that? Rather than a weak treaty that would do almost no good?
We’re about to find out.
And here’s Ed ‘talking to the paper’
Tomorrow, Martin Butcher shows why all this matters – the link between an ATT and averting disaster in the Sahel
Civicus, a global network of civil society organizations, recently published a pilot ‘State of Civil Society’ report, which it hopes to repeat at regular intervals. Some excerpts:
“2011 marked a critical juncture for civil society. Authoritarian regimes buckled under the weight of citizen pressure, and prevailing political and economic orders faced unprecedented opposition from people power movements in a great wave of protests across many countries. The opening of new arenas and avenues for civic participation and mobilisation in turn provoked significant state backlash against activists and CSOs, with a heavier focus on restricting internet usage. Foreign investments by emerging powers, particularly China, impacted on civil society space in donor recipient countries, but this was not matched by a rise in advocacy by CSOs based in emerging powers to press for more progressive foreign policies by their governments.
On the global stage, civil society continued to experience limited access to key multilateral forums and despite the rise of a cluster of economic and political powers, states tended to use the year’s key global meetings to advance national interests. Many CSOs are facing existential crises, which includes problems caused by a deteriorating funding environment. New and broad-based coalitions between diverse civil society formations are needed to best capitalise on what is currently a generational opportunity to demand transformational political, social and economic change.”
The report draws heavily on Civicus’ Civil Society Index project, covering some 30 countries, and identifies five key themes across civil society in 2011: civil society response to emergency and crisis; protest, activism and participation; the space for civil society; the resourcing of civil society; and civil society’s role in the multilateral arena.Each theme has a dedicated section in the report.
On the regulatory environment, which is worrying a lot of Oxfam country offices and partners, it says:
“In 2011, several regressive laws were instituted or proposed that negatively impactedon the operating environment for civil society. A number of countries targeted the foreign fundingof CSOs, e.g. Ecuador, Egypt, Ethiopia, Israel and Kyrgyzstan.
Many governments imposed measures restricting the ability of individuals to exercise their freedoms of assembly, association and expression, including in Belarus, Malaysia, Uganda and several countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Also many governments proposed or enacted legislation affecting the formation, registration and general lifecycle of CSOs, such as in Algeria, Cambodia and Iran. Following intensive campaigning from domestic and international civil society, plans were shelved or delayed to introduce restrictive civil society laws in Cambodia, Iran and Israel. However, the threat of legislation remains a potent weapon for governments to subdue civil society voices. More positive reforms were introduced in Montenegro, Rwanda, Tunisia and the Kurdistan region in Iraq.”
The report then provides several pages of analysis of each of the 30 countries in the Civil Society Index. The report is a great idea – just as we and many other development organizations are recognizing and stressing the crucial importance of civil society organizations and ‘active citizenship’ in development, there is an alarmingly generalized effort by governments to restrict their ability to operate – it’s a regular topic of conversation in any field trip. So overall, the idea of a periodic ‘state of civil society’ report is an excellent one, but I think it would work better as a more forensic and arms’ length survey of trends and challenges, a bit more like Amnesty’s annual report on human rights around the world. As it currently stands, there is a bit too much editorialising ‘civil society organizations/governments need to do X, Y, Z’ and not enough hard data and legal analysis. But it will be interesting to see how it evolves.
‘This book is for those who know a little about Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army, and want to know more.’ Instant e-book for $2.99 on the reality behind the Kony2012 hoopla. Interesting new format, combining rapid response with some ‘behind the news’ context from a dozen authors who either know about the LRA, or are big on digital campaigning.
‘Donor-private sector partnerships are of limited use for meeting the needs of small scale agricultural producers. And since smallholder farmers, especially women, make up the majority of the world’s poor, it’s tough to argue that these partnerships will be the ticket out of poverty for most.’ Oxfam America’s Porter McConell summarizes research from Tanzania that questions the G8 default preference for private sector solutions in aid to agriculture.
And a couple of random videos to spice up your Monday morning. Sxxx online organizers say – I am doubly traumatized, because half is stuff I say, and I don’t even understand the other half ….. [h/t Martin Hall]
The dangers of texting – being eaten by a bear……. [h/t Grandiloquent Bloviator]
Welcome to the Tower of Babel (right). My wonderful blogmeister Eddy Lambert has found a way to put a Google Translate button on the blog (to the right, above the twitter icon). The drop down menu gives you an astonishing range of language options and more or less instantly translates the whole blog. Judging by the Spanish version (my only decent non-English language skill), the translation is a bit clunky, but intelligible. Please tell your non-English speaking friends and give us some feedback on whether it works.
‘Mia mirinda blogmeister Eddy Lambert trovis manieron meti Google Translate butonon sur la blogo (dekstre, supre la twitter ikono). La falmenuo donas al vi mirindan gamon de lingvaj opcioj kaj pli aŭ malpli tuj tradukas la tutan blogon. Juĝi por la hispana versio (mia sola deca ne-angla lingvo kapableco), la traduko estas iom clunky, sed komprenebla. Bonvolu diri al viaj ne-angla parolantaj amikoj kaj donu al ni iom sugestoj sur ĉu ĝi funkcias.’
Meanwhile as I write, the voting on the big bra hunt is a dead heat, so I’ll leave the poll up for a few days to let people slug it out. Mobilize your forces, people.
On this blog, I occasionally feel an overwhelming urge to self-destruct for the amusement of others. It is in that kamikaze spirit that I bring you….. Oxfam’s ‘big bra hunt’. The story so far: on 1 April (but not linked to April Fools’ Day, as far as I’m aware), Oxfam’s trading team in the UK launched a campaign to get women across the UK to donate a million bras from their underwear drawers to Oxfam’s string of second hand clothes shops (which raise some £25m a year for Oxfam’s work). Many of the bras will be sold in West Africa by Frip Ethique, a social enterprise funded by Oxfam, and the proceeds ploughed back into development work in the region.
Cue ‘giant bra window displays’, staff and celebs like Helen Mirren (below) ’sporting underwear as outerwear’ a la early Madonna etc etc. The press loved it (and spiced up their coverage with some entirely fabricated and deeply dodgy quotes from Oxfam trader Sarah Farquhar); our shops are already inundated, and we may well hit our target.
Cue also, a lot of outrage, some of it manifested in heated internal email exchanges, but spilling over into the blogosphere. I tried to get the critics to debate the issues in public, but they were all too hopping mad to be fair and balanced and all that, so they asked me to do it instead (cheers, people). So here goes.
I think there are three broad areas of concern: development impact, public messaging about aid and undermining Oxfam’s work on gender equality and women’s rights.
Development Impact: concerns include both undermining local clothing production and flooding existing second-hand clothing markets. I’m pretty sure these concerns are misplaced: Oxfam reviewed its second hand clothing operation back in 2005 and as a result concentrated its activities in countries without a viable clothing industry; it was Frip Ethique’s request for more bras that got us thinking about the bra hunt in the first place; the bras will be released over time so as not to flood the second hand market. Concerns on imposing Western culture don’t stand up because the bras are being sold, not given away – women can choose whether or not to buy them.
Public messaging: The bra hunt presses lots of buttons in the development community because of previous appeals for ‘Swedow’ – stuff we don’t want. Most recently, the appeal for a million T shirts in the US got (rightly) hammered. There are overtones of charity rather than rights; of colonial administrators’ wives advising ‘native’ women on decent dressing. But the important question is surely whether it’s stuff people in developing countries do or don’t want – and our research (and this was a heavily researched exercise) suggests there is a real unmet demand for bras (hence Frip Ethique’s request).
Undermining feminism and development work on women’s rights: Oxfam puts gender and gender rights ‘at the heart of all we do’, and there are a lot of passionate feminists working for it. They are alarmed by the kind of sugar-coated ‘cupcake feminism’ on display recently for International Women’s Day and see this as in the same vein. Pinkness, sparkles, underwiring, ‘all girls together’ holding Tupperware parties – it all feels like a bit of an insult in the face of the glaring violations of rights and the poverty and violence faced by the women in communities where Oxfam works. And bras do, of course, have a pretty iconic role in feminist history. Feminists working for Oxfam argue that this is turning a lot of women – and men – away from donating to Oxfam – and endangering its reputation as a champion of gender equality and women’s rights.
This kind of argument is not unique to gender issues; it’s inevitable in any thinking aid agency that simultaneously has to raise money from the public while seeking to change policies and attitudes in both rich and poor countries. Think of the decades-old ‘poverty porn’ arguments over fundraising images of starving kids that perpetuate some terrible stereotypes while raising shed-loads of cash. Sometimes advocacy and fundraising are in alignment, sometimes not. If it hits its targets, the bra hunt could raise £1.2m for Oxfam’s programming and advocacy. The question is whether it comes at a cost to the wider mission.
At this point, I’m supposed to ‘come to a view’ on who is right. Are you kidding? Allow me to pass the buck to you, with this poll – you can vote for more than one alternative.
Finally, here’s a 2 minute promo video on the bra hunt and Frip Ethique
And some of you may wish to comment – it’s anonymous but be warned, I can still see your email address………. Go on, get if off your chest. Oops, sorry, just couldn’t resist.
The starting point for the book is that we live in a world increasingly characterized by shocks (economic, political, climatic), rather than steady incremental change, but there is a huge hole at the centre of our what this means for poverty. With a few exceptions (e.g. the early warning system on malnutrition), we have only the vaguest idea of how such shocks are affecting poor women, men and children in real time. Instead, the ‘poverty community’ relies on some decidedly blunt instruments – models (poverty rises by X million every time GDP falls by Y%) or household surveys with significant time lags. Moreover both these tools generally reveal little about the lived experience of being poor – the social exclusion, anger, shame, humiliation and fear that can lead to revolutions or despair. Yet through this fog of ignorance, policy makers and aid donors must take decisions in real time – what can be done?
Living through Crises tries to show how that gap can be filled, with 8 country case studies and a global synthesis on the impact of the multiple crises of food and fuel prices, and financial systems, that rocked numerous economies from 2008-11. The studies are both rigorous and qualitative (not an oxymoron, whatever some quants say) in what Robert Chambers in his excellent foreword terms an exercise in ‘rapid social anthropology’. The methodologies are varied, but typically involve focus group discussions, repeated over a period of months or years, in a sensitive, skilled effort to dig into the experience of poor people living at the sharp end of a global economy in turmoil.
What does this add to the traditional ways of exploring the impact of crises? Firstly, some surprises, for example that the informal sector is hit harder than the formal sector, even though a global economic slowdown hits international trade and finance first; that informal, local safety nets (religious organizations, communities, family and friends) are in general more significant sources of support than the state.
Second, this exercise in ‘deep listening’ identifies and fills some important gaps in our understanding – that indebtedness to microfinance organizations can become an acute burden in a crisis, or that intra-family violence (men on women, adults on kids) is likely to increase.
This approach identifies the importance of social capital and relationships: ‘marginalized and poor people with weak social capital experienced the most severe and irreversible hardships’. But it also points to the erosive nature of coping – for all their energy and invention in confronting shocks, poor people run down their assets as well as their stock of social capital, with knock-on consequences for their future well-being. Rapid social anthropology also identifies gender differences, for example in the impact of crises on the care economy, which are usually overlooked altogether by conventional analyses.
The book launch (in a venerable committee room at the House of Commons), generated some thought provoking discussion:
Role of the State: the research finds that the state is often ‘absent’ during a crisis. Rather than turn to the authorities, poor people turn to family and friends, their religious organizations, and other community structures. So does that mean we give up on state provision of social protection, crisis response etc etc? No. But we need to think differently. For example, adopt a ‘Portfolios of the Poor’ approach of researching what community ‘social coping’ mechanisms function well and support those, as well as identifying gaps that the state needs to fill directly; or identify which aspects of state provision are effective and back those – school feeding programmes emerged as really significant.
Beyond the state: but the research does suggest looking beyond the state and seeing how to cooperate with the other institutions that matter. What about providing disaster management training to religious leaders? Putting money into community savings schemes as a way of getting cash quickly into a shock-hit village? I blogged on a discussion with Robert Chambers on this a while back, and the ideas still make sense (at least to me).
The links to structural adjustment: Those of us who worked on structural adjustment programmes in the 80s and 90s recognized a lot of similarities with the social impact of (and response to) structural adjustment programmes – e.g. Caroline Moser’s work on their erosive impact in Ecuadorian shanty towns. The other link is that SAPs in some cases increased vulnerability to shocks, for example by liberalizing financial markets, privatizing state banks and thus reducing the range of levers available to governments.
Had a fascinating chat with Jean Boulton (right) this week. Jean is a physicist-by-training (a real one, unlike me – I jumped ship after my first degree). These days she is a management consultant and social scientist who has been working to bring ideas of complexity theory into organisations for many years. More recently she has become interested in international development – hence the chat.
Jean argues that facing up to complexity is not an option. Behaving as if the world is stable and predictable when it is not does not make it so. Such mechanical thinking can lead to blindness to change and difficulty in adapting to shocks and fast changes. So a shift in mindset is needed. Don’t assume the world is a smoothly functioning machine: review progress often, pick up on unintended consequences, look for the unexpected, scan for signs of change.
But there is still a dilemma here. Some people use these ideas to suggest that a) The world is complex, so there’s no point trying to understand it – just do what you feel, or b) The world is complex, so we should give up trying to influence change in any particular direction and just pick civil society/other partners and accompany them through thick and thin. In fact, complexity theory has a much richer set of implications for development policy and practice, but they can be hard to nail.
So in addition to Jean’s more general points, here are some more specific candidates:
Firebreaks: forests and forest fires are classic complex systems, in that you can’t predict where the fire will take place, or how it will spread. But you can still introduce ‘circuit breakers’ into the system by clearing firebreaks in the forest that will slow down the spread of fire. In the development world, the closest parallel is perhaps with financial systems – e.g. suspending share trading once a certain level of volatility has been reached. What other examples are there?
No regrets policies: back to the financial system – we can’t be certain what kinds of speculation, if any, increase food prices, but could we take steps that would be effective if speculation is indeed the guilty party, while not harming the useful operations of financial markets if it isn’t?
Decentralization: bringing decision makers closer to the ground makes sense in complex systems where they are required to spot trends and react to them, rather than develop the master plan and implement it.
Enabling environment: rather than ‘picking winners’ – e.g. backing a particular social actor, technology etc, in complex systems where such winners could come from anywhere, it might make more sense to focus on creating a broader enabling environment to support would-be change agents. Things like data transparency, literacy, health and education, communications infrastructure (see internet pic), or even trying to influence the underlying norms and values that guide human behaviour.
Regulation: If the previous point sounds a bit like the Washington Consensus, that’s because complexity theory sometimes risks veering towards blind faith in the ‘invisible hand’ of markets. Jean’s counter-argument is that the self-organising invisible hand does not necessarily lead to ‘the good’. It depends on the values and intentions of the actors. The work of complexity economist Brian Arthur emphasises that free markets tend to lead to the big getting bigger and the powerful more powerful. The voice of the powerless and the voice of the future are soon lost. Governance, social movements, even good old-fashioned regulation, can be crucial in countering this ‘pull to power’.
Run multiple experiments: If you can’t pick winners, why not pick 20 runners and see which ends up being the fastest, then pick that one? This is essentially what we are doing with the Chukua Hatua project in Tanzania, and it seems like a really sensible way to intervene in complex systems.
Real-time data: functioning effectively in complex systems means spotting new (and inherently unpredictable) trends as soon as possible and reacting to them. Better real-time data on everything from nutrition to levels of popular discontent is important, but so is creating the right set of incentives and mindsets to ensure that organizations actually respond to the data and see the patterns within it.
Monitoring and Evaluation: in complex systems, trying to attribute an outcome to a particular activity is often a fool’s errand. But that doesn’t mean you give up on measurement altogether. One method focuses on the use of journals, diaries and looking for patterns in what Jean calls ‘narrative fragments’ which can all help detect impact in complex systems, even if they don’t provide the illusory certainty of ‘intervention A is 36% more effective than intervention B’.
Judging the context: Jean is keen on this one. Not all situations are endlessly uncertain and fluid. We need to make some judgements – what parts of our work and context are relatively stable – and the task is to do well what we are doing; what parts are very unstable and the focus is on agility and adaptation; where do we experience rigidity and ‘lock-in’ and the task is to challenge and disrupt?
This week Jean is in Northern Kenya, exploring what her ideas can bring to our work with pastoralists there – should be a fascinating example of theory meets practice.
This blog is written and maintained by Duncan Green, strategic adviser for Oxfam GB and author of 'From Poverty to Power'. More information on Duncan and the book is available on the From Poverty to Power official website.
It is a personal reflection by the author. It is intended to provoke debate and conversations about development, not as a comprehensive statement of Oxfam's agreed policies - for those, please take a deep breath and read the Oxfam International strategic plan or consult policy papers on a range of development issues.