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Global Problems, Local Solutions: The Case of the US and Yemen

Posted by / 21st April 2015 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , , / -

Emboldened by Yemen’s continued internal fragility, Saudi Arabia is attempting to strengthen its control of the Arabian Peninsula through aggressive military action. It does so with direct support from the United States, which earlier removed its own remaining troops from the republic. Both Washington and Riyadh view the violence in Yemen as part of a wider conflict against hostile regional groups as well as Iran. For Saudi Arabia this is consistent with its regional aspirations and concerns about its rivalry with Tehran. For the US, however, the situation in the most southern tip of the peninsula is an unfortunate mess. The Americans continue to view the world as one of global struggles with transnational solutions. Still enslaved by its Cold War superpower mentality of old, Washington seems incapable of engaging the world at a local, practical level. In this thinking, local dynamics are mere building blocks of global systems, and as such are shifted around through grand strategies and complex analysis. If there is no obvious connection to such global struggles, the realities on the ground lose relevance, and America moves on. Eventually, it will not just be the Yemeni population that suffers; the US insistence on seeing the world as pawns of a global game is accelerating its own fall from grace. Only through practical, local solutions can this world tilt back into Washington’s favour. Yemen is a case in point.

Historical Yo-Yoing in Yemen

When, in October 2000, al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack on the USS Cole- harboured at the time in Aden- the US began strengthening ties with Sana’a. Yemen was the very definition of a fragile state threatened by internal rivalries as well as outside interference. During the previous period- which started with Yemen’s unification in 1990, which is still the main origin of conflict in the present-day country -the US had mostly managed its relationships with the country through Saudi Arabian proxy. This had been mostly the result of US withdrawal of financial, military and diplomatic support for Yemen because of its opposition to American intervention in Iraq during its occupation of Kuwait in 1990. It was only after the USS Cole bombing that Washington’s concerns about international terrorism in the region led to a return to a more proactive approach. This then spiralled out of control after 9/11.

Local realities at the time were of deep local division and destructive regional meddling. Despite such fragility, the Bush Administration declared Yemen to be an ally in the War on Terror in November 2001, when then-President Saleh visited the White House for what would be the first of an unprecedented total of four times between then and 2007. Being recruited into the War on Terror did ostentatiously lead to economic and diplomatic benefits: humanitarian and development aid shot up through USAID support, and intelligence and military cooperation was re-established. Predictably, however, this quickly proved to be a poisoned chalice.

The US carrot and stick approach was the last thing Sana’a and Washington needed. The former was still struggling to create a stable, nationally recognised sovereign state after a violent and divisive past. The latter needed the same thing: a state capable of taking responsibility for its own territory, and able to resist outside interference or the establishment of international terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. What it got instead was a magnet for anti-US sentiments, a magnet further reinforced by the destructive nature the War on Terror both regionally as well as ideologically. Any direct benefits to the local economy were more than compensated by perverse outcomes: the undermining of governmental legitimacy, internal division and lack of sovereign control, and the consequent inability of the Yemeni state to reassert itself at either a regional or national level.

When in 2011 this culminated in increasingly violent protests and weakened stability, the Obama administration attempted to support peaceful transition towards a more natural, local balance of power, but it was too little too late. By not dealing with local realities and instead viewing Yemen purely through the spectre of a global struggle against al-Qaeda and other such groups, the US had accomplished exactly the opposite of what it had wanted. Now, in 2015, it has closed its embassy in Yemen, withdrawn its last al-Qaeda fighting troops, and has no clear policy with respect to Yemen except for support for Saudi Arabian interests.

A focus on local realities without pushing for global involvement would have allowed different outcomes, more in tune with reality. The hunt for global ghosts in local closets, not so much. Instead, the yo-yo effect of support, pulling out, support again, and pulling out does nothing but harm the nature of social and political stability. It is what makes rebel groups and international terrorism thrive, and what makes US power only a shadow of its former Cold War self. In this sense, Yemen has followed the same template as in many other regions of the world.

The American Quagmire

By supporting the House of Saud in its quest to control Iran, further dominate the Arabian peninsula and secure its oil interests, US policy displays disturbing signs of multiple personality disorder. Not only is it also supporting Iran’s proxy groups that are fighting IS- essentially strengthen both sides of the regional rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh- it is also further destabilising its already complex relationship with Iraq, and even endangering stability in Saudi Arabia itself. For years the walls surrounding the Royal Family have been crumbling, even if not yet collapsing, and yet Washington seems to cling on to its traditional ally at all cost. This goes even as far as to endanger its much more pressing needs in Baghdad and elsewhere. With Afghanistan essentially seen to be a lost cause from an American geopolitical perspective, there is no other nation on the planet that has received so much attention from Washington in exchange for so few positive outcomes as Iraq. And America’s local coalition in Iraq is under severe pressure by recent events. With the fight continuing in Mesopotamia, Yemen’s destabilising effect on other regional relationships is not something the US is capable of dealing with right now.

If it had focussed on strengthening the state, rather than defending allied governments, things would have been very different in Yemen. If in 2000 it had recognised the importance of state building rather than coalition building; of supporting local stability and growth rather than a relationship conditioned on participating in an abstract war; if it had dealt with Yemen as a sovereign yet young and fragile nation that needs to strengthen its own institutions before it can shoulder militaristic alliances; if the US had looked at local solutions to its global problems, rather than global solutions to its local problems; if all these things, White House policy makers would have been in a very different position. Such alternative hypothetical scenarios are a fun playground for creative historians, but also a useful tool for analysts to explain the current situation, and how to proceed from here.

Right now, Washington’s foreign policy is divided up into separate, unconnected and mostly uncoordinated pieces, only hanging together by some vague yet grandiose master plan of making all the bits fit so as to create the perfect goldilocks situation. Unfortunately, the world does not work like that, nor does US influence. There is no grand theoretical scheme available that makes the global environment behave according to US interests anymore; and even if there was, the US State Department has no capacity to perform accordingly. They react to what rises up from the uncontrollable global weed, rather than cultivating green local pastures.


2015 – Time to Rethink Global Decision Making

Posted by / 15th January 2015 / Categories: Analysis, Opinion, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

As harbingers of a troubled 2015, last week’s events in Paris were a stark reminder that the world is facing a year desperate for clear and benign leadership: the ever increasing complexity of our societies requires thoughtful and wise decision making. Any balance in the globalised world is easily disturbed, and difficult to restore. While humanity as a whole possesses resources as never before, the ways those resources have been allocated in recent times does not bode well. This is particularly visible in international policy making. With organisational bureaucracies bloated, it is increasingly unclear who is responsible for global politics and choices on war and peace, poverty and prosperity, destruction and creation. The world is inevitably turning into a system where no one is in control, and no one is responsible for centralised decisions. The necessary response to this is one of stimulating natural checks and balances, thereby ensuring flexible response mechanisms to disasters and global opportunities alike.

2014 was a year in which the flaws of international decision making processes were painfully exposed, ranging from continued violence around the globe to failing global economic policy and ever present local hardship. The fundamental problem is not one of lack of potential, or of large scale conspiracies, nor of conscious manipulation by those in power. It is one of system creep, in which the answers that human structures provide no longer coincide with the reality of the problems. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq only exacerbated the position of Western nations, causing destruction and mayhem along the way. Huge budgets spent on fundamental issues such as European and global governance, on development cooperation, on human security and economic stimuli show very little bang for their buck.

Those who benefit are people working within the system, within the tools that supposedly serve the wider population; they make a living- and therefore are the primary beneficiaries- by spending money on taxpayer’s behalf to provide specific services. And yet, the productivity of such expenditure is typically alarmingly poor. Trust in European institutions is at an all time low, and the UN is increasingly farcical, with workers and consultants all around the world facing increasing moral dilemmas about their own standard of living compared to those local populations that they are supposed to serve. The Pentagon has consistently failed to show how its actions make the world safer for the average American, but on the flip-side, it does have over 200 golf courses.

The issue is not even limited to the public sector. Share and stakeholders are increasingly left out of the loop in ever-expanding private companies, with internal benefits to be reaped from expansion, even if it makes the general outcomes of operations less effective. One of the main causes of the economic crisis of the past decade was a private sector run amok, without any counterbalance to internal interests and system creep into competitive enterprise. CEO-employee wage ratios are higher than they ever have been in modern society,  without any proven increase of CEO importance in company success. That is not the sign of an evil elites, but of a system not working properly.

Humanity is currently suffering from its own structures, its own institutions; their added value is too low for the resources we spend on them, while their costs are still increasing. System creep is eating away at our structures, and the most fundamental challenge for 2015 will be to halt that trend.

A problem as old as civilisation itself

Throughout history, civilisations ended when clear lines of responsibility faded. During the heyday of the Roman Empire, its bureaucratic bulwarks were unable to react to new threats, leading to unresponsive policy making. These ills were later inherited by the Byzantine Empire, which was also unable to cope with autonomous organisational growth, with systemic interests crowding out effective leadership. China’s Ming dynasty fell from grace in large part because of quarrelling, inward looking bureaucrats and corrupt eunuchs. Tsarist Russia had been in steady decline for decades before revolution finally struck administrative incompetence.  Similar explanations have been used to explain the decline of Babylonian, Egyptian and Classical Mayan empires.

The pattern here is one familiar in current global society: steady growth of social structures and economic welfare, followed by a rapid boom signifying the zenith of society, which then leads to failing checks and balances on ever-growing human organisations. Initially these institutions have clear purpose and add value to society’s growth and wellbeing, but once a certain peak has been reached, they tend towards slow endemic corruption of their original purpose and nature. They begin to hog resources and stifle critical thought, while becoming vehicles for internal interests rather than tools in the hands of political and social leadership. Personal interests by insiders begin to trump social interests, and growth of the system becomes a primary objective, regardless of whether this caters to the needs of its wider environment.

The problems that this systemic expansion brings often remain hidden when social and economic conditions are favourable. They only rear their ugly head when crisis strikes. Then, all of a sudden society is confronted with an inability to react to barbarians at the gates, environmental collapse or internal strife, with institutions consuming the resources necessary to face such existential challenges. Having grown fat and lazy through economic boom, the ability to deal with unexpected downturn evaporates. What is even worse is that these once proud institutions not only have lost purpose, but typically resist attempts to bring back political strength and leadership. They have become hijacked by countless individual, mall-scale agendas that will resist personal loss of status or income. The role large scale organisations play is too abstract to be able to compete with the livelihoods its employees count on. There is no general decision-making process anymore; the initial tool for greater purpose has come to life, and has turned into an independent creature no longer be controlled by its original masters.

The beginning of the end…

The events after 9/11 and the War on Terror were not those of institutions solving existential threats, but rather of using such threats to remain relevant, despite their tremendous costs and long-term destruction. The UN and European Union, having started off with clear direction and purpose, are now mere shadows of their former selves, inhabited by anonymous employees whose livelihoods depends on ever-expanding departments and institutional agendas. Original purpose be damned, the main objective of transnational organisations is their own survival, like an aging male lion increasingly monopolising food supplies to stay alive while the pride that it was supposed to protect starve.

Other global challenges, such as climate change, violent conflicts and lacklustre economic trends, remain largely unsolved, without any serious attempt to deal with such existential threats. Some are even fed to the beast in order to satisfy its hunger. Eisenhower’s warning of the dangers of the military-industrial complex is as valid as it has ever been. Companies, conferences, academic departments and armies of specialists and consultants work on the issue, but they become part of the very same animal that is starving the system. Instead of serving societal needs, they endanger them.

The problem can even be seen at a national level, especially in Western countries. After decades of social and economic growth and steady improvements in democratic and welfare structures, the peak seems to have been reached- perhaps sometime in the 1990s- and the state has well and truly started to move downhill. Governments seem rudderless, managing rather than leading their country. Populism and centric mediocrity compete for favour. Beholden to special interests, and living in fear of losing influence or power, politicians feed the institutional beast rather than putting it on a diet. Après nous le déluge.

…Or the end of the beginning?

Despite similarities with past civilisations, not everything in history repeats itself, and there are a number of fundamental differences between then and now. Firstly, 20th and 21st century globalisation and technological advances increasingly allow for global dynamics, and therefore global responses. This ability to globally communicate, analyse and find solutions dramatically changes the range of options available. Secondly, unlike historical cases, there is no clear antagonist, no barbarians at the gates, attempting to spur on our civilisation’s decline. Thirdly, we have come to understand and appreciate the strength and elegance of natural, decentralised dynamics without heavy handed interference from above, even in societies that emphasise social cohesion and the welfare state. Fourthly, we have the benefit of hindsight. More than ever before we understand the past, and know how and why societies collapsed.

Unlike empires of the past, human society in 2015 is much closer, much more united through natural flows than it has ever been. Even if this increase in scale of operations may have contributed to the system creep discussed above, it also allows for a reversal of such dynamics. Unlike other ages, the current world is in it together; there are no new tribes ready to sack and pillage a decaying empire. No one benefits from collapse, and people all over the planet are facing very similar challenges.

Without downplaying substantial differences in agendas between specific human groups, there is no reason to believe that the general masses around the world are in opposition to each other. There is no such thing as Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, however much certain self-serving institutions and small groups of violent fanatics would have us believe exactly that. The dynamic nature of a planet facing success and failure together means a constant stream of new ideas and alternatives to reverse global society’s fortunes. Dynamic competition and cooperation between ideas, projects and outcomes tend to stimulate the best in human beings. As long as there are no stifling institutional monopolies and systemic beasts starving global society of resources, its modern worldwide nature is in a unique position to bounce back. If society can make institutions work for them, rather than being beholden by institutions’ insatiable appetite, global civilisation could benefit tremendously from technological progress and opportunities.

All of this requires from politicians and social leaders an adjusted set of priorities; not the kind that bloats the circles around them, but the kind that strengthens micro dynamics in their respective societies. We must return to smaller-scale lines of responsibility, with dynamic cooperation and competition in which outcomes, rather than size, are recognised. This also reduces the margin of error, as small scale mistakes, failures or corruption are much more quickly corrected by other micro dynamics than large, centralised, error prone bureaucracies can ever hope to do. Encouraging  institutional cultures in which small is beautiful, and effective outcomes are all that matter, is therefore an absolute priority. The inverse relationship between organisational size and purpose must be understood and recognised. It is a matter of taking pride in small-scale success, and taking responsibility for personal outcomes. It is about not letting the eunuchs get in the way of our civilisation’s survival. Eugene O’Neil sagely wrote that “there is no present or future- only the past, happening over and over again -now”. It is time to prove him wrong.


Funding development cooperation: Time for donors and local people to unite

Posted by / 17th November 2014 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , , / -


Earlier this month a report was published by GRAIN on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s expenditure and impact. The research shows how little of its roughly €3bn funding has gone to local initiatives, with roughly 80% of grants spent on European and North American organisations. The Gates Foundation refuted some of the conclusions from the report , but its factual claims remain uncontested. The fact that the development sector in general spends most money on itself- rather than on its supposed “beneficiary populations”- is nothing new, and the Gates Foundation is not an exception in this regard. The most relevant and urgent question for donors such as Gates is how their mission statements and overall objectives are best achieved. Is this by stimulating a strong development sector and spend money on governments and institutions, or by more direct support of local populations and thereby cutting out the sectorial or governmental middleman?

The answer is increasingly clear: effective human development requires local-led approaches. The development sector is too administrative, too institutional, too focussed on process and procedures, and too obsessed by internal evaluations to have the impact one would expect from such a billion euro industry. But most importantly, outsiders are not very good at knowing what is needed on the ground. Funders need to change tack if they are serious about achieving their own organisations’ objectives.

People have questions, needs and ideas. Foundations and other funders can- and want to- help them answer and achieve those.  This requires not only greater focus on Southern organisations and people, but a move away from the development sector in its current form. In order to effectively achieve stated objectives, less money needs to go to sectorial actors, administration and institutional support. More needs to be spent on direct support of local ideas and initiatives.

The current situation

Just like the answer provided above, the basic facts are clear: the development sector spends more money on itself than on people outside of the sector. Funding goes to NGOs, experts, evaluators, government institutions, expatriates and a whole host of other such typically “Northern” destinations. Take the typical NGO or institution receiving those funds, and their own expenditure reflects a similar pattern. Even those who claim low “overhead” – i.e. central office expenditure, administrative costs, etcetera – conveniently ignore that overhead does not tell the whole story. The remainder typically goes to sector experts, sector evaluators, sector expatriates, local sector employees, and very little actually ends up in the hands of the groups they aim to serve.

There are three general reasons why this may not be a bad thing. Firstly, money needs to be spent on those who do the best job, regardless of whether they come from Seattle or a village near Lusaka. If it is a non-monetary service that needs to be provided, then it is logical that the funding goes to the expert providing such a service, regardless of origin.

Secondly, unlike other sectors, development cooperation does not have natural adjustment or correction mechanisms. In private sectors, both shareholders and consumers exert daily pressures on companies and service providers to act effectively and in accordance with overall objectives. The development sector does not have such natural adjustment tendencies. It therefore requires, or so the argument goes, significant internal evaluation and assessment.

The third reason given for current approaches is that even though it may not be perfect, there is no practical way for donors to approach non-sectorial actors in an effective and meaningful way. Human development requires significant insight into people’s daily challenges. Donors themselves have neither the infrastructure nor the desire to spend significant amounts on developing such expertise themselves. There are just too many potential targets to support to do so directly, and therefore it needs to be contracted out to partner organisations and experts. These then become responsible for interacting with local communities and individuals that the funder wants to support.

The meaning of impact

GRAIN writes that ” of the $669 million that the Gates Foundation has granted to non-governmental organisations for agricultural work, over three quarters has gone to organisations based in the US. Africa-based NGOs get a meagre 4% of the overall agriculture-related grants to NGOs”. The Gates Foundation replied by stating that “the central assumption is that only organisations located in Africa can benefit African farmers – and we think that is incorrect.”

This is often true of course. Most organisations working on these issues will have some positive impact on local farmers or other groups. But the word “benefit” covers a wide range of results, from minimal and inefficient outcomes to significant success and effectiveness. Moreover, it does not cover the longer-term dynamics related to this issue. The sector is continuously and rightly criticised for ineffective behaviour and for not offering sufficient bang for the buck. The sector’s tendency to look inward rather than outward is one of the main reasons why: by supporting itself rather than more directly supporting local ideas and initiatives, its eventual benefits to local groups are much less than they could be.

Sector-heavy approaches tend to lead to administrative deliverables rather than true local improvements to people’s livelihoods. They are designed to focus bureaucratic patterns, rather than on the outcomes for targeted people. This problem is almost inevitable given the scale of the development industry, and can only be avoided by micro approaches in which the target population becomes the client of a service provided, rather than a beneficiary who is supposedly being helped. Only then will systemic dynamics start revolving on the right kind of human impact, rather than intra-sectorial results.

Development’s original sin

The origins of the development sector are one of “aid”, rather than “outcomes”. This is still visible in current thinking. National and local governments as well as NGOs are supported in their efforts to help target populations. As long as that help is visible by means of awkwardly named “measurables”, “deliverables” and project evaluations, funders tend to continue their support. Sectorial organisations, especially of the northern kind, are very good at providing their paymasters with such numbers: the number of children gone to a newly built school; the number of tools provided to organic farmers; the number of seminars given on gender equality. This is both because of decades of experiences as well as due to high comfort levels with process and procedure as opposed to outcome. The content and impact of these numbers, however, are much harder to quantify and qualify. Hence the typical ineffectiveness of such measures. To make matters worse, when asked about their levels of satisfaction, local populations have little incentive to be critical; better something than nothing at all.

Local organisations are also becoming pretty good at this please-the-donor game, with many African and Asian NGOs popping up mimicking Northern language on both website and in grant proposals. Local experts and evaluators are becoming increasingly popular in the sector as well, especially among progressive development NGOs and north European governments. Admittedly, this in itself has two positive consequences. Firstly, it ensures that some more money goes into the local, rather than European, economy through expert and evaluator fees. In other words, if you are going to spend money on the sector, it is better to do it on those that actually live among target beneficiaries. Secondly, supporting local experts and evaluators strengthens local capacities rather than those in Northern countries.

Unfortunately, the main problem remains, regardless of where organisations and experts are based: those working in the sector are focussed on satisfying the sector. Evaluators do not write their report for the target population of the project, they write it for the responsible NGO or the foundation financing the project. This is a completely different exercise than evaluating outcomes for local populations. Similarly, grant writers do not send project proposals to funders based on what is best for the beneficiary populations; they write project designs so as to maximise their chances of success during the grant process. That does not necessarily lead to bad designs, but it is nonetheless a perverse mechanic that reduces effectiveness and impact.

Listening to the wrong people

In one project evaluation I carried out years ago, I had to evaluate its peacebuilding outcomes. This was the main stated objective of both the project and the funder, and the basis for the grant. The executing NGO did this through building a medical centre that was to be open to all the different ethnic groups present in the region. Many of these groups had until recently been at each other’s throat in a bloody civil war. During the evaluation it turned out that originally the NGO had- on request of locals- just wanted to build a medical facility without the political baggage. Because of lack of funds, it eventually rewrote the whole grant proposal to make it suit the funder’s peacebuilding agenda. Locals always knew that this would never work, and indeed: because of all the political infighting that occurred between towns because of the imposed multiethnic approach, the project eventually failed. No peacebuilding; no long-term medical centre.

As the GRAIN report argues, “it is hard to listen to someone when you cannot hear them. Small farmers in Africa do not participate in the spaces where the agendas are set for the agricultural research institutions, NGOs or initiatives, like AGRA, that the Gates Foundation supports. These spaces are dominated by foundation reps, high-level politicians, business executives, and scientists”.

These people from the development sector- as well as those hovering in its periphery- work in order to obtain funds. Without it, their organisation or their personal employment will be terminated. It is true that funders know this potential flaw in the system, and therefore impose a whole range of administrative measures to ensure compliance with their ultimate goals. This does not work, at least not in general terms. Not only does it make the sector slow and bureaucratic, it also makes it hopelessly ineffective in achieving desired outcomes. It is almost paradoxical: as long as the sector works to please funders rather than local people, the funders will not get what they ultimately aim for.

The Gates Foundation, as well as many others, is aware of this challenge: “The needs of millions of smallholder farmers – most of whom are women – are very much at the centre of the Gates foundation’s agriculture strategy. Our grants are focused on connecting farmers with quality farming supplies and information, access to markets, and improving data so that government policies and resources are in line with their needs. Listening to farmers to understand their needs, and to developing country governments to understand their priorities, is crucially important“, said spokesman Chris Williams.

Less oversight, more results

The challenge for the development is not related to changing general objectives or having better intentions. The problem is one of ineffective systemic patterns. Intra-sectorial ineffectiveness is not solved by greater administrative control or simply by employing more local NGOs or experts from Southern regions, even if that is a slight improvement by itself. No, the solution lies in making the relationship between funders and beneficiary populations as direct as possible.

Let the people who are referred to in foundations’ mission statements and governmental policy papers decide how to spend the funds that are ultimately supposed to improve their lives. Remove the middleman, stop encouraging the sector’s excessive administrative processes, and create direct connections between local people and financing. That kind of local-global alliance can then contract services from organisations and experts, instead of the sector contracting itself. This will not only reduce overhead and intra-sectorial spending, it will create a natural market mechanism in which all those currently trying to win favour with donors need to show outcomes to developing communities. Fortunately, if you are a foundation or a development NGO, this is a change that you will surely welcome. After all, your mission statement says that satisfying local needs is what you are all about.

Full disclosure:  the above article makes the case for ReSeT’s current Polis Project. Our team is setting-up such a local-global mechanism to link local ambitions with global resources. Bringing this project to life involves a lot of grant writing to please-the-donor. Local populations will have to wait. As always. 


South Sudan: Global Succes Despite Local Failure

Posted by / 27th June 2014 / Categories: Opinion, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

International cooperation is a permanent clash between broad, unspecified political goals and a system of narrow, actor-specific agendas using those broad goals to advance individual interests. This is true of transnational diplomacy, war, development cooperation, and any other such area. They all have in common that seemingly straightforward decision making hides the amalgamation of organisations, experts, schools of thought and political pressures that led to that decision in the first place, and that is responsible for subsequent execution. Such dichotomy often explains the failure of these broad goals, which tend to become hostage to specific interests. Not only does the mix of underlying agendas bias or even corrupt the formulation of general objectives, it also hampers implementation in subtle yet decisive ways. The broad agendas that do end up successful- such as the eradication of small pox in the 1970s, or the creation of the European Communities, guaranteeing long-term peace and stability on the continent- do so because they are consistent with the specific agendas, creating a natural path towards success of both. Such cases are rare. All too often, specific interests trump any general objective. One of the many recent examples has been the tragic case of independence and subsequent state building of South Sudan.

The independence of South Sudan was an event driven by international pressures. After the 2005 Naivasha Agreement, Western nations piled on to defend the right to self-determination of the predominantly Christian population. Not only was South Sudan on the African continent’s fault line between the Muslim, Arab controlled north and the Christian, pro-Western south, its creation was also a direct challenge to the virtually blacklisted al-Bashir government in Khartoum. Once the political door was opened to potential independence, UN agencies, NGOs, government representatives and the private sector joined the fray with an enthusiasm perhaps only surpassed by state building in Afghanistan. The broad goal was independence and freedom for the South Sudanese. The narrow goals in the background were those of the international state building and development sectors celebrating a new project to stay relevant and access public funds. The excitement among those licking their lips at the prospect of being involved at building a country from scratch was palpable. When the 2011 independence referendum came knocking, the outcome was a done deal. Years of Western money and political pressure had guaranteed success. The results, with 98.83% voting “yes”, may have been a percentage typically only seen in North Korea, but it did not matter to Western press or politicians: the people had spoken, freedom had prevailed.

Up to this point, broad objectives and narrow interests had coincided: many actors, both local as well as global, benefitted from independence. Local politicians saw the opportunity to seize power, whereas global politicians could claim once again to be arch angels of democracy and human rights. Local enterprise counted on an influx of foreign capital, global companies were hoping for large infrastructural and resource extraction contracts. Local civil society expected greater freedom to pursue their agendas, global NGOs were looking forward to an inpour of government funding and donor drives. And indeed, funds did come, accompanied by a bombardment of governmental development agencies and NGOs from all over the world. As a result, the process was generally considered a success by 2011, and with high expectations of a bright future. Political and funding goals had been met. Employment and budgets in both Juba’s governmental departments as well as those of the international NGO sector had increased dramatically, and UN and EU consultants were flying up and down at the cost of their usual, exorbitant daily fees.

Once independence had sunk in, however, broad and specific agendas started diverging. The general agenda of building a functional state had always been an incredibly long shot. Besides significant oil reserves, the South Sudanese economy mostly relies on unproductive agricultural activities. Basic infrastructure is among the worst in the world. The country’s weak political and social institutions are mostly driven by foreign support, rather than domestic expertise. The country is landlocked, heavily relying on its northern rival for its access to the rest of the world. Internal conflict, including long-simmering ethnic and economic tensions, were left unaddressed for much of the post-Naivasha period. In other words, for the Republic of South Sudan to ever become a success for its own population, a tremendous local and global effort would have been needed. Once the excitement surrounding the referendum had disappeared, global politics responsible for the broad objectives moved on to new focal points, leaving South Sudan in the hands of dispersed, decentralised and uncoordinated narrow interests. Funding levels and political support continued to be enough to maintain the Sudanese development industry that had been built up so eagerly, but were completely insufficient to reach a long-term, sustainable level of statehood and stability.

When in December 2013 civil war erupted, it should have come as a surprise to no one. The writing had been on the wall for a long time. Moreover, the responsibility of this failure lay firmly in the hands of the international community so eagerly pushing through an unsustainable agenda in the first place. In order to satisfy narrow agendas, they supported an unachievable broad goal. They- both the international private sector as well as the public sectors and the development industry- benefitted politically and financially, while doing so under the guise of human rights and welfare concerns. Now, they express disappointment at the failures and hardship suffered by the local population, but where are the mea culpas? Where are the statements from donors, NGOs and transnational institutions admitting that they got it wrong?

Last week, De Volkskrant published an article on how Dutch development aid to Sudan over the past ten years had been wasted. The Netherlands, one of South Sudan’s most important donors and advocates of independence, spent over half a billion Euros on local development and financial support. This was mostly steered towards social needs and humanitarian assistance, and very little was dedicated to more fundamental issues necessary to achieve the broad objectives of sustainability. The Dutch government turned its attention elsewhere after formulating the general aims, leaving policy making and funding decisions in the hands of narrow interests, i.e. those of specialised NGOs and experts. The broader vision was lost, and interested parties had free reign over directing the flow of the significant financial resources that had been made available. Any organisation defends the importance of their own field of expertise, regardless of the wider picture. When central coordination weakens, those with the best lobbies prevail.

One of the main lessons from the case of South Sudan is the importance of making sure that broad goals are consistent with specific interests. Moreover, global actors need to respond to local realities, and not attempt to set the agenda. If those criteria cannot be guaranteed, then the mission is doomed to fail. Complex human- self-interested- systems then take over, and start nibbling away at the foundations necessary to achieve the stated objectives. When De Volkskrant wrote that Dutch development aid has “gone up in smoke”, they only got it half right. It has gone up in smoke from a local perspective. In that sense the case of South Sudan has been a massive failure, with the Sudanese suffering the consequences. But large amounts of that €500 million ended up in the pockets of Dutch development experts and organisational overhead, to whom the operation was successful: it has provided employment and political relevance to such organisations worldwide. This divergence between broad and narrow interests has led to a conflict ridden country, in which the local population is paying the price for poor international decision making. Not to worry though, as Western nations will undoubtedly be sending their humanitarian experts and NGOs back to help the suffering locals once again in these times of need. After all, that is what friends are for.


International Development: Please Drop the Charity Act

Posted by / 5th February 2014 / Categories: Analysis, Polis / Tags: , , , / -

International development cooperation is typically regarded as politically optional policy. It is the type of public expenditure that makes politicians and voters feel good about themselves during the fat years, but one that can be cut the moment that high national unemployment or budget deficits require sacrificial lambs. It is no surprise therefore, that in countries hardest hit by the economic downturn, such as Spain and Italy, the international cooperation sector is desperate. And, just like any other organism in this world, the sector is showing its true priorities: not the survival of local populations- the supposed beneficiaries- but the sector’s own survival. The survival of the structures, employees and offices in Madrid or Rome, and of job opportunities of expatriates all around the world.

Such a quest for survival is a natural process for any organism that is threatened, and human networks, organisations and economic sectors all across the world mimic these Darwinian instincts. The problem is that the development sector pretends to be something else, something morally better. It pretends to be a source of righteous charitable acts, one in which individuals selflessly dedicate their time to the betterment of humanity. Unlike other economic sectors, or so the pretence goes, development cooperation exists for poor African children, for remote Indian villages or human rights in general. It does not exist for economic profit, but for the greater good. It justifies donor drives, asking ordinary people to contribute to making the world a better place.

This is highly disingenuous. The development sector is just like any other, with its own strengths and weaknesses. It does not deserve any special ethical consideration, neither internally nor from the outside world. If it is to survive, the sector needs to drop the whole charity act and face up to reality: international development cooperation is a service sector, similar to other service sectors in a global, capitalist system, and currently with clients and systemic pressures often completely separate from local “beneficiary” populations.

The demand for international cooperation

There is a true, natural need for international development cooperation in today’s world. Technological and financial resources are bountiful in some places, yet scarce in others. There is a genuine desire among societies worldwide to share parts of their economic wealth, and to balance the immoral income disparities that are formed through amoral systems. Moreover, from a state perspective development cooperation can, and should, be a win-win situation. After all, it is called “cooperation” instead of the supposedly antiquated “aid”. Governments can influence global and local politics through economic support and push forward their agendas through peaceful means.

It is a testament to the state of denial the sector is in that even acknowledging such a simple fact often causes protests and accusations of neo-colonialism or worse. But whenever the terms of reference of a development project mentions “democracy”, “gender equality” or “income equality”, the donor is pushing a particular, non-universal agenda that uses economic support as leverage. Even “universal” human rights are non-universal in practice and take many different shapes and mutations depending on the local circumstances and the donor’s agenda. Without knowing details, the concept is similar to pushing through a for-profit economic agenda; both promote individual, subjective sets of interests with complex origins and consequences.

Moral evaluation can only happen in practice, when specifics are identifiable and outcomes can be assessed. For example, a faith-based organization may have a genuine focus on redistributing income to the poor without ulterior motives. A priest or a nun living among local populations for decades is likely to be an example of that. However, as anyone who has ever visited large African cities knows, many faith-based organisations are simply present in developing countries as part of a continuous battle to convert souls and swell income. Similarly, post 9/11, the US government invested significant resources in development projects throughout sub-Saharan Africa. Much of that money had a positive impact on local populations, but the overall objective was the destructive War on Terror, not development in itself.

The development sector itself is just as guilty of ulterior motives, especially when it comes to its own success, growth and survival. Many donation drives exist primarily to keep NGOs or foundations afloat, and not because of specific concerns about local populations. These two things are not necessarily incompatible, but the difference does need to be recognised. In all such cases, ethics can only be evaluated at a practical, specific level. Conceptually, development cooperation is driven by amoral clients.

If the two types of clients of the development service sector are those with either a genuine interest in income redistribution or in using development as a tool to advance other agendas, what about local populations? This is one of the areas in which the sector is most confused: beneficiaries of development cooperation are those working in the sector, and their clients, i.e. donors. Direct beneficiaries are not local populations, despite claims to the contrary. The fact that local populations can, and often do, benefit does not take away from the basic client-supplier relationship that exists between donors and the sector.

The client-supplier relationship is key. The client in our capitalist world will always be those providing the finances. Parallel to that there is an honorary type of client, the “local beneficiaries”, who mysteriously appear in documents all across the development industry but never seem to change provider or ask for a refund. They hardly ever complain, do not demand higher quality products, and do not ask for input-outcome effectiveness. When a development project fails they do not sue anyone, and they hardly ever start Facebook campaigns denouncing their contractors. Why not? Because they are neither clients nor do they necessarily benefit. The direct beneficiaries are donors (clients) and the development sector itself, and local populations are used to keep that relationship flowing.

Naturally, when marketing itself, the sector never talks about the sources of funding. It always points to positive impact on those that they call beneficiaries. And indeed: objectives in terms of reference do not tend to state “promoting a self-congratulatory Western agenda of keeping the system afloat”. But that is what it does come down to.

From a local population perspective, the best kinds of donors are those that create mechanisms for local populations to steer the dynamics and be in control. But most of the time, the sector and the system focus on satisfying the donor, not the local population. Project evaluation reports are normally written for donors, not for locals. This is all too common: What matters to the system is that the donor believes that the money has been spent according to plan. The supposed beneficiaries should simply be happy being used in order to achieve that plan.

Development cooperation is not ethically above other layers in society. It does, however, have a greater ethical responsibility because it works within an environment of power asymmetry. Typically local populations have neither the legal nor the financial means to defend their interests; they depend on the professionalism of the development actors and the goodwill of donors when it comes to development projects. By acting as if local populations are actually the sector’s clients, development cooperation only adds insult to injury. It creates a perverse charade in which locals have to be grateful even when they are often not the true beneficiaries. To make matters worse, all too often donors simply do not take their own client role seriously, instead focusing on whether administrative conditions are met: Logical Framework established? Check. Money spent? Check. Evaluator satisfied? Check. Feeling good about ourselves? Check.

This leaves most influence and responsibility in the hands of service providers- i.e. the development sector- who are in deep denial about their own purpose. Anyone working in the sector knows that in the end, satisfying administrative conditions is the easiest way to guarantee future funding. And thus the sector is swamped with bureaucratic checks and balances to secure its own survival. The actual outcomes of the work is a secondary issue. Such perverse tendencies are reinforced by the idea that the sector has a charitable basis, something which oddly means that firing people, incentivising people or even simply assessing people’s outputs is frowned upon.

Too often development sector employees claim that they “could be earning double their current wage in the private sector” but they stay because of a drive to make the world a better place. Needless to say, this is not necessarily conducive to a healthy working relationship between employer and employee. It creates a strange, difficult relationship with respect to purpose and consequently with finances. Money is an issue that is not easily discussed, and people are not allowed to think of their work as financially or motivationally driven. Development sector employees are uncomfortable with the fact that they themselves benefit from their position, and employers are loathe to take action when employee performance is subpar; after all, they are all there for charitable purposes. In other words, cooperation actors all too often feel that the justification of their work comes from their very nature, their existence, rather than from their outcomes. Funding for ineffective fundraising campaigns, central structures, networks and administrative dynamics often go unquestioned. Or rather are periodically questioned but, after long processes of introspection and self-evaluation, remain unchanged.

Of course it does not help that most clients and donors are government agencies, themselves not particularly effective in outcome focussed thinking. Nor does it help that a lot of money is to be made by those who know how to play the system. In the shadows of those working pro bono or at minimal remuneration, thousands of consultants, transnational organization employees and governmental diplomats earn more than they could ever receive in other sectors. As an example, the European Union typically pays between 600 and 800 Euros a day for technical assistance and project evaluations by external experts. These are not necessarily elite specialists, but directly benefit from a culture in which money often goes unquestioned, and which is obsessed with systemic and administrative pressures rather than with input-outcome effectiveness.

The irony is that if the development sector were to embrace its true identity of being service providers rather than a charity, it would benefit everyone involved. The sector would become more outcome focussed, with clearer purpose and drive, by simply acknowledging the self-evident basics: they provide a service to clients, and those clients are sources of funding. Currently they include the old lady in the street who gave her last euro to charity, as well as governments with budgets of millions to promote geopolitical interests, but typically not local populations.

Shifting the balance towards local clients

Only if the donor is willing to cede control to local beneficiaries- effectively making them the clients- would the sector’s client-supplier relationship change. Unfortunately, and for obvious reasons, development organisations are not particularly keen on that. Nonetheless, responsible donors need to go down this path. After general objectives and amounts of funding are established- preferably because of local demand- the donor needs to withdraw from the process and let the execution, evaluation and any follow-ups occur through true beneficiary-supplier dynamics. Ideally, this would lead to donors not being in touch with the development sector itself, and instead support local populations in enforcing accountability of development services rendered. An additional advantage would be that donors need to show their colours more clearly: if they have ulterior motives such as geopolitical or industrial agendas, these will need to be negotiated with local populations and cannot be hidden under a generic term such as “international cooperation”. Sadly, that is also the reason why so many donors will never change their current ways.

Interestingly, this change in systemic relationships would allow the sector’s organisations and employees to be much clearer about their own responsibilities. They would be less burdened by administrative hassle and could much more easily monitor their methods and outcomes. In essence, they would compete with other similar organisations to gain favours of beneficiaries, and shift the burden of administration to donors and their local counterparts. By throwing real dynamics out in the open, light can shine on best and worst practices in ways impossible under the current cloak of delusion.

Similarly, governments would need to make a choice. In a demand-driven cooperation sector- rather than the current supply-driven dynamics- governments and international agencies would need to be clearer about whether they are client or donor. If they are donors, they need to negotiate with local populations. If they are clients- for example interested in strengthening ties with local industries or promoting Western values- they will work with development organisations or other suppliers of services who, in their name, could negotiate with local populations. Funnily enough, the idea of NGOs negotiating on behalf of governments will shock many, but it is what the development cooperation is already all about in today’s world. The problem is that no one labels it as such. Naming and institutionalising this already existing dynamic would create a natural transparency, clarifying purpose, that is so obviously lacking right now.

The sector is in deep trouble, being threatened by economic austerity, political populism and valid long-standing concerns about its purpose and effectiveness; its Janus faced identity is now uglier than ever. Scrambling for funds to stay afloat, the general public is being asked to fund survival of large chunks of the sector through donation drives, street campaigns and internet-based crowd funding, but without any significant information about input-outcome effectiveness. This is especially true in a country such as Spain, in which international cooperation was until recently funded through a well-meaning but rudderless public purse. The relatively young sector is unaccustomed to surviving without government funding and is now, after draconian budget cuts, in full-scale panic mode. The kneejerk reaction has been to scramble for funds anywhere possible. Hopefully the longer-term outcome of the current crisis will be one in which the sector evolves into mature, accountable and professional service providers with critical as well as ethical donors who cede responsibility and evaluation to local populations.

Such change would also make working in development cooperation a happier, more satisfying prospect. Potentially the sector can be an amazing employer: one in which people are in touch with global dynamics affecting practical and real social change; one in which highly skilled professionals are paid competitive wages while being inspired by the impact that they have and working together with local experts and leaders to achieve common goals. In order to get there, the sector first needs to recognise that it has a problem unrelated to lack of funds. It needs to acknowledge who it works for, and with what purpose. Only then can true cooperation towards cultural, financial and social wealth for clients, employees and local populations prosper.



Nobody Wants to Play with Barack Anymore

Posted by / 2nd July 2013 / Categories: Opinion / Tags: , , / -

When US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Jerusalem last week to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, what will have gone through his mind when Netanyahu made him wait for an hour? Perhaps he felt that the prime minister did him a favour. By signalling the complete lack of trust between the two administrations, and by symbolizing the impotence of the highest representative of President Barack Obama, pressure was taken off Kerry’s shoulders to return home with, as he calls them, actual “positive outcomes”. Performing the obligatory ritual of negotiating peace in the Middle East has been a Sisyphean task during the best of times, but these days it is a particularly thankless job for the US State Department. This is not because peace is out of reach- ’twas always thus, and always thus will be- but because United States leadership has become a nuisance on the international stage. It is flapping its geopolitical arms around like a child who is no longer the centre of attention at the playground, and who is desperately trying to get his audience back with new, exciting ideas. And the other kids no longer care. Representing that child must be emotionally draining, even for someone as unflappable as John Kerry.

The White House under Barack Obama has continued its decline which began during the Bush presidency. It went from being an undisputed world leader to that of a powerful but slightly antiquated, uncomfortable and strangely irrelevant presence on the world stage. The United States remains a source of great influence and prestige. It is still unmatched scientifically and economically, and it is still the most important source of global culture and innovation. But its formal representative and voice to the outside world- the president and his administration- have become the child that no one wants to play with. The German kid has the moral high ground, the Russian kid the chutzpah and the Chinese kid the cool toys.

Obama knows it. First, he tried to scare the world into following him. There was the almost obligatory episode about Iran, in which Obama, just like every of his predecessors since 1979, tried to argue that Teheran’s nuclear programme is an existential threat to the world. And then there was the awkward and perplexing stand-off with North Korea. As the former cool kid you know when you are in trouble when you get into a shouting match with a toddler half your age. More recently, there has been the confused- and quickly rebuffed- hard-line towards Syria.

When the stick failed, the White House tried carrots. In the past weeks alone they have launched major international initiatives on non-proliferation, climate change, and Kerry’s doomed mission to kick-start a US led peace process in the Middle East. The first was shot down by Moscow in a matter of hours, the second lacks any credibility at home, and the third started off with their only true ally in the region arriving late and grumpy. It is quite a feat to be disliked by both the Israeli establishment as well as environmentalists in San Francisco.

Clearly, throwing initiatives at a wall and hoping that some of them stick is not working out for Obama. It can no longer distract the world’s attention from Washington’s political incompetence. Initiatives devoid of substance can no longer compete in an age in which Edward Snowden dominates the global psyche.

The world does not look to the United States for leadership anymore. Times have changed. The War on Terror, Iraq and Afghanistan, the financial crisis, drone assassinations, Guantanamo Bay, and now the NSA wiretapping revelations have reduced the White House to near irrelevance as a source of guidance. Its leadership depended on credibility, on being the light on the hill that Americans like to portray themselves as. Bizarrely, Russia and China are quickly becoming more credible actors on the international stage. Not because they are a beacon of morality- they clearly are not- but because they do not pretend to be. Their influence comes from hard power, and they know it. Everyone knows it. Foreigners do not have to listen to sanctimonious and hypocritical speeches when doing business with them, and it is no wonder that as a result they are a hit in many parts of the world.

Susan Rice, the incoming national security adviser, said in response to the Snowden leaks that she thinks that “the United States of America is and will remain the most influential, powerful and important country in the world, the largest economy, and the largest military, [with] a network of alliances, values that are universally respected”. Only the last bit about universal values is relevant, and on that she is wrong: the US has lost its way in that one, crucial regard. US long-term influence never came from its military capabilities or even economic prowess. It was always based on something more intangible, something to do with purpose, with hope that human societies can grow and eventually prosper. The world was willing to forgive the United States its mistakes, as long as it provided such hope. The American nation was even allowed to throw a few tantrums, even damage its surroundings, as long as it was willing to learn and grow. It projected a sense of naive optimism that the old guard in Europe had lost long ago. Vietnam, nuclear proliferation, and destructive power games were fiercely criticised, but did not undermine that sense of universal hope. Their most important foreign policy was their national identity.

When Obama won the 2008 elections on a platform of hope and change, he tapped into that global thirst for leadership. Not one based on hard power or even diplomatic strong-arming, but based on representing a society that was essentially optimistic and well-intentioned. By not delivering that promise to return to a world based not on fear but on optimism, he put the nail in the coffin of his country’s position as main voice for the global community. His mandate was to change the vicious dynamics that were slowly undermining the White House’s leadership in a quagmire of complex Washington dynamics. Instead of being that moral beacon- Nobel Peace Prize endorsed, no less- he made the world see US political leadership as an obnoxious little kid with too many economic and military toys at its disposal. Nobody wants to play anymore, no matter how many games little Barack can think of.  facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail