Saying the unsayable in 2015

It’s 2015, a year where global debate on development will be loud and active, with the new global sustainable development goals, the conference on how to finance them, and the important climate summit. However, having now been part of development debates for longer than I like to remember, I wonder whether these will be as broad and open as in the past, or whether they will be restricted to the issues more palatable to those who hold power, with a whole range of areas where the powerful also constrain development rendered unsayable.

2015 is also the 30th anniversary of Live Aid, the massive concert-fundraiser that placed a lasting spotlight on global poverty. A popular event not a policy prescription, the development of the Live Aid phenomenon perhaps mirrors the wider world.

The original Live Aid in 1985 responded to the famine in Ethiopia by raising money. It did not set out to look at the local or global causes of the famine – the musicians that heralded Live Aid were even called ‘Band Aid’, a brand of sticking plaster. Live Aid was much criticised for this (although my personal story is that it succeeded in propelling me from my teens onto a lifelong road of campaigning for global justice).

In 2005, opened with Paul McCartney singing “It was twenty years ago today…” came the even bigger follow up, Live Eight. By now things were different. The star-studded concert was explicitly not about raising funds – it was about putting public and political pressure on the forthcoming G8 meeting in Scotland to act on global poverty. The focus was not only on the role of developed countries in contributing aid, but also on how they could remove barriers to development, for example by cancelling unsustainable debts and by making trade rules fairer. It was about tackling problems underlying underdevelopment, rather than sticking a band aid over them.

And then, in 2014, came the Ebola epidemic – and a re-release of the original Band Aid track from 1985. The massive emergency response to Ebola is literally vital, of course. But there has so far been surprisingly little spotlight either on the reasons why the preventable Ebola epidemic happened, or on ensuring the same never happens again.

There is a similar trend in the wider development discussions. It is now generally assumed that developing countries must be in the driving seat of their own development, which represents enormous progress from the hung-over colonial mindset of the past. But we hear much less about the ways that the more powerful actors – whisper it – can sometimes get in the way of this development. Tax treaties that neuter poor countries’ potential to their fair share of revenue from investors are frequently agreed. Capital enters and leaves fragile countries on a whim. Harmful conditions are still attached to aid. Powerful countries still protect their own markets and block poor countries’ access to technology. Lenders are again allowing dangerous levels of debt to build. The kinds of dramatic actions needed to stem climate change are not even on the table.

These types of issues are barely present in the 2015 debates, let alone meaningful ways to ensure they are put into action. If 2015 is to bring the transformational change that everyone agrees they want, we need to rapidly rebalance the debate, and bring the unsayable back into the conversation.

It’s time for development experts to admit that poverty is a #firstworldproblem too

FIRST-WORLD-PROBLEMS

“Starbucks wifi not working on my iPhone #firstworldproblems” – if your twitter timeline is full of such stories, you are probably following a few too many Northern development experts. Though minor inconveniences still trouble their lives of unexotic comfort in London, New York, or academia, they signal self-awareness that these are nothing compared with what they know of Africa, Asia, or Latin America.

To be fair, some of the stories of #firstworldproblems are thoughtful and funny. But these declarations of self-awareness highlight a troubling blindspot, these celebrations of intended irony highlight an unintended one. It springs from the same mindset as the one that argues that the Sustainable Development Goals now being negotiated at the UN needn’t oblige the North to address its domestic inequality and poverty as that would be a “distraction” from “real”, Southern, poverty. The mindset that says poverty is another country. And that mindset threatens the achievement of social justice in the North and South.

When the worldview of the dominant is that becoming first world means an end to poverty, the most vital determinants for overcoming poverty are ignored. There is no teleological inevitability about overcoming poverty – social justice is not a train journey from being Southern to being Northern. It is always a struggle, it is always about values and about power. When this truth is forgotten, or deliberately obscured, poverty gets worse. That is why we have seen the return to mass poverty in the global North. And the forgetting of that lesson also encourages failures to address poverty in the South.

In Mediterranean Europe the EU and the IMF have imposed brutal reductions on living standards that saw massive pauperisation and social dislocation. The IMF has responded to critics by saying that they couldn’t sympathise with Greeks as real poverty was in Africa. But African civil society organisations have responded with more empathy and more insight by pointing out that poverty in Mediterranean Europe has been getting so bad because the same structural adjustment once foisted on Africans has now been getting foisted on Spaniards and Greeks. The protections and the moderation of inequality brought in across the global North with the postwar consensus have been ruptured. 91 year old RAF veteran Harry Smith, recalling his experience of the Great Depression of the 1930s and now seeing Britain’s increasing “payday loan sharks, food banks, [and] housing shortages” writes “it’s not shock I feel but a sense of recognition.” In the US, all of the growth since the crash has accrued to the richest 10%. Actually, more than all of it – the rest is worse off. We cannot exempt the global North from discussions of poverty any more. The willful blindness to Northern poverty is hurting too many people in the North. And the deceit is also hurting people in the South.

Southern Governments like Brazil and Bolivia that have focused on redistribution have successfully reduced poverty at a fast pace. In contrast, while Zambia has moved from officially poor to officially middle income, the number of poor people has actually increased. Britain’s Secretary of State for International Development is not alone in saying of the relationship between growth and poverty reduction: “It really is that simple.” But it isn’t. India’s drive to become an economic powerhouse has become a alternative to addressing the real reasons why it’s child malnutrition rates are twice as bad as Sub-Saharan Africa and why its human development performance is much worse than poor Bangladesh. South Africa’s ANC won plaudits for economic responsibility by abandoning the redistributive calls of the Freedom Charter – and now the gap between rich and poor is worse than it was at the end of Apartheid.

Meanwhile, in the Global North, the norm of security and decent living standards has been replaced by widescale insecurity, and the kind of poverty that we had thought a thing of the past is now back.

One contribution that Northern development analysts can bring to development is to help tell the true story of the North. For example, they can highlight the similarities between way that Glencore avoids paying fair tax in Zambia and the way that Amazon and Google avoid paying their fair share to countries in Europe. Or how austerity is bringing back in the North medical conditions like rickets that we once thought consigned to the history books. Yet like the anthropologists of old they are most reluctant to observe such matters at home. Poverty is treated as a tropical disease rather than as a consequence of inequality. But until we unexempt the North from discussions of poverty we fail not just the poor the North but those in the South too, by helping to perpetuate an assumption that is untrue – that when a country passes a particular economic stage its people are freed from poverty. They are not. It’s time for development experts to admit that poverty is a #firstworldproblem too.

The change we need in 10 words: A larger us. A longer future. A different good life.

Yesterday saw the launch of action/2015, the new global campaign on poverty, inequality, and climate change that will rally more than a thousand campaigning organisations around four crucial summit moments on these issues that will take place over the year ahead.

It’s the right campaign at the right time, because now more than ever, power is so distributed that only mass mobilisation and values change will be able to bring about the transformation needed – something I realised vividly during the profoundly disillusioning experience that was acting as the author of the UN High-Level Panel on Global Sustainability in 2011 (more on that sorry tale in the first couple of pages of this talk of mine from 2013).

But just what kind of values change is it that we need? I’ve written before, over at Eden 2.0, about the importance of stories for mobilising change – so what is it that those stories need to be about?

In our forthcoming report for Tearfund – working title The Unfinished Jubilee: Towards a Restorative EconomyRich Gower and I argue that three themes are especially important. You can sum them up in just ten words: A larger us. A longer future. A different good life.

1. A larger us

First up, we need to think less of “people like us” and more of “people – like us”. The whole sweep of human history is a story of expanding the size of the ‘we’ with which we empathise – from itinerant bands of hunter-gatherers to chiefdoms, from city states to kingdoms, and on to modern nation states and the staggeringly diverse communities of affinity and ethnicity in today’s globalised world. This expansion of empathy was perfectly captured by Martin Luther King in his 1963 ‘letter from Birmingham City jail’:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. What affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Above all, we need to get back to thinking in terms of the common good – and to do so at planetary scale, because in a world of global interdependence and planetary boundaries, only a 7 billion ‘us’ will do.

2. A longer future

Second, we need to face up to the fact that we’ve fallen out of the habit of thinking about the long term. Instead, our political leaders rarely have the luxury of thinking beyond the next election; our business leaders, the next financial quarter; our journalists, the next 24 hour news cycle. Scientist and author Danny Hillis observed in 1994 that:

When I was a child, people used to talk about what would happen by the year 2000. Now, thirty years later, they still talk about what will happen by 2000. The future has been shrinking by one year per year for my entire life.

In particular, there has been a catastrophic implosion of the implicit covenant between past, current, and future generations. Today’s young generation in developed countries face a far more uncertain future than their parents, with unaffordable housing, costly higher education and student debt, and the end of ‘jobs for life’. And globally, the next generation faces a future of steadily increasing climate change and resource scarcity – unless decisive action is taken now to prevent that from happening.

3. A different good life

Third, recent years have seen a wealth of research challenging the idea that material consumption levels have much to do with happiness, at least beyond a certain point. Surveys that measure people’s subjective wellbeing routinely find that the correlation between life satisfaction and income starts to break beyond a certain level of GDP per capita.  Robert Kennedy recognised this nearly 50 years ago, when he observed that,

Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.

So our stories need to focus on a broader idea of human flourishing, encompassing not only material security but also goals further up the ‘hierarchy of needs’ – such as friendship, family, a sense of connection, confidence, achievement, and the respect of others.

For more on the Tearfund project mentioned above, this presentation and this blog post, both from a couple of months ago, give an overview of some of the ideas we’re looking at.

New Boy: What they said to me on my first day at ActionAid

“So how do you think we should use EAGLES to apply the HRBA and SO2 to IHART?”

“That’s the one sentence version. And here is the 265 page version. Hey, you’ve forgotten to take it with you.”

“We can’t call her now, she doesn’t wake up till lunchtime… I mean, because of the timezone.”

“There’s something we all want to ask you. It’s very important. We hope now is an OK moment to propose it. I’ll just say it, it’s this: we all want to go out next week for drinks.”

“I got into social justice issues because I studied African literature but when I went to meet academics in Africa they didn’t want to talk to me about books but about the IMF caps on teacher salaries – because on those salaries they couldn’t afford books.”

“I got into social justice because I was brought up in my grandfather’s village by him and his two and half wives.”

“When we urge other organisations to shift their approach from charity to helping people claim their rights, we’re not finger pointing, we’re reflecting on the learning from our own history, from when we did well what shouldn’t be done, and it didn’t work, and we changed.”

“My proudest moments have been in being part of helping to defeat landgrabs, through local organisation, national campaigning and international solidarity. And the beaming face of the farmer when he heard that the SMS he’d sent to our landgrabs emergency hotline had been shared through social media with millions across the world. He was the leader, we were the amplifiers.”

“It was inspiring to observe young activists planning their own campaigns on tax. Let’s face it – tax policy is boring and tax policy analysts are boring. But for young activists tax meant their schools and their health, and that connection was the source of their power.”

“I know you said you didn’t want to make any decisions on your first day but you need to make this one. We’ve been asked to back the campaign for disappeared Laotian activist Sombath Somphone. It’s just the right thing to do.”

www.sombath.org

“Our work is rooted at the grassroots, and right from the start it looks at issues of power. And once you start looking at local power you need to look at national and international power too. And at your own.”

“The most important things you need to know about ActionAid are this picture.”

powerinpeople

“How did we shift from the old approach to the empowering one? Well, we haven’t finished that yet. It would be romantic to suggest that everything is sorted.”

“I’m doing your profile, but the only photos of you online are at strange angles, is that deliberate?”

“You’ve worked for a range of other organisations we respect but, to be frank, we don’t want to turn into those organisations. We want to be us – but keep on becoming a more effective version of us.”

Me too.

Which countries can broker a deal on the post-2015 development agenda?

When the High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda was announced, Alex Evans laid out a useful typology of the five kinds of people you find on high level panels. They were:

  1. Visionaries: Those who already know the overall message they want a panel to send and push the process towards that message (whether others buy in or not).
  2. Experts and Problem-solvers: Those who are capable of engaging on almost any issue, even if they don’t want to steer the overall storyline. They can be incredibly useful in brokering deals, challenging lazy thinking, and generally steering the process towards a successful conclusion.
  3. Single-issue evangelists: Those who care about one thing in this agenda, and one thing only.
  4. Blockers: Those who are more focused on their government’s redlines than on what they can bring to the table or what kind of overall story or deal can be crafted.
  5. Dead wood: Those who can’t be bothered to engage.

It strikes me that the typology is equally relevant to categorizing the potential role of UN member states in forging an agreement on the post-2015 development agenda and financing for development. While many activists are interested in identifying influencers and potential spoilers, I am more intrigued by the role that problem-solving nations could play. Who are the nations willing to challenge conventional wisdom, to bring evidence to bear, to do the diplomatic legwork required to understand member state positions and propose ways forward?

Continue reading

Reactions to the Secretary-General’s synthesis report

UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon

UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon

The post-2015 synthesis report was never going to be an easy task. No one can envy UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon his responsibility, mandated by UN member states last September, of writing a synthesis report of the many strands of the post-2015 development agenda. He certainly had his work cut out for him in bringing together the proposal from the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals, the Intergovernmental Committee of Experts on Sustainable Development Financing, the High Level Panel of Eminent Persons, the Independent Expert Advisory Group, and the many other inputs, consultations and discussions on post-2015 over the past couple of years.

The report is a fine effort in the face of these challenges, but fails to effectively deliver key messages. The criteria for a successful SG report at this stage are that it: 1) bring everyone together around an inspirational narrative; 2) galvanize support around the message that it is time to roll up our sleeves, because the work is far from done; 3) bring technical expertise or conceptual clarity to a complex process; 4) move the process forward. While the synthesis makes progress on some fronts, notably in starting to piece together an inspirational narrative, it largely fails to accomplish these aims. Partially that is because the report is too lengthy, thus mixing a few more solid, thoughtful messages with other, seemingly hastily constructed ones. At times it is more of a list than a synthesis. Continue reading

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