Bill, Melinda, and the SDGs

About a week ago, the Humanosphere blog caused something of a stir in development circles with a piece on the UN’s draft Sustainable Development Goals entitled “Gates Foundation rallies the troops to attack UN development goals“. Its headline message:

The Gates Foundation really dislikes what the international community intends to do over the next 15 years to reduce poverty and inequality.

The post went on to claim that “the SDGs were not just debated and critiqued at [the Foundation’s annual Global Partners Forum in Seattle, which took place last week]; they were downright ridiculed, repeatedly”.

A week later, Humanosphere ran a follow-up by the same author, which included quotes from an interview with Mark Suzman, Gates’s president of global policy, advocacy, and country programs. According to this piece,

While Suzman acknowledged that there were plenty of critical – and yes, even snarky – comments made at the Gates Forum about the SDGs, he said it would be incorrect to interpret this as lack of support for what the UN agenda is aimed at accomplishing in general.

Fair enough – I’ve known Mark Suzman a long time, have huge respect for him as a development policy expert, and know him to completely straight-up about what he thinks and where he’s coming from. And I also understand how participants at the Global Partners Forum were feeling if (as Humanosphere paraphrases Mark),

The concern at the Gates confab appeared to be that the SDGs were looking more like vague or aspirational goals, such as MDG8, and moving away from the successful strategy of focusing on simpler, easily identified and tracked goals.

But the kerfuffle over the Gates Foundation’s stance on the SDGs still raises a couple of interesting questions worth considering. Continue reading

“Organizadas Somos Fortes” – Organised we are powerful. Reflections from the landless movement in Brazil.

“This dance is not mine alone, this dance is by us all” – they move as one circle, hand in hand. Then, still as one circle, they put their arms around each other – “when we are tired, we have each other’s shoulders to rest on.”

The women proudly show us the fruits of their labour: coconuts turned into oil, soap, flour and more; a cooperative factory that processes the goods so that they don’t need to rely on middlemen; a small farm with a vegetable patch, a fish pond and a chicken coop. And they talk of the victories won in the face of entrenched power.

“The richest man in this area claimed that all this land was his. He was also the area’s politician. He had the money power and the political power. The family have been powerful for hundreds of years. Police and gunmen kept harassing us. They told us to leave but we had nowhere else to go. I remember the sound of the six bullets.”

But they do not want to dwell on the pain. When a conversation turns to those who died, one woman interjects “but if we keep on telling all these sad stories we could go on for days. What do we need to do now?”

There has been real progress: those landless workers who collect coconuts from the forests and from the big estates successfully campaigned for a law that protects their right to do so; some communities have secured recognition for the small pieces of land on which they live and farm; the cooperatives have secured from the government a guaranteed minimum price for key products so that they can be assured of a minimum income; in several districts the groups have secured free, public, pre-school for small children and won access to water and sanitation.

All are clear how these victories were won. “Individually we coconut-breakers are small. But when we organised we became visible. We said ‘look at us, listen.’” “Everything we have achieved has been through the strength of our friendship.” “We got together in our community, then we linked with communities across the region. We went and got support from the trade unions, from the Catholic Church, and from the wider public. We started an association and kept pressing for our rights to earn a living and live in dignity.”

They are clear that they cannot rely on the good will of politicians. When the local establishment politician was replaced by his daughter, “it made no difference that she was a woman. She was her father’s daughter. He lived on through her.” There is a recognition that the national government of Lula, whose party emerged from the social movements and which brought several leaders of the social movement into power, introduced substantial reforms and was the best government they have known. Unemployment was reduced, the minimum wage increased, and inequality went down. But, they say, “we made a mistake of thinking when the good people got into power we didn’t need to keep pressuring them. It’s like we went to sleep. Whoever is in power we need to keep pushing.” “Yes,” says a coconut breaker, “things are better, but now, when we try to enter the coconut forests to which we have the right of access, the big landlords, who used to kill us with dogs and guns, kill us with electric fences instead.” “Yes,” agrees a peasant farmer, “we have managed to stay on our farm, but we are still denied water. We want more than to live, we want to live with dignity.” There is a worry that the Dilma government, which pledged to continue the progress of Lula has instead, under pressure from big corporations and landlords, started to roll back. “They have stopped listening to us. Government listens to the rich and big companies. Not to us, the poor, Indians, blacks, women. We have to struggle.”

They share, none the less, a profound sense that their struggle will ultimately win. Discussions regularly burst into song. “Even though it is dark, I sing, for the morning will come.” In one community facing eviction we meet in the one-room clay and straw building they built as their church, their school, the headquarters of their association, and their village meeting hall. They call the building “Our Lady of Good Hope.”

“We are strong. My grandfather escaped from slavery with his friends. And I have secured my piece of land with you, my friends. But we cannot just wait. We need to demand.”

At a special event of the landless movements, Deje, a coconut breaker, is seated next to a government official who apologises for having arrived late and for needing to leave early. Deje stands up and directly addresses him in front of the crowd. Brazilian Portuguese has such a sweet melody that to the English ear everything I’ve heard, whatever the content, has sounded gentle. Until now. She points her finger at his face. “Whenever we try to meet government they fail to see us. Whenever we write to government they fail to reply.” She pulls out a piece a paper. “We have a letter for you. I’m going to read it to you.” It begins: “We landless demand our right to fetch coconuts unharassed by landowners…” Then the coup de grace: “Now, you cannot leave until you to sign it. We need you to sign it right now.” And he does. Then he thanks her. “We know that all progress depends on the social movements. We need to work with you.”

We’ve just witnessed a lesson in courage, in democracy, and in power. It is the same lesson we learnt in the dance. And that we read on the T-shirt of one of the landless women workers: “Organizadas Somos Fortes” – Organised we are powerful.

How to make the Addis Financing For Development summit a success

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A couple of weeks ago, preparations for July’s Financing For Development summit in Addis Ababa passed the 100 days to go mark. Unfortunately, the summit is at this point not on track to meet the high expectations for it. It faces a mutually reinforcing set of problems, including:

  • Confusion about the summit’s intended outcomes – with too many issues on the table, and a serious lack of clarity about what success would look like on each;
  • A lack of agenda setters – so far only the co-facilitators (Norway and Guyana) are really leading the process, but their room for manoeuvre is constrained by the need for them to remain neutral honest brokers; and
  • Insufficient political will – the result of the summit not yet being on heads’ or finance ministers’ radars, as well as it not being a top 2015 priority for civil society.

So what would it take to turn things around and make Addis a success? One of the essentials is a clearer political narrative – one that explains what the summit is for, what’s new this time around (as compared to Monterrey in 2002 or Doha in 2007), what it could achieve, and why high level policymakers, and above all finance ministers, should make the effort to attend. This short note (pdf), produced with colleagues at the NYU Center on International Cooperation, is an attempt to start thinking this through over just a couple of pages – any feedback and suggestions for improvement gratefully received.

More broadly, we also need a harder-edged political strategy. This paper (pdf) – which was circulated earlier this month, and so doesn’t reflect last week’s FFD talks in New York or the IMF / World Bank Spring Meetings – sets out a few ideas. Again, feedback warmly welcome.

(And on the overall SDGs agenda, David Steven and I also just published the latest in our series of What Happens Now? papers taking stock of where the process stands and where it might go next – you can download that here.)

How can we take on the power of the few? Three lessons from Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement in advancing a society that works for all

Development is about power, and the biggest threat to development today is the excessive power of the few. As five major NGO leaders set out in their recent joint call to action, “the widening gap and imbalance of power between the richest and the rest is warping the rules and policies that affect all of us in society, creating a vicious circle of ever growing and harmful undue influence. Global efforts to end poverty and marginalisation, advance women’s rights, defend the environment, protect human rights, and promote fair and dignified employment are all being undermined as a consequence of the concentration of wealth and power.”

But what can we do to take on this power? Perhaps we can learn three lessons from Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement.

First, we need to help make visible the hyper-concentration of power in the hands of a few, how this is impacting all that we all value in on our world, and how it doesn’t need to be this way. The dominance of societies by corporations and the very rich has become so pervasive, and so normalised, that it has been a struggle even to start to make it visible. As was said of racial segregation before the victory of the civil rights movement “Who hears a clock tick, or the surf murmur, or the train pass? Not those who live by the clock, or the sea, or the track.” That’s why the civil rights movement put so much effort into what Martin Luther King called “dramatizing a shameful condition.” They had to ensure that segregation could be visible, and be recognised as a something that could ultimately be rejected. Increasingly, today’s hyper-inequality, once effectively invisible, is recognised, and recognised as damaging. In polls, majorities in the 60 and 70-something percents in nearly all countries say that the rich have too much influence. But we still need to keep highlighting just how extreme, how harmful, today’s inequality is – not just in its economic consequences but even more importantly in how it undermines democracy and dignity – and that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Second, we need the courage to set out a policy platform that really addresses the inequality of power and wealth. At Davos, elites increasingly say that they recognise that they have too much and need to have less. But when it comes to how to change things they propose a rather pathetic cocktail of social entrepreneurship, training and technology. We need to have the courage to set out an agenda that will truly shift wealth and power and help build societies where everybody matters. In a message to the World Social Forum Greek Prime Minister Tsipras defined the required policy platform as one which “defends democracy, the welfare state, public goods and the right to an adequately paying job.” Similarly, the five NGO leaders’ joint call also issued at the World Social Forum highlighted the need to “tackle tax dodging, ensure progressive taxes, provide universal free public health and education services; support workers’ bargaining power, living wages, and the redistribution of women’s unequal share of unpaid care work; and defend civil society space.” Both of these positions directly take on the policies of relentless privatisation and deregulation that have reaped so much harm, and make the case for a state that is responsible and accountable. Likewise both make the case for the strengthening of the power of workers. But these are exceptions. Most mainstream development policy discussion is weak on these areas because respectable analysts cease being respectable when they talk about them – just as Martin Luther King came to be seen as unacceptably oppositionalist by even the liberal part of establishment when he dared to challenge the Vietnam war. But he still said the unsayable, and we too all need that same courage to set out the policies that can actually shift wealth and power from the few to the many.

Third, we need an approach to how change happens that is commensurate with the scale of transformation required. We cannot shift power from elites by piling up so many reports that they gracefully give in to our intellectual prowess, nor by befriending a few officials with smooth insider lobbying, nor through the razzmatazz of celebrity-only participation and the whirr of online-only noise, nor through a naive hope in the demonstration effect of nice pilot projects. We need to build power from below. Jay Naidoo, who founded the trade union coalition which helped bring down Apartheid, is clear about how change like this is won: “It’s not about how brilliant your argument is – no one cedes power because of a great powerpoint. What matters is the balance of power between your side, the people’s side, in the confrontation and negotiations with the other side, the side of the elite. Power is built at the grassroots, down on the ground, through organising. The future belongs to whoever can rise to the challenge of organising in the twenty-first century.” ActionAid CEO Adriano Campolina describes how NGOs will need to shift their approach to programming: “They will be a combination of community organizers, people who can build alliances, people who can do a proper power analysis in a community or country, and people who can be strategists for policy change. There will also be a much stronger need for campaigning skills, but not the classic mode of campaigning — this will be campaigning with the poor, which is a mix between campaigning and community organizing.” In this too is the echo of Martin Luther King: “Our nettlesome task is to discover how to organise our strength into compelling power so that government cannot elude our demands.”

The challenge of shifting wealth and power from the few to the many can seem so overwhelming that we can wonder if it can ever be won. But we’ve learnt from Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement that transformative campaigns can prevail, and it seems they’ve even set out for us three steps that we can take to help bring forward the time when we shall overcome.

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The Restorative Economy

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Over the past six months, I’ve been working with my friend and colleague Rich Gower on a report for Tearfund, the Christian development NGO, entitled The Restorative Economy: Completing our Unfinished Millennium Jubilee – and today, the report is finally published. Here’s the summary, and here’s the full report (we also have a comment piece on the Guardian today, which you’ll find here).

The process of writing this report has been especially close to my heart, and has left me at the end feeling that I want to devote much more of my energy to the massive task of movement building and values shifting that lies ahead of us. I’ve been working in and around the multilateral system for nearly a decade, and like many of my friends and colleagues in that world, have frequently felt acute frustration at the postage stamp-sized amount of political space that currently exists for solutions on the scale we need, both internationally and at home in the UK.

This report is an attempt to start thinking about what a new approach to that challenge might look like – across four chapters. The first one sets out a snapshot of where we are: in many ways a golden age for development, but one in which three huge challenges – environmental unsustainability, growing inequality, and the millions and millions of people still left behind as globalisation accelerates apace – remain ours to solve.

In chapter two, Rich and I set out the need for a different theory of influence. Many of us who work in the fight for development, justice, and sustainability have I think been feeling the limits of theories of change that rely primarily on ‘insider lobbying’. We take that here as our starting point for asking what an alternative approach might look like: one that places much more emphasis on how we build new grassroots coalitions, transform values, and tell each other much deeper stories about where we are, how we got here, where we might choose to go next, and who we really are.

Chapter three then explores the potential to discover such deeper stories in theology. All of us witnessed how the biblical idea of jubilee was able to animate a transformative civil society movement fifteen years ago, and proved powerfully resonant far beyond the church groups that formed Jubilee 2000’s core. As someone who worked in the UK government at the point when the 2005 Gleneagles summit concluded its debt relief deal, I still have to pinch myself when I remember that the average low income country’s debt fell from nearly 75% of its GDP in 2000 to just over 25% today – something that happened partly because of politicians, but much more fundamentally because of a coalition of millions of ordinary people, united by a shared story.

In this light, we argue, it’s important to remember that the once-a-generation jubilee festival described in the Old Testament was never about debt relief alone. When you go back to the original texts, as we did at some length in the course of researching this report, you find that they were also about environmental restoration. Ensuring that there was real attentiveness to enabling people living in poverty to meet their basic needs. And ensuring that concentrations of wealth did not build up from one generation to another. All three of these themes are of course fundamental to where we find ourselves today, in 2015. (And as friends working on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals will already have spotted, they’re central to that agenda too.)

So in a very real sense, the work we began in 2000 – our millennium jubilee – remains a work in progress. If we can complete it, then our kids will enjoy the kind of future that I know I want for my children – Isabel, 5, and Kit, 2. And in chapter 4, Rich and I set out what we think that would look like in practice.

We argue that it starts with the changes that all of us need to make in our own lives. This is partly because of the direct impact that such changes can have, of course, but we think the main issue here is something to do with the quality of intention that movements exemplify. Wherever movements not only demand but live out the change they want to see in the world, there’s a raw power there that can exert the kind of non-linear effect on politics that progressives so urgently want to see.

But ultimately the decision about the future we want has to be made by all of us collectively, as well as each of us individually. So chapter 4 ends with a ten big ideas for far-reaching policy changes of the kind that we think have this transformative power. The ideas cover a very broad waterfront – from reforming the financial system to global climate policy, and from how we use aid internationally to how our tax system works at home.

We don’t by any means think the proposals we set out are the last word on the subject. But if they can play even just a small part in catalysing a serious conversation, among all of us, about the choices we have in what we bequeath to our kids, then I think I speak for all of Tearfund’s fabulous advocacy team, Rich, and I when I say that we’ll be more than happy with the result.

So what could a Global Partnership on Development Data do for us?

As my regular post-2015 update from the invaluable Rachel Quint at the Hewlett foundation reminded me today, there have been (at least) six separate proposals for a global partnership for development data over the last two years. The idea has a lot of fans out there, with supporters ranging from the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia (in the High Level Panel’s report), the chief statisticians of South Africa, India, Canada and Hungary (in the IEAG report), data experts in the World Bank, the UN Secretary General (in his ‘synthesis report’) and academics from institutions including the Centre for Global Development, ODI, SDSN and NYU

And so. Will there actually be a global partnership for development data?  I hope so, for two reasons.

Firstly, there are the specific and practical things that a partnership could do.

These are many, but three stand out for me. The first is pretty basic. It was a source of constant frustration, while I was working on the IEAG report, to be hearing about some fantastic and inspirational initiatives to solve problems with data going on in one part of the world, while at the same time, hearing people in a different place lamenting their inability to solve the exact same problem. Something that systematically shared experiences and knowledge between countries and organisations could save time, save money, and perhaps even save lives.

A second big problem at global level is a lack of shared standards. Too much time and money is wasted reverse engineering data created in one system to make it fit another.  Too much of the data from one survey can’t be combined with the data from another to add it up into something with more statistical power. Standards and protocols are being invented again and again from scratch, and huge inefficiencies are being created every day.

A third problem is data sharing. Famously, when the Ebola epidemic broke out, valuable time was wasted negotiating how data from mobile phone records could be shared and analysed to help provide the information to track the epidemic. That shouldn’t happen, but it will happen, again and again, unless public-private partnerships are worked out to share data when the next disaster hits, wherever that is.

A global partnership on data could solve real, everyday problems like these. But it would also serve a second purpose. A partnership would create something lasting out of the current excitement around data. The activities and the focus of the partnership would change over time, but just having it would make sure that data has advocates once political attention inevitably moves on to something else.

This is what global institutions do. They all operate in different ways, but the Open Government Partnership is a constant voice arguing for greater openness; GAVI will remind the world why vaccines are important even when minds are focused elsewhere; and the Global Partnership for Education is always there to speak up for the out-of-school.  However constituted, a global partnership on data would be a constant voice on the global scene reminding people of the importance of better data, and galvanising resources and action to that end.  If you care about better data, that has to be a good thing.

And it’s this long term commitment that will be needed to support the myriad country-level data revolutions that are at the heart of the change that is needed. These won’t happen overnight – someone has to be there for the long haul, to work with the civil society groups campaigning for open data, to link up the national statistical offices in one country who are grappling with the problems that another country solved two years ago, to show how partnerships of all the key actors: government, private sector and civil society can work together to increase both the demand for and the supply of good quality data. There are many great initiatives already underway in this area, not least the Paris21 partnership, but a bigger, more high-level global effort could coordinate and support these efforts by raising political profile, building broader relationships, and generating the kind of momentum that can really deliver results.

In a few years’ time, probably no one will care about the ‘data revolution’. But a global partnership on data could be a lasting legacy of this moment, and can be part of continuous improvements in the data on which we all depend.

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