What the OECD Does Not Understand About Fragile States

OECD fragile states

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Development Assistance Committee (DAC) and its International Network on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF) do an admirable job bringing together policymakers, collecting and synthesizing information, and helping set the agenda for donors.

But, as exemplified by Emmanuel Letouzé’s (lead author) and Juana de Catheu (co-author)’s recent report Fragile States 2013: Resource Flows and Trends in a Shifting World, its analysis of fragile states is flawed in a couple of important ways. Continue reading

Goals after 2015

As the High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda meets in Liberia, New York University’s Center on International Cooperation has published a new paper of mine on the role that global goals can play after the Millennium Development Goals expire in 2015. You can download it here.

The paper:

  • Explores what different types of goals can (and cannot) achieve.
  • Sets out options for integrating poverty and sustainable development goals.
  • Clarifies the choices that must be made if the post-2015 development agenda is to end poverty within a generation.

I don’t advocate any of the options in the paper. Instead, the aim is to try and clarify what can be quite a muddy and confusing debate. Why do we need goals? Who should they be for? How can they best be constructed?

This work forms part of CIC’s broader engagement on the post-2015 process. Alex and I have published a series of papers for CIC and the Brookings Institution (1, 2, 3). For me, this goes back to a post on Global Dashboard from 2011, which offered a first sketch of a post-2015 agenda that aimed to end absolute poverty.

Many thanks to the UN Foundation for funding this work.

Game changer time: China’s working age population is now in decline

Last year saw a big tipping point in China that went relatively unnoticed: its working age population shrank, kicking off a trend that will carry on over the next 20 years.

The head of China’s national statistics bureau, quoted in the FT, carefully says that “there are different opinions on whether this means that the demographic dividend that has driven growth in China for many years is now coming to an end”, but admits that the trend is “worrying” – all the more so, presumably, since it hadn’t been expected this fast. Here’s HSBC’s co-head of economics, in the same article:

“Most projections … estimated that the decline in the working-age population would start around the middle of this decade. But [these numbers] show it has already happened, which suggests the decline over the next few decades will be faster than expected.”

To see this tipping point in its larger context, it’s worth taking another look at a presentation that David did for the British Council in 2010, available here on Global Dashboard. In it, he notes that the world has now split into three demographic groups:

-          One in which population is stable or shrinking, including Europe and Japan, and in which half of its people will be over 40 in 2015;

-          A second group of countries in which the population peak is in sight, including China and India, and in which half the population will be under 30 in 2015; and

-          A third group that includes the world’s most fragile states, mostly in Africa, where population growth is still rapid – and where half the population will be under 20 in 2015.

Each of these groups faces distinct challenges, he argued. For group 1, it’s how to “grow old gracefully” – not just coping with rapid ageing, but also using their last shot at being ‘rule-makers’ on the global stage. Group 3, meanwhile, faces the challenge of providing jobs for its mushrooming youth bulges, so that demographic change is a springboard for prosperity rather than a driver of anger and instability.

But for countries in group 2, like China, the challenge is especially demanding. They face a balancing act: on one hand, they need to work at home to build the infrastructure needed to underpin the next wave of prosperity, while managing both middle class aspirations and the needs of the poor. But at the same time, they face growing exposure to transboundary threats, and need to figure out where they fit in to managing them – and how this will affect growth strategies at home. No easy task…

Open borders: the great taboo

Matthew Yglesias in Slate has worked out some of what would happen if the United States opened up its borders:

According to Gallup there are 150 million people around the world who say they’d like to move permanently to the United States. Right now the United States has about 89 residents per square mile. Add another 150 million people and we’d be at around 135 people per square mile. How would that stack up in context? Well, France has 303 people per square mile and Germany has 593. Japan has 873. The Dutch have 1,287!

Of course, such a radical move would be anathema to most Americans (including most of those who themselves migrated to the country), but as Yglesias points out, ‘all those places have their share of problems (and so do we) but none of them are exactly post-apocalyptic hellscapes.’ Indeed, there may be large benefits to the US if it worked towards freeing up immigration:

The United States ran an open borders regime throughout the 19th century and we weren’t worse off for it. On the contrary, it laid the foundations for American greatness. Shifting back in that direction—with exceptions for dangerous criminals and other select problem types—over time seems perfectly feasible to me and would substantially increase overall human welfare.

We tend to value the welfare of our fellow countrymen more highly than that of those unlucky enough to be born in other countries (and particularly that of those born in poor countries), so open borders are likely to remain a taboo for now. For those interested in the sum of human wellbeing, though, it’s good to see such arguments getting an airing.

Book Review: ‘The Ringtone and the Drum’

At the risk of coming over all ‘Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like’, it’s hard to know how to talk about being a rich and privileged white person in a poor African country.  Liberal types like to accentuate the positive, and talk about the beauty of the landscapes and the smiling friendly people and the fact that – shock horror – people everywhere are, you know, kind of similar.  Others like to tell funny stories about the awfulness of it all, emphasise the strangeness and express a huge sigh of relief at coming home again.

There’s a fear, perhaps, of being judged by how you react to the experience, and the risks, of being patronising, being ignorant or crass, are all quite real.  One of the things I like most about Mark Weston’s book ‘The Ringtone and the Drum’ is the honesty of the emotional reactions to being a foreigner in a foreign – in every way – country.

It meant vexation at life’s unfairness and anger at those who had caused it to happen.  It meant a constant dilemma over how to respond.  It meant a realisation that the optimistic view of the world you had in middle-class England was a Panglossian delusion.  And, most of all, it meant guilt.  Guilt over your wealth, guilt when you refused to give, guilt that when you gave you did not give everything, and guilt that having had your fill of their destitution you could and one day would fly away to a magical world of comfort and security.

Mark has no delusions about what he’s doing there.  He’s an observer.  He tells people’s stories honestly, respectfully and without an agenda.  And he’s open about his own reactions – the difficulty of it all, the time wasted, the physical discomfort, and the emotional strain. In fact, he’s pretty self-revelatory on that front, in a way that I found immensely sympathetic.

And as always, talking to people, taking them seriously, and writing it down, gives you endlessly fascinating stories, and also offers a number of challenges to assumptions prevalent in the development business.  Two things stood out for me.  Possibly without thinking very much about it, there’s often an unthinking view that people’s lives are linear.  Once, in that horrible phrase ‘lifted out of poverty’, the assumption is that they won’t go back there – the road goes only one way.  The stories here show again and again how that’s not true.  The ways that people try to make a living for themselves, try, fail, try again, succeed, get knocked back, try again, are both heartening and depressing.

Also, once one is in the business of parcelling up complex processes into little projects, there’s perhaps a tendency to see people as representatives of different ‘types’.  Are you a ‘smallholder farmer’, or the owner of a ‘micro-enterprise’?  A disempowered woman or a freewheeling young man?  Someone, somewhere, has a research project or a development programme for you, if only you can fit yourself into the correct box.  Again, the stories here show how that’s a stupid way of thinking about people – as a nanosecond’s thought about our own lives should make quite obvious, and yet often doesn’t.

The ‘without an agenda’ bit of this book is sometimes problematic.  The reliance on immediate impressions and responses, without much in the way of an underlying argument or analysis, can be a bit deceptive. It sometimes slips into a slightly wistful tone, for example, when describing the rural areas that so many people have chosen to leave (to be fair, they talk about it this way themselves, too), and about the approach of modern life – talking, for example, of people being ‘shielded from Westernisation’ as if it were some approaching danger.  So it’s hard to understand why people, in their millions, leave behind a countryside that they, and Mark, often seem to think is easier and gentler than the poorly functioning cities that they end up in, and why they are so enthusiastic – as we all are – about the trappings of modernisation in the form of cars, phones and televisions. In a book which is all about change, this enthusiasm for it needs to be taken as seriously as the hardships it can involve.

(alert readers will notice that Mark Weston is also a contributor to Global Dashboard.  So you can discount this review on those grounds, if you want.  But we have never met, and I wouldn’t have been nice about the book just for that reason.)

Algeria, Mali and the West: Joining the Dots in the Sahara

Minarets, Burkina Faso

‘We need to be absolutely clear whose fault this is. It is the terrorists who are responsible for this attack and for the loss of life.’ (David Cameron, House of Commons, 18 January)

‘The responsibility for the tragic events of the last two days squarely rests with terrorists.’ (William Hague, Sky News, 18 January)

In the light of the weekend’s tragic events in Algeria, the British government has been firm in its condemnation of the terrorists who carried out the kidnappings. This reaction is understandable. The attacks were conducted by bad, deluded men taking murderous decisions in support of a bad, deluded ideology.

But it is also only a partially correct interpretation. Yes, the immediate event in question can be blamed on a small group of terrorists, but these terrorists did not emerge in a vacuum, and once the dust has settled it is to be hoped that the British and other Western governments will develop a more considered, more nuanced analysis.

You do not have to go too far back down the trail that led to the kidnappings to discover Western actions that made them more likely. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the mastermind behind the attacks, is probably a fanatic, definitely a murderer. But he rose to prominence in Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s, which had been triggered by the annulling of an election won by Islamists. The French government supported the illegitimate Algerian leadership in that conflict, thereby helping to nurture the generation of violent radicals from which Belmokhtar and other Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leaders sprung.

Nor can Belmokhtar carry out attacks alone. He needs men and arms, and to acquire these he needs money. He and his AQIM cohorts have had two major funding sources. The first is drug trafficking across the Sahara, a trade which would not exist if Europe, instead of deflecting its law and order problems onto Africa, legalised drugs. The second is kidnapping – tens of millions of dollars have been paid to AQIM by European governments in return for the release of hostages. (A third revenue stream is human trafficking, whose extent is unknown but which is rendered possible by Europe’s restrictions on legal migration from Africa).

With the funds from these activities, Belmokhtar can buy arms, including those that scattered across the Sahara after the fall of Gaddafi in Libya. Gaddafi’s demise was hastened by Western military involvement in the conflict, yet Western forces failed to stop large quantities of weapons falling into the hands of AQIM and of the Tuareg fighters who instigated the troubles in Mali to which the Algeria attack was a response. Some of those arms, moreover, are likely to have been sold to Libya by the UK, France and other European powers.

Belmokhtar can also buy men. West Africa is full of unemployed, frustrated young men who see no prospect of achieving their goals through peaceful means. Their governments have been hollowed out, first by Western colonialism (a former British foreign secretary in 1943 likened the granting of independence to ‘giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank account and a shotgun’), and more recently by corruption. Mali’s pre-coup government is itself widely thought to have been involved in the drug trade, and the corruption this engendered left it ill placed both to invest in the country’s youth and to fend off revolt (it was eventually toppled by a ragtag bunch of junior soldiers). In nearby Nigeria, whose own fundamentalist terror mutation Boko Haram has supplied fighters to the Mali rebels, corruption abetted by Western oil companies has exacerbated northern discontent and made it easier for young northerners to persuade themselves that violence is justified.

This hollowing out of governments leaves young people marooned in the face of greater challenges. The population boom has combined with climate change to render it ever more difficult for them to find work and set up families. Rainfall in the Sahel region has declined by one quarter since 1950, and it is not Africans who have caused the environment to heat up. The population boom was assisted by Western medical advances, but was not accompanied by efforts by the colonial powers to educate their people. Europe enjoyed the same medical and public health advances as West Africa, but the population boom in the former was much less dramatic, and one of the reasons for this is that European women were better educated and therefore better able and more inclined to keep fertility to manageable levels. When Guinea-Bissau gained independence from Portugal in 1975, only one in fifty Guineans could read and write – again, the roots of current events can be traced back to Western actions. West Africa’s burgeoning generation of young men, meanwhile, has become a fertile recruiting pool for Belmokhtar and other jihadis.

I could go on, to discuss how other events with which Western countries had been involved – the colonial powers’ division of the Tuareg homeland, the Mali government’s historic failure to help the Tuareg cope with the effects of climate change, this month’s French intervention in Mali, etc – were all directly or indirectly linked to the disaster in Algeria. But Western policy-makers should be getting the picture by now (if not, they can look to this excellent Observer editorial for an even broader view). Cameron and Hague’s response to the kidnappings is understandable, but in the long-term unhelpful. If the West is to help stop these events happening in the future, a more constructive approach, in a globalising world where repercussions quickly cross borders, would be to examine its own role in making their occurrence more likely.

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