Are gay rights a development issue?

Next week I am speaking at an event jointly organised by LGBT groups and development campaigners to consider whether legal reform drives social change. While there is patchy evidence from India that decriminalisation can spark some changes in social attitudes, the activist who filed the original legal challenge with the Delhi High Court thinks her victory has done little to shift social norms and reports suggest that over 70% of Indians would like to see it overturned. In Brazil the 2011 Supreme Court victory on partnership rights took place the year after 260 LGBT people were murdered in the country while South Africa, which boasts some of the most comprehensive gay equality laws in the world, has become globally famous for the “corrective rape” of lesbians.

Meanwhile Britain’s laws are so progressive that the UK has been recognised as the best place in Europe to be gay, but researchers put the huge shifts in British social attitudes down more to pop culture than hard fought legislative change. Public opinion in the United States is slowly (but not smoothly) heading in the right direction, but the marriage amendment battles across the country are opening up new fronts in the culture war, like the viral hit “two lesbians raised a baby and this is what they got”.

So the big question for international campaigners is this: if the national law-makers of a country can’t reliably bend its public opinion, do any of us have much hope of winning hearts and minds from afar? One approach has been the mobilisation of a global transnational movement, modelled on Avaaz.org.  All Out is a global campaign supported by over a million people (half of them straight) who have organised online to highlight everything from ‘gay cure’ church services in Europe to the arrest of a gay man for sending a romantic text in Cameroon. Another new initiative is The Kaleidoscope Trust which focuses on providing funding and practical support to organisations on the ground, while The Human Dignity Trust connects multi-national law firms with lawyers bringing human rights cases against their own governments.

But perhaps of greatest interest to the development campaigners in the room will be the role that donor governments can play. A recent spate of high profile anti-gay initiatives in Africa caused Prime Minister Cameron to use a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting last year to draw explicit links between continued British aid and respect for gay rights while President Obama instructed USAID to factor a country’s gay rights record into its allocations.

That raises all sorts of difficult questions. Is aid a ‘reward’ for good human rights behaviour, or solely an instrument of poverty reduction? If it is the former, how and why would we measure gay rights performance compared to, say, protection of ethnic minorities or the disabled? And if it is the latter, how do we manage the transition from direct budget support if the evidence suggests that it has the greatest impact on poverty in the country concerned? There is a question too about whether perceptions of outside ‘interference’ do more harm than good and encourage some governments to increase persecution of gay people as an assertion of independence.

Notwithstanding the great work being done by all the organisations above, I haven’t been able to find much analysis of how these competing justice claims can be reconciled, nor very comprehensive evidence about when external pressure has been the decisive factor in a gay rights victory. I’d love reading and watching suggestions if you have them, so please leave in the comments below.

And they’re off….

The focus of the post-2015 world today is New York where the High-Level Panel appointed by the UN Secretary-General to provide him with advice on the post-2015 agenda has its first meeting this afternoon.  It’s the first meeting and the 26 panel members will probably spend most of the time going round the table and introducing themselves.  But should they be looking for advice, there’s no shortage of it around.

Maybe too much.  We’re still very much in ‘Christmas Tree’ territory, and it’s not clear how the long agenda that is emerging is going to be whittled down.  Essentially, the panel’s job is to prioritise between the 101 good ideas that are out there, and to tell a story explaining the decisions they have made which is convincing enough to persuade others that it’s the right way to go.

One way to do that might be to go back to thinking about what a new agreement might be for.  I wrote about this here a while ago, but the conversation has changed a bit since then.  There seem to be three (why is it always three?) ideas around:

  • The  first is closest to the current MDGs and is focused on how a post-2015 agenda can be used to push resources (both from aid and from domestic sources), innovation and political attention towards specific improvements in people’s lives.  To the existing health, education and income agenda that is central to the MDGs could be added energy provision and infrastructure, to bring the goals more into sustainable development goals territory, but the central idea is of using goals to drive extra resources to specific people, places and things.
  • The second is more ambitious, hoping to use the post-2015 agenda to solve some tricky problems in global governance - around, for example, migration, trade or even environmental agreements.  This agenda is less focused on using resources as the lever of change and more concerned about changes to rich country policies which have an impact on all of ust.  This is the ‘universal’ agenda – ambitious, necessary, but much more politically challenging.
  • The third is equally ambitious, but focused on a different target.  An emphasis on goals to deliver high-quality jobs, or to make societies more equal, both put the onus on domestic policies of developing countries (or all countries, if the goals are universal), and on tricky domestic choices and trade offs between different constituencies.  Politically, this may prove to be the hardest of all.

It’s still far from clear where we’ll end up with this.  But the panel will meet at least four more times before the final report comes out, so be assured – we can all keep talking about this for months to come.

Pigs in crisis!

Global food scarcity is approaching a catastrophic tipping-point:

Might want to get your fill of ham this year, because “a world shortage of pork and bacon next year is now unavoidable,” according to an industry trade group.

Blame the drought conditions that blazed through the corn and soybean crop this year. Less feed led to herds declining across the European Union “at a significant rate,” according to the National Pig Assn. in Britain.

And the trend “is being mirrored around the world,” according to a release (hat tip to the Financial Times).

In the second half of next year, the number of slaughtered pigs could fall 10%, doubling the price of European pork, according to the release.

The trade group urged supermarkets to pay pig farmers a fair price for the meat to help cover the drought-related losses.

In U.S. warehouses, pork supply soared to a record last month, rising 31% to 580.8 million pounds at the end of August from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The surge came as farmers scaled down their herds as feeding the animals became increasingly expensive.

The problems with economists: they don’t understand development

Economists Cannot Do Development

Economists dominate the development field, but politics is more important to promoting it. This contradiction explains why the policies often recommended by international institutions (such as the World Bank) do not sufficiently take into account the local political, social, and institutional context.

The problem is echoed in other fields, with some blaming the inability of economists to understand institutions and politics as a contributing factor to the 2008 financial crisis. Continue reading

The five kinds of people you encounter on High Level Panels

With the UN’s new High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda due to hold its first meeting next week, the big question is which Panel members will emerge as the most influential in setting agendas and framing how the Panel thinks about development.

Having been involved in a few previous UN Panels like this one, including last year’s one on Global Sustainability, my guess is that Panel members will fall in to one of five categories:

  • Visionaries, who have a clear, and probably very strong, sense of what the overall argument of the Panel should be. This kind of Panellist can get everyone’s backs up if they approach it like a bull in a china shop (which is a risk – I know of Panel members in two previous Panels who turned up to meetings with full drafts of their own). But when they get it right, they’re the ones who really make Panels work. Typically you’ll only get four or five such people on any Panel.
  •  Experts and problem solvers. Panel members who know a lot about the issues, and can engage seriously on pretty much any subject anyone raises – even if they’re not trying to set out the overall storyline. This kind of Panellist can be extremely helpful in brokering language, spotting gaps, challenging silly or lazy thinking and so on.
  •  Single issue evangelists. Inevitably, there will be four or five Panellists who go on, and on, and on, and on about a particular issue. On the Global Sustainability Panel, if one particular Panellists raised his flag, you knew he was about to hold forth on the subject of oceans and the ‘blue economy’. These kinds of Panellist will soon elicit quiet rolling of the eyes from other Panel members, but need to be managed and kept on board.
  • Blockers. Particularly in Panels composed largely of serving members of government, some Panellists will bring major red lines with them. The co-chairs will need to evaluate rapidly what those red lines will be this time, and what the best handling strategy will be (e.g. proactive engagement to win them over / marshalling a coalition of other Panel members to get them to back down / accepting that it won’t be a unanimous report).
  • Dead wood. About a third of the Panel will fall into this category, if previous such exercises are anything to go by. The Panel will be doing well if it’s under a quarter. It will be clear which ones they are because they’ll have the heavy eyelids at about 3pm. Always kind of amazing that Panels on major global issues manage to get so many people in this category, but there we are…

The failure of the green movement and the neo-medieval rustic apocalypse

Aeon, a new online magazine focusing on ethics and aesthetics, launches this week.  Managing Editor Ed Lake (an old friend, I should disclose) gets it off to superb start with an article about “Uncivilisation”, a festival that took place this summer in England’s South Downs.  It sounds like a sort of Glastonbury for apocalyptic hermits:

The men wore beards and medicine-man adornments — animal-tooth pendants, feathers behind the ear. The women sported Peter Pan tunics and yogically extended backs. Everyone was, as my mother would say, well-spoken. An older chap in a fishing hat announced that he had run into a pair of mourners. They were looking for a fresh grave in the wood; a boy had been buried there the week before. ‘It was like Hamlet,’ he said sagely. ‘You know. Death.’ Ah, we said.

So what’s this all about?

The festival is an outgrowth of an inscrutable cultural programme begun in 2009 by two journalists, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. Together they wrote a pamphlet called Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto. ‘We are at a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling,’ they declared. ‘All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history.’ The environmental movement had failed: the ship of society would never turn around in time. All that was left to do was prepare for the crash, and perhaps learn to look on the bright side. ‘The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.’

Party on!  Ed admits to having been “on his guard”:

It didn’t help that the festival offered lessons in using the scythe, or that the trees around the camp were hung with animal bones, or that the photographer and I were waved into our turning by a woman dressed as a medieval mummer. I texted my wife: ‘Directed to the car park by someone literally in a Wicker Man mask.’ There were discussions of what it might mean to live as an ‘indigenous’ Briton. Racism and nationalism were firmly denounced, but the sinister undercurrents never really went away. At a talk about ‘how to act in an era of failed leadership’, a member of the arts group Mearcstapa wondered aloud whether he would be prepared to use violence to prevent greater violence.

So what was Ed, who is not at all a violent man, doing with these people?

It might be tempting to dismiss Uncivilisation with a shudder. But what I overlooked in my preparatory reading — perhaps because I wasn’t equipped to feel it myself — was the grief that underpins Dark Mountain. Most festival-goers appeared to have spent their working lives as professional green activists. They weren’t, as Kingsnorth observed to me later, ‘floaty poets’: they were doers, founders of eco-villages, picketers of building works. And as one man who used to develop organic recycling systems told me: ‘We failed.’ The value of Dark Mountain was, he said, psychological. It was a way to cope.

I still find this unsettling.  I’ve heard a growing number of green activists say similar things in more, well, civilized contexts of late. And I’m just not that good with a scythe.

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