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.

In praise of advocacy’s amateurs

In light of the great news that Oxfam are shifting to “focus more on national level change and relatively less on often-fruitless global summitry”, I’ve been thinking a bit about potent national campaigns like those started by David Kato in Uganda and Zackie Achmat in South Africa.

In both cases their activism was a response to a lived imperative, not a priority sifted from a list during a strategic planning process. It led to campaigns which were creative, insistent and bold, because failure meant dire personal consequences unthinkable to those of us in the North whose biggest worries are restless trustees and falling donations.

Their movements got momentum, in part, because the political could not have been more personal. That entanglement between the story and the strategy also seems to be one of the drivers of the huge growth of it is hard to imagine, for example, 2 million signatures on a petition started by anybody other than Trayvon Martin’s parents.

Likewise, last week’s news in Britain was dominated by the damning findings of the Hillsborough Independent Panel which uncovered what the Telegraph, reporting the Prime Minister’s moving Commons Statement, called “a campaign to smear the dead”. In the face of those slurs, victims’ families have waged a 23 year campaign of their own, in the process taking on one of the most powerful newspapers in the country and a police force engaged in what the Guardian called a conspiracy mounted “with the connivance of several pillars of (the) establishment”.

Faced with those odds, how many big brand charities or public affairs firms would have taken on the fight, far less kept it up for nearly quarter of a century? And would any of the advocacy “professionals” we know have been as courageous or effective as this extraordinary group made up of the affected, the angry and the amateur?  It has all got me thinking that maybe subsidiarity in an NGO context could mean not just devolving campaigning power to the right countries, but further down to the right people too.

Rumsfeld – Keeping American Strong and Safe

Donald Rumsfeld a few moments ago…

From 2001-2006 when Rumsfeld did his second, disastrous, stint as Secretary of Defense, Wikipedia lists attacks on US diplomatic facilities in Calcutta, Karachi (twice), Denpasar, Islamabad, Tashkent, Jeddah, and Damascus.

A timeline from CBC adds Lima and Monrovia. The embassies in Afghanistan and Iraq were, of course, under more or less permanent attack.

And then, of course, there’s 9/11.

Makes you nostalgic for the days when Rumsfeld did so much to convince the world America was strong, doesn’t it?

Can Foreign Aid Improve Pakistan ’s Political Economy?

Pakistan Political Economy Foreign AidLike many struggling countries, Pakistan’s two most critical problems are feckless leaders and a feeble state. Can donors do anything to help get such countries’ political economy moving in the right direction?

I recently convened a working group of leading Pakistani development professionals and outside experts at the Global Economic Symposium (GES) to discuss just such this question. Continue reading

West Africa: piracy’s new frontier?

News is emerging that an oil tanker has been hijacked off the Nigerian coast. This appears to be part of a growing trend, and one that was predicted in these pages four years ago (even a blind pig sometimes finds a truffle). Back in December 2008 I wrote of the attractions of West Africa as a venue for piracy, suggesting that its coast ‘has many of the elements that make Somalia a good spot for a bit of buccaneering – rank poverty, lots of underemployed young men, unstable governments, endemic corruption and favourable geography.’ If ships start going the long way round the Horn of Africa to avoid the East African coast, I added, ‘they might be in for a nasty surprise when they reach the opposite side of the continent.’

A few months later I posted this map published by the International Maritime Bureau, showing the global distribution of pirate attacks in the first part of 2009:

You need only compare this with the IMB’s latest 2012 map to see how rapidly the industry has expanded in West Africa:

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