“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.

Who’s going to pay for the SDGs?

In July, Addis Ababa will host a crucial summit on financing for development. If September’s summit on sustainable development goals (SDGs) in New York is when governments will decide what they want to achieve on poverty and sustainability by 2030, Addis is where they must set out how they will do so.

There’s much to do, with a bewildering array of potential issues on the table – aid, trade, tax, the private sector, climate, sustainability and technology transfer are all possible focus areas – and too little clarity on what success would look like on each. Politicians are not yet feeling pressure to make serious offers.

Yet, if Addis disappoints, the fallout could be extensive. Prospects for achieving the SDGs – such as ending poverty by 2030 – would dim significantly. Frustration among developing countries could feed in to the September summit and the December climate summit, threatening a cascading failure that could damage prospects for international cooperation on defining global issues for a decade.

How can we avoid this scenario and ensure that Addis is a landmark?

First, there needs to be a clearer narrative on what the summit is for, that focuses on three or four core areas. At least one of these needs to be about politicalimpact, with a big story that leads the next day’s news agenda. In practice, this probably has to be about aid – even though it now accounts for only around a 10th of development finance.

Timetables for countries to give 0.7% of national income to aid are unlikely to work, given past promises: in 2005, 16 countries pledged to meet 0.7% by 2015, but only five have delivered. A pledge to give at least half of all aid to least developed countries, on the other hand, may cut more ice – but the politics look tough.

Other contenders could include a major push on addressing the “financing gap” faced by many middle-income countries, through scaling up official financing other than aid. And a strong focus on financing highly effective cash transfer schemes in lower income countries would go a long way towards ending poverty.

The Addis outcome could also help key “work in progress” agendas with longer term development impact.

One area where there’s plenty of buzz is the contribution the private sector can make – for instance, through scaling up foreign direct investment (the single biggest source of development finance), new public-private partnerships, or in key sectors like infrastructure. Less clear, though, is exactly how Addis may contribute.

Instead, a better candidate may be international tax cooperation – the most important thing that rich countries can do to help developing countries mobilise their own resources.

One step would be to spend more aid on developing countries’ tax administration efforts – an area with breathtaking rates of return. Faster progress on recovery of stolen assets from abroad is another priority for many developing countries, as is access to the automatic exchange of tax information that G8 and G20 countries have already agreed among themselves.

Above all, Addis could help close tax loopholes that allow multinational companies to report profits in tax havens – rather than where their workforces, assets or sales are. Country by country reporting requirements would be one important step; a unitary tax system would be even better.

Addis could put emerging issues on the development map by including these in the outcome document – even if the time is not yet ripe for agreeing concrete actions. It could put down a marker on the need to do more to tackle inequality, echoing the SDGs’ emphasis on the issue. Or, it could flag up the potential wins that would result from fair shares for developing countries in any future global emissions budget.

Most of all, Addis needs more agenda-setters to help its Norwegian and Guyananco-facilitators, and Ethiopian hosts, to champion its potential. UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and World Bank president Jim Yong Kim could both do more. Germany and Turkey, hosts of this year’s G7 and G20 summits, could be key players too.

Addis needs more voices to make the moral case for why countries need to raise their game. Civil society has a crucial role here. And it may be that Pope Francis emerges as a leader, given his commitment to justice – and the fact that a papal encyclical on climate and development is expected soon.

Perhaps most of all, the summit will depend on commitments from finance ministers to attend (as IMF head Christine Lagarde has already done). They, far more than development ministers, have the power to unlock real progress.

Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaoré and the Secret of [Almost] Eternal Rule

My book The Ringtone and the Drum turned two last Sunday. Conveniently, one of the countries it covers, Burkina Faso, promptly had a revolution. Yesterday a great crowd of protesters set fire to parliament, invaded the state television studios, and may have succeeded in dislodging long-serving president Blaise Compaoré. It is still unclear who is in control in the country, with the army announcing the formation of a transitional government and the president inflaming the ire of the protesters and opposition parties by saying he will hang around to oversee it.

I wrote quite a lot about Compaoré and his ill-fated predecessor Thomas Sankara in the book (by this stage of my journey around West Africa I was too busy having a nervous breakdown to do much actual travel writing). Here’s an excerpt analysing how and why Compaoré and dictators like him cling to power for so long: Continue reading

Bruce Jackson: the man who took NATO east

Bruce-Jackson-DELFI-Photo-by-K.-ČachovskisThis is a piece I wrote 11 years ago for this crappy financial magazine I used to work for. The piece is good though. It’s about Bruce Jackson, an American spy-banker-arms-dealer-policy-wonk, who helped lobby for the eastern expansion of NATO in the 90s and Noughties. I thought I’d post it here considering this week’s NATO conference on further eastern expansion and Russia’s response. The piece was written in 2003, in the middle of the second war in Iraq.

IT WAS THE deal of the year in central and eastern Europe – not a sovereign Eurobond, a corporate high-yield issue or an IPO, but a transaction that emerged from the heart of the military-industry complex. It was the biggest debt financing of the year – a $5.5 billion off-balance-sheet deal arranged by JPMorgan and guaranteed by the US government. You haven’t read about it, because it was to finance Poland’s acquisition of 48 F-16 military aircraft from Lockheed Martin.

That deal was signed in March 2003. The same month it went through, Poland agreed to send about 3,000 troops to Iraq. Euromoney spoke to a banker involved in the syndication of the financing. “We understood what the deal was,” he said. “The US government finances the deal at good rates. In return, Poland supports the US in Iraq.”

Every other eastern European country that has either recently joined or is waiting to join the Nato military alliance also supports the US campaign in Iraq, leading US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld to praise the birth of “new Europe” and French president Jacques Chirac to tell these countries to shut up.

Man of influence

The figure at the centre of all these events is someone you probably haven’t heard of, but who wields extraordinary political influence in the region – Bruce Jackson. He is a Washington neo-conservative, a member of the Project for the New American Century, and friend and colleague of other prominent neo-conservatives such as deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Gary Schmitt, executive director of the Project for the New American Century.

A former investment banker, he’s also president of a private NGO called the US Committee on Nato, one of the most influential in eastern Europe. He has also headed a neo-conservative think-tank called the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. And he’s a former vice-president at Lockheed. Is he the military-industrial complex conspiracy figure par excellence?

Jackson, through his work for the NGO, has done more that anyone else to get eastern European countries into Nato. First, he lobbied hard in Washington to get the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland invited in 1999. He advised the heads of these states on how to reform their military forces and civil societies so as to get the invitation, and testified in their support to the US Senate committee on foreign affairs.

In the past two years, he has been equally active in getting most of the other eastern European countries invited to Nato. He has travelled relentlessly, meeting heads of state and foreign ministers in every eastern European country, advising them on how to reform, and helping, this year, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia to get invitations to join Nato.

None of the accessions was by any means inevitable. It took vision, will and hard work. Jackson recalls: “When we started in 1995, around 70% of editorial boards and 80% of think-tanks were on the record as being opposed to Nato expansion. There was concern Russia would go ballistic if we did expand Nato east. So effectively people were suggesting we do another Yalta, and sacrifice the region to Russia’s interests. So it took us considerable amounts of work. We organized well over 1,000 meetings with senators and Congress. By 1999, we won 89% of the vote. With the second round, almost all the effort came from the countries themselves, trying to accelerate their own reforms and not be left out.”

The fact that in 1995 so many in the west were against Nato expansion makes it all the more remarkable that one man, apparently operating in a private capacity at an NGO he set up, should have had such an influence. As one diplomat in the region says: “All these countries getting into Nato – this was Bruce’s work. He’s a real player in this process.” Continue reading

The six fathers of ISIS

(As defined by Ziad Majed and abridged by Amir Ahmed Nasr in this excellent post):

ISIS is the offspring of more than one father, and the product of more than one longstanding and widespread sickness.
1. ISIS is first the child of despotism in the most heinous form that has plagued the region.
2. ISIS is second the progeny of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, both the way in which it was initially conducted and the catastrophic mismanagement that followed.
3. ISIS is third the son of Iranian aggressive regional policies that have worsened in recent years.
4. ISIS is fourth the child of some of the Salafist networks in the Gulf (in Saudi Arabia and other states).
5. ISIS is fifth the offspring of a profound crisis, deeply rooted in the thinking of some Islamist groups seeking to escape from their terrible failure to confront the challenges of the present toward a delusional model ostensibly taken from the seventh century, believing that they have found within its imaginary folds the answer to all contemporary or future questions.
6. ISIS is sixth the progeny of violence or of an environment that has been subjected to striking brutality.

Ahmad Nasr also adds the observation that:

With the exception of reason #2, all other factors are local and traceable to the region and its state of affairs – affairs that have yes, been influenced by the legacy of European colonialism, the dynamics of the  Cold War, but lately much more so by the behaviours of local authoritarian actors.

Environmentally friendly oil rigs? Well yes, Norway, but….

oil rig

Photo: Dave Taylor/www.oilrig-photos.com

We are big fans of Norway here at GD. And look – in a bid to make oil production more environmentally friendly, the Norwegian parliament is hoping to force offshore oil rigs to use electrical power rather than burn gas or diesel.  Hurrah, obviously –  what’s not to love about the Scandinaviafication of oil production.

The Norwegians aren’t alone either.  Environmentally friendly drilling (by oil workers in shiny lipstick, obviously), is a thing, it seems…

So yay and double yay.  Let’s make oil production all green and cuddly and maybe we can stop worrying about those millions of barrels that are rolling up out of the sea every day and burning…oh wait a minute….

No SDGs for you, North Korea! (updated)

Gird your loins: the zero draft of the UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals is out! While most post-2015ers will have raced ahead to see what Goals are included, they’ll have overlooked a small but significant detail in the preamble. As you’d expect in a document of this nature, the usual genuflections to countries in special circumstances are naturally observed:

We recognize that each country faces specific challenges to achieve sustainable development, and we underscore the special challenges facing the most vulnerable countries and, in particular, African countries, least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing States …

But there are also a couple of additions to the usual list, lest anyone feel left out:

…as well as the specific challenges facing the middle-income countries. Countries in situations of conflict also need special attention.

Now, you might think that this diverse array of country categories must cover just about every developing country on Earth. But you’d be wrong. For as the proper development nerds among you will immediately have realised, there is a small number of developing countries that are neither least developed (according to the UNCTAD definition), nor middle income (according to the World Bank list) – Kenya, DPRK, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, to be specific.

In practice, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe are covered elsewhere on the list, given that African countries warrant a special mention of their own. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan? Both landlocked – so they’re included too. Which means that, uniquely among the diverse array of the world’s developing countries, only North Korea fails to warrant inclusion in a category for special attention under the SDGs. Oops. Someone call Dennis Rodman!

Update: Peter Chowla writes in to point out that all is not lost for DPRK’s SDG coverage, as it is “most definitely a country in a conflict situation”: for one thing it never signed a formal peace treaty with the US after the Korean War, and for another thing it declared war on South Korea last year. So there we are: panic over!