The big beasts of development… – and peace

Under new leadership, the UK Department for International Development is emphasising results and accountability. And as part of that, the big multilateral beasts of development – to which the UK gives £3 billion a year – are coming under the efficiency microscope. It will be good to assess them not just for efficiency but for impact, and especially their impact on peace and conflict because it is the thing they have trouble taking into account.

Think conflict

Unfair on the World Bank and the UN? Think about this:

  • In Liberia World Bank spending on consolidating peace and security started to decline rapidly in 2008, tailing off by 2011, yet the country still depends on a UN peacekeeping force as the guardian against a return to the 13 years of civil war and depredation up to 2003, and that force is itself is set to be phased out in 2011;
  • The Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper for Liberia – the strategic development document that is, as in every other developing country, largely a product of the Bank’s work – is 192 pages long and devotes just eight paragraphs to conflict;
  • In Burundi, UN Peacebuilding Fund projects have concluded and the integrated UN mission in the country is set to draw down by the end of the year, just when instability and violence are mounting and rumours of fear and a return to war abound;
  • In Somalia, the World Bank continues to prioritise development programming that ignores conflict and is increasingly at odds with its own thorough and sophisticated context analyses.

Think context

In 2007 the acronymicly challenged OECD-DAC (Development Aid Committee of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development) produced a set of principles for engagement by donor governments in unstable and conflict-affected countries. Rule number 1 is, Take context as the starting point. Seems obvious enough. At International Alert a group of us were recently pondering the way the big development beasts work and I caused genuine hilarity by asking, ‘Do the international institutions take context as the starting point?’

Of course not. The starting point for such behemoths is set by their own institutional norms and realities.

It’s not impossible for big institutions to respond to context rather than to the organisation’s standard operating procedure but it takes effort and it requires – as DFID has done to some degree at least – a process of decentralising some of the key decisions. Subsidiarity in EU-speak – the principle that the decision should be taken at the lowest possible level in any hierarchy so it is shaped by the reality it will itself shape. High-level decision-making should be strategic; the details should be sorted out in the field.

But to do this, it is axiomatic that staff must be well resourced, trained and motivated. Trying to do development in conflict contexts is not easy. It is labour intensive and knowledge intensive work. It needs people who know the issues and who know the country working in a team along with those who know the financial instruments, the technical assistance measures and all the rest of it.

Monitor constantly

The review of multilateral agencies’ use of the UK taxpayers’ money, announced by Secretary of State for Development Andrew Mitchell is, therefore, a very timely opportunity to shine the light precisely onto this issue – the conflict sensitivity and context responsiveness of the big beasts.

But an uncomfortable thought occurs. DFID will find it hard to do this in the time frame that has been announced – a 4-month period in which to review how 30 organisations spend £3 billion a year.

Of course, if DFID had been doing this already, responding when the Secretary of State ordered the review would be much easier. So one outcome of the review should be DFID setting up a monitoring group to keep the multilaterals’ work under continued scrutiny.

Criteria for conflict sensitivity

Sensitivity is a quality. How do you know if an institution is displaying that quality in relation to, in this case, conflict? Here are some template questions for a multilateral agency:

1. Does the agency follow the OECD-DAC principle of taking context as the starting point? Following this line of thought:

  • Does it have a country team or other kind of capacity for continuing analysis of the context? If not – if a context analysis is done every few years – you can forget it: contexts change faster than that and you have to be able to follow them as they evolve.
  • Who does the country team try to involve in doing the analysis? If the answer is its own staff plus a few officials and NGOs based in the capital, it’s taking a limited view of a complex situation that may be different in different parts of the country. And it may well find it misses out on understanding the power dynamics in the country.

2. If the agency is notionally committed to “local ownership” and participation, as most of them are on paper, does the reality of practice match the intention? Henry Kissinger once warned a US Senate Committee to “watch what we do, not what we say” – a good principle of hard-headed analysis. Agencies frequently go in for lumbering, one-off consultation processes with a few key interlocutors. Findings are very often outdated by the time they are circulated. Better instead to make the consultation wider and continuing. In that theme:

  • What does the agency do to draw in interlocutors from outside the capital? Does it pay attention to the different elements of diversity in identifying with whom it should be in discussion?
  • Does it publicise its programmes and its consultation so people can contribute uninvited?
  • What do people who have been engaged in consultation think about it? (Views on this are consistently acidic.)
  • Can the agency show a case where policy was changed (and not just re-spun) in response to results of a consultation process?

3. To analyse the conflict context, the agency’s staff are going to engage with political questions amid diverse and divergent views and in the face of competing needs of different groups: can they do that?

  • Does the agency’s mandate support conflict and context analysis? And does management practice extend that support to individual staff or are they out on their own?
  • Does the agency have an internal culture that permits disagreement and discussion so as to arrive at the most accurate possible and nuanced analysis?
  • What training have the staff received that helps equip them for this work? How is a talent for context analysis spotted and supported?
  • Does the agency recognise that gender awareness is not only about the participation of women but also means thinking about the impact of different kinds of masculinity on prospects for peace or conflict?
  • When personnel move on, how is their knowledge shared with colleagues including their replacements arriving from a different location and a different kind of assignment?

4. Does the agency understand and measure success in both qualitative and quantitative terms? – because, if not, it’s missed the point entirely.

One thought on “The big beasts of development… – and peace

  1. Hello Sir Smith,

    Thank you so much for this posting. I think that many of us in the field of Peace and Security continue to discuss everything that you have addressed. The only problem is that while we are openly asking these questions, the answers are rarely ever revealed. I feel that there is an understanding that these agencies will never really take context as a starting point, because they are focused mainly on the outcomes instead of the processes of many of their projects. Each context is different, and though similar in elements, no two contexts are the same. With that being said, I feel that many of these agencies try to replicate case-study models, due to the fact that they spend large amounts of donors’ funds on case studies. In order to cut back on cost, it seems easier for them to replicate already-existing models. When those models fail, these agencies do not take responsibility for their actions and instead cast the blame of the countries. This in turn creates an attitude of superiority between the donor- agencies and the recipients; an unbalanced relationship which often leads into disasters, leaving not the political leaders as victims, but the locals in a worse predicament. Case in point, Zimbabwe.

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