PSA: An unmissable seminar on Côte d’Ivoire

I just received an email advertising a seminar that is truly unmissable if you’re interested in Côte d’Ivoire (or West Africa more broadly) and humanitarian law. Next Thursday, May 12th at 9:30 am, the Harvard Humanitarian Law and Policy Forum is hosting a live (online) seminar entitled Côte d’Ivoire: Assessing the International Response. Speakers include some of the brightest minds on West African affairs – Mike McGovern from Yale, Corinne Dufka from Human Rights Watch, for instance – and will look at the following questions:

This Live Seminar will examine the international community’s response to the crisis in Côte d’Ivoire. Though the widespread violence is generally subsiding with the arrest of former President Laurent Gbagbo, the situation in Côte d’Ivoire continues to raise a number of concerns in terms of protecting civilians and adequately addressing their needs. This Seminar will address the following questions:
–What legal frameworks apply to the situation, and what forms of protection do they provide to civilian populations?
–What political, normative, and operational dilemmas arise for (elements of) the international community in responding to the ongoing crisis?
–What is the role of relief and development efforts in the current context?
–Has the response of the international community been appropriate and effective?

Register here

I’ll probably post some kind of summary of this either here or for UN Dispatch. If you have a chance to tune in, I’d love to know your thoughts/reactions afterward.

On G8/G20 pointlessness

Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachman captures the essence of G8/G20 summits in this piece:

“We are seriously concerned about this most serious outbreak of seriousness,” said the head of the institution, either a former minister from a developing country or a mid-level European or American bureaucrat. “This is a wake-up call to the world. They must take on board the vital message that my organisation exists.”

The director of the body, based in one of New York, Washington or an agreeable Western European city, was speaking at its annual conference, at which ministers from around the world gather to wring their hands impotently about the most fashionable issue of the day. The organisation has sought to justify its almost completely fruitless existence by joining its many fellow talking-shops in highlighting whatever crisis has recently gained most coverage in the global media.”

(h/t Alanna Shaikh)

Pointlessness is a theme this weekend in Toronto, as small factions of violent protesters destroy property for no reason :

credit: Ryan Walker for The Torontoist

Do good, do nothing?

In a recent article in The New Republic entitled “We Can’t Just Do Nothing“, Richard Just criticizes Mahmood Mamdani’s attacks on what he calls “human rights fundamentalists” in his book “Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror.” Just writes:

For Mamdani, the Save Darfur movement is more or less indistinguishable from the great imperialist enterprise of our time, which is the war on terror. “The harsh truth,” he argues, “is that the War on Terror has provided the coordinates, the language, the images, and the sentiment for interpreting Darfur.”

In his piece, Just contrasts Mamdani’s perspective with contending views, as  expressed by Gareth Evans in his recent book, “The Responsibility to Protect: Ending Mass Atrocity Crimes Once and For All.” Essentially, it comes down to whether preventing, reacting and punishing gross human rights violations and crimes against humanity in a given country are not just the responsibility of that nation and its citizens, but also a common, shared responsibility for all.

This debate is not – by any means – new. Since the end of colonial times, thinkers, practitioners, politicians have brandished the moral and ethical argument on both sides of the debate. It is one of the most potent battle of ideas: is it more or less moral to intervene (broadly speaking)  in another sovereign country’s affairs? Some argue that national sovereignty is essentially sacred, and when it is breached, we are not only weakening the entire international system, but also creating space for misguided, neo-imperalist  interventions and intrusions. Others (like Just and Evans) believe that we have a shared, common responsibility to intervene, especially when sovereign regimes are committing crimes against their own population.

It have yet to fully figure out my own beliefs when it comes to this debate, because in some sense, I can see how “interventionists” can be labeled neoimperialists (although I think that term is contentious – at best). There is a part of me that understands how people like Mamdani construe “Western” (or other) intervention in the affairs of another country as neoimperialist, and the parallels drawn between the justifications for the war in Iraq and those for an intervention in Sudan are thought provoking.  Amanda, over at the excellent blog Wronging Rights, asks the tough questions about when or how foreign intervention is appropriate. Alex de Waal, a pre-eminent specialist on Sudan, recently wrote:

[I]f there is to be a solution, it will come from inside Sudan, and must be political, addressed at the structural political challenges of Sudan. A campaign focused on a genocide that isn’t happening, for the U.S. to step up its pressure to stop killing that has already ended, is just making Save Darfur look poorly-informed, and America look silly. Intermittently, “Save Darfur” has tried to rebrand itself as a peace movement—but its origins as an intervention campaign make it virtually impossible to make the transformation. Peace cannot be forced or dictated. If “Save Darfur” is interested in peace, the best it can do in the cause of peace is to fall silent.

Ouch.

Idiots?
Idiots?

While I agree that “misguided, though still well-intentioned” activism (celebrity or otherwise) is not the solution to ensuring a peaceful future for Sudan and its people, I worry that this type of argument is being used to justify inaction. And, in my mind, inaction – not just when it comes to Sudan, but also for a whole host of issues – is not acceptable.

We still live in a world where national sovereignty is elevated above individual rights – and in a very real way, this contributes to the peace and stability of the international system, as the violation of a country’s borders and sovereign prerogatives are still considered the ultimate act of aggression. But I get really frustrated when this line of argument is used to justify South Africa’s inability to take a real stand on Zimbabwe, or the support of clearly corrupt, ineffective and frankly plain crappy governments in places like Chad or Gabon.

When attempts at finding solutions or courses of action for the “international community” (you beautiful, ethereal term that signifies everything from advocacy NGOs to national armies) are devised, they are often fraught with political conflict (eg. the Security Council’s paralysis and ineffectiveness at being the guarantors of peace and security – ha!). As a result, we see many international “interventions” (again, in the broad sense of the term) that are underfunded and half-assed. Of course, the best (and worst) example of this is the disaster of the international response to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.

The end of apartheid in South Africa was the result of massive, long term, committed efforts from South African political activists. While Nelson Mandela and others fought for decades to bring justice to their country, at some point, the “international community” did step in, in the form of divestments and boycotts. And while these were not necessarily watershed moments or key turning points, these efforts did in part contribute to bringing down the regime in South Africa (a white regime oppressing a black majority – uncomfortable for a lot of Western nations).

While human rights activists’ efforts are not always effective, I don’t think we (or the causes they represent) would be better off without them. Pressuring governments, international bodies, corporations and other “heavy weight” stakeholders to deal with matters of crimes against humanity and serious, chronic human rights violations is a good thing – what’s the alternative? If easy answers or solutions were available to dealing with violence and injustice in places like Sudan, the DRC or Burma, surely someone would have thought of them by now. Critics of “human rights fundamentalists” and who see the “responsibility to protect” as a neo-imperalist concept also come from the same well-intentioned place as those they decry – I find it interesting that some of the harshest critics of “intervention” are people who have spent their lives working in the aid or development, or as diplomats posted in foreign, war-torn nations. At the very least, they share an ethic of responsibility with those they criticize.

"Post-bureaucratic" effectiveness?

There has been a bit of a buzz around the recently released British Conservative Party Green Paper on international development, and David Cameron’s party is getting a little bit of heat for some of their policy prescriptions. 

The report begins by announcing the Party’s good intentions:

As well as highlighting the amazing achievements of aid, we are candid and open about the difficulties and problems involved in turning money and good intentions into real outcomes on the ground. We identify both the systemic problems that beset the whole official aid industry, and the specific mistakes that Labour politicians have made in running our aid programme. And we set out how we will put these problems right, increasing British aid, while injecting a new post-bureaucratic focus on effectiveness and outcomes. Our aim is to spend more on what works, and end funding for what doesn’t.

What caught my eye was the notion of “post-bureaucratic” – which is in fact repeated throughout the report. At first, I thought it was probably another euphemism for increased coordination among agencies or more flexible funding and disbursement timelines. Interestingly, the Conservatives take the concept in an unexpected direction; as The Independent reports, their suggestion is to give British citizens a say in where their tax dollars/aid money goes. Through the intelligent use of “post-bureaucratic” modern technology (the internet, who would have thought), David Cameron is considering asking British citizens to decide which international development projects they want to fund:

The site will include a history of each project, the impact it has achieved, details of how the additional money will be spent and a short film by the head of the project, setting out why they deserve to be backed. The £40m pot will be divided in proportion to the percentage of the vote for each initiative.

The point of this being two-fold: a), it would allegedly increase the quality of project results,  by creating new incentives for effectiveness, b) it would give tax-payers a say in how their money is spent, leading to increased popular support for aid programs. However, as critics note, this would inevitably lead to some “unpopular” programs being cut, and surviving ones spending more time trying to cater to the needs of an ever changing public opinion than addressing issues on the ground. 

Many are calling this “populist gimmickry”. I can understand that, especially when phrases like “Every time the candle of life is snuffed out by disease, we all suffer” are thrown around (page 8 – some beautiful prose, highly recommended). And indeed, some of the Conservatives’ policy prescriptions seem a bit “naive”, like the “MyAidfund” initiative described above. 

Nonetheless, they deserve some credit for at least attempting to be creative in their solutions to address the issue of aid effectiveness. And, while the vigorous debate on the topic continues to further polarize opinions (see the Boston Review recent “Development in Dangerous Places” for a brilliant installment on the subject), while the same old promises are being made by the G8, the Conservatives are at least taking a crack at finding a solution to the deadlock.

For instance, while everyone’s attention is focused on the “MyAidfund” program, I think some of the ideas below – also suggested in the 64 page policy paper – are at least worth debating:

We will ensure the impartial and objective analysis of the effectiveness of British aid through an Independent Aid Watchdog. This will gather evidence about the impact and outcomes of different British aid projects and programmes, allowing the Secretary of State for International Development to make informed, evidence-based decisions about where spending should be directed […]

We will publish full information about all of DFID’s projects and programmes – including the results of impact evaluations – on its website, and have them translated into local languages. This information will be published in a standardised format so that it can be freely used on third-party websites […]

We advocate a more far-sighted approach. DFID should where possible make three-year rolling commitments and give indicative ten-year projections for aid. However, such a commitment on our part will require something in return. Projects and programmes must demonstrate that they are performing, delivering what they said they would deliver.

The last recommendation listed here is contentious for critics: for some projects, where measuring objective impact is challenging because of the lack of quantitative indicators, it will be difficult to retain funding. This would create an unnatural skew towards “delivery” programs which can effectively measure their results, but are not always the most transformative or sustainable. That said, the current lack of indicators shouldn’t preclude us from searching for new, creative ways to measure impact… Which a lot of researchers are doing already. It’s definitely time for the development industry to become accountable (much in the same way that the private sector is being held increasingly accountable for their social and environmental impact.)

Finally, one of their more praiseworthy suggestions, in my opinion, is the following:

There is a wealth of talent and energy in the many ‘little platoons’, small charities and NGOs who are making an impact on poverty in a thousand different ways all across the world. We want to support and bolster these organisations. Yet Labour ’s current funding rules are restrictive, with money earmarked for specific but limited sectors. 

In addition to the existing funding structures which exist, we will establish a demand-led, performance-based Poverty Impact Fund, worth £40 million in its first year. 

The Fund will be open to British NGOs and charities, working alone or in partnership with local organisations in developing countries. The Fund will invite submissions for projects and programmes to reduce poverty in developing  countries. Fund managers, drawn from DFID, NGOs and the private sector, will assess the applications, and allocate funds on the basis of their anticipated effectiveness in reducing poverty. 

The Fund will maximise innovation and enterprise, letting ‘a thousand flowers bloom’,tapping into a wide range of NGOs and supporting a wider range of projects than the current structures allow. To balance risk in the portfolio, the Fund will also support projects which are well-established and have a demonstrable performance record. NGOs will have a clear incentive to maximise the effectiveness of their work in order to secure and retain funding.

So there are proposing to work more closely – and fund! – grassroots organizations that deliver results. Without seeing the details (how exactly would the portfolio be “balanced”? Will 50% of funding go to well-established projects? More? Less?), it’s hard to say whether this idea can really work. But we should at least appreciate the effort to bring some new ideas to the table – Cameron and his party probably haven’t cracked the complicated issue of aid effectiveness, but their notion of “post-bureaucracy” might not be such a poor conceptual starting point. 

Full disclosure: I am not a fan of David Cameron…. Not a detractor either, but definitely not a fan