The World Bank needs a strategic arbiter, not a narcissistic insider

Who is going to be the new World Bank President? For one man and his supporters, there is only one viable candidate for this position: he himself. In a recent Washington Post op-ed, he has laid out his unique set of experience and expertise. Those who dare to cast any doubt are either tackled head-on (see, for instance, the evolving debate in The Nation) or ignored (especially noteworthy when the critic is someone who happens to know the Bank much better than the contender). He also pitches himself against Larry Summers, which, in David Korten’s words, is “a rock bottom standard.” Besides, it also is a substantively questionable position since both candidates are actually quite similar. Both started out as academic prodigies who, unable to reflect and learn from mistakes, have since placed their bets on top-level political appointments in order to further their career and attain global fame. Both have thus been, for many years, political insiders who are utterly convinced of their intellectual superiority. Both consider the Bank a vehicle to carry out their visions of how global development should “happen.” And both are U.S. citizens. On the flipside, neither of them has a track record of respecting intellectual diversity, brokering agreements between stakeholders while staying on the sideline, or transforming a global organization in ways that would have won them the respect of those working for and those depending on it. But those are the very qualifications that the new World Bank President should bring to the table in order to lead effectively. And it times of rising regional superpowers such as Brazil, India and China, a hue of humility would probably be quite helpful, too.

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Why don’t American cities burn?

I recently attended UPenn Prof. Michael Katz’s book talk at the New America Foundation. In Why Don’t American Cities Burn, Katz offers a historical analysis of the systemic and social constraints to violent collective action by minorities in U.S. cities which, Katz argues, result from a set of profound economic and political transformations. Although I found Katz’s three-tiered argument refreshing and generally convincing, I took issue with his focus on inner-city poverty among African-Americans specifically and why, unlike in the 1960s and 1990s, this situation was unlikely to incite major violence missed major aspects of contemporary urban dynamics. As much as racially motivated spatial phenomena have mattered in post-war U.S. urban history–and one clearly find parallels in the urban riots in France–, recent uprisings in London, Seattle, Oakland or Vancouver demonstrate that racial tensions are only one possible trigger. To be fair, Katz published the book prior to the Occupy movement; still, it seems to me that characterizing the U.K. riots primarily as an outbreak of racial tensions misses the point. Unfortunately Katz’s answer to my question [at 1:03:10 of the recording] wasn’t really clear; he stated dissatisfaction with attempts made thus far to explain these riots and that he intended to conduct his own investigation. Let’s hope that race won’t be the sole interpretive lens applied in this effort. Cities are arenas for the staging of social and economic protests writ large, which may or may not reflect racial dimensions.

Join for the 2012 AAG Development Geographies Specialty Group Pre-Conference in New York City

Members and guests of the AAG’s Development Geographies Specialty Group (DGSG) will meet on Thursday, February 23, from 5PM until 8PM in midtown Manhattan for the 2012 DGSG Pre-Conference. Click here for the event poster. Drawing from their own research, 7 presenters will each deliver a 7-minute Policy Plea, followed by open discussion in plenary session. We are reaching out to local non-academic audiences and hope to attract a diverse crowd of scholars and practitioners. There is no conference fee and all are welcome; registered members of the Development Geographies Specialty Group will receive an on-site $10 discount toward their food bill. RSVP is requested by Monday, February 20. Please send a brief message with your name and affiliation to dgsgpreconference(at)gmail.com to confirm your attendance.

New OECD Report: “Do No Harm: International Support for Statebuilding”

Despite the best of intentions, donors can inadvertently undermine statebuilding processes. When the resources they deliver or the reforms they advocate weaken rather than strengthen the state’s decision- and policy-making functions, their efforts can do more harm than good. Donors can also do harm by creating a brain drain away from state organizations. When aid is delivered in a way that actually acts as a disincentive to states to consolidate their own revenue base, this can retard the development of the state’s own capacity.

How can donors ensure they do no harm? How can they be sure they intervene constructively in fragile situations? Co-authored by Professors James Putzel, Daniel Esser and a team at PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Do No Harm is a new OECD report that provides practical guidance based on the results of research undertaken on behalf of the OECD DAC International Network on Conflict and Fragility (INCAF). It is based on comparative case studies of six countries (Afghanistan, Bolivia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, Rwanda and Sierra Leone) and a comprehensive literature review. It addresses how the interventions of OECD countries may risk undermining positive statebuilding processes, and makes recommendations as to how this may be avoided in the future.

Politicophobia: How the UN Fails Afghanistan

In a parliamentary democracy with a president at the executive helm, it is one of the former’s most critical prerogatives to review, approve or potentially reject the latter’s cabinet. This is the procedure followed in the U.S. and many other countries in the world. Even the otherwise weak European Parliament in Strasbourg retains the right to vote on cabinet positions. So when the same mechanism was written into the new constitution for Afghanistan, it was conceptually justifiable and indeed, international best practice.

But not if one asks the United Nations. Because the core of democracy, the peaceful settlement of conflicting interests, is way too messy a process for the well-meaning world body. “I think most of us were surprised at how many ministers were not approved by the parliament,” UN head of mission Kai Eide told journalists in Kabul after 70 percent of President Karzai’s nominees had been rejected by the 200 or so delegates. Eide considered this outcome a “setback and it’s a distraction [as it] prolongs the situation without a functioning government, which has lasted since summer. […] It’s particularly worrying in a country in conflict, where you have so many challenges and need to focus attention on urgent reform programmes.”

The UN’s preference for shallow political reforms could not be put more succinctly. “Democracy” (or whatever local politics is officially labeled in a given setting) must not interfere with the real work of “urgent reform programmes.” Development in Afghanistan is thus reinvented as an apolitical enterprise which needs to be protected from political interests expressed by elected representatives of the people. Maybe the UN is embracing a quirky kind of realism: if we cannot even organize free and fair elections, then why worry about the people who get elected? But quite possibly, its position is indicative of something else: that the organization has now completely lost its compass in the country.

In the heyday of Afghanistan’s short-lived recovery, Brynen (2005: 246) warned that it would “be ludicrous, however, if Afghanistan were held to a level of apolitical economic planning that would be alien to most donor countries or UN member states.” But already then, Heffron (2004: 65) could point to the irony of coalitions between “local recidivist forces […] with apolitical, neoliberal” outsiders creating a Central Asian outpost of Home Depots and halal McDonald’s and conveniently forgetting about centuries of tribal conflicts. It seems that the United Nations under Kai Eide’s troubled leadership is still buying into this logic.

The UN’s naive notion of a secular Afghan civil society that balances and checks the power of an internationally propped-up narco-state has completed yet another spin. Not only does politics in Afghanistan have to be free from religious influences; it also needs to be free from politicians. Politicophobia is coming full circle. Once again, we need to rely on Afghans themselves to offer sensible interpretations of the political dynamics. “This outcome was a wake-up call,” said Shukria Barakzai, a parliament member from Kabul. “It means the [parliament members] are thinking differently, and they want real change in the governance of the country.”

The challenge will be to achieve this change despite the UN’s presence.

Brynen, Rex (2005), Donor Assistance: Lessons from Palestine for Afghanistan, in: Junne, Gerd and Willemijn Verkoren (eds.), Postconflict development: meeting new challenges, Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, pp. 223-248.

Heffron, John M. (2004), Between reconstruction and restoration: three historical case studies, in: Montgomery, John D. and Dennis A. Rondinelli (eds.), Beyond reconstruction in Afghanistan: lessons from development experience, New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 53-74.

Comparing Afghan Apples With Vietnamese Oranges, or Why There Is No Solution For Afghanistan

Once upon a time, not too long ago, there would have been a solution for Afghanistan, one that had a realistic chance of success. “Success” would have meant a stabilization of the modest gains made during the first three of the post-war years (2002-2004), and the “solution” would have looked roughly as follows: a highly focused international agenda for development that takes local preferences seriously and prioritizes micro-level economic recovery and public health interventions over laudable but utterly unrealistic “all-in-one” notions of human development, ignorant of inherent tensions between traditional and modern constituencies; basic democratization from below (Roland Paris was right yet even more emphasis needs to be put on the local dimension); and a pragmatic regional strategy of political accommodation of all radical stakeholders, not just those in the Northern Alliance, both within the country and around its borders.

But in a tragic parallel to the botched interventions in Iraq and East Timor, a tiny piece of newly independent soil misunderstood and misgoverned by the United Nations following the aftermath of its secession from Indonesia, it came otherwise. Under pressure to show results of hurried efforts, the development industry kept complicitly silent when Afghanistan, too, was declared a success story early on. “Afghan women shed their burqas” was one among thousands of captions epitomizing the hope of international observers for the country. The acute crisis in Iraq overshadowed a looming crisis in Afghanistan and zapped away critical resources, glossing over “increasing frustration and anger from a population which once saw the international intervention in Afghanistan as a source of hope.” Today, even those few female members of the Afghan Lower House who had been declared role models and examples of a new Afghanistan advocate for a complete and immediate withdrawal of U.S. military forces.

Too late did international strongmen stationed in Kabul realize that the discussion of whether or not the Taliban should be brought into the realm of a political settlement was a smokescreen behind which the sitting Afghan president was crafting his very own patronage politics. Today, “there is no solution for Afghanistan without a solution for Pakistan,” writes Robert Kaplan (hardly the reincarnation of a dove) in The Atlantic. “There is no solution for Afghanistan without Iran,” adds an EU think tank. All the while, Afghans keep dying, and with them an increasing number of foreign soldiers.

In the wake of President Obama’s much-awaited decision to further increase the presence of U.S. troops in the country, we are being assured that Afghanistan is not the new Vietnam [one is tempted to add that in the long run, this would almost amount to a positive scenario]. “Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action,” the President points out. “Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.” Clearly no one envies Obama’s position, inherited from an incompetent and unwilling previous administration. But his audacity of hope for Afghanistan is tragically misguided.

What matters much more than similarities or differences between the old and new Vietnam scenarios is the West’s overconfidence in the power of policies, which in turn is conditioned on the creation and maintenance of a military ‘safe zone’ for development. This approach of militarily enforced human progress already failed once, just that the United States in that case happened to support stasis against change. Indeed, to suggest that Afghanistan has followed a historical path distinct from Vietnam’s ignores that not even thirty years ago, modernism and socialism in Afghan politics were one and the same. City-based leftist progressive parties were pitted against rural conservative interests which received heavy backing by the Reagan administration, carving out faultlines of conflict that underpin today’s radicalized landscape. The failure of the Afghan communist experiment did not mean the triumph of pseudo-democratic capitalism but the victory of revisionism.

The international mission in Afghanistan will not fail because of a lack of a broad coalition. It will fail, and in the course of its failure many more will fall, because external forces and the international development industry’s policy machinery are too far removed from the history and reality of Afghan lives.  To Afghans in Khost, Kunduz and Kandahar, the fact that “the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan” must sound cynical at best. In the short run, it may well serve to justify sending even more troops. But Afghanistan’s domestic problems, created and exacerbated by the international “community” prior, during and after the reign of the Taliban, will outlast any officially declared deadline for peace.

New Article in Critical Planning

The key questions that I am posing in this article are: how can we explain city-level politics in two countries located at the very fringes of global capitalism, and how can a resulting reconfigured theoretical framework be integrated into an international comparative urban research agenda.

Contemporary Sierra Leone and Afghanistan present major structural differences compared to highly industrialized settings, as their main cities have not been sites of capitalist production. At the same time, both countries have recently experienced major international interventions in the context of intra-state wars. I show how these two characteristics render the explanatory power of established theories of urban politics deficient.

I then examine key features of recent political restructuring in Freetown and Kabul. I pay specific attention to the incentive structures that have resulted from recent international interventions and how they shape urban politics. I illustrate how these incentives steer resource flows and forge new poles of accumulation and control—both within the respective settings and outside of them—to the detriment of local policy space.

I thus show that while the starting point for theory reformulation remains the urban context, a crucial conceptual challenge is to capture the alliances between national and international institutions and organizations, and to examine how they influence city-level politics. I ultimately argue that multiscalar governance as a theoretical approach is applicable to cities in conflict zones only if it integrates an analysis of international politics as a major determinant of local urban politics.