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.

Gary Gaile Development Geographies Pre-Conference in DC

The Development Geographies Specialty Group of the AAG is delighted to present the “Gary Gaile Development Geographies Pre-Conference” in Washington, DC, a one-day event in April 2010 which is themed around innovative policies and approaches emerging at the interface of research and practice.

Merging debate around cutting edge research and acute practical challenges, the format and scope facilitate lively discussion and cross currents between academia and the policy world. Our keynote speaker is Dr. Robin Mearns, Lead Social Development Specialist at the World Bank.

The conference, co-chaired by Prof. Brent McCusker (West Virginia University) and Prof. Daniel Esser (American University, DC), is dedicated to the late Gary Gaile who was very active in translating academic practice into real world action and who co-founded the specialty group.

Please access the Call for Papers here. The deadline for all abstracts is February 15, 2010.

The pre-conference will be held on Tuesday, April 13th, 2010 at the National 4-H Youth Conference Center’s suburban campus, just one mile from Washington, DC in Chevy Chase, Maryland (www.4hcenter.org; 7100 Connecticut Avenue, phone: (301) 961-2801). The Center is conveniently located near bus lines for quick transportation between the pre-conference and other AAG conference venues. Free on-site parking is available as well.

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.

An End to Development? The Appointment of Dirk Niebel as BMZ Liquidator

Scarcity facilitates choice. But finding senior politicians who are qualified for high-ranking federal posts can be a headache nonetheless. Germany’s political establishment, not precisely littered with luminaries in the field of International Development, has yet to rival France’s courage to appoint Medecins Sans Frontieres founder Bernard Kouchner as Foreign Minister. While deserving credit for pushing the gender agenda and raising the profile of health-related constraints, former German Development Secretary Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul was also infamous for her resistance to engage with technical matters and her habit of throwing office supplies at non-compliant staff. So the recent change of government in Germany did not only promise new faces; there was modest hope for a fresh approach infused with real expertise.

This hope, it has now turned out, was naive. The Liberal Party (FDP), emboldened by its historic success at the polls, has managed to snatch not only the Ministry of Health (the new incumbent is a 36-year old medical doctor and former enlisted officer in the Bundeswehr) and the Foreign Office. It also sends the new leader of the Bundesministerium fuer wirtschaftliche Zusammenarbeit und Entwicklung (BMZ) into the coalition government. His name is Dirk Niebel. And that’s about all that development practitioners know about him.

In the past, Niebel distinguished himself mostly as a fervent critic of Germany’s administrative system for managing unemployment benefits. Hitting a central nerve of those advocating for social safety nets and the social embeddedness of capitalist enterprise in the Rheinische tradition, Niebel laments the “unemployment industry” (“Arbeitslosenindustrie”) and propagates a libertarian agenda. His website contains several posts about employment policies (the most prominent being to dissolve the German Employment Agency) but is completely silent on any issues related to human development abroad. During his campaign, Niebel did mention the BMZ occasionally – and advocated its liquidation.

FDP leader Guido Westerwelle’s justification of Niebel’s appointment did little to dispel substantive doubts. Germany’s new Foreign Secretary responded to journalists’ befuddlement by pointing out that he wanted to end the situation in which the BMZ was practicing an “alternative foreign policy.” The BMZ’s previous insistence on human rights as an unalienable item on Germany’s economic cooperation agenda in times of global competition is thus likely a thing of the past. Ministerial solo attempts such as Wieczorek-Zeul’s reception of the Dalai Lama despite protests by trade lobbyists and right-wing politicians will give way to a hierarchical model led by trade, not aid.

With neoliberalism back in the German driver’s seat, its gaze set firmly on the marvels of market-led economic growth, the FDP’s apparent objective of paralyzing and demoting–and eventually dissolving–the BMZ is a logical conclusion. Where bureaucracy is considered the enemy and ‘free’ trade the solution, calling in the liquidator makes sense. The next four years will show whether the process is marked by agony or silent death.

New Essay in Ethics & International Affairs

Is more money for global health always good news? No, I am arguing in this lead essay in Ethics & International Affairs (Carnegie Council). Many of the problems that plague decision-making in global health assistance lie not in the global South but in the North, where the monetary flows originate and where most policies are conceived.

If we want to avoid the same strategic backlash that hit us after pouring billions into foreign aid without knowing much, if anything, about its effectiveness, we need to ask critical questions about how financial resources for global health are being spent and whether or not these patterns are the most effective.

It turns out that common depictions of ‘limited capacities’ in developing regions are only one factor in explaining suboptimal allocation. Conversely, organizational incentives, interorganizational dynamics and the sweet talk of global partnerships account have been looked at much less. I contend that they are the key aspects in need of investigation if we seek to understand the political economy of global health today.

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.

Afghanistan Commentary on Swedish Radio

For the Swedish speakers among you, check out Marcus Hansson’s 20-minute feature on Afghanistan’s botched reconstruction, broadcast on September 2, 2009 on Swedish Radio 1.

It includes interviews with several international observers. For instance, Antonio Donini at the Fletcher School comments on the aid industry and the discrepancy between its global mobility and its lack of effectiveness.

In my contribution (16min 52sec – 18min 08sec), I focus on the local dimension, highlighting how supposedly ‘bottom up’ processes of ‘local empowerment’ were in reality almost entirely driven by donors.

Racial Discrimination at the World Bank: New GAP Report

Last week, the Government Accountability Project (GAP) released a report that investigates and finds evidence of racial discrimination against black professional grade employees at the World Bank. The report, which documents the treatment of these employees in recruitment, retention and internal judicial decisions, finds that a race ceiling exists at the institution, and that the Bank’s legal system fails to address racial discrimination adequately.

Specifically, the report details that of over 3,500 professional grade World Bank staff worldwide (more than 1,000 of whom are US Americans), there are only four black US Americans. In addition, the report details how other black bank staff, such as black Caribbean nationals and black African employees, are also underrepresented.

Download the full report here. With thanks to Barika Williams at MIT for sharing.