Spent two days this week discussing ‘Protracted Conflict, Aid and Development’. I was very much a fish out of water
– the conference was mainly for humanitarian and conflict types, whereas I am a long-term development wallah trying to get my head round these other disciplines as part of my new role at the LSE’s Centre for Public Authority and International Development. And it really hurt (my head, that is). Different language, or different meanings for the same words; people performing an intricate terminological dance – peace, security, amnesty, demobilisation, power sharing, conflict, conflict prevention – to which I don’t know the moves.
But as the conference wore on, the fog cleared a bit, so with advance apology for my flimsy grasp of the subject, here are a few impressions.
Firstly the vibe (academics might prefer ‘discourse’) felt very different from long term development: even more than other aid discussions, there was a disorienting gulf between the chaos and misery being discussed, and the besuited civility of Carlton House Terrace. The discussion is dominated by the international machinery of humanitarian and conflict responses at the UN and elsewhere and so feels tremendously top down. The language is sprinkled with portentous capitalised phrases of various international initiatives – the New Way of Working; the Grand Bargain.
The reality they are dealing with is awful and getting worse. Stephen Pinker’s optimistic take in ‘Better Angels of our Nature’ looks very last decade. Battlefield deaths are sharply up, the number of displaced people currently stands at over 65 million, the highest since World War Two. More non state armed groups were formed in
the last six years than in the previous 60. Conflicts are lasting longer, becoming the norm in some countries, rather than the exception.
This has helped trigger ‘a crisis of norms, institutions and tools’ according to Jean Marie Guehenno of the International Crisis Group: ‘Old conflicts don’t die; new ones start; Responsibility to Protect is in very bad shape; international justice is in difficulties. The things we thought were becoming new layers of international governance are now going backwards; dictators are on the up. There are grave doubts on what peace-keeping can achieve. Sanctions are more a sign of impotence than of power.’ His conclusion? ‘The humanitarian system is sometimes like a duck that continues to walk after its head has been cut off’. Ouch.
That crisis has triggered a rethink along the lines of ‘Doing Development Differently’ – more interest in power and politics, systems thinking, in not trying to impose cookie cutter solutions from elsewhere that seldom work. But it feels as if the rethink is being held back by the structure and mental models of the humanitarian sector. Short term and highly unpredictable funding doesn’t help, but the main discussion was a different and less obvious barrier.
Large parts of both humanitarian and conflict thinking base themselves on International Humanitarian Law (IHL), a series of global conventions and commitments, of which the Geneva Conventions on the rules governing warfare are the best known. IHL provides the moral and practical compass, but appears to be becoming less and less useful for two reasons: firstly, IHL is showing its age – it is at its most useful governing conflicts between states, but less useful for non state armed groups and being further undermined by technological advances. One NGO rep asked ‘if a ‘high value target’ is walking across a marketplace (off limits under IHL) and turns on their cellphone, is that now a legitimate target?’
But secondly, IHL is the antithesis of a bottom up, locally embedded approach to change. It is hard to see, at least in
its more formal, legalistic interpretations, how it can be compatible with Doing Development Differently.
Maybe the dead hand of IHL explains why other attempts to rethink humanitarian response, for example by focussing on ‘prevention’ or ‘exclusionary institutions’ thus far seem vague and not very practical, although heading in the right direction.
The aid business seems poorly structured to deal with this crisis. Both official aid agencies and NGOs struggle with the risks of even talking to non-state armed groups; most funding remains siloed and short term, and often driven by donor politics rather than need – a UNDP speaker lamented that aid is politically pro-cyclical – as peacekeeping comes to an end somewhere like Liberia, donors lose interest and development aid falls off too, endangering progress by undermining the peace dividend.
One final question: are those best-placed to try and find a new way of integrating across humanitarian, conflict and long term development the multi-mandate organizations like Oxfam, because getting internal cross-disciplinary cooperation may be easier than between separate organizations? Or does being multi-mandate just tie your hands more comprehensively (eg can’t do advocacy on a country in case it endangers humanitarian access)? Oxfam spends roughly equal amounts on humanitarian and long term development, so maybe we could do more to bring together a group of multi-mandate organizations, raise some research and programme funding, and see what we can come up with/identify areas where people are already getting it right? (At this point, my colleagues will doubtless tell me we are doing it already!)
This is really difficult stuff, and it’s great that the conversation is under way, but it feels both that it has been going on for ages, without much result, and that it has a long way to go, with no definite prospect of success.
Hope commenters on this post can prove me wrong!