After the war

Conflict resolution is a balancing act between demands for security, humanitarian aid and political


Rt Hon Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State for International Development, DfID
Chris Bellamy, Head, Security Studies Institute
Trevor Davies, Partner, Atos Consulting
Geoffrey Dennis, Chief executive, CARE International
Peter Dixon, Chief executive, Concordis
Mohamed A Eltom, Minister plenipotentiary, Sudanese embassy
Dr Alison Evans, Director, Overseas Development Institute
David Loyn (chair), International development correspondent, BBC
Michela Wrong, Author and journalist


David Loyn As we know, poverty causes conflict and conflict causes poverty in what has become a never-ending cycle. In the UK, the Department for International Development (DfID) has been trying to break this cycle for some time. The new white paper Building Our Common Future puts development assistance at the centre of conflict prevention, committing up to 50 per cent of new bilateral funding to fragile states and making justice and security a priority for the very first time.

But how do we decide when to intervene, how best to intervene and how to ensure that immediate post-conflict reconstruction ties in with longer-term developmental efforts? What is the role of big donors such as the UK - the biggest bilateral donor to Afghanistan - considering the way that aid goes through government budgets? How does that mesh with the UN and other multilateral programmes and how will the new focus on conflict affect other priorities for DfID? When one starts spending
in some places, there will be other places where money will not be spent. So, who loses out?

I will quickly go around the table and do introductions. Trevor Davies is the lead partner of the award-winning Atos Consulting international development team. His team focuses on areas such as good governance, growth, justice, security and public financial management. Trevor has worked in an A-Z of countries - from Angola to Zimbabwe - across the post-conflict world.

Peter Dixon is a former RAF pilot who has turned Concordis International into a leading conflict resolution charity, managing a range of peace-building interventions that he characterises as "research-based unofficial diplomacy".

Next to him is Mohamed Eltom, a distinguished Sudanese diplomat and now the minister plenipotentiary for the Sudanese embassy in London. He previously served in Washington and was responsible for Sudan's relationship with the World Bank, Damascus, Oman and Abu Dhabi.

Next to the Secretary of State is Chris Bellamy, a former soldier and journalist who now heads the Security Studies Institute. Chris is based at Cranfield and researches the nature of security and conflict dynamics. In 2008, his book Absolute War won the Royal United Services Institute Westminster Medal for military literature. We are a long way from absolute war here. Instead, I think we are talking about war among the people and the complex conflict world.

Next to me is Alison Evans, who became the director of Britain's leading development think tank - the Overseas Development Institute - this year. She has also spent six years at the World Bank as an economist. She specialises in poverty and public policy, institutional change and the role of international development assistance.

Geoffrey Dennis has just got off a plane from Delhi. Twelve years ago he moved from development work in the private sector into charity, first doubling the size of Friends of the Elderly, before taking over as chief executive of CARE International in 2004. He did nine years with the Red Cross before that as well.

Michela Wrong is a journalist, author and expert on Africa whose three books on the Congo, Eritrea and, most recently, Kenya have become essential reading for those of us who have gone to those countries over the years. Her latest book - It's Our Turn to Eat, the story of a Kenyan whistleblower - goes beyond the individual tale of an anti-corruption man who has to flee to London, and examines Africa's ability to govern itself.

I would like to start with Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State for International Development. I remember Clare Short putting conflict prevention right at the top of the list of priorities for DfID back in 1997. What has changed - what is different this time?

Douglas Alexander One thing that has changed since 1997 is the size of the DfID budget. We have become a more significant contributor to international development. Over the years, we have also proved capable of effective spending of the money we contribute. Recently, a growing body of evidence has indicated the increasing consonance between conflict and poverty. I think that we have established not just pre-eminence but policy leadership by being willing to take some often conscious and brave decisions as a department.

One of the decisions that we made when we set out our white paper in July was that there should be a stronger focus on fragile and conflict-affected states than in the past. We developed quite a lot of experience working with a number of other partners, but we recognise that, as an international community, if we are going to see the scale of progress we want to see in the Millennium Development Goals, we can no longer afford not to have any specific focus and prioritisation of exactly those themes.

David Loyn Geoff Dennis, is this the right priority?

Geoffrey Dennis I think there are four aspects to this subject. One of them is immediate humanitarian assistance, which I think this country is very good at, as are the agencies that work in this country. However, it is not about winning hearts and minds. It is about helping people in a humanitarian way.

The second aspect is rebuilding livelihoods. This is the sort of thing I saw recently in Gaza, where there is a very difficult situation, which clearly needs a political solution at some stage that we would not be directly involved in. At the moment it is about rebuilding livelihoods, stopping humanitarian assistance and saying, "Let us work on agriculture," and so on, which is what we are doing with DfID's help.

The third point is addressing long-term root causes and I think this is the key to the whole issue. It is about supporting dialogue between communities and governments - Sierra Leone is a good example of that. DfID funded a long-term programme of ours, holding government to account. In Gaza, we are working with the youth and explaining that there is more to life than what they perhaps see on a day-to-day basis.

The final aspect is a political solution. We can provide input but it is not really our role as a humanitarian agency to get involved.

David Loyn How would the new priority make a difference then?

Geoffrey Dennis I think concentration on the third aspect is something that has changed significantly. The sort of work that we are doing - which is a long-term programme in Sierra Leone - means that we, DfID and the government are there in the medium and longer term, and I think this has made a substantial difference. I think the real hope is in this third aspect. Of course, political solutions are needed in the end.

David Loyn Chris - bringing security into development. You are an expert in security. Are they able to do it?

Chris Bellamy Security may be perceived as an intervention by people we are trying to help. Many people in aid agencies resent security people trying to take control. Conversely, those responsible for security see a proliferation of non-governmental organisations competing with each other, overlapping and producing duplication. Institutional contradictions affect all these situations.

David Loyn Peter, you also have a military background. Working in this development area, do you experience the same contradiction?

Peter Dixon I think there is a contradiction but I think that both the security people and development people face the danger of "instrumentalising" the people with whom they are working. Without ownership of the processes by the people of the country, all you have is a ceasefire. That may mean government ownership but it is more likely to mean the government and others - opposition groups and so forth. Unless they can come together and come up with some changes of policy that will make the changes necessary to prevent a further outbreak of war, then it is simply a ceasefire. The security input is very short-term and can only put the lid on things, rather than taking the next steps.

David Loyn I suppose Afghanistan was the best case of a country where a huge amount has been spent on security in the past few years - particularly by this country - but not enough on governance. Is that the kind of place where there is going to be a different type of policy?

Douglas Alexander I do not really accept that there is a contradiction between the aim of development and the aim of the provision of security. If you look at the World Bank's Voices of the Poor report, it says that the first thing the poor want is physical security. We must be careful in our terminology and not create false barriers. It seems to me that Afghanistan is evidence that it is hugely more difficult to achieve development goals - whether social, economic or human development - without basic security existing. It seems that there is a "complementarity" rather than a contradiction, if the right approach is adopted. That does not necessarily, as it seems to be presumed, involve foreign military intervention or intervention in any other form.

Very often, what one is seeking to do is stimulate the processes of reform. A bigger contradiction would be to say, in a country where you have fundamentally unreconstructed security sectors, "We are not even going to look at this issue. Instead, we are going to get on with the lower-hanging fruit of basic health or basic education."

Our responsibility is not to ignore the challenges of basic health and education but to recognise that, unless we are building on the solid foundation of improving governance, many of those gains could be temporary or lost.

David Loyn I think the contradiction that was mentioned was around the kind of people who deliver these modes of aid.

Alison Evans I agree with Douglas with regards to the aims. The aims around provision of security and those around development are fundamentally different but the means and purposes for achieving these can, at times, also be very different. The notion that there is some sort of ideal sequence between providing security and development is undermined by the evidence which suggests that these are parallel processes that need to be handled together. This is by no means a straightforward process. As we have seen in Afghanistan, it is absolutely critical that we try to do both. So, the instruments need to be built around doing these things together, rather than assuming that you can attend to one before the other.

Geoffrey Dennis One of the big issues we have regarding that subject is blurring of the edges. Going back 14 or 15 years ago in Somalia, a lot of agencies delivering food would use technics [improvised fighting vehicles]. They would have a row of trucks at the front and, at the back, there would be someone with
a sub-machine gun. That caused great problems for us in the longer term when working with communities. People did not understand what our role was and wondered whether we were aligned to the military. We try to avoid that now in every country we are working in.

Michela Wrong I have had a similar discussion with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Nairobi. It is very concerned about the new United States African Command (Africom) initiative - the US military command. Africom is talking about wanting to build wells and deliver humanitarian aid, and the USAID people are going spare about it because it sends such mixed messages to people on the ground. On the one hand, Africom may be going in with the intention of taking out suspected fundamentalists but it will also be digging wells. USAID people are not at all happy with the idea that their roles will be blurred in the eyes of the public.

Geoffrey Dennis I do not want to pretend that it is an easy subject at all. Going back to Somalia, we were actually saving lives by using technics and these people with machine guns and so on. At the moment, as a humanitarian agency, we try to work with communities and explain the ideas of independence, neutrality and so on.

David Loyn In Bosnia, aid was taken through front lines accompanied by openly armed international forces. I think what DfID is now proposing is providing more funding for local policing.

Douglas Alexander It really depends on the country. There are guidelines and constraints on how we spend that money but it is correct to recognise that, for example, if we can support improvements in governance by giving police training in human rights and helping them understand how there can be maintenance of public order without using the violence that scars many of these communities, then that seems to me to be a necessary step in recognising that development is about relationships.

Ultimately, if we recognise the centrality of governance, that takes you into challenging areas of work, not just in terms of delivering a revenue base for the country but in how you recognise that work must be done in order to be able to give the state the sustainability required for the type of gains we want to see in human social development.

Peter Dixon I would say that this contradiction that we have been talking about is a contradiction between external humanitarian actors and external security actors. This highlights the danger of us going in to do stuff in a country and also the lack of ownership, co-operation or whatever it may be. There is a real danger that we think there is one way that this should be done.

There are problems with humanitarian space and there are problems with the military going in with the attitude that it is supposed to command the situation. These issues are genuine but, in a sense, they are our problems - the external problems - and the focus ought to be more on the issues of the people.

David Loyn But it is not just about the police; it is also about justice and truth, is it not?

Trevor Davies You need to understand the political economy in the country in which you are operating. You need to have a really clear grasp of what is going on - at both a national and local level - to actually understand the politics, the key actors, what is important to them and where the key points are for engagement.
A lot of programmes have been developed around the sort of discussion we have just heard. What is needed is on-the-ground intervention that will make a practical difference to people. If you talk to people on the ground in some of these countries, the issues that interest them are whether they can get up in the morning and take their child to school; whether their child will be safe going to school; whether they have clean water to drink, effective sanitation or have access to treatment should they fall ill. All they are interested in is practical service delivery.

So, the issue becomes about ensuring basic security to create an environment where you can deliver those things and, second - as Douglas said - to ensure that you have the rule of law and the underpinning of governance arrangements to do that.

However, those things take time. You are not going to be able to build rule of law or a governance system overnight - that takes five or ten years. In the meantime, we need to be able to demonstrate to people that we are making tangible progress.

David Loyn Michela, you have written a lot about the darker side of some of the interventions in Africa, particularly in your new book, questioning Africa's ability to do things for itself. However, at the end of the day it can only be Africa's ability to do things for itself that is going to get it out of its problems.

Michela Wrong I can only agree, but there is a danger here. What you saw in Kenya, which is what my latest book is about, is the donor community becoming overly impressed with economic delivery by the government of the day - ignoring the political situation - and a complete lack of goodwill among the political players. This led to the arming of militias, the rigging of elections and a massive outbreak of unexpected violence.

David Loyn How could this new approach have made it different? Does this sound like the sort of approach that would have made a difference if, as Douglas has said, it was understood that development is about relationships, and if there was better understanding of the need for justice on the ground?

Michela Wrong What I welcome is the explicit recognition in the new DfID white paper that politics matters and that you cannot ignore these crunchy political problems. There has been a tendency to overemphasise economic performance, which, in a lot of African countries, really does not filter down to the key communities. It looks very good in International Monetary Fund reports, but there is not really much substance to it when it comes to actually getting communities to live alongside each other.

Alison Evans I completely agree and I fully endorse the treatment of the white paper in bringing politics back into the centre. But please let us not allow the pendulum to swing too far the other way . . . The economic foundations of the state and a functioning state are absolutely essential for any form of long-term development programme.

In thinking about intervention in the short term, we need to think squarely about issues to do with what is actually going to be the cake that we can distribute down the line. How do you ensure that people have the opportunity to build wealth and sustain their livelihoods? It is important that we do not let that pendulum swing back too far towards it being all about politics.

Douglas Alexander I went to Kenya about six to eight weeks before the elections that precipitated the outbreak of violence. On no occasion did either our high commissioner or head of office in Kenya anticipate a situation where significant violence was a possibility. There was an assumption, based on previous elections, that despite there being tension and concern it would be the way it had always been. On a subsequent visit to Kenya, what was most striking was exactly Michela's point concerning the centrality of politics. I met community activists in one of the slums in Nairobi who were genuine heroes of reconciliation and development. They were inspirational people who had made a conscious choice not to machete each other to death but to work for reconciliation.

However, one could not leave without a palpable sense of disappointment about the leadership of the political classes on exactly the issues that you were seeing leadership on at street level. While I was proud that DfID was helping to fund this community reconciliation, I was very clear as I got back on the plane at Jomo Kenyatta Airport that, while that was necessary, it was wholly insufficient to avoid the rearming - this time with machine guns rather than machetes - and the prospect of further violence in Kenya, unless the baton was picked up by the political leadership of the country.

We need to be working at the local level and we need to be working at the economic, social and human development level. But we ignore at our peril the political impacts that bear directly on development outcome.

David Loyn Mohamed, you have the difficult task of representing a country in London whose head of state has been indicted as a war criminal. How does this discussion sound to you?

Mohamed Eltom You know that, with regards to indictment, we believe this is a kind of politicisation of justice. As regards our experiences as a country affected by conflict for a long time, it's like working with the point of view that every country has special circumstances and you have to understand that. You have to design the model according to the understanding you get from the ground. I also believe that that requires a broad-based local consultation with the people in the local communities.

We believe that DfID is doing the right thing. DfID is very much involved in capacity-building programmes, in training the police and in justice.

David Loyn Do you welcome that intervention? Even though you have this problem with international justice, you think that improving Sudanese local justice is a good thing?

Mohamed Eltom Absolutely, and this is taking place now in a very good and very co-operative way, not only with the police but with different types of capacity-building. This is exactly the type of development assistance that we are looking forward to seeing coming from other parts of the world as well.

Michela Wrong In Zimbabwe, do you re-engage and encourage a process of reconciliation between the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the Zimbabwe African National Union? Because when you re-engage, you feel that the Zanu-Patriotic Front is just taking the international community for a ride and locking up MDC members. It is a very difficult game to play. Morgan Tsvangirai has to be able to show changes on the ground to retain support for the MDC. It is very dicey.

Geoffrey Dennis People around this table represent different aspects of a very complicated situation. On the political side, DfID and the government here certainly have a role to play in helping in countries like Sudan. There is a governance and an economic development side to it and there is a security side to it.

The bit that we could offer as an international aid agency is working with the community and holding the government to account but understanding that, quite often in these negotiations, when it gets past the immediate conflict, a lot of the community is not involved. Between us, we can help with that. We can work in the country with them and with governance and other issues. I would suggest that, in the last few years, we have moved forward considerably on that.

David Loyn It is the most complicated of dilemmas, getting involved in politics in countries like these.

Michela Wrong To know when, apart from anything else.

Douglas Alexander I would make a couple of observations. The first is that it is probably common ground that politics is central. In many ways, the real dilemma you face as a secretary of state in DfID is not where you are convinced there is political leadership and you can provide the way to match the will, but where there is an absence of political leadership. If you believe that, then there is a fundamental barrier to development, and so a need for security-sector reform. If there is zero evidence that the minister, prime minister or president in charge of the armed forces or the police has any interest in serious reform, then you are at risk of taking on a wholly futile exercise.

On Zimbabwe, we need to have respect for people like Tendai Biti and Morgan Tsvangirai - who have themselves been subject to the thuggery of Mugabe's forces - when they say that the Global Political Agreement (GPA) is our best hope. We do not have a plan B, either internally or externally, and we would look to our friends in the international community to support not simply the economic-reform part of the GPA but also the political-reform part. As Alison says, that does not
always take place in a synchronised and tandem fashion.

You can see, as in Zimbabwe at the moment, a greater willingness to allow economic reform in order to ensure that there is food in the markets in Harare but, on the other hand, a stubborn resistance to the scheme of political reform anticipated by the GPA that we want to see.

That does leave you with difficult and finely calibrated judgements as to how to sustain momentum and yet not find yourself explaining why, seven years on, there is not the political progress we would all want to see.

Alison Evans I could not agree more. I think the DfID white paper makes a very firm commitment to understanding better the nature of the political settlement that underpins any kind of future development project. I think there is a phrase included that says that you can recognise a state by the nature of its political settlement. This presents huge challenges for the international community. Understanding is one thing, but engagement and knowing when to intervene and when not to, and how not to do harm through the process of intervention, are big questions, and to suggest that there are pat answers to those is potentially very dangerous.

David Loyn Are there any rules that can be drawn? Are there any ways of moving on with guidance towards setting out the criteria under which
you might intervene?

Alison Evans I would say the first rule is that, ultimately, a political settlement has to be internally driven and owned. It is their political settlement, not
ours. Anything productive has to flow from that.

As we know, some 50 per cent of countries that have a peace agreement very quickly re-enter into conflict. Peace agreements need to be built around trying to gain an understanding of the actors: who needs to be sat around the table, the time frames involved and the nature of the elite bargains. This is the point about engaging the political classes in building a contract around how they are going to govern effectively. There are a number of things that we have learned that could guide action and also guide the international community about when it should not intervene and let the process go.

Chris Bellamy There has to be a real wish, on however many sides there might be, for a settlement. The work I did a couple of years ago in Côte d'Ivoire illustrates this. They put in place a very sophisticated plan for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration, but one of the parties - the Forces Nouvelles, the northern party of the civil war - had absolutely no interest in disarming while the government forces kept all their weapons. There was no interest from one side in the solution that
was tabled. If you have a situation like that, then no matter how sophisticated your procedures or how good the co-ordination between all the agencies concerned, it just will not work.

David Loyn Using Alison's rules, what can the international community do in a situation like that?

Chris Bellamy One of the problems in the Côte d'Ivoire case was that here was intervention, particularly from the French, which was both quite violent and quite effective. It actually stopped the conflict while both sides still had the capability and the desire to keep the conflict going. It is a terrible thing to say but, thinking back to what we saw happen in Bosnia, particularly in 1993, there is that dreadful phrase: "The war has to run its natural course." One of the other problems here is that, because the international community was providing aid to all three factions, there was an argument that we were actually prolonging the war.

Peter Dixon The centrality of politics and its importance makes me uneasy about that rather easy phrase: "Poverty causes conflict; conflict causes poverty." I would be much happier talking about inequity and unequal access to resources and livelihoods and so forth, as a slightly more nuanced version of that phrase.

Peace settlements between those who have been fighting do not necessarily deal with the long-term problems and the underlying issues. There needs to be further work beyond that to deal with those issues. There needs to be some kind of, as I said earlier, change in the policies that have, in effect, led to that conflict. In any case, that peace settlement needs to be sustained with all kinds of specialist security measures, like confidence- and security-building measures and so forth, which many rapidly imposed peace settlements do not actually do.

David Loyn But they might be internally generated, which I think is the point of the new impetus, is it not Douglas? If you do have a problem, rather than imposing external forces it is about creating local forces that can deal with these situations.

Douglas Alexander I think so, although again I return to the point that there needs to be a prior question answered as to whether there is a will to find a way forward to secure a degree of peace and stability. That is not to say that the agreements that are hammered out do not consciously contain a certain ambiguity and sometimes contradiction.

It does require a conscious decision on the parts of the combatants or others to try to find a way forward. However, once that prior question is answered
in the affirmative, there are very practical things that the international community can do.

In respect to the situation in Sudan, in terms of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), there is no doubt that the historic tensions between the centre and the periphery have been part of the difficulty that the Sudan has faced for a number of years.

I think few would doubt that, although there are very considerable challenges facing southern Sudan, the lives of people in Juba are better as a result of the CPA being agreed than if the CPA had not been agreed and we had seen perpetuation of conflict. In that sense there are steps that can be taken, whether that is in terms of technical support, support for security-sector reform or in terms of strengthening governments. However, it is often contingent on a willingness to both accept and contribute to that forward momentum.

David Loyn Mohamed, would you agree with that?

Mohamed Eltom Yes, I would, actually, but sometimes we need to admit that, for the international community, there's a need to analyse exactly what are the impediments to, for example, sustaining a peace agreement or, in the case of Darfur, achieving that settlement.

As regards the Darfur example, there is one party to the conflict that is not actually willing to come and negotiate that marriage.

David Loyn I was really thinking of the South and the sense that the South is clearly a better place now than it was under conflict. As you said yourself, some of that justice and police assistance from the international community are things that have been welcomed by the government in the South.

Mohamed Eltom Yes: technical assistance, capacity-building - definitely these are the kinds of assistance that will have an impact on the lives of the people. But still there are major commitments and pledges by the international community that have not been met. The international community for example pledged $4.6bn in 2005. From 2005 to 2008, very little of that actually materialised. Another pledge was made in 2008 for another $4bn. Still the lives of the people living in the South need more improvement.

Trevor Davies It seems to me that there is a need to move very quickly and offer support. One of the things that has concerned me over a number of years now is where efforts of donor harmonisation have sometimes led to substantial delays in providing aid to those on the ground. I have seen that in quite a lot of countries. There is a significant debate and there are different standards adopted by different actors, whether they be USAID, the World Bank, and so on. They have their own processes and bureaucracies and, dare I say it, DfID is very often fleeter of foot when it engages directly, immediately following a conflict, than it is when it tries actually to build a multi-donor consensus.

I just wonder whether sometimes what we need is direct, immediate action and then to build the consensus in the long term, going forward.

David Loyn I wanted to move on to how the international community meshes into this. We have been talking about external players and internal players
as if Britain was the only donor in the world. The UN is a big opportunity - and sometimes an obstacle - and there are many other donors in the game, too. How do we bring them in together? Peter?

Peter Dixon Can I just throw a concrete example on to the table, which may open up some of this? I remember speaking with the head of DfID in Khartoum about how the Darfur Community Peace and Stability Fund was intended to be a rapid-delivery, local-level, community-development assistance for stable communities, to help them remain stable and, in a way, to reward stability. It was not just DfID; it was a number of other countries as well.

David Loyn So not an immediate impact for an emergency?

Peter Dixon Not relief at all. Money to local communities with little red tape to make it very effective, very quickly for a rapid impact. I forget how many donors there were - probably six or seven. For good political reasons, they handed it over to the United Nations Development Programme to administer and, three years on, not a penny has moved out.

We have been doing training workshops for local NGOs in how to impose logic frameworks and things like that. It has become bureaucratised and the delivery just has not happened.

David Loyn So you are signing a cheque in London and it is not getting to anybody on the ground.

Douglas Alexander There is no perfect answer. One person's lack of bureaucracy and fleetness of foot is another person's lack of accountability and lack of impact measurement. That is the dilemma you face as the policymaker in these circumstances. There are instances where speed matters. What you need
is a range of instruments and a range of experience. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, given the very different political circumstances of conflict that you are encountering.

It is easy to assert that we would like an international system free from unnecessary bureaucracy, which is effective in its impact, which works at a local level and can rapidly come together. It is easier to assert than to deliver and often it is bespoke solutions that emerge, in terms of how best to ensure that degree of co-ordination.

The contrast I argue, rather more optimistically, is the examples we have been talking about, where there has been a very high level of donor co-ordination, sometimes for good reasons behind the scenes, which has allowed the international community to speak with a pretty common voice to the incoming government and, at the same time, ensure that there is money reaching those who desperately need it as a result [for example] of Zimbabwe's misgovernance. I would be the last person to say that every example is perfect. How do we move beyond individual examples of good practice and bad practice to get to what we all need, which is the systematic sharing of best practice across the international system?

David Loyn And DfID is perceived internationally as adopting best practice doctrinally, in keeping with the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness. However, there are many big donors that do not operate within those parameters.

Douglas Alexander There is also a key point there, which is that, if my only concern was to meet the principles of the Paris Declaration, I would consistently seek to deploy DfID money towards the most benign environments, rather than conflict-affected or fragile environments. In terms of the matrix of effectiveness, predictability and everything else that is embedded within the Paris Declaration, you could easily spend your entire budget in a country like Tanzania and nothing on a country like Somalia. That is why we have made a conscious decision in the white paper to place an emphasis on conflict-affected and fragile states. Unless we make it a conscious political and policy choice then many of the incentives point away from the countries in which there is that coincidence between conflict and poverty.

David Loyn I have seen an Afghan village where there was a school that had been partially built but not finished, and another school further up the hill in the same state, both constructed by different aid agencies. The villagers said they did not want either school but what they did want was a bridge, which an aid programme did eventually deliver.

Doing the hard thing is always hard, particularly when you have lots of large donors wanting to do things and an international system that, in many ways, is pretty bureaucratic, yet at the same time needs to be accountable. Is there a way of doing this better?

Alison Evans Yes, there is and I think we are seeing some improving practice but there is no single magic bullet. I want to separate out a few points from that round of discussion. We need to distinguish between having ways of working that are responsive and timely, with procedure that is in line with good practice, and this desire for quick wins, which is a potentially very dangerous path to go down. Unfortunately, the road of development in many conflict-affected or fragile situations is paved with quick wins that were well intentioned but disastrous. Disastrous both in terms of what was delivered but also in terms of the confidence people have in the international community.

Geoffrey Dennis Your point concerning the two schools shows how you need to understand the community you are operating in. That is the role of an organisation like CARE International in a country such as Afghanistan.

Returning to the issue of finding an internal political solution, of course that is the answer, but what happens in a situation like Gaza? A few weeks ago I witnessed innocent people dying, and many people suffering, and you cannot see a solution in the medium term. It is those situations where organisations - such as the British government - do need to get involved in a balanced way and try to move in the right direction. Otherwise, the situation will just get worse in some of these countries.

David Loyn Peter, you work on a very small scale, in the sense that you are there in an unofficial capacity. From where you are standing, what does the UN and the international contribution look like?

Peter Dixon I am not going to lay into the UN at all. I put that on the table because it demonstrates the political difficulties in using the international agency. It sometimes does not deliver what is required. The bureaucracy is renowned.

Michela Wrong Your example probably shows that it often depends a lot on the individuals concerned. If you had a dynamic UNDP guy on the ground, maybe that would not have happened. That is not a good thing to say but often it depends on the individuals involved.

Mohamed Eltom Again, our experience, for example with DfID, is that it has adopted the right approach, specifically with regard to the CPA, because there are more people involved in the strategic planning phase on types of projects needed to impact on people's lives. They were part of that process. The national transitional team and DfID worked closely with these people to specify areas where the developmental funds should go to first. Making that process dependent on the proper consultation will pinpoint the development priorities. This will avoid the example David gave of the village in Afghanistan. Working with local authorities is very important in these specified areas.

Douglas Alexander Can I put forward another dilemma for policymakers? An example from Afghanistan, where, following best development principles, we wanted the local community involved in making decisions. We asked the community what its priorities were and it wanted a park. A park is not the easiest example to justify to the British public, but it was clearly very important to the governor occupying the post at the time that he was able to deliver a park for that community.

In that sense, local involvement and local decision-making is not always an easy choice. It might be the right choice in terms of sustainability of local governments and ownership by the community. However, at times it does throw up dilemmas concerning how serious we are about empowering the local structures of power, or working around rather than through them.

Geoffrey Dennis We need to understand the community and not necessarily just listen to what people say but actually understand it. To do that, you probably need to have been in that country for many years before the conflict.

Peter Dixon The danger of taking a short-term approach can present itself in different ways. A military deployment, for instance, could well be a very short-term approach. However, an agency where the staff are rotated on a very rapid turnover and never really develop the understanding of the country is also going to produce short-term effect.

Geoffrey Dennis And one that does not have a predominance of nationals working within that organisation.

Trevor Davies That is one thing that DfID has been very effective at. In particular, if you look at the conflict-affected and fragile states, they have maintained their office base. I think that is really important.

I was in Washington last week talking to people from the World Bank and it is very clear that they do not possess that level of in-country, practical experience. They really look to people in DfID who are engaged on the ground.

Alison Evans I think that organisations are in a very difficult position but they sometimes actively "disincentivise" people to acquire the long-term knowledge and the engagement with the evidence that you need to do a really good job.

The other issue concerns whether or not, after spending three years of one's career engaged in southern Sudan, one will still have a career to look forward to elsewhere. That has always been the World Bank's problem: if you go abroad for any length of time, you can forget promotion once you return to HQ.

Going back to harmonisation and so on, there are what are called the good-donorship principles for working in fragile situations. It is a bureaucratic language, but it is an attempt to cut through some of the, perhaps, more onerous processes you might need to engage with elsewhere. As a principle, it provides a good baseline. I think we do need to encourage joint working and sharing of the vision.

David's fable of the Afghan village that just wanted a bridge is a good example of bad development anywhere you go, and often comes from the absence of a joined-up approach or a way of agreeing on the terms of engagement, be it locally or nationally. We have to continue to support the principle that joint working is a better thing to do. What we need to do is to ensure that the procedures are in place to move the money quickly and to account for the results of those funds.

David Loyn We have time for some final thoughts in the few minutes we have remaining. You have increased your budget substantially, Douglas, but if you are putting more money into something you are clearly going to take some money from areas where you might otherwise have spent it. How difficult is it to prioritise going forward?

Douglas Alexander It has always been the case that need is greater than resource when tackling extreme poverty. In that sense, the challenge of prioritisation
is an enduring one. Of course, there are countries that, happily, are graduating out of low-income status to middle-income status. We have a programme whereby we have been closing a whole number of offices, but I would echo Alison's point that it is not simply about physical presence in a country. It is about ensuring that the incentive structures, the promotion structures and the nature of the devolved decision-making - which means you have good people in those countries making those decisions - are all in place, in order to have an organisation that can genuinely understand local circumstance.

David Loyn Going around the table very quickly, is DfID on the right page in terms of this new movement towards security and justice?

Chris Bellamy From what we have heard, I think if a country does not have some sort of a security or governance problem and is completely benign, then it probably does not need help. Therefore, putting 50 per cent of new bilateral funding towards fragile states is frankly, to me, a no-brainer. I would even suggest it might be more than 50 per cent.

Mohamed Eltom I think they are following the right path. Based on our experience with DfID we believe they are doing the right thing, especially now, with this new white paper. I think it places more emphasis on what they have been doing, and we welcome that.

David Loyn Alison, how are the other big donors going to look at this different approach?

Alison Evans I think DfID is leading a trend. I think this is going to be a priority that sweeps through the international community. It is already one that is being led and spearheaded by a number of large donors. Security is fundamental to long-term development for effective states but we must ensure that we do not move towards the securitisation of aid in the process of making it a priority.

David Loyn There is the potential for a lot of money to be wasted, presumably.

Michela Wrong There is the potential for getting into very deep water, I agree with you. I welcome the emphasis on security and politics being at the top of the agenda but it does raise all sorts of potential problems and risks of its own.

Geoffrey Dennis A big tick. It is moving in the right direction. I would like to mention two issues. One is: concentrate on the root causes in conflict - that is the important thing. We must look towards the longer term. The second issue is to maintain that balance with the type of project I have just seen, which is an excellent health-sector reform programme in northern India, run by DfID.

David Loyn Trevor - the co-ordination of all this is essential.

Trevor Davies I think the answer to the question, "Is DfID on the right page?" is: "Absolutely, yes." I think the focus on security and justice and building a safe environment within these countries is absolutely essential.

I think that the balanced approach that is being taken is again the right one. We need to have very clear objectives. You need to have a mix of different approaches. You need to monitor and evaluate what you are doing and learn lessons from what is working and what is not. There have been some very good interventions and there have been some very poor ones. There is a danger that the very poor ones get repeated through lack of institutional memory among various donors.

Finally, be pragmatic and be prepared to be flexible because, in any country, you are going to find champions of change - people who are prepared to put their head above the parapet. The key thing is to support those actors.

David Loyn Thank you very much to one and all, and to the New Statesman and Atos Consulting for bringing us here for this very interesting discussion.


This piece was originally published as part of a supplement, "Propagating Peace", sponsored by Atos Consulting in the 7 December 2009 issue.


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This article first appeared in the 07 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Boy George