The opportunities for ‘government as platform’

Recently I have been reading an increasing number of comments about institutional and governance failure – about how our governance systems don’t work any longer. The comments seem to fall into two categories – despair, and hope. Some people look at the failure of governance to deal with changing circumstances, and think the answer is to institute ever more control. Others look at such failure and see hope for creating something new.

It reminds me that when I first began studying ‘failed states’ earlier this decade, I discovered – amid the many ideas for teaching improved governance  to ‘failing’ governments – a wonderful nugget of new possibility. This was the idea that state failure provided an opportunity to create something entirely new, and that such failure was – as in nature – a natural part of life. It was not something to be addressed by trying to restore systems that no longer worked – as in Somalia.

Today’s governance institutions are in some ways the last remnant of 19th century industrial structure. Government structures haven’t really changed that much in a century – they still organize themselves within ‘silos’, as if a health department is solely responsible for health and an employment department is solely responsible for work. At best, they seem to tinker with the names, so that ‘unemployment insurance’ becomes ‘employment insurance’ but the complex rules don’t change.

Similarly, at the international level, governments often behave as if they are the only ones who can solve a problem, even as it becomes clear to everyone that our problems are interconnected and so the solutions must also be interconnected. Municipalities, as the level of governance closest to people locally, have known this for quite some time and have been on the leading edge of changing structures to more effectively serve people.

But this change from the bottom doesn’t seem to percolate upwards. Governments seem to be the prisoners of bureaucratic structures that change slowly and creakily, if at all. I think this is because governments have seen their role as ‘controlling’ rather than ‘co-creating’, even as factories and stores and schools changed how they operated. Deep down, this is because governments don’t seem to trust their citizens or don’t believe they can find solutions to challenging problems – even as citizens are doing so.

Food is one key example. Local solutions see how interconnected the challenges of farmers finding markets, children and hospital patients having better nutrition, and reducing carbon dioxide emissions are. So we have farmers using the internet to find customers locally and thus having a guaranteed market; schools and hospitals sourcing food locally, improving food quality and supporting local farmers; and people realizing that buying food locally means that food doesn’t have to be trucked, or flown in, from destinations far away.

Several years ago, a couple in BC began blogging about the question of where their food came from, and decided to live on food that was grown or raised only within a 100 mile radius. Their diet was quite sparse at first. For one thing, people no longer grew grain within that 100 miles as they had once done. Their experiment led to a book. That book created awareness, and awareness created change. People began to grow grain, to be aware of local food sources, and to begin supporting them. No one at the top decided to create a changed system – this change grew from the bottom up . And it has spread around the world, complementing the Slow Food Movement.

These self-organizing innovations come from the power of knowledge. Governments should work with them, rather than trying to co-opt them. I read yesterday that the Canadian food inspection agency has just changed the definition of ‘local’ to cover a much larger area than just the area around a community, and on the same day, food stores began to label as ‘local’ foods that are not grown as locally as local people understand the term.

Would it not be more sensible for government to collect these stories of innovation, share them, and also examine how their policies can support this kind of change? This is the idea of ‘government as platform’, rather than the idea of government as ‘regulator’.

In some ways, it seems that governments are contributing to the collapse of this idea of their role as manager, and regulator. Austerity, imposed from the top of the system downwards, has led many people to return to the communities they left, long ago, to seek opportunity in the city. This return to villages offers government an opportunity to support a more sustainable economy, but it requires governments to change how they think about what they do, and how they organize themselves. People who return to villages bring skills they learned in cities, and in turn must learn older skills from those who stayed, and this blend can rejuvenate local village economies – and this is true whether it is people returning as a result of governmental austerity policies, or refugees returning home after conflict.

Many of the most sustainable answers to drought-ravaged land come from local people who have learned how interconnected their problems are – water management, crop selection, land management, markets – and have been able to restore natural systems that once worked well. When others see these systems in action, and learn the principles behind them, they too adapt them for their villages. The result is a better life for everyone, as well as a healthier ecosystem.

One of the things about ‘government as platform’ is that platforms make possible widespread sharing of information. And once people have information, they use it locally in a way that fits their circumstances. So information platforms create diverse solutions that address problems as big as building peace, creating sustainable sanitation solutions, restoring degraded land – from a local perspective.

Underneath the radar, people around the world are reinventing governance as they find ways to manage land communally. To grow food for themselves and their community. To create work while protecting local resources and people. All of this offers an invitation to governments to change their approach, and thus their structure – not to try and strengthen structures developed in a bygone era that no longer work.


The importance of learning to distinguish anger from violence

Anger makes me uncomfortable, I must admit. And last month, I finally realized exactly why that is. It is because for me anger has often seemed indistinguishable from violence, whether it is direct or indirect. Anger seems dangerous, uncontrolled, and frightening, and so I have often had difficulty expressing anger or hearing others express anger to me.

I have discovered I am not alone in that. I attended the Anger, Boundaries and Safety workshop at The Haven, on the west coast of Canada. The Haven is a place where I have gone several times over the past 15 years to learn about myself – why I think and behave the way I do, how it affects my relationships with those around me, and how I can change what I don’t like and celebrate what I do like.

This workshop is based on the pioneering work on anger done by the late Dr. Joann Peterson, a world authority on this topic. She ran these workshops at Haven for many years, based on her book of the same name, and is featured in a video called The Anger Toolbox – A Blueprint for Responsible Anger, Boundaries and Safety, to which I have just been listening.

A courageous choice?

One profound realization for me is how few of us learn, as children or as adults, to feel and express anger responsibly and safely. We don’t often think of anger as being a courageous choice or a constructive choice, because too often in our own experience, anger and rage may have been intertwined. Unexpressed anger doesn’t go away, however, Joann said. We carry it in our body, which has health consequences for us and thus costs for society as a whole; or we express it in socially sanctioned ways, from violent video games through addictions through sporting riots, that often can be damaging to ourselves and our relationships with others.

There are ways to express anger responsibly and safely, and the workshop helps participants understand how to do this. It involves being clear about our own intentions, getting permission from the other person, being determined to express anger in a way that is ‘personal, relational and constructive’, and doing it in a way that is boundaried and safe. There are tools, and strategies, that we can learn and apply.

Violence, whether it is socially sanctioned or indirect or direct attacks on others, sees others as objects, not as people; does not care about what they think or what their personal boundaries may be; and is impulsive and reactive. It is about exercising control, about getting one’s own way no matter what others may think or wish. It harms others emotionally and often physically as well, and it damages our relationships with each other. Put simply, violence is crossing a person’s boundaries with intent to hurt that person or to exercise power over that person.

Lessons for peacebuilding?

While I went to the workshop because I wanted to learn about anger and boundaries for myself, I cannot help but reflect on how sharing such knowledge widely could affect peacebuilding and governance around the world.

How many of us as peacebuilders understand and are comfortable with expressing anger responsibly and are able to walk with others as they do the same thing? How many of us might be more likely to shut down, rather than to facilitate, responsible expressions of anger within a group or community that is recovering from conflict? How many of us are able to clearly distinguish anger and violence?

Fear of anger, or internalization of anger because it cannot be expressed outwardly, can cause great harm, I think. I remember meeting some young boys in Africa who had joined armed groups because they feared their parents would be angry because they had lost the family cow while herding. I remember hearing people in various parts of Eastern Europe apologize in case they had said something incorrectly, if they had said something that could be construed as being mildly critical of others.

Then there are the examples of how governments and police forces have chosen to respond to citizens’ honest anger (individual protests against injustice and inequality which effectively say “I matter; listen to me”, like the one that set off the Arab Spring) by preparing to meet anticipated violence with violence, thus setting off an escalating cycle of violence that causes injuries and death and damages property.

How different might the outcomes be, both individually and societally, if we distinguished clearly between anger and violence; learned, and taught others, how to express anger responsibly and safely; and were absolutely clear about the nature, characteristics and impacts of violence in all its forms, both indirect and direct.

Using local knowledge to plan coherent post-conflict rebuilding

‘The village is like a basket that has been broken and the pieces scattered. The pieces are still there but not everyone can see them. What has been broken can be rewoven slowly and gradually, but only by those who will take the time to stay close to the village people and build trust with them.’ Meas Nee, Towards restoring life in Cambodian villages

This wonderful image captures for me the essence of rebuilding after conflict. It is a slow, gradual process of rebuilding the local structures and governance that has been destroyed or damaged by war. It reflects the idea that rebuilding depends on working with local people to restore and enhance their capacities and abilities, even as they are recovering from the trauma of what they have experienced. And it starts at the bottom of the system, and not the top.

I was thinking about this image as I read about the pleas of people in northern Mali for government officials to return, so that services can return to normality. IRIN News reported on Monday that people living in Gao and Timbukti, in northern Mali, are “calling for the rapid return of officials to re-start basic services and help run their towns, which they say are in a state of ‘complete chaos’. “ While the insurgent groups are mostly gone, thanks to the French, Chadian and Malian armies, only a few administrators have returned.

While they are waiting for the government officials to return, IRIN reported, “town residents – including village elders, chiefs, women and youths – are working to operate basic services and clean up the damage as best they can.” But while some key officials in Gao and Timbuktu have come back, officials responsible for health, energy, education, planning and other programmes have yet to return. Clearly, that limits the amount and extent of rebuilding that can take place.

However, those exiled officials represent an extremely useful resource of local knowledge that could aid military and government in ensuring that the transition from relief to rebuilding is a smooth continuum. Often in such situations, longer term planning (if it is done) is done from a distance by people who don’t know the area well, if at all. Regarding those officials as a ‘think tank’ full of local expertise could allow government and the military to create rebuilding plans that are meaningful and useful for local communities. Quick impact projects thus could be planned so they help form part of the foundation for long-term recovery that can begin once government officials return.

The situation points out, once again, the need for military interventions to be thinking beyond the shorter term aims of restoring law and order in places where conflict has occurred or is occurring.

Even as soldiers are sent in, someone should be planning for the time when peace will return and people will want services to return as well. That is a lesson that has been drawn from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places which have experienced military interventions in the past decade or more. Such an approach is respectful of both local people and of the soldiers who intervene, ensuring that their efforts can have maximum locally-appropriate impact and thus make the best use of any available local resources, diaspora funding, and donor funding.


Plea for return of officials to northern Mali, IRIN News, April 22, 2013
Towards restoring life in Cambodian villages, Meas Nee, 1999 – chapter 5.

Solutions to a ‘wicked’ problem – dealing with Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army

Our Canadian human security and peacebuilding class visited Gulu in 2005, just after the International Criminal Court had issued an arrest warrant for Joseph Kony. The community’s leaders were not happy, feeling this would disrupt their efforts to deal with the Lord’s Resistance Army. In fact, they had travelled to the Hague to ask the ICC not to proceed with the warrant.

During our visit, we heard from Betty Bigombe, a former cabinet minister in the Ugandan government, who had been involved in supporting the local peacebuilding process and had met with LRA forces in the bush – difficult and dangerous work. I remember she mentioned that Kony and the LRA kept a close watch on the community, and that this offered possibilities of influencing their activities, but at the time, I didn’t fully realize the significance of this comment.

I have since learned that in many conflict areas, communication channels often remain open between fighters in the bush and their family and friends in the community. Sometimes these channels encourage those in the bush to return home by sharing stories of ex-combatants and how the community is treating them. Armed groups in the bush, in fact, sometimes send small groups back to the community to test the veracity of these stories, offering one potential way to reduce or end the impact of such groups locally.

In the case of Joseph Kony, however, given his appalling brutality and apparent ability to move around the region unchecked, the only solution external eyes can see seems to be a military one. You can see this sense of revulsion about Kony and the LRA in the reaction to the Kony2012 video that went viral, understandably prompting many people to ask why this has been allowed to continue for so long.

The problem is that effectively, the LRA problem is much more complicated than just ‘taking out Kony’ – it could be called a ‘wicked’ problem in more ways than one. And in terms of answers, the voices that have been heard most loudly have not been the voices of the local people who know the most about the problem and who have worked hard to address it over many years.

Military campaigns have actually broadened the scope of the LRA’s depredations, into the remote borderlands areas of Southern Sudan, Central African Republic, and Democratic Republic of Congo where governments are effectively absent. You can see this clearly in a map in Conciliation Resources’ excellent 2011 report, When will this end and what will it take?

Moving into these areas from northern Uganda, where Kony began several decades ago, has changed the LRA’s ethnic makeup (more than 3,400 people, mostly children, have been abducted since 2008) but not the fact that the LRA is mostly made up of children who fear being beaten or killed if they resist or try to escape. Each military attack leads to more LRA attacks on civilians and more kidnapping of children, thus widening the scale of the problem. As the LRA has moved into these new regions, it has collaborated with some local groups, which in turn disrupts the normal communal conflict resolution strategies that maintain order in the absence of government in such remote regions, and its attacks have caused massive displacements of people.

LRA activities in the borderlands regions of Central African Republic, Southern Sudan and northern Democratic Republic of Congo have severely disrupted livelihoods in the entire region. People stay in towns rather than cultivate their fields and so local prices for staples rise, and land use conflicts increase within the small area where it is safe to cultivate. As displaced people come to towns, humanitarian agencies draw in staff from elsewhere, compounding the pressure on local resources. Local self-defence groups, created to protect local communities, can end up themselves becoming a community problem – although not always.

Communities who aid those who escape from the LRA often are attacked as a result, and the report notes that the LRA has been known to carry out fake surrenders which target both potential escapers and receiving communities. In much of the region, even if they do manage to escape, former LRA members – male and female – often have a difficult time being accepted back into their communities.

What is needed to deal with such a difficult problem, the report concludes, is a multi-pronged and long-term strategy. Dealing with the LRA alone does not recognize that it is a part of a “complex web of violent conflicts and regional political and security rivalries.” Such a comprehensive approach needs to combine political, mediation, security, humanitarian and developmental efforts and should have three main strands, the report suggests.

Strand one: address the regional military and political rivalries through political dialogue that focuses on Khartoum, Kampala and Juba and involves other regional actors. Military actions should focus primarily on protecting civilians rather than pursuing the LRA
Strand two: develop a regional approach to demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of former LRA combatants that is set within a context of seriously addressing “governance, social and developmental challenges in these neglected areas.”
Strand three: put the option of dialogue with the LRA back on the table and create space for informal engagement to happen.

A key part of the strategy involves seeing local people as partners, rather than ‘passive beneficiaries”, and investing in their role and their capacity. Local people understand the conflict’s local dynamics and consequences; they can go into affected areas; and they have a long-term commitment to address the effects of the violence. Thus they can “play peacebuilding roles across borders that governments and intergovernmental bodies cannot”. The report provides a list of specific recommendations in this area.

In a blog post entitled What will it take to end the conflict with the LRA?, Kennedy Tumutegyereize puts it this way:

Despite enormous odds, support for a strategy based on protection and engagement is widespread among those who bear the brunt of the conflict, civil society and communities across the region. They recognise that building a just and lasting peace takes time. This is a job that requires support for local approaches and peacebuilding initiatives rather than imposing more external firepower.

In 2005, when we asked people in Gulu what we could do to help, they said: “tell people about us.” Over the years, many of us have done that – but our voices did not have the impact of that one viral video, Kony2012. I am grateful to Invisible Children for making the problem known worldwide. Now I hope that everyone who has seen the video and wondered “what can we do” will listen to the voices of the local people who have lived with this terrible problem all these years.

More reading:

For more information about local perspectives, see #StopKony: efforts to end the LRA conflict must listen to local people (Conciliation Resources)

When will this end and what will it take? Peoples perspectives on addressing the Lord’s Resistance Army conflict. Conciliation Resources, November 2011 report.

** “Wicked problem” is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems. (Wikipedia)

Growing up – freedom or obligation?

Reading the many stories of locally-led development shared through the blog event Day Without Dignity 2012 – Local Champions was fascinating. Some of the posts told stories of local champions; others talked of how their perspectives had been changed when they sought out local knowledge or learned from local people.

Many times, it seems, the deepest differences in our thinking are not talked about because we each assume that others see the world the same way we do. These are, in effect, our ‘built-in’ lenses, the ones we don’t realize we have. One of those differences, I believe, is the idea about obligations to family when we reach adulthood – about the extent to which we have ‘free will’ to pursue our own destinies as adults.

I remember exactly when this difference became clear to me. I was doing research in Brčko District in northern Bosnia, where local people have created a governance structure that reflects and respects all ethnicities. I was trying to understand how the district’s financing worked initially, and I was talking with a distinguished gentleman who had been involved in that process.

Trying to indicate that I had understood what he had said, I said ‘so it is like what happens when a person becomes an adult and thus independent from their family because they are earning their own money’. I remember the look of profound shock on his face as he explained to me that on reaching adulthood, a person becomes able to contribute to their family’s welfare through their earnings.

A cultural divide
Thus did I encounter what seems to be a fairly large cultural divide between North America and much of the rest of the world. I grew up in North America with the idea that when I became an adult, I might go somewhere else and work and eventually create my own family far away from my original family home. My parents’ obligations to me, in many ways, ended when I became an adult. Similarly, I did not expect my children to support me in old age.

In many other parts of the world, however, reaching adulthood means one is now able to contribute materially to one’s family’s wellbeing. In fact, reaching adulthood means taking on a whole set of responsibilities for one’s family – sometimes in effect becoming, at least economically, a parent to one’s own parents. ‘Free will’ for the individual, in that sense, is a foreign concept.

In many cultures, a young man cannot marry until he is able to support his parents and siblings as well as a wife. In many cultures, a young man’s earnings go into a family ‘pot’ that is allocated by the senior male in the family. But in North America, the idea of getting a job is so that you have your ‘own money’ that you can spend as you wish.

A brilliant book by Patrick Chabal, called Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling, explores some of these differences in cultural understandings and their implications as they apply to Africa. He suggests that one of the western challenges in analyzing African politics is that we see through a filter that is created by our own assumptions about how societies, economies and political systems work – that we see individuals as ‘free agents’ and in fact, that we think such ‘free agency’ is a key part of being modern. His book explores what the ‘politics of being’ means in an African context, and as I read it, that picture is much closer to the one held by the aboriginal peoples of North America than to the rest of the continent’s inhabitants. It is a picture that is rooted in place, in family, and in obligation.

Polycropping vs monocropping
Another equally fascinating book, entitled Seeing Like A State by James C. Scott, looks at how the western idea of a state has developed and why so many projects intended to better the human condition have failed. He argues, in essence, that we create a ‘map’ that reduces the complexity of societies and then develop projects and approaches that rely on that artificially simple understanding. He provides a diverse variety of examples.

One involves the story of what happened when colonial agricultural specialists first encountered indigenous farming in West Africa. Local people were planting different crops in the same field simultaneously (now known as ‘polycropping’), which in that environment is exceptionally efficient. But those fields seemed sloppy and disorderly to the specialists, who considered ‘monocropping’  to be ‘modern’ – with often disastrous effects on crop yields and soil conservation. Polyculture, on the other hand, was perfectly suited to the local climate and local cultural and family practices.

This story illustrates why these kinds of assumptions matter so much. Projects often are designed from within our view of how the world works. The story about monocropping and polycropping is not that far removed from what many see when looking at ‘traditional’ societies in conflict. We assume that conflict has wiped the slate clean so that there is no local governance left in villages, and we start out to rebuild governance. In doing so, we are often more focused on the individual as a free agent than we are on the family as the unit around which society is organized.

‘Traditional’ societies may seem as messy and disorderly to western eyes as those West African gardens looked to colonial Britons, Obligation to others, and commitment to one’s family or other social unit, may be seen as inviting corruption, rather than being the normal way in which society works. Better to spend some time in those gardens first, asking people to explain why specific crops are grown and why they are planted together in specific ways, before trying to redesign their farming practices.

More reading:
Chabal, Patrick (2009). Africa: The Politics of Suffering and Smiling. Zed Books: London and New York.

Scott, James C. (1998). Seeing Like A State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press: New Haven and London.

Send in the farmers first!

Some time ago, I was talking with three men from a village in Sudan. One was an immensely dignified man, who had spent a number of years building peace among his family and then his neighbours and then his village. Through a skilled interpreter, he and his two colleagues had been telling me how they had done this work. After some time, I asked them to draw a map of the area we were discussing.
These villages were so small that they didn’t seem to appear on my map. So, on the flip chart on the wall, they drew the area. And each time they talked about an event, they showed me where it had happened. At some point, standing in front of that map, they explained to me that one result of peace was that they were able to start cultivating their fields again for the first time in many years.
When they began tilling their land again, and growing the staple crops of millet and sorghum, the prices of those two crops began to go down – because there was a greater supply. The fall in prices was dramatic, and was continuing. But not only did that increase the food security of local families, they saw it as offering an opportunity.
With some small resources, they could re-create a network of small local market that would attract traders from outside their area who would buy millet and sorghum – and also bring in other goods from outside. In other words, peace had brought not just increased food security but an economic possibility that they could see very clearly.
The problem was that there didn’t seem to be anyone who had money to fund a local market and thus help to restart the local economy – and by extension, benefit the region.
It was not an unusual story. Evaluations of large-scale reconstruction programs in Sudan, even those designed to build and encourage collaboration among agencies, found that they seemed unable to focus on the very small amounts of money needed for such projects. Or to take advantage of the fact that people returning from big cities had learned skills that they never would have had the chance to learn back in their villages.

The same geography
I was reminded of those visionary Sudanese men when I read an article in the New York Times about a US agriculture department program in California that aims to introduce US soldiers to the basics of Afghan farming. Apparently Central California looks a lot like Afghanistan and grows many of the same crops – pistachios, almonds, wheat, pomegranates and grapes. The program is intended to help the soldiers see with different eyes what is happening around them in the Afghan countryside, and reflects a change in approach that began in 2009 but is only starting to have an impact now. Part of this program involves sending US agricultural extension agents to Afghanistan to work with farmers.
What struck me in the article was its comment about how decades of conflict has devastated Afghani agriculture and taken away much of the agricultural knowledge and basic infrastructure. And I wondered – is that actually true? Have farmers forgotten how to grow those crops like fruits, nuts and grain that they used to cultivate before poppy cultivation began to increase? I suspect, from what I have seen in other places, that the answer is ‘no’ – that knowledge still exists. What has probably been devastated is the network of small local markets that used to exist, at which farmers traded and sold their crops.
And this seems to be true in many places around the world that experience conflict. One of the effects of conflict is to destroy the network of relationships that used to bind villages together and as a result, the local economic network as well. Rebuilding that local network starts with rebuilding those relationships, which is why so many local peacebuilders focus first on teaching conflict resolution skills and creating safe places for people to resume talking to each other.
Those skills have to be retaught because years of conflict turn people inward – to their families and closest friends. They learn to fear people from other villages – even sometimes their own sons, who learn that a gun makes it possible for them to get what they need without having to work for it. (In many ways, the headlines suggest that this is not so different from what some Americans also experience in their communities).People who must live in fear don’t cultivate land because they are afraid to go outside the safety of their village. They stop going into the forest to collect berries, and they stop going to fishing camps. Food security becomes precarious.
The external answer is often to focus on rebuilding local law and order, by building up the police and army. But to my mind, that is starting from the wrong place. One needs to start with changing how people think, and the people who do that best are local people who understand how people think, understand what they have experienced, and are able to work with family and friends to start changing that mindset.

Rebuilding relationships first
When people have created peace by rebuilding relationships and trust, small scale local economic development begins to flourish again. People begin cultivating gardens, selling surplus crops, trading with others for what they need instead of taking it at the point of a gun. They do so even when land ownership is not clear – growing crops on whatever pieces of land are available, as people did in Kinshasa with support from agricultural experts there.
But so often, external interventions don’t nourish and support those small shoots of peaceful growth because they are focused on the ‘bigger picture’ – rebuilding the infrastructure from the top down. And so those small shoots don’t get the small amounts of ‘fertilizer’ (read small amounts of money) that would help them grow into a stronger local and regional plant.
Helping American soldiers see the Afghan countryside with different eyes seems to be an attempt to change the focus, although the article speculates that this may be too little too late. It is hard for soldiers, who must worry about their security and that of their colleagues, to change their focus in this way. But programs like this one do hold out hope that the next time there is a conflict somewhere, and other countries are tempted to intervene with military force, that they will consider sending in the farmers first. Or at least sending in the farmers along with the peacekeepers.

Further reading:

Duplicating Afghanistan from the ground up, by Malia Wollan, New York Times, April 14, 2012

Processing plant creates new futures for Afghan women, Hopebuilding wiki

Urban farming project in Congo shows how burgeoning cities can improve their food security, Hopebuilding wiki

How much money does locally-led peacebuilding save?

One of the big challenges in evaluating development projects that involve social change is the question of proving that what you did led to specific results. There is a fascinating discussion about this question on Alex Jacob’s NGO Performance blog.

Coincidentally, this morning I also read about a new study that compared the costs of providing HIV/AIDS drugs to 3.5 million people vs. the benefits in terms of increased productivity, fewer orphaned children, and savings on care otherwise needed for TB and other opportunistic infections. Spending $14.2 billion between 2011 and 2020 would save 18.5 million life-years and $12 to $34 billion on those costs, the study found.

This reminded me of something I learned a number of years ago when I was the executive director of a quasi-governmental women’s organization in the Northwest Territories. The Council, which directed our work, had asked me to find ways to make progress on making family violence a higher priority for government.

Up to then, the usual approach had been to talk to government about the needs of women who were experiencing violence. Government usually saw dollar signs when the Council or other groups lobbied them – this was going to cost them money. And when it came to spending money, there were always a lot of competing priorities.

Investment vs costs
So I went to the internet and spent some time doing research. That was how I discovered some fascinating work being done by a women’s group in British Columbia. Instead of focusing on how much government needed to spend on shelters and support programs for family violence, they had decided to look at how much family violence cost government. And they cast a broad net in doing so.

They realized that many agencies and departments were dealing with the consequences of family violence. The police; the courts; the prisons; the social welfare agency; the hospitals; the probation service; the shelters; women’s advocates; and so on. That added up to a great deal of spending on the results of a behavior, with much less being spent on addressing the causes. And it didn’t include the costs experienced by employers when women had to take time off work as a result of family violence.

They set out to see if they could estimate how much all of that was costing, and the figures were completely astounding. They had to do a lot of estimating, of course, because (at that time, at any rate) no one was collecting those kinds of statistics in a related way. When the costs of running a shelter and family violence education programs were compared with those other costs, it represented a miniscule investment. Government was spending millions of dollars on dealing with the results of the behavior, compared with only a few thousand dollars on preventing the behavior. This wasn’t a sensible investment in cost-benefit terms.

A new perspective for government
So I decided to begin explaining spending on family violence as being an investment in reducing substantial costs that appeared elsewhere in the government’s budget. This was an argument that was easily understood by government. Most government officials had never thought of the issue this way. They were used to thinking about categorizing spending by department, rather than by activity or by addressing a multi-faceted problem. Suddenly, they saw the money they were spending on shelters and supporting educational programs about family violence in a completely different way. It represented a way of saving money, not a way of spending money. (And this new view brings a lot more allies into programs to end family violence – agencies and people who otherwise would not be involved with ‘women’s’ issues.)

Many social agencies, and many local peacebuilders, don’t think of this way of approaching the evaluation of their work. It is a sea change in thinking. Suddenly, we are not asking them to think about what their program costs, in isolation. We are asking them to think about what that investment in their program represents in terms of savings.

For example, in one community in South Kordofan that had experienced years of conflict (before the current problems arose), peace meant that last year, the community residents were able to plant their fields again for the first time in many years. When there was peace, they could cultivate without fear and they were able to harvest their crops without having them stolen by armed groups. The result was that the price of the two staple crops, sorghum and maize, began to drop dramatically – and that had a marked impact on the cost of living. Instead of having to buy these staples, people had a stock of them. And even those people who couldn’t cultivate fields benefitted, because it cost them less to buy these staples at the market.

People in the village had begun thinking about how they could now attract regional traders to their local market to buy the surplus crops, as they would get better prices from those traders than if they took the goods to more remote markets. And attracting more traders would benefit the rest of the community, too, as those traders would likely bring other goods with them that people otherwise could not obtain easily.

A cost benefit analysis of peacebuilding
Last year, I began asking local peacebuilders to begin thinking about this kind of cost-benefit analysis of their work. Don’t just look at what your program costs, I urged them. Think about what your program saves. It is not a usual way people think in social development circles and so it takes a bit of stretching of the mind. In peacebuilding terms, it means estimating some costs because data is not easy to obtain.

Think, for example, about running a community-based activity to provide jobs for young men by starting a trucking company (a real-life example). As their business prospers, they start to turn in their guns to the local chief, because they don’t need their guns to make a living. Effectively, you are running a DDR program while also building the local economy, creating jobs, and providing cheaper and better local transportation. How do you measure those benefits, vs. the investment in buying two trucks and providing some basic training in management and book-keeping? One way is to compare it with other local disarmament activities.

One of those, in southern Sudan, had involved having 1,500 soldiers living near a village for six months, before eventually having a battle with the young white army herder/soldiers scattered around the bush. During those six months, the soldiers used local community food to support themselves – the community felt the impact for years afterwards. Many people were killed in the fighting, and the cattle that the young men were caring for scattered all over the region.

The costs were clear to other communities, which used this as a salutary example of what happened if the community could not find a way to disarm these young men peacefully. But no one actually totted them up in columns, and the NGO that inspired the trucking company had never thought of using those costs as an example of what its program had saved.

The cost-benefit analysis of locally-led peacebuilding is just in its infancy. But it has huge possibilities for changing how this work is currently funded and monitored. In doing this, local knowledge and capacity represents a huge plus on the ‘credit’ side of the comparison. For international organizations, developing the capacity that local peacebuilders bring to the program would represent a huge investment of both money and time before they could start. But in evaluating programs, the value of this local knowledge is never computed.

More reading:
Resch S, Korenromp E, Stover J, Blakley M, Krubiner C, et al. (2011) Economic Returns to Investment in AIDS Treatment in Low and Middle Income Countries. PLoS ONE 6(10): e25310. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0025310

Aids treatment is good value for money, says new study. Sarah Bosely’s Global Health Blog, The Guardian

Throwing off our results chains, by Alex Jacobs. NGO Performance blog. October 5, 2011.