Archive for ‘Foreign Intervention’

November, 2013

“Thinking politically” Part I: “Thinking and working politically” in development interventions Jonathan Fisher

The ‘age of austerity’ has not been kind to Western aid agencies and their staff or to those who would defend them. Though Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) has had its budget ‘ring-fenced’ since 2010 its counterparts elsewhere in Europe have not been so lucky while its equivalent in Australia – AusAID – has disappeared altogether as an independent entity, subsumed into the country’s foreign ministry only weeks ago.

Tales of costly white elephant projects and failed interventions from the likes of Dambisa Moyo (Dead Aid) coupled with stories of corruption in Uganda and space programmes in ‘more people living in poverty than the whole of Africa’ India have seriously damaged the image of the development enterprise across the world. Western publics have been particularly frustrated – or so we are told – at the sight of hospitals at home being closed while taxpayers’ funds are sent abroad seemingly – depending on which newspaper you read – into the pockets of well-fed, venal crooks. In this unforgiving context observers might be forgiven for viewing Western ‘donors’ today as incorrigible, disingenuous amateurs – singing the same tune they have sung for decades with the audience growing ever more restive and impatient; “When does this end?!”

In fact there is room for optimism – albeit not so much, perhaps, for those former AusAID staff facing redundancy. For the last decade has seen a crucial shift in the mindsets of most donors with potentially profound implications for the ways in which development actors approach and engage with the developing world. Until the early 2000s, development ‘failures’ were seen as the fault of the recipient. In the 1980s, the World Bank concluded that economic stagnation in Africa and elsewhere was the result of dirigiste economic management and that removing the state’s grip on a nation’s economy would lead to economic growth. Structural adjustment was born.

By the 1990s, with this ‘medicine’ proving ineffective, flawed political systems became the culprit for stalled development processes. Western donors therefore sought to make their aid flows conditional upon democratization in many parts of the world resulting in the abolition of one-party states in some aid-dependent countries (notably Malawi, Kenya and Zambia) but the continuation in power of numerous autocrats including Zairian dinosaur Mobutu Sese Seko.

In recent years, however, donors have started to reflect on their own role in the successes or failures of the development enterprise. Since the early 2000s, donors have begun to ask not ‘what is the recipient doing wrong?’ but ‘what are we doing wrong?’. This welcome – and overdue – introspection has led donors to several important conclusions, the most central being that successful development interventions require the donor to fully understand the political dimensions of the country or region it is intervening in. Development projects fail when external actors attempt to impose something upon a society or culture whose contours and nuances they do not understand. Development projects rely on the buy-in of local actors to work – donors now accept – and so donors need to understand who the local actors are, what they want and why. To this end, donors have enthusiastically accepted the importance of ‘thinking politically’ in their operations.

This move from ‘doing development’ to ‘thinking politically’ represents perhaps the most important sea-change in donor mentalities since the end of the Cold War. The ‘thinking politically’ project has not, however, come without its difficulties. This week’s blog entries will explore this project and its implications for those interested in ‘Saving Humans’. Many of those with such an interest – both in the academic and policy-making worlds – are gathering in Birmingham this Friday 15th November to discuss ‘Making Politics Practical’ in a joint International Development Department (IDD)-Political Studies Association (PSA) workshop. The final blog entry of the week will reflect on this workshop and its key messages – along with those of Manchester University’s Professor Sam Hickey, who will be presenting on ‘Taking Politics Seriously’ in development following the IDD-PSA workshop.

Dr Jonathan Fisher is a Lecturer in International Development at the University of Birmingham.

Further links:

Thinking politically about development

Overseas development Institute: Thnking politically

Thinking politically, IDD blog Heather Marquette

Development leadership programme

October, 2013

Very contemporary history

A recent discussion with the coordinator of the Global History of Modern Humanitarian Action project at the Overseas Development Institute got me thinking about the very recent history of humanitarianism. It was interesting for me to try and think historically about what still feel like current events, way outside my own period of expertise. Here are the unfootnoted and speculative, but hopefully useful, thoughts I came up with. Comments welcome.

In an article published in 2006, Tony Vaux analyzed the international context within which humanitarian agencies, especially Western ones, operate. ‘The current trend’, he wrote, ‘is towards greater assertiveness by the Western powers and less consensus about their legitimacy’—a trend which created many worries for agencies that found themselves, for example, being perceived as tools of Western governments. This led to wide-ranging, and soul-searching, discussions in the field: Vaux’s article was part of a big special issue of Development in Practice on trends and dilemmas for humanitarian practitioners. (There’s a link at the bottom of this post.) But is his description still accurate?


Part of the context for western humanitarian action, c.2001–2009

It seems to me that Vaux’s statement quite clearly dates from that distinct but now-vanished period between the end of the Cold War and the 2008 financial crisis. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the constraints on Western—essentially American—interventions elsewhere in the world appeared to have been loosened entirely. Iraq in 1991, Kosovo in 1997, Britain’s intervention in Sierra Leone in the late 90s, Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq again in 2003: in a unipolar world the trend appeared to be towards unilateral interventions by untrammeled Western power—albeit with setbacks (Somalia) and deliberate non-interventions (Rwanda). This trend was radicalized after 9/11.

Western humanitarian agencies had to live with this geopolitical strutting. In some senses it created problems for them— that’s why aid workers get murdered in Afghan villages—but in other senses they probably shared the arrogance of the times: one reason why they’re having trouble adjusting to what are still termed ‘new actors’ in the humanitarian field, the increasingly active and influential agencies based in countries outside the old ‘West’ (some Turkish NGOs, for example, are now operating in dozens of countries).

So: ‘greater assertiveness by the Western powers and less consensus about their legitimacy’ is a pretty accurate depiction of the period from, say, 1990 to 2005. It was reinforced by the Asian economic crisis of 1997, which handily slapped down the ‘tigers’ that had been growling increasingly loudly, and it survived the short recession that affected many western countries when the dotcom bubble burst.

In retrospect, though, there were already underlying shifts. China is an important one: its phenomenal, rapid growth throughout the 1990s and 2000s was changing all sorts of basic equations in the distribution of global political and economic power. The largest single holder of US government debt; a crucial export market for both industrialized and extractive economies (ie, for both the West and the Third World, two already questionable terms which have become more outdated with every percentage point of Chinese GDP growth); an alternative source of financial and diplomatic backing for states and non-state actors… The context within which Western humanitarian agencies became accustomed to operating from the 1980s as the Soviet Union declined was temporary and contingent, not a permanent restructuring. Think back only a decade or so to how many books and articles were talking about a unipolar world, and how shortsighted they seem now. And plenty of other shifts have taken place too, many—though not all—of them linked to this one. Brazil, for example, has combined an economic boom that owes a great deal to commodity exports (directly and indirectly linked to China) with growing political stability and self-confidence. In my churchgoing youth I was often exposed to depictions of colourful poverty in Brazil, produced by Catholic aid agencies. But what should CAFOD do in the era of the bolsa familial?

Mavi Marmara

A ‘new actor’ making some pretty big waves

Equally, the gung-ho interventionism of western powers rapidly ran up against external and internal constraints. The cake-walks to Kabul and Baghdad were followed by long, costly, and unsuccessful occupations that have amply demonstrated the limits of US power: unequalled destructive capacity can only get you so far. The extravagant cost of these military adventures, meanwhile, is one of many factors that contributed to the financial crisis of 2008 and the contraction of most western economies, large and small, since then. (That’s why I gave 2008 as the end of the ‘post-Cold War’ period, though to cover both these aspects the hinge point really needs to be 2005/2008.)

All of which means that ‘less consensus about [Western powers’] legitimacy’ is increasingly true—but I’m less convinced that the bit about their ‘greater assertiveness’ is still the case. (Libya does not represent a significant exception to this.) I think that western humanitarian agencies, whose own budgets have suffered from the financial crisis, are now living through a period where the self-confident zeal of the 1990s is giving way to much greater self-doubt: partly because of the model that China and other cases present (of successful state-led development that owes little to western aid agencies) and partly because of the alternative sources of aid that they represent for other countries.

None of this is to take any of these emerging features of a changing landscape for granted as permanent, either. But those changes, which I’m sure the humanitarian sector is still grappling with, have now gone beyond a ‘greater assertiveness’ of Western powers.

Tony Vaux, ‘Humanitarian Trends and Dilemmas’, Development in Practice, vol. 16, nos 3-4 (2006), pp. 240–256, quote on p. 241.

Click images for source

October, 2013

Middle Eastern refugees, then and now

My current research project is on refugees and state-formation in the post-Ottoman Middle East—roughly 1918–1939. It grew out of my earlier project on minorities in French mandate Syria: I’d collected quite a bit of material on refugee communities, but realized that I wouldn’t use it in my PhD (and later book) because refugees in Syria weren’t considered ‘minorities’ but, precisely, refugees.

UN OCHA Humanitarian Snapshot, SyriaWhen I started the project, I didn’t expect that long before I’d finished it Syria would collapse into an appalling civil war, and become the crucible of a vast new refugee crisis: about 10% of the country’s entire population (roughly two million people, out of a bit over twenty million) has fled to neighbouring or nearby states, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and a much larger number of people have been displaced within Syria. Click on the map here for the latest figures from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Immense—and depressing—though these numbers are, the displacement crises that afflicted the late Ottoman and interwar Middle East were comparable both in absolute terms and in proportion to population size: the flight of Muslims from the Caucasus as the Russian empire expanded in the 1860s; the expulsion of Muslims from breakaway states in the Balkans from the 1870s on; internecine expulsions and exchanges between those breakaway Christian states in the early 20th century; genocidal deportations of Ottoman Armenians (often perpetrated by people who themselves had been, or were descendants of, recent refugees) and other Christians during the first world war; the great Greek-Turkish population exchange of 1923–4; and the smaller exoduses and expulsions that persisted through the twentieth century—from Assyrian Christians fleeing Iraq in the 1930s to late communist Bulgaria kicking out Muslims in the 1980s, with plenty of other examples: the Palestinian refugees are only the best-known of many. The states of the modern Middle East, like the states of modern Europe, were largely formed out of processes of population displacement.

Dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire since 1683.

Dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire since 1683. From The Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, 1923.
Approximately ten million refugees not shown.
Source: Perry-Castañeda Library map collection, University of Texas at Austin (click image for link)

All this means that my historical research has led me to get more involved than I might once have expected with contemporary humanitarian issues—partly through an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research network that some colleagues are coordinating, and partly through collaboration with the Humanitarian Policy Group at the Overseas Development Institute in London. Both sets of initiatives are premised on the idea that historical research can offer useful perspectives to humanitarian planning and interventions in the present.

But after a summer where I was more focused on the contemporary issues, I’m now returning to my research, with a paper to write for a seminar at the School of Oriental and African Studies next month. It’s about a small but significant instance of population displacement within this much larger history I’ve been sketching out: the exodus of at least fifty thousand Armenians from Cilicia in what is now southern Turkey at the end of a two-year period of French occupation following the first world war, and what I’m calling the ‘grudging rescue’ of perhaps twenty thousand of them, by sea and rail, in the final two weeks of 1921. I’ll post something about that tomorrow.

October, 2013

Professor Paul Jackson: The unintended consequences of foreign intervention

After the horrors of the Westgate Mall attack in Nairobi, there will be inevitable questions about the nature of Islamic terrorism in East Africa. However, the attack itself is part of an on-going conflict in Kenya that in turn is part of a bigger regional conflagration based on Somalia. In fact the attack on the mall can be traced back to an international intervention that produced a number of unintended consequences, one of which has been the transformation of the group that perpetrated the attack, Al-Shabaab.

In fact the continued fighting in Somalia and the relative success of the African Union forces against Al-Shabaab fighters may have made the situation less stable and more dangerous for a number of reasons, not least because the movement may have splintered in to a number of cells capable of perpetrating terrorist atrocities rather than holding territory.

What of Al-Shabaab itself? A rather shady organisation that grew out of the youth wing (‘shabaab’ means ‘youth’) of a wider organisation, al-Ittihad al-Islami, one of the Somali extremist groups that existed in the 1980s and 90s, al-Shabaab itself remained relatively unimportant until 2007 following the invasion of Somalia by Ethiopian troops. At that time, al-Shabaab was serving as the military wing of a group known as the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which established a form of governance within Mogadishu and in parts of the countryside. Following the Ethiopian invasion, the ICU collapsed and al-Shabaab took up arms against the Ethiopian forces, retreating in to a swampy area in the South.

At this point, the movement runs a very conventional guerrilla war against the Ethiopians, at various times supported by the Eritreans in a proxy war against her Ethiopian rival. However, the growing prominence of al-Shabaab and its Islamic roots make it fertile ground for the growth of Al-Qaeda links, as part of a regional spread of Islamic radicalism from Yemen, into the Horn and down the East coast. The increased links are attended by a change in philosophy of violence and a move to the use of suicide bombing as a means of spreading terror at the same time as continuing its conventional warfare against international forces.

In 2008 al-Shabaab mounts a series of suicide bombings against government offices and international agencies as well as the Ethiopian consulate, stating that the attacks are retaliation against the international community for the invasion of Somalia. With the advent of AMISOM in Somalia and African Union troops from Uganda and Burundi, al-Shabaab widened its terrorist campaign and in 2010 mounted its first international attack against an Ethiopian restaurant and rugby club in Uganda.

The AMISOM forces have been very successful on the ground in Somalia and al-Shabaab does not control the same level of territory as they did in 2008. The Kenyan military incursion that started in 2011 has been particularly successful, with the effective Kenyan military pushing back the fighters significantly, including capturing one of al-Shabaab’s last strongholds, Kismayo, a key source of revenue. It was this that led al-Shabaab to call the Westgate attack revenge for Kenyan involvement in Somalia.

The horrific attack can therefore be traced right back to an international intervention in a regional conflict. Not only does this point to a close link between terrorism and more conventional warfare, but also to the transnational nature of much conflict within Africa. The purpose of the attack itself was clearly to send a signal to the Kenyans that they should not send troops to Somalia, and yet it was also a signal that the African Union Somali offensive was being successful.

Losing territory and increasingly unable to hold territory against troops, al-Shabaab has been forced to rethink its strategy. Unfortunately the most logical model for a new strategy is localised cells of terrorists, usually connected to the Somali diaspora, which is very developed following twenty years of conflict. There are approximately 250,000 Somalis in Nairobi alone, which could provide a fertile breeding ground for radicalism, let alone other groups in Uganda and Tanzania.

The blueprint for this type of incident was the Mumbai hotel attack of 2008, which showed the weakness of many public areas frequented by westerners and wealthy locals and was capable of provoking an over-reaction by security forces that could lead to further radicalisation.

Whilst the blueprint is clearly international, al-Shabaab is likely to remain localised and regionally focussed, which makes it far more clear that the only way to deal with radicalised and violent groups like this is to adopt a regional security strategy linked to the conditions as well as the control of regional diasporas. The advantage of groups like al-Shabaab is that once they lose territorial integrity they can reinvent themselves as localised actors with a decentralised form of governance that does not require central bureaucracy and control. This has clear implications for the western approaches to supporting states without related regional strategies.

At the same time, they have a tight system of rules governed by Sharia law, although as the emergence of the most recent al-Shabaab leader, the hard line Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubair, shows following considerable internal political conflicts and continual defeats of al-Shabaab fighters in Somalia. Worryingly for the region, however, according to a paper from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Godane’s tactics were considered too crude by Osama bin Laden.

Further links and information on this topic:

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