It’s politics stupid!

Josie PaganiJosie Pagani
Director
Council for International Development (CID)

The election isn’t over until Winston says it is, so sticking with a political theme, I’m shamelessly misquoting Bill Clinton who once said –  ‘It’s the economy stupid’.

Actually it was Bill Clinton’s political mastermind, James Carville who coined the original phrase in a memo meant for an internal audience of campaign workers (the other bullet points  – ‘Don’t forget health care’  – were not quite as memorable).

The election has got me thinking about politics. Everything we do in international development is done in a political context, and yet we have to pretend it’s not.

In development we talk about ‘harmonisation and alignment’,  ‘localisation and partners’. But can you imagine telling Winston Peters to campaign in the North (where a high proportion of people are on a minimum wage or the dole), promising to bring ‘capacity building and sustainable development’ to the North?

For a start no-one would know what he was talking about, and secondly no politician would ever do that.

And yet that’s what we ask political leaders in governments and communities in developing countries to do, even when they are working in highly politicised environments.

It’s not just that we need to ditch the development speak and the acronyms and talk like humans. It’s that we have to listen more and understand better what people really want and partner with those communities to target our work and our funds so they have the greatest impact possible.

A few weeks ago I gave a speech for Massey’s Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies. It was to a small group of professionals, most of whom were from the government sector (Defence, Police, Foreign Affairs and so on). All of us work in highly politicised contexts, whether supporting fragile counties towards secure elections or referenda, or helping communities rebuild after cyclones or a civil war, or working out a local plan to lift people out of extreme poverty and give them meaningful work that provides a decent living.

The Pacific, where our government and many of our international NGOs are active, is not immune to political instability. We need to be keeping a watchful eye on a few hot spots. The  familiar fragility drivers are readily visible across the region; inter-group tensions, governance and economic stresses, all with ample potential triggers, including elections, referenda and, of course, natural disasters like cyclones.

Potential flash points are coming up, like the upcoming referenda on independence in Bougainville and New Caledonia; the withdrawal of RAMSI in the Solomons, and the recent upheaval in the Papua New Guinea elections. Not to mention the on-going risks of climate change on the livelihoods (and therefore the security) of people in islands like Kiribati.

The Fragile States Index (FSI), produced by the Washington-based Fund for Peace, recently issued its report for 2017.

It has some alarming findings about  many of the countries where our members are most active.

South Sudan is on a ‘very high alert’, and just overtook Somalia as the world’s most fragile state.

Papua New Guinea and the Solomons are both on ‘high warning’ risk levels.

The origins of  these insecurities are nearly always political.

If we want to deliver ‘impact’ rather than just ‘outputs’, we have to become better at understanding and managing the political realities and what drives decision makers at different levels of community leadership. That doesn’t mean we become political. It means we get better at influencing those decision makers because we understand that they’re less likely to be motivated by the Istanbul Principles of Aid Effectiveness for example, and more likely to be motivated by whether or not a policy will get them re-elected in a years time, or whether they can point to real and measurable impact to their people from implementing good policy.

Andrew Needs, Assistant Secretary for the Pacific at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade wrote recently “We need contextual understanding and influence to effect good development outcomes, and measuring outputs (or inputs) is not a good measure of success.”

The only way we can have real ‘impact’  – and measure it – is by understanding that ‘its politics stupid’.

This blog has been contributed by a member of the ComVoices network

ComVoices actively promotes the value that community sector organisations and their people, both paid and unpaid, add to New Zealand’s economic and social wellbeing through information, and political advocacy and dialogue.

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