All posts by Colm Moloney

Thinking and Working Politically: Challenges and Implications

I’ve recently been participating in and following (through the likes of Duncan Green and Michael Bear Kleinman) a fascinating and ongoing discussion about the need for development organisations to think and work politically. The discussion seems to have been sparked by a growing consensus around two major points related to the importance of power and politics in shaping development outcomes:

  • The need to understand power relations: if we want local buy-in and ownership, we need to understand who the local actors are and what they want.
  • The need to change power relations: if we want to address and mitigate the effects of inequality, we need to shift the balance of power between ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’.

What are the challenges?

The discussion is particularly interesting because the idea of wading into the messiness of politics doesn’t fit well with the technical perspective that is characteristic of the aid industry today. From that perspective, development is seen as a linear process that is achieved through technical fixes. ‘Results-based management’, ‘rigorous data’, ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘value for money’ are all terms that feature heavily in development-speak and portray a sense of clarity: by spending x, we can do y and achieve z. Dealing with politics and power, on the other hand, only serves to muddy the waters.

To some extent, the reluctance to engage is understandable. Working politically can be risky: a development organisation may not want to be affiliated with a particular actor, for any number of reasons. Perhaps more crucial, from a technical perspective, is the fact that power can be quite intangible, and its distribution, at any scale, may not necessarily be very obvious.

While we can quantify the number of wells built, or the number of schoolchildren provided with deworming treatment, or the number of households provided with cash transfers, we can’t meaningfully measure the number of power relations that have changed.

Dealing with power, therefore, isn’t very compatible with the standard toolkits of results-based management frameworks (e.g. logical frameworks, baseline studies, performance-based indictors), which tend to be apolitical and designed for quantifiable measures of progress and change.

So what does this mean?

  • We need to recognise that development is not a simple, linear process. Thanks to work by thinkers like Ben Ramalingam, there is a growing acceptance of the complexity of development, but it is worth reiterating. Development outcomes are resultant of, and shaped by processes of political contestation. A perspective that focuses on technical fixes can’t account for the effects of such contestations.
  • We need to expand our understanding of what counts as a result. The oft-cited Einstein quote comes to mind – “not everything that counts can be counted”. We can’t ignore the effects and importance of power and politics just because we can’t easily measure them.
  • Long-term perspectives and deep regional knowledge are invaluable. Developing an understanding of the political landscape, identifying opportunities to empower people, and recognising change when it is happening requires knowledge and perspective that cannot be gained within short time-frames.
  • Cookie-cutter approaches need to be avoided. Toolkits, frameworks and best practice approaches are attractive in development because they simplify analysis of and responses to complex processes. If we apply them rigidly, without understanding the contours of the political context, we shouldn’t be surprised if results are not as anticipated.

I’m sure there more more in terms of challenges and implications, and certainly in terms of opportunities, which I haven’t really touched upon here. It would be great to hear from any readers about their thoughts and experiences of thinking and working politically.

Energy Poverty

Recent stories of Ghana and the Congo rationing their electricity supplies so that football fans can watch the World Cup highlight the passion with which the sport is enjoyed in those countries. Given my soft spot for Ghana, where I recently spent six months working, I’ll be joining millions of other Ghanaians this evening in shouting the Black Stars on through the TV set as they take on Portugal.

On a more serious note, however, the stories are also indicative of the extent to which the two countries, like many other developing countries, are affected by limited access to energy. According to the International Energy Agency, nearly 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity, over 95% of which live in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Though it’s from 2010, the map below illustrates that statistic quite well.

Credit: NY Times
Credit: NY Times

Energy poverty is a deeper issue, however, than simply lacking access to electricity. It means having inadequate access to energy for basic household needs, for income generation, and for public services, and it means relying on inefficient, and often harmful traditional forms.

Around 2.6 billion people rely on the traditional use of biomass for cooking, and the effects are significant. In addition to the time burden and environmental impact associated with collecting fuel for inefficient stoves, there are severe health consequences. Indoor air pollution (IAP) produced by traditional biomass-based cooking methods leads to around 3.5 million premature deaths each year.

Importantly, these impact disproportionately affect women, who are often responsible for cooking. Other impacts include the costs of poor lighting quality, such as a reliance on dangerous kerosene lamps and a potential constraint on time spent studying or reading.

Although the Millennium Development Goals do not include a target on energy access, there is, fortunately, a growing recognition that efforts to tackle poverty will depend on increasing access to modern energy services.

Technologies are being rolled out at various scales (such as rechargeable lamps, improved cookstoves, community-based solar programmes, and national grid extensions) and international advocacy is growing.

In 2010 the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change (AGECC) called upon the UN and its member states to adopt the goal of ensuring universal access to modern energy services by 2030, and there are growing calls for the inclusion of an energy access target in a post-2015 development framework.

The One Campaign is currently advocating US citizens to sign a petition to pass the Energize Africa Act, which would make energy poverty in Africa a priority for US development policies.

While there are some important questions around trade-offs between energy targets and climate change mitigation (the Energize Africa Act, which will help mobilise investment through the administration’s Power Africa Initiative, will finance the establishment of power plants – more on this later ),  hopefully by the time we’re watching the 2022 World Cup the global picture of energy access will look a little brighter.

Links I Liked

Mapping the world’s displaced people
An interactive map that shows the location and origin of the world’s displaced people, using data from the UNHCR’s Global Trends report.

Google & the Trolley Problem
Owen Barder raises some interesting philosophical and moral questions as we move closer to seeing automated cars on our roads. Should your car prioritise your life over that of a pedestrian in the event of an accident? How about two pedestrians?

Visualising ancestral and international connections between teams
Awesome data visualisation by @joffley shows the ancestral linkages between world cup teams. Switzerland’s players lead the way, with connections to 13 different countries.

52 pieces of advice for aspiring humanitarian workers
By the folks over at, a succinct list of all the pieces of advice you need as an aspiring humanitarian worker.

Development literature reading list
A nice list by Centre for Global Development’s Arvind Subramanian with plenty of links to articles on development economics. HT Duncan Green (@fp2p)





Working Politically: Thoughts from the conference

Last week, international development practitioners and researchers convened at the European Union House in Dublin for a two-day learning workshop on governance, accountability and citizen empowerment in the global south. Participants discussed and learned from governance initiatives being implemented in Burundi, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Malawi, Sierra Leone, and Uganda, among others.

While much of the discussion drew upon experiences of implementing social accountability initiatives, which aim to enable citizens to hold governments and service providers to account by creating channels for civic participation in political decision-making, the challenges and lessons raised pointed to a fundamental need to recognise the role of power and politics in shaping development outcomes more broadly.

Organisations like the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) have in recent years demonstrated the problematic nature of attempting to transpose Western models of governance to disparate developing contexts. One issue is the tendency for such technical ‘cookie cutter’ or ‘best practice’ approaches to ignore the landscape of politics and power (often comprised of formal and informal institutions and relations) in which they are supposed to function.

As Alina Rocha Menocal, Research Fellow at the ODI, stated at the conference: “governance reform is about nothing if it is not about changing power relations”. Rather than aiming to apply a rigid model and expecting rapid change, governance initiatives should adopt a ‘best fit’ approach, based on a more realistic timeline of expectations and a deep understanding of the political context.

Although Ms. Menocal may have been speaking more specifically about governance reform, the need to understand and address the role of power relations in terms of shaping development outcomes is crucial in development planning more broadly.

The very idea of ‘empowerment’, which is found in the mission statements of many development NGOs, entails a notion of increasing the power of an individual or a group, or, in other words, their capacity to make choices and to transform choices into desired actions and outcomes (to paraphrase the World Bank’s definition). Although that definition focuses on the individual or group to be empowered, there is an implicit need to understand and account for the wider network of power in which they are embedded: how can you be sure that you are truly hearing the voice of the marginalized if you cannot account for the influence of those who are not?

Power is, of course, often quite intangible. It can be hidden, and exerted in discreet ways. However, there are tools and analytical approaches that can enable development practitioners and researchers to understand contextual power relations and their effects. The ODI, for instance, published a toolkit for civil society organisations for mapping political context, while DFID published an accessible ‘how to note’ for political economy analysis.

It is crucial, if development agencies are to understand and adapt to the context in which programmes are being implemented, that such tools are used to guide planning and decision-making on a continuous basis.

Connecting the Congo, Consumers and Changing Fortunes?

After writing back in November about the connections between global consumerism and conflict minerals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), I was delighted to read this week a report from the ENOUGH Project suggesting that militias in the DRC are ceding control of illicitly held mines. According to the report, legislation passed in the US in 2010 (known as the Dodd-Frank Act) that requires companies to specify the origin of minerals used in their products has had a significant impact.

“Armed groups and the Congolese army are no longer present at two-thirds (67 percent) of tin, tantalum, and tungsten mines surveyed in eastern Congo’s North Kivu, South Kivu, and Maniema provinces, according to a major international survey followed up by Enough Project field investigations. By contrast, in 2010, before the passage of Dodd-Frank, “In the Kivu provinces, almost every mining deposit [was] controlled by a military group,” according to the U.N. Group of Experts on the DRC” – Enough Project

As a result of the legislation and industry audits, a two-tier market has been created for tin, tantalum and tungsten (which are used in electronics produced by companies like Apple and Intel), and minerals that are not traded as part of conflict-free programmes now sell for 30% to 60% less. This means that the profits that militia groups can derive from control of these minerals have diminished significantly and that the illegal operations are much less economically viable.

This progress demonstrates the power that consumers, with the help of transparency-promoting legislation, can bring to bear in order to address global issues. With supply chain information being disclosed, and companies being aware of the public relations implications of being connected with militias in the DRC, the case for such companies to support the implementation of validation processes in Congolese mines is compelling.Intel is now producing the world’s first fully conflict-free product containing Congolese minerals, while Apple has validated its tantalum supply chain as conflict-free.

Encouragingly, the ENOUGH project suggests  that most former miners have been able find other sources of income, though more can be done to facilitate entrepreneurship for ex-miners. This should be a crucial factor in assessing the success and appropriateness of the Dodd-Frank Act. Moreover, questions need to be asked about the impact of the legislation on demand for minerals from the DRC and on the livelihoods of artisanal miners.

Additionally, thought must be given to the implementation of similar reforms in the gold mining industry, in which armed groups remain heavily involved.

Read the full ENOUGH Project report here

The Biofuels Agenda: Who is driving it? Where is it going?

Jatropha fruit. Image credit: Ton Rulkens
Jatropha fruit. Image credit: Ton Rulkens

The biofuels agenda highlights the importance of looking at power and politics in order to understand international decision-making in a globalised world. Few agendas show so clearly the linkages between environmental, social and economic concerns (such as climate change, poverty and profit) and our willingness to act against our long-term interests.

If a politically meaningful movement towards a paradigm of sustainable development really existed, the biofuels agenda would mark a critical juncture in that movement. Leaders would make decisions that reflect a long-term perspective, with due consideration of issues such as climate change, food security, and the voices of those stakeholders that have the most to lose. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Despite growing concern over the environmentally and socially damaging consequences of biofuels, EU proposals on November 29th of this year look set to increase a proposed cap on production from 5% to 7%.

It’s easy to see why biofuels are an attractive option. In one sense, they are an ideal substitute for fossil fuels: existing vehicle technology requires little or no modification in order to use them. Energy security concerns, high oil import costs and carbon emissions reduction targets have also contributed to increasing demand.

But the mounting evidence against biofuels is impossible to ignore.

  • While the EU’s 2009 Renewable Energy Directive (RED) (which promotes biofuels) was designed, at least in part, to ‘greenify’ energy-use in Europe by reducing the greenhouse gas emissions associated with fossil fuels, a growing body of research suggests that biofuels can lead to an overall increase in greenhouse gas emissions (as a result of land-use changes).
  • By diverting important crops, like wheat and maize, away from food markets, biofuels cause food prices to increase. Biofuels production contributed to dramatic increases in the 2007-2008 food crisis, which led to riots in 31 countries. In the aftermath of the crisis, Jean Zieger, former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, described biofuels as a ‘crime against humanity’.
  • Rising food prices and growing demand for biofuels make land an attractive investment opporutnity. Large-scale land deals often occur in rural areas in developing countries where people may not have legally recognised land rights. Poor people can find themselves powerless in the face of large foreign corporations, and ultimately end up dispossessed of the land on which they rely.

The fact that industrial biofuels production is being promoted despite (or without due regard for) the potential consequences shows that policymaking in Europe is not entirely evidence-based. It is also indicative of a severe power imbalance in decision-making. While there is a wide range of stakeholders that stand to be affected by the biofuels agenda, not all stakeholders have equal power in shaping that agenda.

Corporate interests have had a significant influence. Biofuels TP, for example, an industry organisation, was funded by the EU in 2006 to assist in the formulation of Europe’s biofuels strategy up until 2030. Commentators at the time observed that the organisation’s steering committee lacked civil society representation, and was made up almost entirely of industry representatives. Furthermore, suggestions were made that the evidence was found to support the 10% target in the EU, rather than the other way around.

Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising then that profit is being prioritised over environmental issues and the concerns of the poor. And while negotiations among EU member states in November and December of this year looked like an opportunity to respond to the evidence and mounting calls against biofuels, maybe it should come as no surprise that effective corporate lobbying has again proven influential.

The biofuels agenda makes it clear that sustainable development will require policymakers and civil society to understand the roles of power and politics in shaping planning processes. Care must be taken to increase the bargaining power of people in rural areas in developing countries. Civil society organisations must be involved in decision-making. Corporate interests must not be allowed to dominate. And political leaders and governmental institutions must understand and uphold their obligations to protect the poor and vulnerable and make decisions that promote sustainable development.

It’s worth noting that, under the right circumstances, biofuels could play a positive role in reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, and even reducing poverty. Smallholder production, inclusive business models, recognition of traditional land rights, and ecologically appropriate crops and processing techniques could help avoid the negative consequences. But this again highlights the need to take into account the influence of power and politics. These concerns will always take the backseat as long as short-term political and corporate interests dominate the agenda.

Related links:
Have a look at Karl Mathiesen’s excellent analysis of the biofuels debate for the Guardian

Connecting the Congo, Conflict and Consumers

Image: ENOUGH Project
Image: ENOUGH Project

Given Rwanda’s status as an “aid darling” in the eyes of Western donors (who like to present the country’s social and economic progress since the genocide in 1994 as a triumph of foreign aid), the suspension of aid by several donors in 2012 delivered a strong message. The suspension was a response to UN findings that Rwanda was arming and supporting a violent uprising by rebel group M23 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

In what looks like a positive development, the Congolese army declared victory over M23 on November 5th, 2013; putting an end to a bloody deadlock that it had been engaged in since April 2012. Although the Congolese effort was buoyed by significant support from a UN peacekeeping mission in the country (which had a mandate to use deadly force), the decisive factor in the victory is being attributed to Rwanda’s decision to pull the plug on its support of M23. Maybe international pressure had the desired effect.

But in terms of changing the fortunes of a country where a scramble for resources has become intertwined with ongoing poverty, conflict, and mass rape, is it enough to focus solely on the local and regional actors involved? In other words: are we in the West looking closely enough at our own role in fuelling the conflict?

In theory, the Congo should be a very wealthy country. In addition to its abundant supply of water and fertile soil, it sits on a vast store of valuable minerals, including oil, diamonds, tantalum, tungsten, gold, and the ores that produce tin. The latter four of those minerals are used in electronic devices such as mobile phones and computers that are sold worldwide.

The tragic reality is that the Congo is followed only by Niger at the bottom of the Human Development Index. In a country ravaged by poverty, more than five million people have died as a result of conflict since 1998, and millions of others have been raped. At the same time, militias earn hundreds of millions of dollars each year by smuggling conflict minerals to neighbouring countries, from where they are shipped abroad and smelted.

The implication is clear. Consumers of electronic devices (myself included), the substantial majority of which live in developed economies, are fuelling the conflict in the Congo and financing its perpetrators and the atrocities they carry out.

Producers of electronic devices, such as Apple, claim that they have little control over whether or not conflict minerals are used in their products. They argue that the supply chains are too complex for transparency because of the number of actors involved. Without transparent supply chains, these companies cannot guarantee to consumers that the products they sell are free from conflict minerals.

Is it good enough to say “it’s too complex” and leave it at that? I don’t think so. I find it hard to believe that electronics giants like Apple, who pride themselves on being innovative market leaders, would not be able to respond to market pressure to ensure their products are conflict mineral-free.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time that consumer pressure resulted in changes in the supply chain policies of large corporations. In the 1990s Nike was forced through pressure from its customers to address the use of child labor in its factories. Earlier this month, Coca-Cola announced that it would cut off any suppliers that do not follow guidelines designed to protect the land rights of rural communities.

While there an obvious need for a coordinated effort to address how we source minerals in the Congo, fortunately some action is being taken. The ENOUGH Project, which has worked extensively on the issue of conflict minerals, argues that through tracing, auditing and certification, companies can ensure that the minerals they source are not coming from mines controlled by armed groups. In addition, the organisation has launched a campaign, Raise Hope for Congo, which aims to build awareness of the role of conflict minerals in the conflict, and to develop policy recommendations for the U.S government. Have a look at the video below for some more information.