Entries tagged with “United Nations”.


Last week, I published a short editorial in Scientific American’s SA Forum online that decried the near-total lack of organization or prioritization in the Sustainable Development Goals/Global Goals/whatever they are called this week. My argument was simple: by not ordering or prioritizing goals, the SDGs

risk becoming an empty exercise that empowers business as usual in the field of global development.

At the conclusion of that piece, I suggested that the only way to avoid this outcome was to find actors who were able to demand organization and prioritization among these goals – principally the big bilateral donors like USAID and DfID, or perhaps the Gates foundation (which, on expenditures, comes in around the world’s sixth-largest donor organization).

I’ve been taken to task a few times by colleagues for this suggestion. These rather polite and professional interventions (I know, not at all like the internet I’ve come to expect) pointed out that I’d empowered the big donors, with their problematic, often Eurocentric framings of development and how to achieve it, to act as the saviors of development via the SDGs. Given my rather clear critical stance with regard to these framings of development (most clearly articulated in Delivering Development, but generally present in most of the stuff I write), I think some folks were mystified by my logic. So allow me to clarify:

When we refuse to define terms, organize concepts or efforts, or engage in the politics necessary to set priorities, we are not apolitical: we are empowering other political agendas. The basic argument of my op-ed was simple: by not making hard decisions, we have empowered a particular political agenda, one that leaves development in a business-as-usual situation. Therefore, I see nearly any effort at locking down priorities and organizing efforts as superior to no prioritization at all, because any effort to set priorities will accomplish two things:

First, it will bring politics to the fore, and we will all be forced to wrestle with what we want to prioritize and why.

Second, it will lock down the meanings of the different terms we use (i.e. sustainable, well-being, secure) in such a way that they can become sites where politics can happen.

What do I mean by this? If, as we have done to this point, we refuse to define what we mean by sustainable (for example), we create a conceptual container that can be filled by nearly any definition, policy, program, project, or activity. It allows completely contradictory efforts to coexist and cancel each other out, without providing a base from which to contest any or all of these efforts. When there are no definitions, everything using a given term can be seen as equally valid. Similarly, if we refuse to prioritize our efforts, organizations can fill their efforts to meet the SDGs with almost any hodgepodge of policies, programs, projects, or activities…and will likely do so in a manner that mirrors their current emphases, funding, and staffing structures. Thus, organizations could set up completely contradictory agendas, with associated material efforts, and be seen as making equally valid efforts to address the SDGs in the eyes of the donors and the public. There is no way to contest the way one organization or another does its business if there are no definitions or priorities from which to work.

This does not mean that I think any particular donor organization will save the SDGs by setting the agenda we need to move forward. All are mired in their own internal and/or national politics, and therefore will push for agendas that most clearly reflect their own strengths and priorities. Further, most donor organizations do, in fact, operate from rather problematic, Eurocentric framings of the world, for example in their continuing inability to recognize the genius of small farmers who already negotiate uncertain environments and economies. As I have written about at length, in the eyes of most donor organizations these farmers are poor and helpless in the face of these large forces, and in need of help/saving/education. As a result, the donors cannot identify the things that these farmers really need (which are often a lot more narrow than a total reworking of their agricultural systems) and, even worse, they cannot learn from the things these farmers already know about how to best manage their agricultural, economic, and social environments.

So no, I don’t think the donors will save us…directly. But if one or more are willing to step up and impose politics on this process, they will create a process by which terms gain definition, and efforts are prioritized. When these meanings become fixed, it becomes possible to engage them and contest them, to actually have a conversation about what development is, and what it should be. Right now, we can just hold hands, say words like sustainability, and watch a nice concert together, all the while operating under the illusion that we have the same goals, and that we are working toward those goals in the same ways. That gets us nowhere. I want a development world where we are forced to recognize that different organizations and individuals prioritize different things, have different visions of the future, and different means of moving us toward those visions. Further, I want a development world where we have to struggle with the fact that what organizations want may have little to do with what the global poor want. That is what the SDGs could have given us.

It is too late to make the SDGs’ 17 goals and 169 targets a site of real development politics. But all is not lost: over one thousand initiatives have been set up to meet these targets and achieve these goals, and many more are coming. This is where the goals will become impacts on the ground. If we can create a real politics of development around these initiatives by organizing and prioritizing them, perhaps we can recover the SDGs as a site from which we can build a truly transformative agenda for development.

The US has finally imposed sanctions on the Gbagbo government in Ivory Coast.  This won’t accomplish anything.  Take the response of the Ivorian Interior Minister (via allAfrica.com):

A top adviser to Gbagbo has said the sanctions are “a threat” to Cote d’Ivoire and his interior minister told RFI the measures “make me smile.”

Of course they do – this is just what Gbagbo and his people wanted – now they have evidence of “outside interference” in Ivorian affairs which they can mobilize as a rallying point for patriotism – and in so doing, relegitimize Gbagbo as the defender of the country.

While it is interesting that Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs William Fitzgerald is leaving military intervention on the table as an option, note that he has effectively ruled out US military engagement:

He said it was unlikely that U.S. troops would participate if that option was taken and that it was more likely to be an African force.

This is not a threat.  ECOMOG, the armed monitoring group of ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States), was able to retake Freetown in Sierra Leone during that civil war, but could do little else.  And that was a relatively successful intervention in a much smaller country.  This is like threatening to hit someone, but only with a nerf bat – annoying, but not really terrifying.

This has gone too far down the road now – someone is going to have to commit real troops to this conflict, and quickly – the UN peacekeepers won’t be able to hold the line much longer.

Cote d’Ivoire gets a bit dicier, as the UN declares Ouattara the winner in the presidential election.  Russia was concerned about issues of sovereignty in this vote (of course they are – they have their own fairly entertaining electoral issues), but Gbagbo’s theft was so blatant, and so quickly condemned by the Economic Community of West Africa (ECOWAS), that it took remarkably little time to get everyone on board here.  Well, that and Cote d’Ivoire doesn’t yet have viable oil or other resources anyone absolutely must have, so this turns out to be fairly “low stakes” for the Security Council.  Not so much for the Ivorians, of course.

Why is this decision, so clearly rooted in facts, possibly problematic?  Well, the likelihood is that Gbagbo will try to use this decision to rally his support around the “meddling of foreigners in Ivorian affairs” (or something to that effect).  Nationalism can be an ugly tool, and in this case the subtle argument will be that to support Ouattara is to cave in to foreign pressure, to sell out the country.  Once you have set this argument in motion, it is pretty easy for the situation to turn violent, as the fight becomes about nationalism, not candidates.  Hopefully the UN and ECOWAS are prepared to move quickly here, as their statements will likely precipitate this sort of crisis.  If not, we could see a resumption of armed conflict with great potential for regional spread (Sierra Leone and Liberia are still recovering from an earlier civil war/cross-border conflict).  Public pronouncements only do half the job – but create an awful lot of responsibility to which we must live up.