A couple of years ago, I had the priviledge to facilitate learning processes in the context of an international classroom setting. In those years I started a blog space called Walks and Talks, inviting experts and international students to contribute their perspectives. Reviewing some of these blogs I realised how advanced these ideas were and how relevant still today. The last contribution to Walks and Talks came from Mulugeta Dejenu, at the time an expert in Self Organised Learning from Ethiopia. While asking Mulugeta if he would be okay with republishing his contribution he responded: "I forgot how and when I wrote the bove. I read it through and still preserved the warmth it had a few years ago. .Self Organized Learning is an area that I enjoyed and wanted to expand. (...) It is a course that has to be supported in the future to challenge our robotic behaviour of learning."
In a struggle to give shape to learning processes, Mulugeta and his colleagues were far ahead of many of us working in development cooperation. These are voices from the past that are worth reconsidering and put to use today counting on the possibilities of tomorrow.
By Mulugeta Dejenu
Capacity needs have systemic roots and are not isolated or standalone problems but rather interconnected parts reinforcing each other. This implies that capacity needs are interconnected and have to be addressed from a systemic point of view and not unilaterally based on a “wish list” of donors. How do we do that? What capacity is lacking? What are its systemic roots? How can effective learning being enhanced? How can we stimulate effective learning? These important questions will lead us to the basic philosophy of human learning.
Over the last decade partner capacity assessments were done at different times, formally and informally with the purpose to identify key areas of support. The assessments that were done were mostly linear in their thinking, heavily focused on assessing gaps and suggesting unilateral solutions despite the capacity problems being systemic. Assessments often end up with endless wish lists. Those wish lists are often given to comply with or make happy those who made the request for them. The wish lists may not necessarily represent what the learners want. Solutions to capacity gaps are often addressed mainly through trainings, the topic, design and delivery of which were decided by the assessor of the capacity needs and not by the learner himself. This often leads to learners attending learning events that they do not want. From stakeholders perspective the impact of such training was not often as effective as needed.
Capacity development is not about imparting skills and knowledge only but changing behaviours and practices to sustain them. It is the understanding of the key drivers of capacity development (CD) that makes the difference. Capacity Development is finding the right foci and a model that works and finding the right tools to support the modality, sustain it and scaling it. Again the drivers of CD inter alia are the intrinsic motivation people have to learn, where the energy and the desire come from the activity of learning itself and not from outside where it is extrinsically pushed. It is the liberty that learners have to be given to decide on their learning purposes (choices) and strategies that bring about change of behaviour and practices in human learning and not deciding what is best for them from without.
"our learning purposes are negotiated from within our workplace, private or social life and determined based on their relevance to us as we see them fit and not someone from outside deciding for us"
Learning is about being aware of one’s processes (task or learning processes), putting our customized behaviour of learning into conscious awareness. The freedom and choice to learn challenges our usual learning skills and enhances adaptive and reflective learning practices. This is because, our learning purposes are negotiated from within our workplace, private or social life and determined based on their relevance to us as we see them fit and not someone from outside deciding for us. Not only is the purpose of learning determined by the learners but the strategy and the evaluation criteria that they develop to monitor their own learning (the outcomes) and the review that they make at the end of each learning cycle.
This brings us to the Personal Learning Contract (PLC) that the learner develops as opposed to the “wish lists” that do not in the majority of cases seem not to have direct relevance to what the learners want to learn about. The learning conversation that the learner makes within his mind and with his colleagues brings out his mental model “schemata” for others to critique it and in the process of which new insights and new meanings (learning) are formed.
Learning is about a change of schemata or mental representations. It is an inference with evidence from experience, behaviour and can be nurtured through learning conversations and continual support. It is personal and can be accessed by the learner himself and to others when it becomes explicit during learning conversations. The learner can always access training as a resource in the pursuit of his own learning deciding which training courses he would like to attend (not imposed on him) and may also be shown in his strategy (PLC) of acquiring new skills in preferred fields. Those may not necessarily be the same as the external stakeholders have in mind.
What a thought-provoking piece that would sit ery well with today's development debate around localization, shifting the power and decolonizing aid. A refreshing perspective from the so called South, challenging the North not to push their own agenda's when doing capacity development or strengthening civil society for that matter. A plea for self-determination also in terms of what to learn about and for what purpose, which results from actively negotating the individual, social, economical, political and moral. It is aimed at acquiring knowledge that builds on lived experience, embraces academic expedience and furthers sustainable and inclusive development.
Last year, on this blog I published the CIVICUS civic space monitor. Recently, CIVICUS published an update, with civic space quickly disappearing. And if you are an expert on civic space that is an alarming statistic. However, if you are a civilian in the highlands of Ethiopia, civic space is probably the last thing on your mind. Your worries concern the amount of rain and the changing seasonality of it. Or the presence of a locust swarm that eats away your crop. Or that your labour force to harvest the crop is consumed by an armed struggle for self-determination, for better or worse.
This may be the situation that a lot of people we met on the road last year may find themselves in during this harvest season. During Christmas holidays as a family we traveled through the highlands of Ethiopia and saw the grain being harvested and the oxes doing their threshing work while others were winnowing the grain by hand with help of the wind. In such a context what is the relevance of civic space? Has the current armed struggle anything to do with civic space, or the lack thereof? Or is something else at play? To answer this question one needs to dig deep into the history of people and places to understand first of all whose space we talk about and secondly how it links to the threshing and winnowing of grain. Screaming loudly about shrinking civic space, as many are doing, may not be the best strategy to get the message across unless you have a clear perspective whose space we are talking about; why we should pay attention to this space; how it is shrinking; and how it affects people's lives to finally arrive at the question: What can be done about it?
During our trip last year we took note of the rich history of the Ethiopian highlands by seeing historic sites like Lalibela, Axum and Gondar enjoying marvelous beauty of nature and landscapes and friendly people. I cannot help but share a few pictures below. And though I had heard of the many changes to the road system in Ethiopia (including in its capital Addis Ababa) I was still surprised to find out how a journey from Addis to Dessie that 15 years ago took me a minimum of ten hours over a poorly maintained road was reduced to a six hours journey over a nicely paved road. The drivers were quick to point to all the new factories and/or horticultural farms that had sprung up during recent years and that had significantly influenced the local social economy, bringing a better standard of living for many formerly landless labourers.
As we ventured out into the rural area of the highlands of Ethiopia it was harvest season and the grain had been collected and was threshed by the hoofs of oxes and donkeys, with Ethiopian men and women supporting them to keep going. This was mostly done on hilly places where they could subsequently easily separate the wheat from the chaff by just throwing it in the air, the so called winnowing. It struck me that this was still common place in most of the highland area of Ethiopia where mechanization was neither an option nor a desire for the small holder farmer.
Back in the Netherlands I found myself at a New Years reception at our Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Our Minister of Foreign Affairs did his level best to motivate us for the coming year to make a difference and not to forget about the perspective of the potato farmer in remote North-Holland whose export depended on our efforts to broker good export deals. During the Q&A session that followed I felt the need to also bring on board the perspective of the high-land farmer in Ethiopia that I had just met on the road. I of course referenced the 500.000 Ethiopian farmers that we had tried to improve productivity of (see 2018 Dutch development results report) and the close to 4 million households we had helped to stay food secure through a productive safety net program run by the Ethiopian government.
So back to the question: Whose space are we talking about when we say that civic space is shrinking? Is it the small-holder farmer who sees his ancestral lands being taken from him with some financial compensation and leased to a foreign investor for a significant period of time, which is most of the time considered to be in the best public interest? Or is it the space of the factory worker who requires good labour conditions from the foreign investor, who was attracted by the availability of cheap labour? Or is it the space of the investor himself? Asking the question is also answering it. Each of them would benefit from increased civic space and all of them have seen it shrinking. Hence we may be talking about competing spaces. So let us examine, how does civic space look like for each of them.
Civic space, according to Wikipedia, is "created by a set of universally-accepted rules, which allow people to organise, participate and communicate with each other freely and without hindrance, and in doing so, influence the political and social structures around them". However it continues to say: "It is a concept central to any open and democratic society and means that states have a duty to protect people while respecting and facilitating the fundamental rights to associate, assemble peacefully and express views and opinions." What if these rights are exercised by different groups with competing interests?
The farmers who have a customary right to cultivate the land and have organized themselves, possibly with some public or private support, in cooperatives. They are facing the challenges of shrinking rural space for an expanding population. Lands may have seen over cultivation, and succession has been problematic since youngsters have been allowed to go to school and have come to know about other ways to earn a living that may allow them to explore the world a bit further.
The landless people who did go out to the cities in search of employment were happy to find some employment in neighbouring commercial farms or factories. However, the salaries are just enough to live and too much to die and there are long working ours, whereas they still carry memories of low-season with abundant time to enjoy life. Finally there are those who remain unemployed for whom not a proper job exists and who lack the skills to create a job for themselves, hence they have to rely on petty trade and amongst them many girls may sell their bodies in order to feed their sibblings. In the meantime factory owners are facing increasing insecurity due to the large number of unemployed people that have to go out and steal their living together. Hence, how can all these spaces be negotiated when their interests seem to be so much in conflict with one another and peaceful co-existence seems impossible?
Underpinning civic space is a strong social contract between governments and citizens. Shrinking space is often caused by a deteriorating social contract. Awareness about the lack of space or the absence of a social contract when investing in a developing country should be at the center of support provided to Dutch entrepreneurs who are venturing out into these for them unknown territories. Rebuilding that social contract as part of the investment strategy should be part of the equation and would be a great risk mitigation measure. In Ethiopia I have seen some entrepreneurs doing that very successfully, to the extend that local communities defended farms that were under attack of angry mobs of youngsters that lacked local opportunities and felt deserted by their own government. Also governments could invest in a better dialogue around utilization of natural resources and how to best serve the interest of the people. This dialogue should be supported by evidence about current land-use practices, as not all interests are always considered. Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships could be established with public and private entities meeting around some of these wicket problems and negotiating a solution that works for everyone.
In the end the what is civic space boils down to the question: whose space are we talking about and could space of one group be limiting the space of others? Who should be mediating the potential conflicts? Here I do see a role for governments, civil society organisations and knowledge institutions, doing fact-finding missions around these conflicts. This may help re-establish a social contract that increasingly also needs to be made between different groups of people within society and governing bodies taking more of a facilitating role. In the end, awareness may raise that conflict will jeopardize everyone's space and will always provide a sub-optimal solution as conflict breeds conflict. Having a clear understanding of different histories of people and a clear view on the competing interests and having all of them considered at the decision-making table in a transparent and open manner may help to keep civic space open for everyone and make it productive towards a stronger social contract.
In the end we have to live together in this world where there still is enough for everyone. However, also at global level this requires a new social contract between different people groups that allows us to know each other's history, coming to terms with the disparities that seperated us in the past and present and plan together for a more just global future where burdens are shared and challenges are faced together to the benefit of all.
These are unusual times that demand unorthodox answers to the challenges we are facing. Yesterday evening our Prime Minister Mark Rutte made a very clear statement that has been long overdue since the outbreak of the Corona crisis. He first of all acknowledged the impact on children and youth of the crisis we have at hand as a global community. He then praised our kids and youth for their way of coping with the crisis and he ended with a clear invite to youth to participate in developing proper responses to the Pandemic. He also ordered our Mayors in all ciities to ensure youth is involved in thinking about solutions. The picture above, which illustrated youth participation in decision-making only a couple of months ago, just goes to show how their lives have been impacted dramatically.
What a great way to engage the next generation, who have seen their prospects vanish in a very short time-span. Still, what a resilience youth is still showing. In my direct environment I am witnessing pregnancies, births, couples that make life-long commitments to each other, young people buying houses etc. Teenagers continuing their side-jobs in supermarkets and not refraining from filling the shelves while taking precautionary measures as prescribed by their employers while continuing their education online. They still connect with study-mates and take part in online sessions with study-friends while planning for their summer holidays to spend time with each other or doing something useful for society. In doing so, they signal to us how the world keeps turning though entire nations are held in lock-downs. Live goes on and life-impacting-decisions are taken despite an insecure environment and an unforeseeable future. Possessing the so called 21st century skills in abundance, would they not be best positioned to help us navigate a way out of the crisis?
From June 1 onward, I have been asked to join a team in our Ministry that will support colleagues from thematic departments and selected civil society alliances to amplify in particular voices of youth, women and marginalized groups and to aim for safeguarding and strengthening civic space for the purpose of inclusive sustainable development. Something I have been advocating for since I have started this blog. What a privilege to be able to do so.
We do witness both a global re-emergence of the state as a health and security provider and science stepping up in trying to bring the evidence to the table to understand patterns of the current pandemic while businesses alter their business models and find ways to mobilize technical support in finding solutions. We also see a vibrant civil society where people are helping each other to stay safe, going about their daily affairs somehow and adhere to rules that have been set and limit our freedom in public places. It is still early days to evaluate the effect this will have on global civic space. However, the pandemic did bring a new togetherness that we have not experienced for a long time illustrating the need to better work together internationally and learn from each other.
Everyone is to give their best to overcome this crisis and also deal effectively with other crises that are still present at individual or communal level or those that are looming around the corner, like climate change. Like our Prime Minister I strongly believe young people can really help us out in developing lasting solutions. If we would only listen and include them in ongoing change processes.
In the past couple of months I had some time to reflect on ten years of working with civil society organizations for humanitarian aid and development cooperation, while getting up to speed with my role at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs focusing on aid effectiveness.
During my time working with civil society I have used Pestoff's triangle to conceptualize civil society space. It consists of three boundaries that separate the public and private domains, the for-profit and not-for-profit domains and the formal and informal domains. I came across this model in a partnership policy document of ICCO while preparing for a grant application back in 2010. It has since been a handy tool in furthering the dialogue around good governance, sustainable entrepreneurship and responsible citizenship.
I discovered that also others have used it to identify spaces where public-private partnerships may emerge and to argue why civil society should be part of the equation (like Avelino & Wittmayer, 2014). However, during the last two years working with Tearfund, a faith-based NGO (FBO), I failed to demonstrate the relevance of the model to the overal theory of change of Tearfund and help them increase their engagement with institutional actors like market players and government agencies.
Models like the one of Pestoff, find their origin in welfare state development policy and practice, with the state responsible for wealth redistribution. It insufficiently pays attention to indigenous institutions and/or faith systems which also deeply influence people's behavior and how they act as citizen, NGO-worker, entrepreneur or civil servant. Public agencies and secular NGOs increasingly realize that the domain of faith contains transformative power and is worth exploring. It is very much part of reality for a majority of people in developing countries (see a.o. contributions by Brenda Bartelink). It helps people to have a purpose driven life. Tacit knowledge, derived from these faith systems or oral traditions, may at times outweigh academic arguments in their ability to support or obstruct change. Observations are expanded from the known physical world into the unknown spiritual world with both worlds carrying competing truth claims influencing people's hopes and fears and giving them a sense of purpose.
Adding science and conscience domains
To accommodate both tacit knowledge as well as academic knowledge, I propose to add a knowledge dimension to Pestoff's model. It adds two domains to the model, the domain of science and the domain of conscience, with a hybrid space in between. The conscience domain has been developed over centuries of human experience and transfers from one generation to the next and stretches out from the known into the unknown. It is enshrined in holy texts and has been codified in declarations like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Faith in whatever form or shape extends the furthest into this unknown territory, claiming a kind of knowledge that is based on a revelation of divine promises and rather validated by human experience than by scientific proof.
Inclusion of both knowledge dimension turns the Pestoff model into a 3D model adding a fourth hybrid boundary between academic and tacit knowledge that also constitutes civil society. Civil society is the space where both people's value systems as well as academic research contribute to a global conscience that leads to negotiated goal setting. In yhis space academic knowledge has a role in validating some of the knowledge derived from tacit knowledge while also exposing flaws in thinking. Likewise tacit knowledge may put necessary restrain on scientific advancement, where research objectives have no societal contribution or where research methods are considered unethical.
Islands of predictability
The Sustainable Development Goals were born in this space and serve as reference points for our global conscience. Especially governments and companies aiming for short-term profits will be quick to question the realism of these promises and would prefer others to deliver on them first. Philosopher Hannah Arendt already stated in her best seller The Human Condition that international treaties serve as "islands of predictability in oceans of insecurity" (Hannah Arendt 1957). in order for the SDGs to be delivered on, civic space needs to be maintained and increased as much as possible aiming for convergence of objectives from the other domains towards sustainable development.
Can we measure changes in civil society space?
Mathematically it remains virtually impossible to calculate the size of civil society space, which has been a challenge as long as the concept exists. Boundaries of civil society remain blurred on each of the dimensions with a lot of hybrid space surrounding it. Hence the model still won't resolve the challenge of measuring civil society space. Nevertheless I hope this adapted version of the Pestoff triangle helps in furthering the thinking on aid effectiveness, paying due attention to the contributions of both academia and indigenous knowledge and/or faith systems and actors while developing common goals that will help shape a purpose driven international development practice.
In the past week leaders met in New York to reflect on progress on Agenda 2030 during the High Level Policy Forum on Sustainable Development. While implementing Agenda 2030 the potential power of purpose cannot be overestimated.
Development cooperation is known for approaches that value goal setting. Many practitioners in development cooperation are quite familiar with the logical framework approach (which was developed by USAID in the sixtees). I got it introduced to me in a Project Cycle Management course by MDF in the ninetees. where it was called Objective Oriented Programme Planning (OOPP). It was introduced to me with its German name ZOPP: Zielorientierte Projektplanung.
I could not find an etymological connection between the German word Ziel and the English word zeal, which originates from the greek word Zelos that is understood as the fervour or tireless devotion for a person, cause, or ideal and determination in its furtherance. The German word "Ziel", which is translated as goal or destination, still pays tribute to what I consider an important contributor to achieving results: The willingness to get there.
Rhineland and Anglo-Saxon features
The Logical Framework approach has been considered too rigid though its planning rigor has been widely recognized. What is often forgotten is that the approach was to be complemented by a proper problem analysis to establish the interlinkages between symptoms, problems and root causes. A so called problem tree is an important intermediate step in developing a logical framework . And according to the German ZOPP it is to be informed by a SWOP analysis. Yes this is not a typo. It is again a subtle difference between the Rhineland and Anglo-Saxon approach in managing for results. SWOP is used in Germany and stands for Strength, Weaknesses, Obstacles and Potentials. Here again I like the German choice of words over the Anglo-Saxon SWOT analysis that uses Opportunities and Threats instead. A preference for flow and energy over a rather opportunistic and defensive winner-takes-all approach. This approach is also favoured by Brian Levy in his book "Working with the grain. Integrating Governance and Growth in Development Strategies" that he wrote in 2014, partly inspired by Douglas North's "'adaptive efficiency". Levy articulates an approach to development that is more considerate to chaos. Levy introduces the book as an exploration on the meeting of theory and action. This is also a critical element in a Theories of Change approach where assumptiona are a more pronounced part of the intervention logic and also subject to monitoring. A "with-the-grain" approach conceptualizes change in an evoluationary rather than an engineering way.o
The deliberations in New York showed that the critical mass has not been mobilised yet, resulting in insufficient progress on many of the Sustainable Development Goals. In Theories of Change assumptions are made a.o. on contributions of others, finances being leveraged, capacity being developed or already in place etc. However, what if these assumption turn out to be false. What if sufficient money is available but not sufficient capacity to deliver? Going with the grain may not always work out well. It may be a good advise in change trajectories that only require minor corrections. However, what if radical change is required? Will the world be able to get their acts together or is everyone looking to each other for making the first move? Increasingly citizens turn away from governments as they no longer belief they are of much help in protecting the public goods. How can confidence in the multilateral system and governments in general be restored and public interest regain its primacy over individual country ambitions or personal gain?
Unified country cooperation frameworks
It is good to see that the UN finally has embarked on unified country development frameworks using a Theory of Change approach. The aspiration is to deal effectively with vested interests of individual UN agencies. Most importantly it should lead to a country-lead results framework that will improve mutual accountability while honouring alignment and country ownership ambitions that were already formulated in Paris back in 2005. If the UN will be successful in doing so, it is up to the bilaterals to follow suit, and ensure that their efforts support country systems and the multilaterals in a common strive to deliver on the Sustainable Development Goals.
In the context of international development cooperation this will require from individual agencies as well as individual countries to put cooperation and collaboration ahead of competition and organizational or national interests. A true recognition of ones own limitations is as important as knowing the specific value add one can bring to the table.
Mobilizing all resources
Despite the efforts to bring different resources and capacities together for a common cause, something else seems to be needed on top of it. This something else may be closer to a common purpose than a common cause. Could there be alternative futures to the doom and gloom scenario's that currently dominate the discourse? This is where the theory of change approach comes in strongly as a tool to formulate desired outcomes. It is not only about the results we achieve, but it is first and foremost to what outcomes they contribute.
A purpose driven development cooperation needs to tap into all people's resources, including abilities, intellect, ambitions, inspirations and hopes. Like the poster of a basketball player my son used to have at the wall of his bedroom with a quote of Ralph Emerson: "The task ahead of us is never as great as the power behind us."
Today and yesterday were the days of Pentecost. The days that many churches around the world commemorate the descend of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles and other followers of Jesus. Though for many development professionals from Western societies this reality is something from a distant past, it represents spiritual capital that many other countries still have in abundance.
I was pointed to the term spiritual capital by a colleague involved in the third SDG status report of the Netherlands. The report mentions having a philosophy of life as an important driving force for action. It was acknowledged that attention to this aspect has long been overlooked in sustainable development policy-making. Interest in spiritual capital is on the rise according to the authors of the report. Religions have traditions of poverty reduction, healthcare and education. Pope Fransiscus and 'green Patriarch' Bartholomeüs were mentioned in relation to their call on believers and non-believers for ecological and social responsibility.
Back in 2014 the Dalai Lama paid a visit to our country with a message about education of the heart which challenged the way our education systems are wired. According to the Dalai Lama our educational systems are oriented mainly toward material values and training one’s understanding. But reality teaches us that we do not come to reason through understanding alone. We should place greater emphasis on inner values.
Faith may also be an obstructing force as was mentioned in the same SDG report, as women and girls are often denied opportunities for self efficiacy as a result of religious norms. In my own church denomination in the Netherlands for instance only this year functions like pastor, elder or deacon were opened up for women. Though for some this illustrates the slow pace for change within faith systems, it also demonstrates that emancipatory forces do not by-pass the church. Change will come inevitably. The question is: do we have spiritual literacy to mobilise spiritual capital for achieving sustainable development outcomes? Knowing that 80% of the world's population would call themselves religious this seems to me a very relevant question.
Religion and development
The Amsterdam Centre for Religion and Sustainable Development at the Free University will bring out an annual report on religion and development under leadership of Prof. Dr. Azza Karam. Dr. Karam served recently as senior advisor on social and cultural development at UNFPA, where she coordinated the outreach with faith-based partners. The Dutch-Egyptian influencer was also chairing the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion and Development that brings out an annual report on Faith linkages to the UN containing an impressive list of resources.
‘At present our educational systems are oriented mainly toward material values and training one’s understanding. But reality teaches us that we do not come to reason through understanding alone. We should place greater emphasis on inner values' Dalai Lama
It seems the Netherlands is just waking up to the potential of its spiritual capital. For long faith-based NGOs were treated with some healthy suspicion as they were known for missions intertwined with proselytism, which remains a key-exclusion phrase in allocating government subsidies. However, what spiritual capital did we lose in the process? Could faith be an entry point for change? Which values are formed and what behavior is learned and what new insights are gained in the realm of faith that can be leveraged for sustainable development?
UNFPA has since long recognized the need to engage with faith actors when it comes to issues around family planning, stigma and discrimination, sexuality education and the like. In 2009 they developed guidelines to help their staff engaging with faith based organizations as agents of change, which they considered vital for implementing the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994. More recently a new Partnership for Religion and Development (PaRD) has been created, providing for an interface between faith-based NGOs and the donor community.
Putting spiritual capital to use
There is a danger however in mobilizing spiritual capital for developmental purposes. In a sense organizing special conferences or side-events around religion and development could contribute to a siloed approach to faith-based development as a special track, with a separate (often private) funding base and corresponding private accountability requirements. Lack of checks and balances within the church for instance caused religious clergy to exploit their constitutencies for their own material gain or to increase the wealth of the church administration. Many basilics across Europe testify to it. This has turned the church into one of the material power houses of this world. Today this orientation may still be found in Orthodox as well as Evangelical corners of the Christian landscape, from the Ethiopian Orthodox Church collecting from the general public for their majestic church buildings to the Evangelical Prosperity mega Churches in Nigeria that are very influential in West-African Christianity. However, the spiritual capital in most may be burried in the process. Christian communities could rediscover their spiritual capital and put it to use for the community as it has been there right from the beginning from the days of Pentecost: "They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need" (Acts 2:45). The purpose of giving clearly was not the church but were people in need. It is not that they sold everything, but they did get rid of abundance in order to provide for the needy and these initiatives spiraled out of control in the end becoming an existential threat to the Roman Empire.
Praying in spirit and truth
Studying contemporary and historic Christianity through these lenses helps to rediscover the spiritual capital hidden in faith itself. It requires religious literacy which in my case I somehow received in my Christian upbringing (with of course some terrific blind spots for potential contributions from Buddhism, Humanism, Islam and the like). For instance in the gospel story of John, where Jesus speaks to a Samaritan woman at Jacob's well in Samaria. Not only is it quite unusual that he speaks to a woman, it is even a woman from a different ethnic group (the Samaritans) with whom the Jews of his days were not on speaking terms. However, the conversation quickly tells her that she is talking to a prophet, which makes her ask the burning religious question of those days: Where to pray? In Jerusalem or in Samaria? Jesus' answer is even more remarkable and still carries meaning for our days of pentecost: True worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. These words go way deeper than an answer to an obvious relevant question at the time. This answer helps me even today reaching out to other faiths and world religions. In fact while living in India and Egypt and later in Ethiopia I have discovered praying in spirit and truth is potentially available to every human being, even if it takes the shape of a curse or condemnation.
Creation or evolution, a matter of truth or spirit?
In the past year, within our church community, some people had quite an issue with a sermon that our pastor held in September 2017 combining the story of Genesis with evolutionary approaches in helping us to further our understanding of the first chapters of the Bible. Not by comparing and contrasting them to finally point to one option. But to accept both the revealing power of the Holy Scripture confirming God's acts of creation as well as acknowledging years of scientific studies into evolutionary principles and academic insights derived from it. Not so long ago a sermon like this would confront the believer with a choice for either the creation story or the evolution theory. Nowadays, both perspectives may co-exist, with academic insights complementing theological perspectives and even deepening appreciation of the complexity of creation and the evolutionary processes that are part of it. Knowledge and faith going together mutually re-enforcing each other.
How to bring spiritual resources on board?
Having worked with a wide variety of development actors I have sensed the Spirit at work in many hearts of committed colleagues, disregarding their religious background or personal convictions. I have no difficulty in finding common cause with a progressive humanist who would be at the barricades for the acceptance of sexual minorities nor with a Muslim colleague working for a humanitarian aid agency.
I am in favour of a radical inclusive approach. My ideal international development organization would include people from all walks of life engaged both in aid provision or development work, working side by side, each tapping their own personality, intellect, skills and spiritual resources being able to connect to different groups in society. Also on the receiving end I would like to see people regaining dignity and rediscovering their god-given potential and therefore local capacity (from whatever ethnic, social or religious grouping) would always need to receive primacy over external technical support. That support should be indiscriminatory, knowledge driven and culturally-sensitive, value based and implemented in accordance with internationally recognized standards of impartiality and aid effectiveness, in particular when it comes to humanitarian aid. I belief I have recently joined such an agency, that I am happy to be part of and contribute my perspective to while learning from others.
The debate as to how aid is to be provided and how one is to be aided will never end I suppose. In the Netherlands we are blessed with a sector quarterly (Vice Versa) that also brings out special editions. Though media neutrality may be questioned a bit, since these special editions are sponsored by particular aid agencies wanting to spur the debate on a topic deemed relevant for their cause, it helps digging a bit deeper into specific subjects. This Spring's edition is entirely devoted to Change the Game Academy, a programme of Wilde Ganzen (Wild Geese).
Change the Game Academy is supporting local organizations to amplify their voice in local advocacy efforts, signaling the increased attention paid to local game changing capacity and home-grown civil society development. The question that came to my mind is: "Is the game really changing and if it is, who are really changing the game?". What is certainly changing is organizations advertising each other's approaches. ICCO introduces the Change the Game Academy of Wilde Ganzen on its web site as follows: "Change the Game Academy is an innovative program that helps civil society organizations all over the world, mainly in the global south, to learn to raise funds locally and to mobilize other kinds of support". This is not just a nice guesture of a like minded agency, but it is the result of Dutch organizations working together in alliances as a means to access co-funding from the Dutch government in what is called a strategic partnership. So question is: who is changing the game here?
Global civil society
Civil society is under pressure globally as Siri Lijfering reports in the same edition, as she is quoting the State of Civil Society Report of CIVICUS. Civil society has been understood as the arena between the public, the private (market) and the informal (family) domains where people advance common interests (Heinrich 2004:13). However, it appeared tough to quantify this space, despite attempts with a Civil Society Index. More recently the CSI has been replaced by a worldmap color coding civic space using five broad categories: closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed and open. It resembles the way in which FEWS-net tracks food insecurity around the world and helps in having a birds-eye view of civic space and where it is mostly contested. The word that features frequently in the CIVICUS report is 'power', fitting the concept of countervailing power that is often associated with civil society. However, as is illustrated by the narrative reporting on the state of democracy, (part 3 of the report) the likelihood of civil society being seen as supporting opposition forces is quite high.
In his contribution to the same Spring-edition of Vice Versa, Fons van der Velden, director of Context International Cooperation, argues that western models have dominated the discourse, stating that the traditional distinction between government, private sector and NGOs no longer holds with many hybrid organizational forms starting to emerge. Though I agree with his analysis, I would argue that maintaining analytical rigor helps in doing trend analysis. For instance having used the Pestoff Triangle with international students to identify the status of the civic space at home for many was an eye-opener in understanding the dynamics at play in their societies. Quite often these dynamics were a result of foreign interference. Western concepts of good governance and state building for instance have promulgated a certain governance that furthers the primacy of the state in favor of regional stability but at the expense of customary rights and self-determination by people groups that co-incidentally (and sometimes even temporarily) reside within national boundaries. In many instances this has turned the state into a predatory force against its own local people groups that have limited ability to protect themselves. In such instances it is justified to support opposition forces that try to tame the state and promote local and customary governance to take primacy over central governance. African election victories often serve to replace one minority government with another, as clientelism persists.
Our turn to eat
The underpinning 'Theory of Change' is best illustrated by the book "It's our turn to eat" written by Michela Wrong in 2009 and recording the story of whistle-blower John Githongo in the run-up to Kenya's elections in the end of 2007 (then Minister Agnes van Ardenne from the Netherlands reportedly being the only donor freezing aid over corruption concerns in 2006). From this book and its successive reviews and talks it is clear that donors are often as much part of the problem as they could be part of the solution. As the CIVICUS report illustrates, in Europe similar challenges are posed to democracy with right-wing groups capitalizing on feelings of loss of control, diminishing prospects for a meaningful life and fearing loss of identity. Added to that is a substantial European bureaucracy which is portrayed as a predatory force, that would not be inclined to sufficiently serve the interests of its individual member states. Question is of course: Are European policies predatory or do they serve a common interest that cannot be dealt with by individual states? The British people must realize by now (probably too late) that the latter also is at stake.
This same question will need an answer in settings in developing countries. Whose interests are being served? How is power being granted and how is it being used? This should also be asked about the added value of foreign agents (governments, companies or NGOs alike) in developing countries. Diplomatic missions clearly have a mandate to advance the interest of their governments and supporting their citizens working in the country concerned. However, what about the development wings residing in these same diplomatic missions, directly benefiting from diplomatic protection. Will they be able to see beyond their national interests and advance the interests of the target country with intervention strategies that serve their host countries' interests? Or has the aid agency turned into a trade agency where favors to governments in terms of development funding are exchanged for favorable trade deals? Can trade and aid really go together? And what to think of other nations with similar objectives having their entrepreneurs and citizens also benefiting from globalization and business opportunities abroad? It is indeed high time for the game to change. Van der Velden compares the current pack of development agencies to the orchestra on the Titanic that keeps playing while the ship is sinking. Van der Velden points to the need for innovation and the lack thereof with mainstream development agencies that still live by old paradigms. Learning and adaptation capacity is limited while according to van der Velden in essence the question that needs to be addressed is one of bringing together power and servanthood. As long as money exercises power over recipients of aid real reciprocity won't be an option, as also illustrated by the story of Ellen Mangnus in her column in the same volume where she discusses the financial support she still provides to her research assistant in Mali (while the job is already done). In order to break this deadlock van der Velden points in the direction of social impact bonds which would increase ownership for local aid agencies or social entrepreneurs. Question is: What remains of international development cooperation if it becomes evident that advancing local interest can only be done when local ownership is fully exercised? Indeed it becomes a privilege to be allowed to witness local innovation, entrepreneurship and development that is anchored in local capabilities and opportunities. Another question that comes to my mind is: Can we still speak of truly endogenous development or have external forces already been imprinting their 'development' trajectories onto local people group's?
Changing the terms of trade
Lastly, I won't see landlords giving up their privileged positions easily. In-equality is already as much built-in at national levels as it is globally. It is national governments that are often exploiting their own peoples, residing within their national boundaries and depriving them from their ancestral lands while tresspassing customary rights, making deals with predatory foreign investors, using scorched earth tactics while benefiting from impunity. The only power that can persuade them are the powers of market forces. If conscious consumers no longer buy their products they have to wield power. Elephants and rhino's will stay alive if Chinese demand for ivory would stop. Wars in central Africa will no longer be fought when only conflict-free coltan will be allowed access to the global market. Poor people will stop cutting trees if they are able to generate their energy or household income from more sustainable resources. For this global change of mindset the terms of trade should be re-established at a global level, induced by the sustainable development goals already agreed in New York. Results based financing should inspire sustainable trade deals and aid with lasting impact, thereby maximizing efficiencies in reaching them as time for change is running out.
Van der Velden observes four challenges: 1) North-South thinking still dominates the discourse while challenges have become global (climate change, stress migration, insecurity). 2) Underestimating local capacities for change 3) Lack of reciprocity in partnerships 4) Lack of expedience (or Theory of Efficiency), which according to van der Velden could be developed by increasing direct support to local agencies. While I support the first two challenges, I would argue that the other two challenges only go to illustrate the presence of the denounced North-South thinking. What is required in my view is quality global connections, preferably triangular of nature. Where the China-Africa axis is kept in-check by proper EU-China and EU-Africa relations for example, all combining sustainable aid and trade lenses. It should help deal with power differentials caused by differences in knowledge and expertise which are distributed over the various nodes of the network through triangulation and will need to be geared towards the preservation of the planet for future generations. This would require inclusion of actors of all hemispheres while acknowledging that resources to achieve the objectives are by nature shared resources (be it natural, financial, social, physical or human capital - compare the DFID Sustainable Livelihoods Framework, 2000).
Power and servanthood
This indeed requires a coming together of power and servanthood as is also the plea of van der Velden. I have seen such attitudes develop from relative close range with various agencies, including with Wilde Ganzen. Especially the younger generations are much more able to cross boundaries and collaborate, beyond organizational and institutional boundaries. Voices from the south are amplified to the north rather than the other way around. It is the realities that people are facing on the ground within the confinement of unfair production systems that is reaching the consumer nowadays mainly through their peers in networks that link them up locally as well as globally in close collaboration with media organizations. Peter van Lieshout in his advice to the Dutch government entitled "Less Pretention, More Ambition" already concluded in 2010 that the question about how investment in civil society contributes to development remains largely unresearched. However, I am pretty sure that one of the proxies to measure the strength of civil society is the number of quality connections between civil society actors and their international peers not marked by a contractual arrangement but rooting in a common drive for change. A localization agenda while global changes are sought after seems to me counterintuïtive to this ambition, despite the laudable purpose behind it. Increasingly we should stand togerher as civil society partners across the globe and call our governments to account and put pressure on industries through influencing consumer behavior. In turn this will lead to better global development outcomes which should be measured in terms of efficiency and effectiveness in the light of the global development goals as agreed in New York in 2015. I am glad to increasingly seeing diplomats wearing the sustainable development goals pin on their chests rather than their national flags. I hope that results based financing will indeed be expressed in terms of contribution to the realisation of these global objectives. As Rheticus, a 16th-century mathematician and cartographer, stated “if you can measure something, then you have some control over it.” Or as management guru Peter Drucker later stated slightly popularized: "What gets measured gets done."
Freely you have received, freely give
At a very local level in my home church I am happy to already witness traces of reversed 'aid', with Indian pastors coming over to the Netherlands in the coming month to teach our youth workers and share some of their experience with community outreach. This may sound a bit strange to secular ears, where misplaced fear of abuse of official development aid for purposes of proselytism abroad is nowadays replaced by fear of proselytism by foreign powers to spread their religion into our society in the Netherlands. Can you imagine how Dutch churches these days are in need of 'support' from their brothers and sisters in India to re-assess their own religious assets and re-value concepts like being a good neighbor, rather than sticking together as faith communities and taking care of one self and one another while forsaking the community they are part of?
I would therefore like to encourage Ellen Mangnus to continue her support to her Malinese research assistant when it continues to support his/her development and strengthens the mutuality of their relationship if she is willing to also receive the many blessings bestowed upon her in exchange for her financial gift. I recall my Indian friend telling me years after my parents donating a fridge to his family that he had prayed for me every day since. I wonder whose gift was greater.
- On May 24 Vice Versa organizes a debate on Changing the Game - details will follow soon -
The current political turmoil in the UK is just a display of the failure of the winner takes all approach that marks most of the UK's political debate. The only road ahead for Prime Minister May is to make it work with a deal that both sides of the house of commons can live with. But this is certainly not a done deal.
While the whole world is watching the Brits themselves have already turned away from government undertakings, having no interest in any live broadcast nor summaries in newspapers as I discovered during my visit to our UK office last week. Most of the people have no confidence in their MPs, who have shown not to be able to make the right choices on their behalf. This disability was best demonstrated by the Referendum that was held almost two and a half years ago by the then Prime Minister David Cameron. It was an election promise easily made, winning him the popular vote, but not having counted todays losses. May is adament that there are only two options: revoking article 50 and remain EU member (which would not respect the outcome of the referendum) or have a deal and leave the EU in an orderly fashion. However, just as much as the speaker of the house fails to restore order, May is unable to build bridges across the aisle, with Jeremy Corbyn refusing to speak to her about a deal as he wants to see her go. There is just one consensus across the ailse: Leaving without a deal is not an option. May has to produce a real 'bloody Mary' to break the deadlock in British politics.
Just like this most favored drink in the UK, a mix of tomato juice and vodka, May aims to deliver a compromise to the British people, mixing Brexiteers' desires with Remainers' wish lists into a new deal with the European Union. On both sides of this political divide are uneasy marriages of Tories and Whigs. Labor remainers frantically calling for a second referendum trying to confirm the desire of the younger generation to remain in the EU and May refusing to give in, wanting to respect the will of the British people (even if that will is dated two and a half years back), as asking the British people again would present a failure of her government to deliver on the will of the people. At the same time populists amongst the conservatives playing their constituencies hoping for the British Empire to raise from the ashes with trade deals around the world, but not willing to consider a deal with the European Union that would prolong EU regulations to govern their actions. In the meantime white collars in neighbouring offices of financial firms and global corporates are waiting in the shadows to see how this dog-fight plays out. Some are already choosing with their feet opting for the Netherlands, where their liberal friend Prime Minister Mark Rutte is still in charge and has been navigating a lot of complexity in Dutch politics over the last decade, while keeping a good steer on the tax climate for multinationals.
Reasons for many brexiteers to escape the EU are linked to the desire for less regulation and more sovereignty. However, paradoxically a departure from Europe will require a spike in regulations in the UK to stay competitive in the global market. Hence, the British politicians are advised to be at the right side of the table when the terms of trade are being negotiated between the UK and the EU. As it turns out such is definitely not a done deal yet and could result in a real "bloody" Ma(r)y marking the end of her political career.
May would do well in taking an example in her Ethiopian colleague Abiy Ahmed, who has been able to bring opposites together in a rather hostile political environment in Ethiopia. With his own political party dominating Ethiopian politics for decades, he met with 81 opposition parties over the past week. Dealing with strong undercurrents in his own party he started to reach out to former enemies both domestically as internationally and aims to reconcile Ethiopians with each other and their neighbours while opening up to foreign investment and influence. Likewise, instead of delivering a Bloody Mary, Therese May could change course and become the 'Mother Theresa' of British politics. She could reach out to the Labor constituency in aiming to serve not just the British people but especially the poor Brits as well as those seeking refuge. That could change the discourse from a what is best for Britain to a what is best for the world and therefore benefits Britain. It could make people favour Britain again, not just as a destination for asylum seekers, but also for companies and economic migrants, filling holes in the social fabric while providing highly needed labour force for key-service delivery.
A lot of changes can take place in three months time. During the past couple of months I personally have been busy with the humanitarian innovation agenda of the Dutch Relief Alliance, a collaborative of 16 Dutch humanitarian agencies. The process has been highly collaborative and involved engagement with the various member agencies and companies or research bodies willing to partner in developing, piloting or scaling innovations for the humanitarian sector. This has been made possible by the Dutch government intentionally allocating 3 million a year to the humanitarian innovation through the Dutch Relief Alliance. However, will it be timely and effective enough to achieve the kind of system change that is required to tackle tomorrow's challenges?
Irregular migration flows seem on the increase around Bangladesh as governments of Myanmar and India choose radical approaches to redefine national identity, leaving Muslim minority groups uncatered for both in Myanmar and Assam regional state of India. Parties in the Middle-East seem to play each other for political influence in countries like Syria and Yemen, plunging them into civil wars. Both regions have seen massive displacement of people as a result, who no longer have a secure place to live with humanitarian agencies trying to respond and relieve the suffering while attempting to strategize ways forward with local communities and governments.
At the same time, one of the other source regions for migration (the Horn of Africa) seems to witness a major shift in the political landscape with the new Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia Dr. Abiy reaching out to all Ethiopians and neighbouring countries in a strive to restore order after years of instability, emphasizing unity and a shared future. In just a few months visits were made to Egypt, Eritrea and the US, reducing tensions with Egypt and Eritrea substantially. Also at home opposition leaders and other political prisoners were released and a year of Jubilee seems to have been embraced by the new leadership, who also turned to the Ethiopian diaspora in the United States calling on His Holiness Patriarch Abune Merkorios of Ethiopia to return from exile. The schism that split the Ehiopian Orthodox Church in 1991, was undone in an unprecedented way. The sitting Patriarch, His Holiness Abune Patriarch Mathias, has agreed to co-lead the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedu (reunited) Church in an administrative role. It only goes to show how Abiy manages to inspire other leaders to deal with the past, face the present and have a vision for the future while calling on everyone to contribute.
It made me wonder what the world needs most: innovation by humanitarian aid agencies to detect deterriorating situations better or invoke appropriate responses in a timely manner, or radical change through transformative leadership. Possibly both are needed in a world that is gradually getting to her senses, realising that the challenges ahead are way too complex and therefore require different strategies to be co-developed. In his very name Abiy Ahmed (as a child called Abiyut, which means "revolution") carries the promise of a shared future for people of different faith and ethnic backgrounds. His inaugural speech back in April already carried the notion of an inclusive future.
In these three months Dr. Abiy turned to all sectors of society, including the aid agencies, the private sector and the church, asking for unity and appreciation of diversity and differences of opinion in ways that remind us of the days of Mandela in South-Africa. His education in peace and reconciliation studies seems to pay off domestically as well as internationally. On the diplomatic front he reached out to Eritrean and Egyptian Presidents emphasizing the need for a shared future.
From sustainable development to inclusive investment
In April Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed met with the private sector. During the meeting, the Prime Minister called upon the private sector & investors to partner with the government in addressing youth unemployment and fighting corruption. In June Abiy announced the establishment of an Ethiopian stock exchange along with the privatization of state-owned enterprises, thereby acknowledging the need for a level playing field for a healthy private sector development.
I must say, while dealing with displacement crises in Asia and the Middle-East, it is a great relief to hear a Prime Minister put the interest of the people first, valuing diversity and the contributions of countervailing power to arriving at solutions. In a very much narrowed civil society space and an almost completely contracted NGO operational space focussing on humanitarian aid and service delivery and almost fully aligned with government planning, it is exactly the sort of inclusive thinking that the world needs and for which possibly local, home-grown community based organizations are best placed to carry the flame. Northern NGOs, rather than focussing on their specific technical abilities, should increasingly broker between local interests and macro-economic ambitions of national governments supported by Foreign Direct Investment and help people to defend their case. Abiy showed this during his career while mediating religious conflicts in his home district and addressing land-grabbing practice by higher administrations towards his home region. The vision of his mother instilled in him the desire to reconcile different faith identities in himself and in society. His education provided him with the means to be a transformational leader. The love for the peoples of his country provided him the passion and energy to take on the challenge.
May God bless him and the people of Ethiopia, and may they examplify to the rest of the world the kind of peace that will guide them in taking wise decisions on natural resource management, population growth and sustainable economic development, making all humanitarian aid redundant.
Update 7-8-2018: Hostilities flared up in Somali region, following the deposing of the regional president by Abiy, with federal forces trying to establish order again. Some say this is the first litmustest of his rule, others say the first political mistake after some bold moves during the first 100 days. For those believing in the power of prayer, please pray for Ethiopia, and Somali region in particular, that peace may be restored and reforms may be successful with equal opportunity for all.
Several references to a glas of dry white whine were made during the recent debate on migration at Pakhuis de Zwijger in Amsterdam. Outside temperatures soaring to records high for april and people mushrooming the embankments of the old Port of Amsterdam. Still quite a bunch of people preferred to be at the great migration debate , co-organized by Oxfam and ViceVersa.
After two rounds with the usual suspects, including Farah Karimi of Oxfam and Jelte van Wieren from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with the usual mud slinging, it was obvious that a real debate would not take place. The only politician that showed up was the always positive Joel Voordewind from the ChristenUnion, celebrating some political achievements in his strive to arrive at a convenient level of ambition with the liberals, increasing the number of legal migrants with one thousand to reduce levels of illegal migrants. Still it could not be avoided that the new policy was widely perceived as a negative frame designed to keep people out rather than having them contribute to Dutch society. This frame was challenged by the audience that witnessed to positive experiences at the local level in Ede and Lunteren, who had their communities ready to receive even higher numbers of refugees that finally never arrived.
It was the Syrian Music that offered the break away from this highly sophisiticated political game that is merely about numbers (making a difference for many individual by the way) to a more principled discussion initiated by Darawsha Adham, who once fled as a Palestinian refugee from Nazareth and ended up as a citizen of Italy in the City of Palermo. There as a Chair of the Board of Culture, he witnessed the welcoming of a boat of refugees arriving at the port of Palermo by the Mayor of the city, sending a political message to his population. That was just one day after which another city refused to welcome a boat into their port. According to Mr. Adham it was civil society in the end making the difference, churches, rotary clubs, etc. Exchange of cultural festivals, attending each other's religious celebrations, was key to successful integration. Make refugees meet the people of the city and make the city know what the Muslims and Bhuddist celebrations look like. We made Bangladeshi and Pakistani meet. We organized exchanges between Tamil and Sri Lankees. It is not money that creates integration, it is culture.
The optimistic voice of this Nazarener was followed up by Leo Lucassen, Professor of Global Labour and MIgration History. The latter turned the numbers into relative numbers, showing how small the actual number of migrants actually is and that the numbers have been relative steady. He underlined the positive attitude that exists at the local level with a much more nuanced debate (echoing the example from Ede from before the break) which is largely ignored and needs to receive a renewed focus. His plea was supported by Albertha Opoku, a freelance diaspora journalist. However, Leo also pointed to the practice of paying corrupt regimes for containing migrants causing people to die in the desert rather than drowning in the Mediterranean.
Josh Maiyo, assistant lecturer International Development at the VU University in Amsterdam, pointed to a number of inconsistencies in the new Dutch policy. "If you make it the responsibility of migrants to integrate while making it very difficult to be part of society, this is an inconsistency. Secondly, closing first irregular migration in order to open up for legal migration does not make sense. Thirdly, nobody tells us how pathways for regular migration are actually achieved. Labour shortage does not match the wish to increase the rate of return." And so on. Josh Maiyo suggested to invest in work permits, as examplified by East-African countries who have opened their borders to free movement of people goods and services (a rather liberal viewpoint!). Admitting to some of these inconsistencies, Jelte van Wieren explained that we are dealing with some remnants from the past, and that these inconsistencies were a result of the various Ministries involved, thereby undermining the much praised comprehensiveness of the policy document.
My name is Reinier van Hoffen, founder of URAIDE.
Click here for a summary.
Also find the text of a lecture Dr. Achterhuis held at the 2012 Bilderberg conference.