On a recent visit to meet European government clients I was struck by how difficult it was to get anyone to talk about terrorism. Where five years ago you couldn’t get through the door without a counter terrorism or counter extremism calling card, now it’s all about China, climate, cyber and crime.
Of course it would be wrong to interpret this as a sign that terrorism has gone away or is no longer important. Mass casualty attacks like 9/11 and 7/7 are thankfully rare, but western countries still regularly suffer lone wolf shootings, stabbings and vehicle attacks, many with multiple fatalities. Meanwhile in conflict-affected countries like Somalia and Afghanistan suicide bombings remain a horrific fact of life.
It is interesting, however, that the threat which has sat for so long at the top of the global policy agenda seems to have taken on the status of ‘business as usual’ while other, newer issues now preoccupy policymakers at the highest levels of government.
Meanwhile down at the delivery coalface it’s also striking that while impact statements may have changed, our project delivery work remains similar in content and focus. Countering the social and economic drivers of serious and organised crime looks very much like countering the social and economic drivers of violent extremism, because the reasons some people take up arms for a terrorist organisation – poverty, scarce opportunity, societal preconceptions, vulnerability to pernicious narratives – aren’t that different from the reasons they might join a vicious crime gang. Likewise, investigating and prosecuting terrorists needs the same police, intelligence and judicial systems as investigating and prosecuting major criminals. And even if the ideological overlay is shifting from a perceived Islamist-Western dichotomy to a Chinese-Western one, the narrative space into which those ideologies are projected remains, pretty much, the same.
Which begs the question of whether it matters. If our frontline security and governance development work is the same, does it matter if there’s a change in the wording at the top of the logframe?
However, if we analyse why our project strategies and approaches remain broadly consistent despite shifts in the outcome rhetoric, it does matter. Because what it signals is not that a range of disparate problems can be solved by the same prescription, but that the problems we are trying to solve are not really disparate at all.
To illustrate this point: TAG recently managed a programme of research in Nigeria with the headline exam question of how serious and organised crime relates to, and interfaces with, violent extremism, inter-communal conflict, social instability, economic inequality and weak governance. The team set out a framework of hypotheses to identify the touch points, influences and resource flows between these phenomena, and we imagined that the results might be represented, at headline level at least, in a sort of Venn diagram of overlaps and interdependencies.
But when we started gathering data, it became clear that our Nigerian respondents didn’t really buy the question. In the real world in Zamfara, Bayelsa and Lagos, the idea that crime, terrorism, conflict, instability and weak governance are distinct from each other didn’t square with respondents’ real-world experience. Asked if a particular group of armed young men were terrorists, criminals or soldiers, one community leader responded simply that it depended if it’s Monday, Wednesday or Friday. Another told us that in her local dialect there are no two words for ‘terrorist’ and ‘bandit’. They are, in language and in life, one and the same.
The fact that terrorists need money to do terrorism, and that they raise some of that money through crime, is not exactly a new insight. Likewise, all over the world we have seen organised criminal gangs adopt the flags of extremist movements to provide ‘ideological top cover’ for their criminal endeavours. Mistrust of central government at the periphery of fragile states feeds a narrative in which these terrorists/criminals/fighters can offer a degree of governance – often brutal but also quick, accessible and effective – to local populations; and in the most extreme cases, like Raqqa or the barrios of Central American cities, to all intents and purposes become the government. And because conflict means opportunity, gangs will happily leverage centuries-old disputes over access to grazing land or water to generate the societal tolerance on which large-scale criminality relies.
Seen through this lens, our Nigeria analysis evolved from the neat(ish) Venn diagram we had envisaged to something more like an ant colony – an endlessly fluctuating social and economic incentives system in which every action by every actor catalysed further changes in every other part of the system, and so on. In other words something which is, in the sense of defying attempts to systematise and describe, truly complex.
But if we accept that in the real world the threats we seek to address are mutually inextricable, and indeed identical, why do development actors still organise themselves into thematic departments, funding streams and programmes. If we accept that this infinitely complex problem space operates in ways which confound linear cause-and-effect analysis, why do we still base our strategy and planning around (by definition linear) theories of change.
In other words, why do we continue to think about our intervention in the world in ways which do not correspond to the world in which we are trying to intervene?
Visit any western embassy in any fragile state and you’ll find a group of CT officers down the corridor from another group of organised crime investigators, across the way from a group of conflict advisers, next door to a group of economic development programmers. These clusters do, of course, coordinate, and their work is often captured under a high-level country plan. But they also tend to drive at slightly different desired outcomes, to measure success in different ways, to pay from different budget allocations, to report to different headquarters which accounting through different ministers to different public concerns.
Over the years there have been many attempts to go beyond coordination and generate genuine cohesion between different gangs playing in the same sandbox. USAID’s Active Community-Effective States framework aims to align US work on governance, anti-corruption, legislative strengthening, decentralisation, rule of law, security sector reform and oversight. The UK’s Prosperity Fund looked to act as an umbrella for assistance to developing countries’ efforts to tackle the challenges of rapid urbanisation, climate change and inequality. Various EU, UN and bilateral development mechanisms have been conceived as a way of driving strategic alignment in goals and resources across multiple departments with equity in fragile and conflict affected states.
But as long as those multiple departments exist, and as long as they seek to deliver multiple objectives in line with multiple policy agendas, such mechanisms have had, at best, partial success as vehicles for true unification of thought and action.
So is it time for a rethink about how we organise our work at the more fragile end of development? Inevitably this means looking at how government is structured and led, and this is political territory: witness the ongoing debate about whether development can – or even should – be aligned with a national foreign and security policy agenda. As institutional reform experts, TAG is always wary of trying to drive change through tweaking org charts. But although we don’t claim to know the answer, if we accept that an integrated threat landscape in an integrated world means we should continue to look for ways to integrate our response, a couple of closing thoughts
Firstly, words matter. If we create a conflict programme, a counter-SOC one and a CT one, we assume by definition that these three things exist in ways which can be individually and meaningfully understood and addressed. And in a world where conflict, stability and security mean different things to different departments, and even to different individuals within those departments, fragmentation of thought, finance and action seens inevitable. Perhaps the single, more eclectic term Good Governance deserves to be revisited?
Secondly, meaningful and sustained coherence is rarely if ever achieved by coordination meetings, however noble their intent. Rather, it’s driven through the purse. Central financiers like national treasuries departments, the IMF and the global development banks like a programme-by-programme approach to budgeting, first introduced in 1949 to manage US defence spending, because it offers the potential to link pots of money to pots of outcomes. But as the world becomes more complex, as outcomes become harder to define and as our work becomes more conceptually than thematically or geographically interconnected, it may be time to ask whether divvying up money by outcome really works for what we in the fragile states development community are trying to achieve.