Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Living on the edge of fragility

I knew two women who died in the Park Palace Guest House in Kabul last week, gunned down by the Taliban.  Paula Kantor had been working with AREU, one of the organizations in the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, and even after she left, we had an exchange of emails regarding Gayathri’s work on women and fisheries.  Martha Farell was the wife of Rajesh Tandon, and a leading figure in PRIA.  I had never met her, but Rajesh facilitated CEPA’s Strategic Planning last year and helped put us (and definitely me) on the right track.  Both were brave, committed women.  Let us celebrate their contribution to making the world a better place and grieve for their loved ones and colleagues.  Rest in Peace,Paula. Rest in Peace Martha.   

Paula and Martha’s deaths are a stark reminder, as someone on the SLRC email list observed, that fragility is more than just a concept. it  is a matter of life and death.  There has been the devastating  earthquakes in Nepal that endangered the lives of colleagues working in NCCR,, and  I remember Christmas 2013 when we were sharing Christmas wishes among the consortium, we had this email from Leben Nelson Moro from South Sudan

I wish happy Christmas to everyone. In South Sudan, Christmas season is a bitter one. I am now stuck on a WFP compound in Bentiu, Unity State, after escaping death on the Bentiu-Thar Jath road. We (two bus loads of women, men and children) were paraded yesterday against a swamp and were almost all shot dead. Instead, they selected two persons and shot them while we were forced to move on foot to the police station. Other persons while murdered elsewhere. The plane that was supposed to take us from Thar Jath airstrip in Unity State to Juba was forced not to land. People were being asked for their ethnic group, identity papers and decision made whether to kill or spare them. I am badly shakened and traumatized. It very sad for my country.


My own experience of being questioned by the Terrorist Investigation Department of the GOSL last year during our Symposium was also harrowing in its own way.


These difficult and tragic incidents make us sad, shake us up emotionally, and make us realize that the world we live in is not the safe, organized space we would like it to be.  There are those of us who live in non-fragile environments who are clearly obsessed with safety, who will follow foreign office dictats and not visit any place where there could be a remote chance of ‘unrest’; there are those  who make those daring choices to work in fragile situations or push the boundaries through extreme sport; and  there are those of us who have no choice, for whom uncertainty is a way of life.  

In what I would call the ‘dark years’ of Sri Lanka’s multiple conflicts, we lived through the GOSL/LTTE war in the north and east, the  spectre of LTTE bomb attacks in Colombo, military harassment of minorities, state terrorism of different forms, JVP hartals, killings and military retaliations.  The terrible thing actually is not that we were all shook up, but more that we all got used to this overarching violence as a way of life.  I was in London reading the news of  the Docklands bombing by the IRA on 9th February 1996, nine days after the LTTE bombed the Central Bank of Ceylon in Colombo.  About 90 people were killed in the Central Bank bombing, and about 1400 were injured. Two people died in Canary Wharf.  My reaction was one of dismissal – how could these British people  be making such a fuss about TWO people dead.  For me, living as I had done on the edge of fragility, the value of life had become a number game.  

Sunday, 19 April 2015

World Economic Forum East Asia - Dispatch No 1 from Jakarta!


My first session at the World Economic Forum East Asia, was on the Role of Think Tanks in Policy Making in East Asia.  The session was Chaired by Simon Tay, the Chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. Two short presentations were made by William H Overholt, President of the Fung Global Institute, and Chandran Nair, Founder and CEO of the Global Institute for Tomorrow (GIFT) (don’t you just hate these clever acronyms, especially when you struggle so unsuccessfully to come up with them?!!)

Overholt’s was a pretty orthodox, somewhat western-centric view.  He talked about TTs needing to think about the future, and to develop deep analyses of issues – because governments are beleaguered by electoral politics with no space to scout for new ideas or do some corrective thinking. TTs are also faced with challenges – challenges of maintaining independence while receiving government funds, or from ‘clients’ who typically want you to support/refute strategies that they have already conceptualised,  and the challenges of making your brilliant research paper count in decision making.  Basically ideas of independence and policy influence that as think tanks we have been debating for a while.   He did say something about the brilliance of a Chinese think tank (can’t remember the name) which, contrary to what people thought in the US, did some good ideologically unbiased research  - which struck me  as a lack of reflexity on the ideological biases of typical American Think Tanks like the Rand Corporation,  or the Brookings Institute.  Raises the perennial question of whether research can actually be ideologically neutral – given that a research frame is always likely to be influenced by the ideological orientation of the researcher.

Nair is a person to watch, and possibly get to know better.  Started provocatively with the statement “We live in an age of great dishonesty”. GIFT apparently has a business model that allows independence, but Nair deplored the fact that East Asian think tanks, either because of their dependence for funding from the government, or, if they don’t have committed funding, their constant pursuit of financial support, leads them to adopt narratives that emanate from the West, while at the same time harbouring resentment against governments, western donors or big companies whose support they seek, but which they realise would constrain their independent research agenda.   He also talked about other players who are capturing the research to policy space – the management consultants and the international financial institutions.   In this situation, he felt (and without as yet having given it a great deal of thought I would agree) that government should create a mechanism for funding TT with a completely independent governance structure.  I guess the private sector could do the same and in the Sri Lankan context, organisations like the Gamani Corea Foundation could be an exemplar of such an independent funding mechanism. Something for me to discuss with the Board.

Some interesting points emerged through the discussion.  The suggestions around independence and policy influence were not new  but made me think that the learning from the Policy Impact Monitoring Project that CEPA/Commsconsult/CIPPEC/ODI carried out for  3ie  really should be documented and shared as valuable source of information about how the research to policy process does, or does not,  work.  An Indonesian woman made the point that it is not only ‘think tanks’ that think (my words) – there are other organisations researching and advocating for different issues – and that they not only have different ways of knowledge generation, but also different audiences, because peoples’ lives are not just influenced by government.   Her example was of organisations studying religious thought in the context of women’s rights in Indonesia, and influencing decision making in the religious sphere.

Oh and by the way met the incoming Chairperson of IPS, replacing Dr W D Lakshman.  Dr Razeen Sally, an Old Thomian and a Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore.