Originally posted on Anthem Press Blog.
Five years ago, the UN passed the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This resulted in the establishment of seventeen different goals, more commonly known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), accompanied by 169 targets and indicators to achieve this agenda by 2030. Building upon the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and what both supporters and critics might acknowledge was at best, haphazard success, the SDGs are distinct in major ways.
First, the very process of collaboration over the 2030 Agenda was far more inclusive than with the MDGs, with a wide range of NGO and civil society actors participating in the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Summit. The SDGs consist of seventeen goals, rather than eight. The goals and objectives of the SDGs are also unprecedented both in scope and ambition. Inequality is presented as a global issue, not tied to country indicators, but rampant within, between, and across national boundaries. The environmental sustainability of our planet cuts across numerous goals, framing our economic and political systems as interdependent and requiring greater cooperation and collaboration. The SDGs apply to all countries, unlike the MDGs, which were directed towards “developing” countries only. Major issues such as hunger, poverty, armed conflict, etc. are to be eliminated, reaching their statistical zero, rather than halved or portrayed as social ills countries must work toward reducing by some generous proportion.
These are not insignificant differences. The 2030 Agenda and SDGs demonstrate an increasingly globalized development community — one that acknowledges the need for greater collaboration and cooperation, and actually directly acknowledges the connections between a range of issues, their symptoms, and the political and economic systems that govern human societies. In turn, the SDGs actually explicitly address issues of conflict, justice, and political institutions. Goal sixteen is perhaps both the most overtly and vaguely political in this regard. The targets for this goal include reducing violence “everywhere” (16.1), promoting rule of law and ensuring equal access to justice (16.3), developing effective, accountable and transparent institutions (16.6), and strengthening national institutions to prevent violence and combat terrorism and crime (16.A). In short, this goal is reaching for world peace, or at the bare minimum, some formal establishment of a globalized system of justice and accountability.
But what does this really mean in practice? The UN, affiliated institutions, and the Member States fail to deliver here. It is already a monumental task to maintain the integrity of such institutions on national scales, but should this objective not also acknowledge the need for fostering such accountability not only within, but between states and coalitions of states? The same year UN Member States adopted the 2030 Agenda, many of these same states — also members of NATO — participated in the launch of the US-led Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (OFS). OFS is a scaled back continuation of the thirteen year Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), marking a major shift in how the US and NATO allies framed their occupation of Afghanistan. Instead of embarking on the major military operations that defined OEF, the international coalition would transition to a primarily training and assistance role. Their ambition is great — to develop self-sufficient Afghan forces capable of maintaining security without an international presence. This objective in many ways reflected a quiet acknowledgement among US government, military, and aid workers, actively concealed from the public throughout the occupation of Afghanistan: that the war failed and required an exit strategy.
Development and aid were used as strategies to expedite military outcomes in Afghanistan. Particularly between 2009 and 2012, aid was flooded into the country to build schools, bridges, canals, and other civil-works projects as a tactic to centralize institutions and improve security, acknowledged by aid workers as a “colossal misjudgment, akin to pumping kerosene on a dying campfire just to keep the flame alive (Whitlock 2019).” It begs the question why the magnitude of international failure in Afghanistan was not a more explicit factor in the establishment of the 2030 Agenda and the SDGs, particularly with regards to issues of peace and poverty. How can these goals be achieved when addressing the economic and political relationships that facilitate the symptoms of global systemic inequality and injustice are not explicit objectives?
As the US and NATO allies tire of a two-decade war, negotiation with the Taliban has been widely accepted as the only path towards withdrawal and potential peace. That said, talks have been on and off. The Taliban’s stance on human rights, in particular the rights of women and freedom of expression, among issues pertaining to disarmament, complicate the absolute viability of the SDGs. The 2030 Agenda promised to, “provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future (SDGs 2020).” In considering the SDGs and the future of global agendas, we cannot ignore the contradictions that exist between agendas and relationships. As the signatories of this agenda continue to occupy a military presence in Afghanistan, it is fair to ask, how does the broader development community reconcile the heritage of waves of international invasion instigated by their own states within societies which resist and distrust national systems? It is a complex question, one that remains unresolved and resides deeply within the vision of the 2030 Agenda. Acknowledging the mistakes of the donor community, particularly with regard to violent conflict, displacement and poverty, must be an integral part of any meaningful global effort toward sustainable development. If the failures of the international community in Afghanistan continue to be neglected amid the fanfare of cooperation surrounding the 2030 Agenda, efforts to sustainably develop our world will only perpetuate the very systems of inequality and injustice they seek to move beyond.
This inaugural post begins with a personal reflection about the topics pertaining to this blog and how I came to research and write about them. I am often asked how I chose my dissertation topic, which culminated in the book featured on this site. I have never been to Afghanistan or Pakistan, and aside from several years working at a small nonprofit in DC and my graduate programs, my direct personal exposure to the work that falls under the broad umbrellas of humanitarian aid, development, or peace building is limited.
That said, I grew up around development and also with what I would call a natural interest in understanding the sources of conflict and violence in the world, particularly given that I am the product of an Iranian mother whose plans for future were derailed by revolution, and a father who spent much of his career consulting for the World Bank. As a third generation DC native, I am familiar with the swamp. The government bureaucrats, do-gooders, power-hungry politicos, the migrants of small town America alongside the international elite seeking to be a part of it all. As a daughter accompanying her father on “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day,” I was inspired by the Bank’s mission of living in a “world free of poverty” and excited by the small exposures to development projects presented to us by various staff members. As a child with rose-tinted eyes, it all felt very important, and thus began my general path of inquiry surrounding the themes of progress, conflict, and the general ebb and flow of power.
Fast forward to 2011. I just finished my MA in International Peace and Conflict Resolution and was still bright-eyed and bushy tailed in my early 20s. I began working at HasNa Inc., a small nonprofit in DC. The founder was a Turkish woman retired from a career in the Department of Education, who like many in the diaspora, sought to re-engage, build peace and affect change among the populations of her homeland. At the time, HasNa ran peacebuilding programs to reduce tension and stigma between groups in Turkey, Cyprus and Armenia. We curated curriculum that essentially constituted a combination of professional development and conflict resolution trainings for groups of Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Greek Cypriots, and Turkish Cypriots. The idea was if you get people learning new skills together while equipping them with frameworks to address conflict, they will build collaborative working relationships and contribute to building peaceful societies. The mission was certainly idealistic, and not without its programmatic shortcomings, but the vision had merit and was building the skills of individuals, organizations, and their communities. It was work I could be proud of.
In both the design and implementation of programs, we worked exclusively with NGOs on the ground in Turkey, Armenia and Cyprus, and not with their governments — the underlying assumption being that working with the government might cast an unsavory light on our work and also make the very populations we were hoping to work with skeptical of our programs. Anything that could potentially politicize the work was to be avoided. The programs I oversaw trained environmental NGO leaders in Cyprus, Turkish and Armenian women entrepreneurs, as well as Turkish and Kurdish NGO leaders.
I soon discovered many of the challenges that come with working with local NGOs in countries where the very concept of the social sector and understanding of its role in building a functioning civil society is not commonplace, and often tied to Western donor purses. My experiences working with our partners was varied in many ways. Some were very engaged, while others were clearly just hoping to have us fund programs with them to boost their status as NGOs and perhaps make them more competitive for other funding competitions. Some had resources, Westerners on their staff, and thus greater access to knowledge and resources for their activities, while others seemed to be organizations only in name. Some appeared genuinely interested in cultivating long lasting relationships with us as partners, while others just seemed to “yes” us to continue access to programming and potential resources.
Our organization was usually one of the primary sources of funding for programs (if not the primary funder). Even when we proactively solicited engagement, insight, and feedback on the design of programs, setting realistic outcomes, as well as in identifying obstacles to short and long term objectives, very often the feeling that we were the “donor” seemed to impede genuine collaboration, transparency, and the cultivation of long-term partnerships. Holding the pursestrings in many ways, even on small scale projects, made the relationships feel in a certain way disingenuous.
I worked at HasNa for almost four years, and the experience raised a lot of questions for me — about the nature of the donor-recipient relationship and about the capacity on both ends to define and achieve progress together. At the center of all this was this word, capacity, that I kept seeing and hearing everywhere and was purported to be both the problem and solution to any and all issues development related. Everyone and every organization needed greater capacity in some way, shape, or form. Donors needed to invest in building the capacity of individuals, organizations, civil society, the private sector, government institutions, the state, and on and on ad nauseum.
To be transparent, at the time, I was drawn to the idea of a grand solution and enthralled by what seemed to be a clearly identified problem that encompassed a cross-section of social, economic and political issues. If we knew what the core of the problems were, why were they so hard to fix? Of course, I was aware of the contextual complexity behind intractable conflicts, their roots tied to the legacy of colonialism, but the donor narratives of the issues and solutions — their tools of measurement and formulas for capacity — remained largely divorced of this explicit context. I sought to explore this gap.
At the same time, I began my doctoral program in Sociology at George Mason University. After my coursework and exams, it wound up taking the better part of a year to narrow my project down. Since I had written my MA thesis on indigenous conflict resolution frameworks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I already had a bank of knowledge about the socio-political dynamics and history of the countries I felt comfortable building upon. The choice to focus on USAID was also in certain ways a matter of practicality. USAID reports, assessments, and evaluations on USAID policy and projects were available both online and in the physical archives, which I lived near at the time. This ease of access was not guaranteed with most other institutions I considered studying, plus USAID has a longer history than most development agencies. Through pulling and examining hundreds of documents, I discovered both the hopes and failures of donors over time, the struggle for ownership over development, as well as the way in which discursive transformations — the use of language and terminology — can absorb, conceal, and depoliticize competing global agendas.
In this blog, I plan to share some of my findings, including some of the figures I created from my book that help to visualize the conceptual transformation of capacity, different forms of the military-development nexus, as well as shed clarity on how sub-national and transnational networks of resistance became radicalized. I also plan to share different resources, as well as other reflections and commentary on related issues. I hope my posts will be of interest and of use to students, researchers, practitioners, and scholars, and hope to illuminate some of the issues and potential paths for those interested in furthering rights-based approaches to development.