Reflecting back, looking forward: Alex Cobham, Save the Children.

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In the final interview in our series of ‘reflecting back, looking forward’, we talk to Alex Cobham who is Head of Research at Save the Children. The perspectives expressed here are his own and may not reflect those of Save the Children. We have staggered our New Year interviews at DiA across the first two months of the year. This interview was completed on 1st February 2012.

1. What did Save the Children set out to achieve in 2012, and did it succeed?

 Save the Children has members in 30 countries, from Norway to India and from Brazil to Japan, and works in around 120, so that’s a big question. As Head of Research for Save the Children UK, I work on global policy rather than on the country programme side of our work, so my answers will reflect that, and a personal rather than organisational perspective.

 By way of background, it’s perhaps worth pointing out that unlike most international development NGOs, Save the Children began life after the First World War (rather than the Second). The defining contribution of the organisation was in achieving, through the League of Nations, a convention on the rights of the child. The convention’s successor at the United Nations continues to be the most widely ratified global rights instrument that we have. It reflects the founding conviction that emergency responses, while they can be enormously important, do not produce the structural changes that can enable successive generations to achieve fundamental improvements in human development.

 In that light, I would say that the most important aim we had for 2012 was to play our part in establishing the basis for a post-2015 successor to the Millennium Development Goals which would come much closer to the ambition of the Millennium Declaration than did the MDGs – in particular through challenging inequalities head on and by ensuring an emphasis on the structural causes (and not only the symptoms) of human development failures.

Did we succeed? If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, you’ll have to come back in 2016. But I think we’ve made real progress. Sometimes in recent years Save has been seen as rather ponderous, and perhaps conservative, on big policy questions. And of course, for some, redistribution can be thought of as ‘too political’ – but this year we have made a real shift and have been putting inequality at the heart of our work, stressing the damage it does to children’s lives and to social, political, economic and environmental development.

As we argue in our report Born Equal, addressing inequality is not about targeting those at the wrong end of the distribution for some help; it is about fundamental change to the structures that result in unjust outcomes, to the benefit of all. We see a good prospect indeed for targets and indicators in each area of the new framework that are disaggregated by gender, ethno-linguistic group and more – including disability and spatial location, too. An additional inequality goal (with global and national targets, including on income inequality) is no longer out of the question.

2. Looking back at 2012, what were the most promising developments for democracy and human rights in the region?

To start with the bad news, there have been too many moments of crisis, too much external military intervention, too many circumstances in which an organisation like Save the Children has had to prioritise emergency response over long-term development assistance. 

Set against that, you can think of some really encouraging political developments – not least in Ghana, Zambia and Kenya (at least, so far). Contested challenges for political representation are important, but so too and are effective changes in power – such as that reflected in the success of Michael Sata’s government in obtaining a greater share of Zambia’s natural resource returns. Of course, in both areas there remain great challenges, and – for example – the continuing failure of all bar two of Zambia’s copper mines to declare any profit at all is striking.

At the regional level, 2012 has seen what may be the beginning of the emergence of a broad, African consensus in response to post-2015 – not only around rights and democracy, but about the importance of national ownership of priorities; an embrace of transparency and accountability, including much better (and disaggregated) measurement of progress; and, as has been highlighted in the Monrovia meeting of the High Level Panel this week, an insistence on transformative economic content to the new framework – not just what is characterised, only a little unfairly, as the ‘basic social services’ agenda of the MDGs. Increasingly, too, inequality is emphasised by a range of African governments as a priority issue. Even the UK government is having to find a more accommodating position, as the strength and breadth of feeling on inequality becomes apparent.

In addition, 2012 has seen the establishment of the UNECA High Level Panel (headed by Thabo Mbeki) to assess the scale of illicit financial flows out of African countries, the damage done to development and the potential policy responses at national and international level. The damage done to democratic accountability in particular is increasingly recognised, and the Panel’s report in 2013 should be well received.

 3. Do you think that these developments will be sustainable in the next year and beyond?

Broadly, yes – in both the negative and the positive cases. It’s hard to see now how tensions will quickly be reduced in Mali, for example; while the positive example of Zambia may well encourage the positive spread of what is sometimes dismissively referred to as African ‘resource nationalism’. Kenya’s elections remain unpredictable, of course. 

On the post-2015 side, the Monrovia meeting of the UN High Level Panel should exert an important influence on the final report and framework proposals, which should make us optimistic about the space for African views on economic transformation in particular, and on inequality, to be reflected clearly. We may well also hear a substantially African voice in the G77 response to the High Level Panel report later in the year.

Away from post-2015, the Mbeki panel’s report on illicit flows may well be a pivotal moment for regional measures in this area, and for African input to the global conversation. The G8, for example will be looking closely at international corporate tax abuse in 2013, and the G20 continues to track this issue. Rich countries that have historically opposed measures for greater transparency have tended to argue that it is not a priority for developing country governments. With India’s growing leadership in international discussions, this position is happily becoming untenable; and if the Mbeki panel results in a number of African governments raising the issue in international discussions too, it could be pivotal to ensuring that measures for corporate transparency and against tax haven secrecy are not only to the benefit of OECD countries.

 4. What do you believe are the key challenges to democracy and the protection of human rights, and how might these be tackled, with a focus on Africa?

Globally, we’re in a moment of greater democratic tension than for many years. As the Chilean economist Gabriel Palma has shown, the share of national income that goes to the ‘middle class’ – those living between the fifth and ninth deciles – is relatively stable around the world (in the region of 50%). One view that follows is that politics is largely a process of agreeing the split of the remainder between the top 10% and the bottom 40%.

 The continuing effects of financial crisis in (mainly) high-income countries, to say nothing of the ongoing failure of ‘austerity’ policies where these continue to be pursued, has really sharpened the distributional aspects of political debate. This in turn has raised a great many questions about whether political systems are too easily distorted by financial lobbying and elite power, and as decisions are taken directly about whose real incomes will fall, these questions translate very easily into a critique of state legitimacy.

 State legitimacy, and underlying issues of social hierarchy, are of course long-standing problems in post-colonial democratic development. It’s tempting to wonder what Edward Said would have made of the politics of the financial crisis in the UK, France, the US, and so on. In terms of coming trends across Africa though, you can see some common threads in the post-2015 discussions that in turn reflect much longer processes of norm establishment.

In particular, there is a (tentative) crystallising of positions around state accountability. This is not, or perhaps is no longer, a response to a donor-led ‘good governance’ agenda that emphasises technical fixes – hiring a ‘big 4’ accounting firm to look at government budgets, for example, is no answer to the problems of horizontal inequality and political representation that we might call as shorthand, ‘our turn to eat’.

Instead, discussions turn increasingly to questions of a more political transparency – for example, are development outcomes and public expenditure patterns published with a disaggregation that can show, for example, regional or ethno-linguistic biases? (An aside: I find it depressing that I’ve so far been unable to obtain data from the IMF that would allow the updating of a paper from the mid-2000s on regional inequality in Sudan, as the Fund is yet to receive permission from Khartoum. But Sudan is an extreme case, and the broader trend is certainly in the opposite direction.)

The other more fundamental driver of legitimacy (and indeed the fulfilment of rights) is of course taxation. The evidence suggests that there is no better, single driver of long-term improvements in accountability and representation than the share of (especially) direct taxation in government expenditure but the donor agenda has , let’s say, not been very constructive in this regard until recently. To give donors their due, the ICTD (International Centre on Tax and Development, funded by DFID and Norad) is now supporting some great work in this area.

The Mbeki panel on illicit flows will surely have a good deal to say on the importance of holding elites (individual and corporate) to their social responsibilities to pay tax, and the work of ATAF (the African Tax Administration Forum) in promoting pan-African dialogue and cooperation is a very positive development.

5. Do you see any new and potentially surprising developments on the horizon that may change the way in which African governments deal with young people?

 Honestly, no. But that shouldn’t worry us, I think the longer term trends are much more important than the next ‘silver bullet’ that turns out not to be. Broadly, trends of greater participation for young people and of greater weight on their well-being are likely to continue (and not only across Africa). Norms will continue to shift, painfully slowly, bringing limits on use of child soldiers; on female genital mutilation; and on child marriage; as well raising the expectations of minimum education (quality as well as duration) and employment opportunities.

If you read, for example, some of the qualitative outputs of the Young Lives longitudinal study that covers Ethiopia (as well as Andhra Pradesh, Peru and Vietnam) you get a real sense of expectations running ahead of reality; but also of the power of those expectations to change individual and political outcomes.

6. What are Save the Children’s priorities for this year, and what would count as success?

The post-2015 framework will continue to be a major focus for us. A strong report from the High Level Panel in May, proposing a framework that directly challenges inequality and incorporates sustainability in a serious way, would provide an important stepping stone to the eventual agreement. Later in the year, the consultation on metrics and data for the framework should not be seen as a technical exercise, but will ideally draw out some of the important politics around the type of disaggregation that is necessary to challenge inequality and track the progressive realisation of rights.

We will also work to see, through the G8 and elsewhere, progress towards a better and more transparent set of international tax arrangements. This would support both a fairer distribution of international taxing rights, and also provide the transparency necessary to curtail illicit financial flows. Corruption is a global problem (to give one example among many, the finance minister or prime minister in three EU countries is now under suspicion of participating in personal tax evasion and/or of covering up for others).

If we believe, like U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’, then we should move away from occasional, sporadic transparency (through e.g. the leaking of HSBC bank details from Switzerland), to the systematic and automatic exchange of this information between jurisdictions – and a presumption of publication for at least some. This is needed to challenge all sorts of illicit flows – from under-priced copper trade with Switzerland stripping Zambia of its dues to Jersey bank accounts facilitating the alienation of states assets in Kenya. The problems – and the solutions – are global, not national. 

The IF campaign that brings together many UK NGOs will also give us the opportunity to push for international change around some of the major obstacles to development, not least in regard to tax secrecy. Success would include a multilateral agreement to exchange beneficial ownership information (about bank accounts, companies, trusts and foundations) automatically, and including countries at all income levels.



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