Not smart politics

A lot of times development and conservation struggle to get much political and media traction, and are thus starved of the oxygen of publicity. At other times, though, I wonder whether certain issues wouldn’t be best off in the shadows. This is not a call to depoliticize development into a purely technocratic discipline, for many of the most critical issues in aid are deeply political, and little progress can be achieved without political engagement.

But when big international politicians wade into issues quiet, nuanced discussions can all too easily get out shouted by megaphone pronouncements. A recent historical example concerns Zimbabwe; for every time the likes of Bush, Blair or Brown, likely as not driven as much by domestic political calculations, opened their mouths on economic and political mess that ZANU-PF had created, it made it all the easier for Mugabe et al to frame their arguments in the context of oppressed masses throwing off the colonial yoke. Many Zimbabweans, even if they agreed with what was being said, had no wish to hear such tickings-off from the ex-colonial master and their allies.

I fear the same thing might happen now with Gordon Brown’s call to action on the plight of women in Pakistan. It’s hard to disagree with Brown’s aims; the fate of Malala Yousafzai was a dramatic illustration of the challenges faced by women and girls in parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and I cannot see how improving their situation would not make life a whole lot better there, ultimately including for men and boys too, such is the multiplier effect in development of investing in education for girls. But I am far from convinced that there is a practical straight line from Gordon Brown’s intervention to the outcomes he seeks.

Security clearly continues to be a major concern in that part of the world. From what I understand, improved development outcomes could certainly help in the battle with the Taliban and other jihadists for local hearts and minds. But the pay off from investing in girls’ education will accrue over time, while security concerns are immediate. More to the point, girls’ education is a central battleground in the ‘clash of civilizations’ there. So it seems to me more than possible that promoting girls’ education could actually worsen security concerns, potentially making life overall worse for women and girls rather than better. At the end of the day it is the job of politicians to weigh up such trade-offs, and I know too little about the local situation there to do anything other than ask these questions. But did Mr Brown, his team, and allies such as Avaaz, ask themselves such questions before they picked up the megaphone?


One response to this post.

  1. […] but the reality is that most Africans are pretty homophobic. So whilst they may feel free to ignore my advice on such matters, surely Western leaders should listen to those many African voices urging caution […]


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