What I'm reading on governance & conflict, 12 October 2020

Corruption (of course...), health security intelligence, digital democracy, tax, poetry to soothe the weary soul and much more...

Before I jump into the reading, it was really nice to hear from so many people after last week's 'What I'm reading...'. I somehow even made it into Duncan Green's list of his 'favourite synthesizers' helping to manage information overload on development (alongside some other great folks on my own list too).

I may write something soon about how Roam Research has transformed the way I work, but for those of you who want, for whatever reason, to increase your own reading/synthesising, Ness Labs has some great resources on this, among other things. These two posts by founder Anne-Laure Le Cunff are great - 'How to manage your creative input for quality creative output' and 'Writing as a thinking tool'. Her article on ‘How to use Roam Research: a tool for metacognition’ was one of the reasons I started using it, as was this video from Nat Eliason doing a walk-through of using Roam to write an article (a blog post, basically) in less than 20 minutes. Mind blown. 🤯

Other things I always read include Oliver Bullough’s Oligarchy newsletter (which actually inspired me to shift my own reading round-up onto Substack…thanks, Oliver! 👍), Amee Misra's new 'digital garden' on India and, of course, DLP’s Leadership Observatory on all things developmental leadership.

On with the reading…

This week I've been wrapping up a new Corruption Functionality Framework with Caryn Peiffer that will be published soon by Global Integrity Anti-Corruption Evidence. I won't say much just yet, but it's a framework designed to help people think differently about corruption, drawing on our own research (and many others'), in order to help develop better anti-corruption strategies and interventions/approaches. We seem to have channelled John Camillus's Strategy as a Wicked Problem, which was published in 2008 but I only discovered it this week. He describes a wicked problem as one that:

has innumerable causes, is tough to describe, and doesn’t have a right answer... Environmental degradation, terrorism, and poverty—these are classic examples of wicked problems. They’re the opposite of hard but ordinary problems, which people can solve in a finite time period by applying standard techniques. Not only do conventional processes fail to tackle wicked problems, but they may exacerbate situations by generating undesirable consequences.

His concluding advice for companies facing wicked problems sums up what may be one of the biggest challenges too for anti-corruption - accepting that things need to be done differently: 'Moving from denial to acceptance is important; otherwise, companies will continue to use conventional processes and never effectively address their strategy issues'. We couldn't have said it better ourselves...

One of the more interesting 'areas to watch' coming out of the pandemic is going to be the 'health security intelligence' field. A special issue of the journal Intelligence and National Security includes a number of articles, including one by Patrick F Walsh on 'Improving "Five Eyes" security intelligence capabilities: leadership and governance challenges' that looks at some current capability gaps as well raising important questions about secrecy, surveillance and rethinking governance with new remits and new partners, where openness is the usual expectation. Another article by Rose Bernard on 'The use of HUMINT in epidemics: a practical assessment' looks at human intelligence operations in Ebola. A bit specialist for me personally, but likely to be of interest to others.

Transparency International make the case for strengthening global anti-money laundering measures in order to curb inequality post-COVID-19, including tackling the professional enablers who keep the whole corrupt, criminal system going. TI's report from Southern Africa on corruption, COVID-19 and the growing problem of attacks on journalists and civil society who bravely expose corruption shows why this is urgent and so important.

Drawing on historical data, Steven Serels at the Rift Valley Institute looks at 'Epidemics in the African Red Sea Region: a history of uneven disease exposure'. This FCDO-funded research looks at the long shared history of peoples in Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Djibouti and Somaliland, and finds that historical evidence on cholera, smallpox and syphillis suggests that the region as a whole is likely to share a similar ‘compounded disaster’ with COVID19, and that the ‘urban poor, refugees and internally displaced persons likely will be disproportionately impacted.'

I'm not a Middle East specialist, and I'm not going to pretend to understand all of the the complex political and conflict dynamics going on in Iraq right now, but this investigation from Ghaith Abdul-Ahad on the rise of militias ('a threat from within') doesn't bode well for Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. As Abdul-Ahad reports: 'A senior Iraqi army officer said: “I sometimes think that the only solution to this crisis, of two states and two armies is a military solution. First we close Baghdad, issue an ultimatum for Hashed units to either join regular forces or we fight you. It will cause a bloodbath, but better to have two weeks of war than to keep postponing the confrontation"'. A very worrying read.

This fascinating article by Nanjala Nyabola on 'Governance and public policy in the digital age' draws on material from her book on Digital democracy, analogue politics: How the internet era is transforming politics in Kenya. She looks at how social media in particular may be changing the way democracy and diplomacy work in the digital space but how the effects are often still felt by citizens in analogue space, especially violence. One quote that jumped out at me as pretty universal was this, on the impact of some politicians jumping on the social media bandwagon: 'It brings into public view what has often been shrouded in secrecy – the arrogance, the hubris, the posturing and all the unsavoury things that happen between people who have to pretend to be nice to each other for a living.' I'm sure we can all think of politicians we’ve seen acting like idiots on twitter (not just the obvious one…) and thought, stop. Just stop...

The World Bank’s Stuti Khemani has written a policy/research brief on ‘An Opportunity to Build Legitimacy and Trust in Public Institutions in the Time of COVID-19’ that looks at how the pandemic has, in many contexts, changed the game for governments by ‘endowing’ them with high levels of legitimacy and increased trust for tackling the public health crisis. This ‘windfall endowment of legitimacy’ can be abused, of course, as the brief notes, but Khemani sees a number of entry points for international actors to engage in order to help build trust in public institutions. I have to admit I’m not 100% convinced by the argument, given what we’ve learned in recent years about legitimacy and service delivery, such as this recent report from the FCDO-funded SLRC on ‘Reconstructing our understanding of the link between services and state legitimacy’ by Aoife McCullough, with Antoine Lacroix and Gemma Hennessey, or Claire Mcloughlin and David Hudson’s short piece on ‘The limits of COVID compliance? Three tests for legitimate rules’. COVID-19 is doing things to legitimacy and trust in many places, to be sure, but it’s not yet clear what role there is, or should be, for external actors.

Sue Hawley from Spotlight on Corruption looks at similar issues, in many ways, in an article on why ‘The UK needs to get serious about debarring corrupt companies from public procurement’, while Rose Zussman at Transparency International UK looks at how the FinCEN files highlight challenges with what she says is the UK’s ‘outdated corporate liability regime’. There’s a lot of analysis right now on changes needed in the UK to restore/build trust in the UK’s systems for procurement and for fighting economic crime, and some interesting initiatives coming through the pipeline as well.

This blog from Giorgio Locatelli on ‘Infrastructure megaprojects that are delivered late and over budget aren't necessarily failures – here's why’ looks at how the ways we measure ‘success’ in delivery in large infrastructure projects (LIPs) need to consider impacts far beyond typical project management indicators to pull in things such as sustainability, impact on people and the environment and whether or not negative unintended consequences have been avoided - something that should resonate with many in global development.

Though there are some important caveats at the end of this article by Jonathan Weigel on ‘Can taxation stimulate political participation? Evidence from the Democratic Republic of Congo’, this report on a randomised policy experiment in the DRC finds support for a so-called indirect ‘participation dividend of taxation’. Though rates of paying tax after the experiment were still low, the treatment group is in-line with other much more affluent African capital cities. Promising research.

A whole slew of authors have an article out in Nature on 'Use caution when applying behavioural science to policy' particularly when it comes to thinking about how findings from the field can (or should) be applied with regard to COVID-19. They adapt a the famous NASA 'technology readiness levels' into their 'evidence readiness levels':

James Christensen asks 'Can selling weapons to oppressive and violent states ever be justified?' The answer, basically, is 'no' - not even if the case is being made on the basis of 'my enemy's enemy' - arming one bad regime to try to fight one that's seen as even worse.

This is a lovely short piece from Ben Phillips on 'development as love' and how his dad's values of 'community, compassion, responsibility, dignity, love' inspired him to work in global development and, I'm sure, also inspired his recent book, How to fight inequality, and why that fight needs you. I wrote something similar in early 2019 about my dad in a blog on 'Why I do research on corruption & integrity, in two photos'. I wonder how many of us have similar stories.

Academia seems to be doing a lot of soul searching right now, given the hell that is academic year 2020/21 so far, but also regarding how few of our incentives seem to support engaging with the many urgent and serious problems going on right now. This note from the editors at the American Political Science Review had many in political science Twitter channeling their inner John Bender: ask the important research questions first, then worry about the methods...

Fist Pump GIF - TheBreakfastClub JohnBender JuddNelson GIFs

There are so many good webinars right now…


I've decided to start including things that I've enjoyed that I know others will find interesting but which aren't things I have the time (or need!) to write notes on for myself.

Just for fun...

I'm a huge fan of Andrea Camilleri's Inspector Montalbano series set in Sicily. His most recent book published in English is The Safety Net, which includes both a cold case and a new one, the latter involving teenagers. An ageing Montalbano observes the teenage son of a friend at his desk searching for information online while also playing a video game, listening to music and watching a video (yep, I know this scene well...). He thinks back to his own teen years, with only his school books and a desk lamp, and wonders what this is doing to kids' brain development, concluding - beautifully, I think: 'He, for his part, had been taught to dive deep, whereas they had learned to navigate on the open seas'. As the mother of a teen and an almost teen, I absolutely love this metaphor for them.

This tweet is amazing and an instant family favourite. Can you imagine the novel that someone could write with this as the opening scene?

Finally, this poem by Belfast poet Derek Mahon, who sadly died in early October, has become almost like an anthem of the pandemic. It's called 'Everything is going to be alright', from Mahon’s New and Selected Poems, and my favourite reading of it is by Fleabag actor Andrew Scott. I defy anyone not to feel just a little lighter of spirit after watching it.

For those not inclined to watch videos (seriously...who wouldn't want to watch Andrew Scott read the side of a cereal box…), here it is:

How should I not be glad to contemplate

the clouds clearing beyond the dormer window

and a high tide reflected on the ceiling?

There will be dying, there will be dying,

but there is no need to go into that.

The poems flow from the hand unbidden

and the hidden source is the watchful heart.

The sun rises in spite of everything

and the far cities are beautiful and bright.

I lie here in a riot of sunlight

watching the day break and the clouds flying.

Everything is going to be all right.

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