Farewell to Arms? Seen Nowhere on the Horizon

Saudi special security forces show their

Saudi special security forces show their skills during a military parade at a base near Mount Arafat, southeast of the holy city of Mecca, on November 22, 2009  (Image credit: Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

by Elbay Alibayov | Reflections on the week past

We are all defence and military this week. An arms deal with Saudi Arabia worth up to US$110 billion, followed by the Pentagon’s US$639 billion budget proposal for FY2018 (“dead on arrival” because apparently it was not big enough). And to complete it all, the NATO summit in Brussels.

All three security levels (country, regional, and global) are covered. An array of topics claimed to be targeted (from national defence interests to global threats like terrorism, to job creation) or flagged by independent observers as issues of concern (like civilian casualties and human rights). And this way or another, it is all about military spending; or, to be precise, about military spending (militarization) under the pretext of ensuring state and human security (eventually at the expense of other government expenditure). This is not a topic to be taken lightly—in the world of “limited resources and unlimited needs” we have to make (supposedly, rational) choices. Do we?

How much justified is, for example, US$1.69 trillion (which happens to constitute no less than 2.2 percent of global GDP) in military spending in 2016 alone? And this is at the time when according to Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP), the same year the total number of deaths from violent conflicts across the world equalled to 103,330; of them 87,018 lives were lost in state-based violence; 9,034 in non-state violence, and 6,278 in one-sided violence. Add to this tens of millions of forcibly displaced people (both internally and refugees), those who are exposed to starvation and infectious deceases due to violence—and you quite get an idea of the scale of the problem. But to make sense of it, we first have to reflect on some basic questions.


How should we think about relationship between militarization and security, stability? How important is it to maintain high military spending (which includes items from procurement of arms and equipment to wages, training and social benefits to research and development)? How justified is it to cut public funding from non-defence areas in order to build up further militarization? And finally, does organized violence (whether state-based and non-state-based armed conflicts or one-sided violence) persist because governments don’t spend enough on security or the use of armed force is driven by other (social, economic, political, ideological, psychological) factors and cannot be contained by ever increasing military budgets? Or is it the arms production and trade (both formal and trafficking) that itself contributes to fuelling many conflicts?

There is no single or simple way to answer those questions. Especially considering that universal rules (like the one by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature that there has been an extraordinary but little-recognized, millennia-long, worldwide reduction in all forms of violence) are difficult to establish, and they may not necessarily work in all regions and at all times (especially nowadays, when the pace of developments and changes, and thus volatility are uber-high).

There are also different forms of conflict and therefore the relation between each form and external factors (like military spending) may vary greatly. Moreover, the forms are also changing. Take for example state-based armed conflicts—that is, armed contests over power and/or territory where one of sides is the government. The established classification recognizes four forms of state-based conflict (called wars if they cause more than one thousand battle-deaths a year): inter-state conflicts (between states); extra-state conflicts (between a state and an armed group outside the state’s own territory); intra-state conflicts (between a government and a non-state group); and internationalized intra-state conflicts (when the government, or an armed group opposing it, receives military support from one or more foreign states). Well, how are we going to categorize the wars in Iraq and Syria? For the majority of states involved, both wars fall under more than one sub-category, and each sub-category in turn is subject to a different set of driving forces, contexts and circumstances.

Another challenge (as ever) is causality. We first look at the correspondence, and if there is any, then at the casual direction in relations between (extensive) military spending and security. What I am interested in here is, whether it is true that more military spending by governments leads to sustained improvements in both state and human security (where human security is not only saving lives from war, genocide, displacement, epidemics and famine, but means freedom from violence and from the fear of violence, with direct and indirect implications on fundamental freedoms and basic human rights). To answer this question one has to undertake a full-blown research based on empirical evidence, and perhaps employing a sophisticated computation and modelling (to cover a broad range of variables over extended periods of time). However, it is possible to make sense of developments without this heavy armoury, simply viewing them in right context.


Take for example, the controversial arms deal between the US and Saudi Arabia signed this week. Let’s look first at the trend. In the last decade, the region’s governments have significantly increased their military spending, and weapons purchase in particular. In 2012-2016 their share among global importers of major weapons equalled to 29 percent, compared to (no small otherwise) 17 percent in 2007-2011. Out of top five arms importers in 2012-2016, three were from the Middle East and North Africa: Saudi Arabia with 8.2 percent, United Arab Emirates with 4.6 percent, and Algeria with 3.7 percent of global imports, respectively.

Note that this happens at the time when oil prices have dropped drastically and the global trend is leaning towards reliance on renewables and clean energy. The Gulf states being heavily dependent on commodity exports, find themselves in a dare financial situation. Never mind, they say. But the facts tell a different story: “Saudi Arabia faces an imminent economic crisis. … Riyadh cannot sustainably rely on oil as its principle source of national income. Over the last 18 months, the Kingdom has used 17% of its Public Investment Fund (PIF) to cover the government’s operating costs. If this trend persists, Riyadh will completely deplete the PIF by 2024.”

The true burden of military spending on the economy becomes apparent when we see it as a share of a country’s GDP: in 2016, in the Middle East it was at staggering 6.0 percent (compared to 2.0 percent in Africa, 1.6 percent in Europe, 1.3 percent in Americas, 1.8 percent in Asia). As mentioned above, this money is not spent out of some surplus magically appearing in the government coffers; it is spent at the expense/instead of something else. And this “something else” happens to be human, social and economic development. As pointed out by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in its 2016 yearbook, a comparison of trends in spending on the military, health and education since 1995 shows that whereas the majority of countries have increased health and education spending while reducing military spending, the trend in the Middle East has gone in the opposite direction. There is no better indication of where the governments’ priorities are.


Of course, there is also a game in play. Bluff is always present in politics, whether at local or global level. Saudi Arabia is in acute need of cash. The regime knows that they cannot afford large military spending. Actually, they have decreased the military expenditure last year, and as a result are not in the top third position of spenders, giving up this “honourable place” in the rankings to Russians. But they are also aware that others know that too, and are watching them closely. So the deal so ambitious is (at least in part) to throw dust in someone’s (say, arch-rival Iran—which happens to be on ascending line thanks to Nuclear Deal-incited release of sanctions—or would-be partners in emerging Muslim countries of East Asia) eyes. The deal is not binding and can stay stalled for years (until each letter of offer and acceptance (LOA) it is comprised of is signed and paid for thus making it to the contract), but will send a signal to anyone around that Saudis are in no short supply of money, resolve, ambition and support to this matter.

Whether the others buy this bluff is another story, but the point is made—and with such a skillful showman as Mr Trump in game, it is performed quite theatrically to impress everyone, at home and abroad. (As a side note, such a show with inflated package price serves the US administration’s goals too—to demonstrate to the voters at home their power and influence, to claim more jobs and benefits to economy etc; Vice Adm. Joseph Rixey, director of the DSCA was quick to announce: “When completed, it will be the largest single arms deal in American history.”  What an accomplishment!)

Still, this does not change the overall intent of the affair. And just to be clear on that point: the rulers of Saudi Arabia will make sure to purchase big part of the arms package, especially considering that first, it is a political commitment before the strategic partner (who is so kind to take sides in the ages-long Sunni-Shi’a power contest); second, the delivery under contracts may take long years thus allowing some flexibility with regards to payments; and also, Saudi rulers want to build the military production capabilities at home by 2030, so part of contracts would work to this end.

That is all good, but the question is who will pay for this. Well, I have an answer: I assume this would be the young generation of Saudi Arabia (who are already frustrated by worsening life standards, unemployment and various barriers in social life) and of other countries in the region (who are either equally robbed by their governments of public investment in their future or are unlucky to be born in the neighbouring countries which serve as playground to use those weapons purchased). Whether they like it or not.


Where is it all heading? Marc Lynch has nailed it in his recent article that, emboldened by such deals (and the Washington’s backing) the region’s regimes will find it easier “to sustain their crackdown on civil society and political dissent” when faced with difficulties and popular resistance to meet the militarization commitments, “but such repression will exacerbate the governance failures and political grievances which lay the ground for another round of instability. By almost every indicator—economic, political, security or social—the Arab regimes upon which Trump is doubling down are more unstable now than they appeared to be in the years leading up to the 2011 uprisings.”

So in response to the question posed in the opening part of this piece, it would be fair to say that militarization (through extensive military spending, among others) makes the Middle East governments more vulnerable and the entire region increasingly unstable—it encourages violent conflicts and contributes to their escalation instead of containing them. It is counterproductive, whether in immediate or long term. And I am sure we will arrive at similar conclusion when analyzing other regions. Think of Africa (military spending across the continent has increased by almost half in the past ten years). Think of South Asia (with the top importer of major weapons, India and no less ambitious Pakistan). Think… how much good could have been done instead.

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Ten Most Important Nudges, for All Walks of Life


Nudge as Choice Architecture

Knowing how people make decisions is important. For various practical reasons, from making better policies to delivering product or service with higher value, to managing teams and companies, to effectively winning campaigns (think of elections, for example). Not surprisingly, the way how we make decisions as individuals and groups interests scientists—psychologists, sociologists, behavioural economists, political science and communications scholars. They have been studying human decision-making for long, but the real boom started with publishing a seminal work by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who made the concept comprehensible (as compared with technical jargon filled academic publications/journals) to broad audiences of non-experts and coined the term ‘nudge’.

This is how they define it: ‘A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.’

What made the notion so popular was efficiency of its practical application—relatively unsophisticated and inexpensive methods that can deliver tangible benefits. Moreover, as the proponents claim, it is beneficial both ways: the governments and citizens in policy implementation and service delivery, the businesses and customers alike, in their interaction. The logic is pretty simple: by helping people make better choices of your products and services, you help yourself (through customer satisfaction, for instance).


Nudge and Free Will

The use of insights from behavioural sciences in public administration and business management has been growing for years, and there are many followers of employing ‘nudging’ methods for communicating public policies (in US and UK even public offices established), but also critics who claim that ‘nudging’ is paternalistic, even unethical.

The main concern of opponents is that by using behavioural science, the governments and businesses (and in fact anyone else) can manipulate our decision making, ‘softly’ push us toward making choices which are not necessarily in our best interest. On the other hand, there is a notion of free will in individual choice involved. For us, the very fact of the choice made voluntarily matters. In fact, we value it so much that we are ready to make sacrifices and accept the cost of it (at times, stubbornly pursuing our course—remember sunk cost?) thus, exercising our ‘right to be wrong’.

This is what I recall from Dostoyevsky: ‘What human being wants is just an independent choice, whatever the cost of this independence and whatever it may bring about.’ Therefore ‘rationality’ (strictly self-interest based behaviour, as defined by mainstream economists in their models) is not necessarily the driving or determining factor of any given decision made by us as individual human beings, and I assume this makes it impossible to model an individual’s behaviour (for good or bad). The value of a model which does not incorporate our intuitive cognition is of small practical use.

Nudging Tips

So what are the most important nudges? According to Cass Sunstein, the co-author of Nudge, there are ten of them:

Default rules: Setting the most beneficial to customers (as perceived by the initiative owners) as a default—most of us automatically accept them without giving second thought. Application may include automatic enrolment in programmes, including education, health, or savings;

Simplification: Making programmes easily navigable, even intuitive. This may include simplification of (at times numerous and lengthy) forms and regulations (which only experts dare ‘decoding’);

Uses of social norms: For example, by emphasizing what most people do—putting phrases like ‘most people plan to vote’ or ‘most people pay their taxes on time’ or ‘nine out of ten hotel guests reuse their towels’ in the communication with customers. In UK, this kind of nudges have proven effective in target interventions that support families with long-standing problems, turning around their lives and improving the life chances of children;

Increases in ease and convenience: We frequently reject some offers, especially those related to change of habit, because find them complicated (this is not the only reason, of course). The benefit shall be presented up-front, to immediately attract attention, without much effort. Applications may include, for example, making low-cost options eye-catching in the list or healthy foods visible on the store shelf;


Disclosure: For example, the economic or environmental costs associated with energy use, or the full cost of certain credit cards, or making easily available large amounts of data, through the Internet (as in the cases of data.gov and the Open Government Partnership);

Warnings: We know they work—campaign against smoking, with its emotional appeal through graphic means (as for cigarettes), is an example. Other visual effects, such as large fonts, bold letters, and bright colours can be effective in triggering people’s attention. Generally, visual effects can be used not only to warn but to encourage certain behaviour: for example, the use of flags can affect tension between communities, feeding into reconciliation strategies (as shown in the Northern Ireland Government’s Shared Future policy);

Precommitment strategies: These are nudges by which people commit to a certain course of action at a precise future moment in time—it is thought to better motivate action and to reduce procrastination;

Reminders: For example, by email or text message. The purposes may broadly vary—from paying bills, to taking medicines, or making a banker’s or doctor’s appointment. It also has a nice touch (‘we care’) which is good for building consumer trust and confidence. Closely related approach is ‘prompted choice’, by which people are not required to choose, but asked whether they want to choose (for example, clean energy or a new energy provider, a privacy setting on their computer, or to be organ donors);

Eliciting implementation intentions: Asking questions like ‘do you plan to vote?’ or ‘do you plan to vaccinate your child?’. Emphasizing people’s identity can also be effective (‘you are a voter, as your past practices suggest’). There are some interesting outcomes, for example in encouraging people towards more sustainable transport habits by leaving their cars at home and use public transport, by using this nudge;

Informing people of the nature and consequences of their own past choices: Private and public institutions often have a great deal of information about people’s own past choices – for example, their expenditures on health care or on their electric bills. The problem is that individuals often lack that information. If people obtain it, their behaviour can shift, often making markets work better (and saving a lot of money). Take for example, initiatives like ‘smart disclosure’ in the US and the ‘midata project’ in the UK.

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In the following article I will share examples from the experience of governments as well as business practice on nudging people to take certain action—as practical application of the above nudges (or stated intentions to do so).

For other articles in this series see How Humans Think: Five Mental Shortcuts and How to Make Right Decisions in the Age of Uncertainty

Myanmar: Building Peace and Democracy Brick by Brick

In this commentary on Myanmar’s recent progress toward establishing democratic governance and ending decades-long civil war, I will try to look beyond the known facts into the background of Burmese politics that frames, directs and conditions the course of developments, but is also continuously influenced by them. That is why this environment is neither static nor monolithic or heterogeneous. I will pick up some pieces of this dynamic puzzle to better understand what is happening in Myanmar and, more importantly, why it happens as it does.

Leaders pose for a photo after the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw

(Front row L-R) Myanmar’s Military Commander in Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Speaker of the Upper House of Parliament Mahn Win Khaing Than, Vice President Henry Van Thio, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, President Htin Kyaw, Vice President Myint Swe and former vice president Sai Mauk Kham pose for a photo with ethnic leaders after the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong Conference in Naypyitaw, Myanmar August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Another milestone

In the course of four days, from 31 August to 4 September 2016, the government and military of Myanmar held a peace conference with rebel groups over the country’s future political and administrative set-up. The conference in the capital Nay Pyi Taw was the first broad based, inclusive of (almost) all stakeholders event dedicated to this issue in nearly seventy years, since gaining the independence in 1948.

The importance of this event is difficult to overestimate. It was the largest and most representative forum bringing together government officials, members of parliament, political party representatives, military officers, and representatives of ethnic armed groups in decades. Its significance is twofold, given that it demonstrated the legitimacy and credibility of the first democratically elected government and set the course toward the implementation of the negotiated peace that shall result in a new, federal political and administrative organisation of the Burmese State. It was not perfect (what is in political realm?), for it did not live up to (rather elevated) expectations of achieving tangible outcomes except for demonstrating commitment, formally launching the process, and offering all the sides an opportunity to share their opinion. But that is already a firm step forward, in a manner that appears to be characteristic of political processes in Myanmar—testing ground and moving from one milestone to the next as conditions allow.

The conditions are ripe for making the move to another milestone toward peace and democracy in Myanmar, and they grew so gradually over a number of recent years of painstakingly building a momentum, to be ready by this point in time.

This kind of decision making based on ecological rationality (that is when inferences are made through exploiting the structure of information and the environment to arrive at adaptively useful outcomes) shows itself in many instances in Myanmar, including the timing of holding the conference. Many external observes grew impatient over the prolonged negotiations and the delay with holding this landmark event; they missed the point, I am afraid. The conditions must be ripe for making the move toward another milestone, and they grew so gradually over a number of recent years of painstakingly building momentum, to be ready by this point in time:

— The military have made another step on their ‘roadmap’, by allowing the democratically elected government to take public office; in so doing they retained their power and control of certain decision-making domains (such as defence, police and border control where they continue appointing the ministers and their deputies).

— The government is fresh and its de facto leader, Aung San Suu Kyi commands respect internally and internationally and enjoys credibility with majority of population; thus hopes and willingness to cooperate are high for the time being (this is not going to be always like that, because there will be unavoidable delays and failures in addressing the mounting problems that will eventually lead to certain frustration and disillusionment).

— The rebels are exhausted and they realise that they have achieved maximum of what they could have secured through the armed conflict. It is not a secret to either side that violence leads to more violence which only aggravates the situation but does not bring any result in and by itself. Since the signing of National Ceasefire Agreement in October 2015 all but three rebel groups in the north have put the arms down.

— This explains why all the rebel groups (even those who did not sign the agreement) agreed to its text last year. And in fact accepting the peace agreement is being kept firmly by the government and military, as a precondition for participating in the follow-up peace- and state-building process. On the other hand, the negotiation process was long enough (it took four years) for all the parties to hold internal consultations and to weigh all the pros and cons. In turn, the military’s powerful commander-in-chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and his deputy signing the agreement in person had demonstrated their commitment.

— And finally, the process has got high level of attention and support from the international community. At the moment it is at its pick, which means strong political backing but also availability of financial and technical aid which are much needed to revitalise the economy and to address Myanmar’s numerous social problems (this should be taken with caution though, first, because of ever important to Myanmar strategic goal of balancing its relations with China, and second, recalling the waste in supply and spending when the country first opened for the external assistance in 2011, after the sanctions imposed back in the 1990’s). The fact that the agreement signing ceremony last year was attended by ambassadors of forty-five countries, the UN and World Bank in presence and co-signed by six international witnesses (among them the most important politically and economically neighbours China and India, along with Japan, Thailand, UN and the European Union) already speaks for itself. This year, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addressed the conference, while the former SG Kofi Annan will head a commission for examining the situation with Rohingya Muslims and offering recommendations.

Recognizing the complexity of Burmese society

Any society represents a complex system due to broad variety of societal groups which constitute it and the diversity of their interests and intra-group and inter-group interactions (as stakeholders in an array of issues). Complex systems, as a rule, are characterised by the interaction of their components and therefore the resulting ‘emergent’ properties of the system as a whole cannot be derived from generalized quality of its components but reflect the properties of those numerous and multidimensional interactions between its constituent parts. Those interactions, in turn, tend to constantly change in their dynamics, directions, forms and magnitude. That is why it is so difficult to categorize any society, even when assessed against the criteria of one given category (for example, using political rights and civil liberties for judging the degree of democratic freedom).

Now imagine how complex is society where one-third of population is comprised of ethnic minorities. Moreover, there are more than a hundred of those minorities living together in these territories literally for ages. Add seven decades of most recent violent confrontation between them and the government led by military junta (of ethnic majority)—a civil war resulting in further erosion of social fabric and deeply running mistrust, physical destruction, economic backwardness, poverty, massive scale human rights abuses, hundreds of thousands of refugees abroad and displaced people in-country, and more than one hundred thousand of fighters belonging to a dozen-and-half of armed rebel groups spread across the land (which are linked to each other but do not form a single cohesive entity, thus may act independently).

There cannot be democracy without equality and rights of minorities respected, and democracy seems to be the only system that can guarantee those rights to the Burmese society’s diverse populations. 

There are two processes running simultaneously in Myanmar, since its independence day. One is the process of political transformation (presumably toward democratic governance, but in a localised fashion). Another is civil war between the ethnic majority and minorities. In the shadows of it is taking place another localised violent conflict, driven by religious divides. These processes are intertwined, although may vary independently, and what happens is that only a solution (or rather, a set of solutions) that addresses core issues at the heart of them has a chance to be effective and sustainable. It is impossible to meaningfully achieve one goal without attaining the other: there cannot be a democracy without equality and fundamental human rights and rights of minorities respected, and democracy seems to be the only system that can guarantee those rights to the Burmese society’s diverse populations.

Understanding the local contexts and institutions

This is a sketchy present-day portrait of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, set within the country’s unique contextual features and underlying institutions. Take just some of them, most prominent ones, and you will see the random events, individuals and groups as parts and parcels of political processes occurring in their natural environment.

The country has a long history of statehood—existed as an independent kingdom, at times strongly centralised, for centuries (since the mid of 11th century until British colonization in the end of 19th century). Therefore, sense of nationalism and pride of own history and traditions, in each ethnic group and nation-wide, runs very deep. Perhaps this is one reason that in spite of violent infighting, almost all the rebel ethnicity centred groups do not seek to secede but strive to have equal rights and autonomy thorough building a federal state within the present borders. They take pride of the fact that Burma did not join the Commonwealth because they ‘refused to accept the British sovereign as head of state’.

On the other hand, the colonial rule not only disrupted the continuity of sovereign rule but also exacerbated and exposed the country’s major social vulnerability by stressing its inter-communal ethnicity based differences. This was recognised at the time of gaining the independence, and political equality was reflected in an agreement of domestic forces. Unfortunately this agreement was not implemented, thus effectively leading to armed conflict between the ruling majority and ethnic minorities.

Religion (Buddhism) has been one of distinctive building blocks of identity in Burma over the course of its long history, and has greatly influenced the individual, group, and inter-community behaviour and relations. However, group identity is not a permanent ‘solid enduring fact’ but rather a ‘situational construct’ which, first, has many layers and, second, evolves as part of the advancement strategy in response to changing circumstances (for example, by changing the hierarchy of its ingredient parts/layers). Therefore the Buddhist identity has not always played a dominant or unifying role in inter-communal relations, especially in the framework of the civil war unfolding.

In addition to ethnic diversity, there is a religious minority of Muslim population living in compact pockets; they are seen as aliens and discriminated against by nationalist Buddhists, at times brutally. In the western state of Rakhine, about hundred and twenty thousand Rohingya Muslims are living in displacement camps after being driven from their communities four years ago (it is also indicative that no one represented them at the peace conference).

Economic inequality has been another driver of the conflict, since the minorities live in most remote and underdeveloped areas but also have been neglected by the central government for long. Decades of civil war have devastated the country’s resources and destroyed its economy’s productive infrastructure while creating the opportunities for illicit economic activities, especially drug related, thus contributing to the conflict’s sustainability.

The revitalisation of a troubled society must come from within if there is to be a meaningful fulfilment of community aspirations and a workable mechanism for their relationships.

The change from within

Myanmar has demonstrated that by following its own path it slowly by surely progresses toward the end goal. The goal itself is broadly defined; it is shaped and reshaped along the journey, with multiple intermediary milestones determining the pace, the direction and the current and possible future settlement formats. Its smooth transition from military rule to democratically elected government (even though with the power and special position of military constitutionally guaranteed) took too long in the eyes of many observers, but what is important is that it worked out and already started delivering its first results. Another process, of ending the civil war, has too, entered its maturity phase after many attempts, iterations, and prolonged negotiations.

It well may be that, after decades of dominating mostly grim news Myanmar is about presenting to the world a lesson on how internal differences could be overcome. Whatever comes in the end (both in terms of governance and peace), is going to be a Burmese product, a local model that may not (and most probably because of that won’t) fit into Western or any other models of democratic government and peacemaking or work as a model for replication elsewhere.

I am convinced that the Burmese (and similar) experiences of dealing with their problems deserve to be closely studied and learnt from. I see the success factors of this approach in its domestically-driven energy and localised solutions, built with recognition of political culture, traditions and institutions, with adjustments made to local contexts and, through this interaction, influencing those contexts to allow the change occurring and taking root. The revitalisation of a troubled society must come from within if there is to be a meaningful fulfilment of its various communities’ needs and aspirations and a workable mechanism to accommodate them together through diverse and respectful relationships.

The country makes cautious steps in progression and there is a long way to go. But one thing is clear today is that they do it their own way in Myanmar, and even if it does not match everyone’s expectations or standards abroad, it may work well for their people. And that’s what matters in the end.

About the Author: Dr. Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state-building and political processes in post-conflict countries. He has worked in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Azerbaijan. Being posted in the field (such as office in Srebrenica) and headquarters of international projects and missions, he has designed, implemented and overseen a broad range of strategies and local and nation-wide initiatives, and have chaired and participated in the work of civil-military groups, political coordination boards at all levels.


This is Iraq’s Call: The Road to Take

I asked a child, walking with a candle

“From where comes that light?”

Instantly he blew it out. “Tell me where it is gone—

then I will tell you where it came from.”

Hasan al-Basri (642-728)


In a manner predating the signature Sufi tradition, al-Basri’s verse quoted above provokes thought and is open to numerous meanings and interpretations. One is that, where you go (or choose to go) in practical terms is more important than identifying your point of reference, where you came from (or where your problems originated from). It is particularly important to those who are at the crossroads—don’t look back (because where you already are matters more), look ahead and decide which way better suits your plans, aspirations, and resources—and then take it. It well may be that, by succeeding in your selected route you may end up better understanding yourself and your past.

Things are fast developing in Iraq, and as always in this life it is a mixture of threat and opportunity, death and birth, joy and sorrow, damage and revival. Strategically and symbolically important Fallujah is retaken from ISIL, which is losing its territories; a quarter of its Iraq and Syria territory have been liberated in the last eighteen months. A massively devastating terrorist attack in Baghdad’s Karrada district claimed close to 300 lives sending a shock wave across the world. Oil production has increased by 13 percent. The Council of Representatives is divided, with various blocs further fracturing, and appears impotent to enact much needed legislation in the face of political stalemate and obstructions by various political actors. The economy has contracted by 2.4 percent (with non-oil economy contracting 19 percent). More than 656 thousand Iraqis have returned to the areas freed from ISIL. The Federal Court decisions to nullify Council of Representatives’ sessions undermine Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s authority to undertake reforms in public administration. The International Monetary Fund announced a $5.34 billion, three-year loan program for Iraq, to help strengthen the country’s finances. And so it goes–

Iraq today is at crossroads, and it is entirely up to the Iraqis—their political leaders and prominent influencers, tribal heads, communities and ordinary citizens—to decide which way to take. How to advance along the route elected is a different question, but first they must decide. Despite conspiracy theories held by some observers, everyone else expects exactly this—for the Iraqis to decide their own fate, and anyone else with good (and even selfish) intentions would be ready to join forces. This reminds me of the dialogue between Alice and the Cheshire Cat at the road fork, in Wonderland: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”…“ That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”…“I don’t much care where –“…“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”


Protests in Baghdad, February 2016                        Reuters

Three options: disintegration, federalism, institution building

The problems of Iraq are multiple, but most of them seem to originate from few deep rooted and long suppressed causes that, once released in 2003, started their uncontrollable tornado-like movement. However, in spite of their scary manifestations, neither the problems nor their effects are inherently deadly—they do not pose an existential threat to the present Iraqi state. There is a real danger though, that if not properly addressed they would keep unfolding and paralysing the state and the society and, as a result, bringing more dysfunctionality, misery and suffering: as the old saying goes, there is no such thing as bottom; only endless milestones along the downfall into abyss.

The only way out of this impasse is for the country’s polity, backed by regional and global powers, to negotiate and enforce a set of political arrangements that reflect both the historic tradition and political culture, and the aspirations of contemporary Iraq’s diverse populations. Theoretically, there are two alternatives to consider.

One is to disintegrate—partition into independent states with dominant Sunni, Shi’a, and Kurd population (and with Turkmen being where Kirkuk and surrounding area belong to; unless of course the Iraqi Turkmen claim their own right for self-determination—which, considering their recent political activism may quite turn into reality).  A few publications have mentioned this partitioning option recently as a possible solution (and some even extended it to Syria). Even though presented cautiously, these projections indicate that (1) there is an attempt of assessing the consequences of such an outcome and (2) they are merely testing the ground, to gauge the public and expert reaction to its possibility.

Another alternative is to preserve the Iraqi state in terms of its sovereignty and territorial integrity, through undergoing political reforms. The difficulty of this task lies in the fact that any solution that intends at keeping the present state intact has to address two fundamental features of the Middle Eastern politics outlined in previous parts of this article—political tribalism and tendency for strongly centralized power—which set in motion respectively centrifugal and centripetal forces that compete, conflict and collide simultaneously.

Under this alternative one can distinguish two scenarios. One is to reorganize the political and administrative system in a fundamental way – that is, creating a fully federal state with much power devolved to three autonomous constituent entities. This will demand the adoption of constitutional changes, if not a brand new constitution. Second scenario aims at strengthening resilience of the present state through a series of reform interventions and consistent institution building efforts and gradual (but meaningfully progressive) decentralisation—to avoid a breakdown and to evolve in line with and adapt to realities on the ground. These two scenarios are not negating each other and certain technical elements of one can be integrated into another in a complementary manner, if the need be.

Below I present an outline of possibilities, opportunities and risks associated with these three options. It should be noted that neither of them is easy, straightforward or free from limitations and controversies. Any and all of them will demand a commitment to concerted and sustained effort, through consensus building between all major sides concerned.


Although it may look to some as a quick-fix solution, the partitioning of Iraq does not appear a feasible solution when brought to close light, for a number of reasons.

First, it does not solve the issue of minorities, ethnic and sectarian divides, since the population elsewhere across the country is heterogeneous—one cannot find a large enough area populated exclusively by Arabs (whether Sunni or Shi’a), Kurds, Turkmen, let alone Assyrians, Christians, Yazidis, to this matter. It became even more complicated as, according to some reports (namely, about Christians in Kurdistan), the land left behind by villagers fleeing the ISIL occupation has been retaken by their neighbours of different ethnicity or confession. Therefore, the sense of insecurity will remain as it cannot be solved automatically in such a set-up, and inter-group tensions will be inherited by now newly established states. Exchange of population to create homogeneous populations, in turn, runs risks of abuse, forceful deportation bordering with ethnic cleansing.

Second, as noted earlier, divisions within each ethnic or sectarian group won’t disappear with the creation of new states. To the contrary, the chances are high that once left on their own the local factions (whether tribes, movements, or political parties) will fight each other for controlling the power even more fiercely. The history of Talabani vs. Barzani in Kurdistan or al-Sadr vs. al-Maliki in the South stand-offs can serve as examples. This rivalry tends to be quite violent and destructive, considering that each group has own militia at disposal.

Further, there is a risk that divisions and violent confrontation will inevitably weaken these new states and put their survival as sovereign entities into question. On the one hand, this will create a space for various extremist groups to take advantage and fill the power vacuum. Sunni populated state, in particular, may turn into easy prey for religion-inspired extremist militant organisations. On the other hand, establishing small states with predominantly mono-ethnic or mono-sectarian population and weak political institutions make it possible for influential neighbours turning them into their satellites, through installing puppet governments and taking control over their resources openly (unlike present situation when cross-border influences are exhibited covertly and somewhat counter-balance each other).

But that is not all. There is also an international dimension to partitioning. From the international law and practice point of view, there is a conundrum not resolved since the end of the Second World War. The United Nations and most of human rights declarations recognise both the right (of group, people, or nation) to self-determination and the right of sovereign states to territorial integrity (regardless of when and how those borders were set up)—without providing any proper mechanism of resolving potential tensions between these fundamental concepts when they conflict. And they have conflicted on numerous occasions all over the world, leading in the very soft outcome to confusion and diplomatic impasse, but more frequently turned into civil wars, long lasting terrorism, repressions, mass deportation and massacres.

In the situation of Iraq, the creation of new states based on ethnic and sectarian principle will be formally framed as a “special case”, not to inspire many others to follow suit. That is not going to convince anyone with similar aspirations for independence, or those who are afraid of those aspirations as potentially threatening the integrity of their states. Think of sectarian minorities across the region (and all this at the time of heightened tensions due to jihadists targeting Shi’a along with traditional “infidels”, on the one hand, and ever escalating rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran over hearts and minds of Muslims in the Middle East, on the other). The partitioning of Iraq into Sunni and Shi’a states will awaken and may set in motion a chain of movements across the Middle East and North Africa region (country like Kuwait, with its reputation for tolerance and cross-sectarian coalitions in the parliament, is rather an exception).

Think also of reactions of the governments in Ankara, Damascus (irrespectively of whether it is Bashar al-Assad led or not), and Tehran to creating an independent Kurdistan state. Turkey is home to almost half of the world’s Kurds (estimated globally between 35 and 40 million), while Iranian Kurds are estimated at about 3.8 million – these are not “tiny” minorities at all. Whether the Kurds, as the Middle East’s stateless nation, deserve having an independent state of their own is not much of a question for the international community. The problem is with different, conflicting perceptions of key stakeholders to the issue. Even though the Democratic Union Party (PYD) of Syria and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) of Turkey take softer approach to independence that the Iraqi Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), it is difficult to predict what sentiments and practical moves the independence of the Iraqi Kurdistan—if turn reality in the immediate term—would trigger among the Kurds and the governments from neighbouring countries. Turkey is the case in point: the confrontation between the government forces and the Kurdish fighters has escalated into an open war since the summer of last year. In turn, after decades of calm, the Iranian Kurds have taken up arms; and it is difficult to predict what would be the mood in Syria’s Rojava once the land is liberated from ISIL and the West-backed and well-equipped and capable militarily Kurdish forces will take a close look at domestic issues.

Therefore, before the Iraqi Kurdistan becomes an independent state (if its people ever decide to) there must be a prior process of diplomatic negotiations with involvement of all interested parties from the countries concerned—to avoid or, at least, anticipate and minimize to extent possible, future surprises. One thing is clear that today no one is ready to deal with this issue, under constraint of other pressing problems and the uncertainty of outcome—neither in the countries with Kurdish population, nor in the region, in Europe, United States and Russia.

And finally, from economic perspective this option does not look attractive either. On the one hand, the Sunni populated state will be at disadvantage as its soil is scarce in mineral resources. Today, these provinces are receiving their share from the central government’s purse. Who is going to compensate for this loss? In turn, the economies of Kurdistan and Shi’a populated areas, too, are vulnerable due to their heavy reliance on oil exports. Industrial production and agriculture are at rudimentary levels, while for building a “smart”, technology-driven production and services they lack basic components such as communications infrastructure and skilled labour. Diversification, even if undertaken thoroughly, will take years to deliver. This is not impossible but demands continuous investments all the way long—something that these new states with weak economies will struggle to generate. The fact is that today the Iraqi economy is immature and thus cutting it in smaller pieces and distorting even those tiny existing value chains will further expose weaknesses and limit the capabilities for economic regeneration and growth in those states. Most probably, this will lead to even more inequality in wealth distribution, higher poverty and disenfranchisement of ordinary people. To sum up, the partitioning risks creating three failed states in place of the one struggling to avoid failing.



By the constitution of 2005, Iraq is a federal state whereby Kurdistan region is an autonomous federal unit with its own government. The relations between Baghdad and Erbil haven’t been always smooth and have been marked by numerous tag-of-war-like situations when important decisions and pieces of legislation were blocked in the Parliament or in the Council of Ministers. One point of continuous tension has been the revenue sharing formula from the oil exports (what else?). This rather tactical manoeuvring notwithstanding, it is right to say that federalism in Iraq has survived its test thus far.

Under this scenario Iraq would comprise three federal units—Kurdistan and other two with Sunni and Shi’a majority population, respectively. This set-up is not impossible but requires a new constitutional arrangement with new devolved powers clearly stipulated. If properly designed and, most importantly, respected and implemented afterwards this constitution and the system it introduces may well work. It will to certain degree equalise the rights of Kurds, Sunni and Shi’a Arabs, in exercising the power and control of resources while (again, to certain degree) guaranteeing the rights of minorities in each federal unit. What it will not solve in and by itself is patrimonialism, corruption, divides between the country’s multiple political players, and the inefficiency of its public administration.

There are two features of federalism that must be accepted by Iraq’s political elites (especially its Shi’a establishment) before they all decide to endeavour in this direction. One is that, although federalism offers a solution through decreased ethno-sectarian tensions (especially in a short term), it also encourages and fosters demands for secession over time. To borrow from the English constitutional theorist A.V. Dicey, “there is no midway between federalism and independence.”  This is already an issue in Kurdistan, where the leadership has announced their intention to take course on the independence referendum—a move that makes Baghdad’s political establishment feeling uneasy. How would they react if two entities decide to secede one day? These are not easy things to digest. Therefore, accepting a legitimate right of each federal entity to break away through a popular vote at some point is one precondition to this scenario.

Another feature is about the degree of decentralisation. How much power does the federal government retain? In which policy and decision making domains, areas? And how deep down the hierarchy the power would devolve (entity, region, province, municipality, community)? What about tax collection? Which provisions would allow federal government taking full control and command and how do they define those exceptional and extraordinary circumstances (like wars and natural disasters)? These questions sound rather technical, but as ever the devil is in this sort of details. Finding the right balance between the empowering of federal units and the limiting of central government’s powers is a delicate business, but also vital one for the functionality of the future federal state. More clarity is there from the start, more of these are agreed upon and stipulated formally higher chances are that it will work smoothly.

Ideally, the creation of a new federal state of Iraq would go through an inclusive process of constitution building rather than closed-door elite talks. It has been demonstrated on many examples in the recent decades that extensive community engagement and participation in the design of a constitution (especially in post-conflict country) has a number of benefits—it helps create a sense of belonging to one polity, underlines common values and shared vision, as well as helps enhancing post-conflict reconciliation and community cohesion. Therefore, the quality of constitutional process may be equally important as the textual fineness of the document it is ought to produce. It is believed that, developed in such a participatory fashion the constitution stands better chances to be respected by its citizens and political leadership.

As any process of deliberation that is built on broad participation, the constitution making in Iraq is not expected to be a straightforward endeavour. First concern is (obviously) security: how to conduct numerous town hall meetings and discussions across the country without making those public gatherings a target for extremists? I am far from idealistically believing that, once the war with ISIL is finished the peace, law and order will be immediately established across the land and terrorist attacks would belong to history. It may happen eventually, but not in one day and not right after the war; the constitution building though cannot wait—if this route is taken, then the country has to move towards its arrangement of choice.

Second complication derives from the very fact of broad participation, when diverse groups bring too many issues of concern to their communities onto agenda. Not all of them are equally important or relevant to constitutional design, but individuals and groups feel strong about those issues and insist on discussing them, otherwise being disappointed by “selective categorisation”. Therefore, it may take much more time and effort to focus on major issues than envisaged at the outset.

Another challenge to broad political discourse comes from the tendency to group polarisation, as observed on numerous deliberative political processes. The essence of this social psychology phenomenon is that, resulting from an open discussion groups tend to move towards even more extreme and oppositional positions than they initially held. This considerably complicates the job of consensus building and finding solutions to common problems.

These challenges notwithstanding, it is still believed that broad based, inclusive constitutional process in post-conflict countries is one of the best ways to empower people and to enable them to listen to and better understand each other. The local political actors along with commitment and political will to act will need an expertise to facilitate the process in constructive and effective manner. This is where the international organisations, specialised agencies and donors can step in to offer both diplomatic and technical assistance.


PM al-Abadi’s attempt at reforming Cabinet. In CoR, 31 March 2016                  (c) Reuters

Institution building

As noted throughout this series of posts, the real problem of Iraq lies in its institutions, which struggle to adapt to the changed regime type, on the one hand, and to the fast evolving external circumstances, on the other hand. Ability of an institution to assess the environment and modify itself in line with changes in external world (known as adaptability) has been the main factor behind successful development of numerous states throughout history. To the contrary, inability to adapt and adjust flexibly their internal procedures and underlining behaviours to demands of the day caused by stiffness, rigidity of institutions and the lack of resilient capability (especially when pushed to the boundaries) has frequently been the reason behind their demise and failure. This phenomenon is known under different names, depending on the nature of system observed: in social sciences it is called political decay, and all regime types, from tyrannies to liberal democracies, are vulnerable to it (in this or another way).

But this is only one part of the story. There is no society or state that lives through only decay without simultaneously experiencing regeneration. And there have been small and large initiatives by the Iraqi government (with strong backing and technical assistance from international actors) to reform various sectors of economy and society and to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of public administration. Those reform attempts (sometimes successful and sometimes not) are the very manifestations of regeneration.

Take, for example, the recent political deadlock triggered by the attempts of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to reform the decision making process and to improve the effectiveness of government. The aim was getting rid of poorly functioning and highly extortionate system of muassasa (a power sharing arrangement where Cabinet posts, and respectively public bodies reporting to them, are divided between political blocs based on sect and ethnicity) and creating instead a technocratic Council of Ministers. At the heart of this impasse is a situation (which is not unique to Iraq but exists in various forms in all government systems) when certain elite groups benefit from existing institutional arrangements and therefore defend the status quo by blocking any attempt at change. Interestingly, in this move the elites otherwise divided by ethno-sectarian principle exhibited an exemplary cohesion and unanimity.

Iraq is undergoing an evolutionary process, albeit under extreme circumstances, where it has to transition into a stable and modern democratic state. The fact that the collision between political decay and regeneration has taken an extreme, at times violent, forms does not change or deny the nature of this process—which is and remains inherently dialectical.

This scenario therefore aims at strengthening the regenerational, reformist forces within the Iraqi political system. It will do so by institution building and strengthening the resilience of current government apparatus without attempting to change the country’s constitutional set-up. In fact, it has been recognised by practitioners and in academic literature that the Iraqi constitution has all provisions in it to ensure democratisation and devolved governance, to guarantee the rights of minorities.  The problem, as frequently the case, is not with the constitution itself but with its implementation.

There are four factors necessary for the success of any reform. First is about the constellation of power—that is, how strong are the pro-reform forces, how well organised and cohesive is their coalition, and how inclusive it is in covering the geographic and administrative areas as well as various segments of society.

Second is about the independence of bureaucracy (understood in Weberrian, technocratic terms) from undue political influence—that is, the ability of civil servants and public employees to do their job without being significantly constrained by political parties and blocs.

Third factor is about technical capacity of government to perform. It concerns both the capacity of individuals and the quality of administrative processes. Besides senior office holders (like minsters and their deputies) and managers (like directors general who are in fact responsible for the daily business of public administration), the middle level officials at all levels (from central executive office to provincial governorates) are part of the equation. Technical capacity at regional and provincial levels of authority is one important precondition for a meaningful administrative decentralisation to take place. With regards to processes, this factor concerns the quality of coordination and decision making across main horizontal systems of public administration (such as public finance and procurement, human resource, IT and communications) both vertically and at each given level.

Fourth factor is about domestic ownership. It is driven by commitment to reform of politicians, public and private employees, entrepreneurs, citizenry at large and their organised groups who see the change necessary, not merely desirable. This factor, especially in social domain, has been frequently underrated, although the practice has shown that without strong and capable civil society, independent think tanks, and the free media behind the change the state is not kept accountable, thus leaving the reform champions without broad public platform to rely upon.

I won’t speculate on the parameters under each factor, for such an assessment requires a research with institutional appraisal and extensive stakeholder interviews, to be conducted. That said, analysis of available information and personal observations allow to say that all four factors are present in Iraq today, although not to the same extent and even so, neither is strong enough to make it through without sustained, long-term, and quite intensive and targeted effort. This explains the difficulties faced by the teams of Messrs al-Maliki and al-Abadi in advancing the much needed reform agenda over a decade now.

The present situation in Iraq does not invite further criticism (too much of it has been aired from all angles, frequently without any constructive offer attached) or lamentation, but calls for action. It needs political communication and outreach (in order to build the public support for reforms and to organise the individual and small-group desires and drives) and more negotiation and bargaining between political leaders (perhaps with the brokerage and certain incentives offered by powerful external actors). It also will require a dedicated technical assistance to strengthen the capacity of government and civil society in key areas needed for the reform to happen and take root, and most importantly, to deliver benefits.

The latter point is particularly important, because the success of this scenario is strongly conditioned on performance and tangible outcomes. The government will need to achieve and convincingly demonstrate results continuously, in order to prove its effectiveness and maintain its legitimacy and credibility. To do so, the government, along with resources, will have to adopt flexible approaches that would enable it to manage by discovery, timely adapt to the changing circumstances and to build the overall resilience of the system. For example, the appointment of technocratic Cabinet has proven problematic thus far. Perhaps, it makes sense then to employ a different, alternative plan which may prove as effective. One option would be to strengthen the government’s technical capacity through reinforcing its central executive office—that is, the General Secretariat of the Council of Ministers, COMSEC.

Well functioning COMSEC will ensure both vertical and horizontal coordination within public administration, the continuity (especially at times of political blockages, but also in-between elections), and also consistency and coherence of policy making in long term and across various domains. There are three things which would bolster the chances of this plan to deliver the expected outcomes.

First (as ever) is commitment of political elites to maintain the COMSEC’s technical role and keep political interference to minimum, while enabling them to exercise the discipline and simultaneously conducting the democratic oversight. Second is separation of political and technical functions within the broader Government Office, between the COMSEC and Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). And third is to design a system where COMSEC serves as a central nod in the network of technocrats active across ministries, regional and provincial authorities—without undermining the decision making and service delivery capacity of vertical systems (represented by individual ministries sector-wise and by regional and provincial authorities, geographically).

*                  *                  *

I do not conclude this piece with traditional summary of findings and recommendations; the aim was to outline the options with certain degree of detail on their advantages and limitations—this all is a work-in-progress, after all. However, it is clear from the above that I favour the institution building scenario. Because it points clearly to the way forward without grand theories behind (which are good only for well-ordered situations, but hardly anyone would agree that Iraq today represents the one). Because it rests on a series of relatively small, tactical interventions (many of which would be implemented simultaneously but being decoupled to extent possible, to insulate the risks of failures). And finally, because it is the only option which is practically implementable in the immediate term—and time matters.


Political Crisis in Iraq: The Things Must Change earlier posts on PolicyLabs:

Part I: Political institutions, Politics, Governance

Part II: Economic institutions, Financial stability

Part III: State security, Human security


About the author: Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state building and political processes in post-conflict countries. In 2011-2014, he worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government’s central executive offices and key ministries on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms.


Political Crisis in Iraq: The Things Must Change [Part 2]

Part 2: Economic institutions, Financial stability


Economy and Economic Institutions

Oil dependency

The Iraqi economy is struggling. It fully depends on oil & gas industry and, thus, is exposed to market volatility and highly vulnerable. This, combined with the old-fashioned central planning, strict market regulation, and outdated methods of management only makes the problem insurmountable. In charge is the Ministry of Planning, which also happens to be very influential due to holding the economic and social sphere information in their hands (and keeping it close to chest), a replica of (Soviet) socialist-style central planning committee.

As across the Middle East, diversification of economy is a fancy word in Iraq, but: first, as shown elsewhere in the region, it is easy said than done, especially in a short time span (considering the external factors of harsh competition, but also internal human factor and the quality of physical and social infrastructures); and second, it requires not only well written strategies but concerted efforts and leadership by political elites (something that the UAE have demonstrated in turning their economy from oil-driven to service-based, but Iraq struggles to do).

Non-hydrocarbon industrial production (or what is deemed as such) is concentrated in the Iraqi public sector. While comprising a tiny one-and-half percent of the country’s industrial units, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are producing over 90 percent of the sector’s output. But even these SOEs are non-profitable: in 2012, almost 80 percent of them were functioning on the government subsidies. They use obsolete equipment, do not follow international technological standards, and are managed in outdated ways. Except for cement, fertilizers and transformers, the Iraqi industrial products from state-owned, private and mixed-ownership enterprises are not competitive at either domestic, regional or international markets.

Business enabling environment

In spite of these striking deficiencies, there have not been any serious attempts undertaken towards market economy and deregulation, let alone privatisation. Economic reform plans have been developed by the Government (mostly with the assistance of international actors) but never transformed into action. The examples are numerous, from Integrated Energy Strategy, Industrial Strategy, to the Roadmap for Restructuring the SOEs and the Strategy for Supporting the Private Sector. Here, again, it was more about rivalry, vested interests of political blocs and lack of trust between them rather than inability or unwillingness of Government technocrats that did not allow making even initial steps towards deregulation or introducing mixed forms of ownership in key sectors.

Business enabling environment in Iraq has been long neglected and as a result, remains largely underdeveloped and market-unfriendly (the Government’s ambition for and on-going negotiation on the acceptance to WTO notwithstanding). Private sector is weak and not supported by the effective policy, legislative and regulatory framework; to the contrary, there are thousands of laws, regulations and improvised circulars which only confuse and slow down the entrepreneurial activity, while creating conditions conducive for Iraq’s systemic corruption to thrive. It does not come as surprise then that Iraq is consistently at the bottom of the global ranking for Doing Business report: in 2015-2016, it ranked at 160 and 161 among 189 surveyed countries, respectively. Importantly, even within one year, it fell dramatically in a central category of ‘Starting a Business’ by 10 points. Otherwise, successful businesses are closely linked to political elites, thus feeding further the systemic corruption (such as those enterprises providing off-the-grid electricity to residential areas across the country, from their privately owned generators).

The result is that extractive economic institutions feed on the country’s rich resource base, but do not reinvest into its growth (typical rentier economy, some would say). Moreover, instead of incentivising and enabling, they constrain the free choice of people to undertake entrepreneurial activities and to invest into their country’s economy—thus, constraining the Iraqi talent and money of strengthening the country’s economy and creating a strong middle class as the society’s backbone. Friedrich Hayek, one of the most influential economists of the last century, has well described the contradiction of this kind economic thinking: ‘It is often said that political freedom is meaningless without economic freedom. This is true enough, but in a sense almost opposite from that in which the phrase is used by our planners. The economic freedom which is the prerequisite of any other freedom cannot be the freedom from economic care which the socialists promise us and which can be obtained only by relieving the individual at the same time of the necessity of the power of choice; it must be the freedom of our economic activity which, with the right of choice, inevitably also carries the risk and the responsibility of that right.’ [1]

Financial Situation and Sovereignty Crisis


About 95 percent of Iraq’s Government budget comes from oil revenue. Even at better times, any unfavorable fluctuation of oil prices had immediate and very painful implications on the country’s financial standing. As in many other areas, the Government and its Oil Ministry (another bastion of power and vested interest by elites) had been unprepared to the market shocks, because it had continuously failed to introduce modern planning and decision making system and in particular, oil resource management system equipped with industry data software (it was envisaged though, by the Integrated National Energy Strategy adopted in 2013 but by that time it was too late—ISIL was knocking at the door).  In the last couple of years, the Government’s revenues have dried out due to record-low oil prices at the global market and the excessive spending from public budget, on the administration’s running costs, the war with ISIL and its humanitarian consequences.

The budget has been approved for FY2016 at $100 billion, with predicted deficit of about $25 billion. But even this grim outlook is unrealistic: the budget calculations were based on oil price of $45 per barrel, while so far Brent prices have been hovering around $30 to $40 (they are expected to average $42 per barrel in the second and third quarters of 2016, before rising to $44 in the fourth quarter). This means billions more added to the deficit. Five years ago, in 2011 the deficit was projected by the Budget document approved by Parliament at 16.2 percent ($13.4 billion to $82.6 billion budget, respectively), and it was at the time of oil prices keeping high at $76.50 per barrel.

Sovereign debts

In a rather frantic move, the Government has recently resorted to using its foreign reserves (under a pretext of short-term measure) to cover its daily expenditures—and thus has taken a dangerous route which may head towards eventual insolvency. This will make the reserves fall from $59 billion in last October to about $43 billion this year. But that is not all. In the meantime, the Government is seeking yet another loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in an attempt to regulate its financial situation. This is at the top of receiving $1.24 billion emergency loan last year (through the Poverty Reduction and Growth Fund). With another international lender, the World Bank Group (WB), the Government signed an agreement at the end of 2015, for a $1.2 billion loan. This also comes atop of other liabilities to the WB: by the end-March 2016, there were four active loans, through the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD) and five credits through the International Development Assistance (IDA) – altogether about $3.1 billion already disbursed. Governments have stepped in, too: the United States has offered a $2.7 billion loan for military spending, and Germany has lent Iraq over $550 million for reconstruction.

Looks like a lot money, but it is not. Altogether, these loans would barely cover the Government’s one-month administrative expenditure under the current circumstances, but instead will make Iraq more indebted, under mounting liabilities while with no repayment prospects on the horizon. The Iraqi Government simply cannot afford intensively borrowing. The borrowing from international lenders is always conditional, and it is proven helpful only in a short term as cash injection to maintain the equilibrium; while in the situation when government fails consistently to perform structural reforms, the financial discipline and austerity measures (let along being under the pressure of war and destruction of infrastructure and assets) the additional liability may turn disastrous and lead to the bankruptcy and the loss of sovereignty. What these attempts tell is more about the Government being desperate and confused rather than about well thought-out financial policy.

The cost of reconstruction

Another problem is that in order to get back on track and restore the normal economic activities, along with liberating the territories captured by ISIL, the Government will need hundreds of billions to be invested in the reconstruction of physical infrastructure (to revitalize what has been destroyed in the course of the last two years, by now). The cost of reconstruction has not been calculated yet. According to Iraqi economists, the country will need about $60 billion to recover. I think it is a very modest estimate: just recall how the U.S. Government initial estimate of $50 to $60 billion on the Iraqi war and reconstruction turned into $2.2 trillion by 2013.

The international organisations and bilateral donors would step in, and so will do various public and private foundations and donor conferences, but the host government has to take its share of responsibility and match those reconstruction funds, which would be yet another challenge to the cash-stripped authorities. The question is, if the things (in this instance, the Government’s economic policies and practices) don’t change, can they stand to the task when the time comes?

[1] F.A.Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (London: Routledge, 1997 [1944]), p. 75


About the author: Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state building and political processes in post-conflict countries. In 2011-2014, he worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government’s central executive offices and key ministries on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms.

Political Crisis in Iraq: The Things Must Change [Part 1]

By Elbay Alibayov

“For the King, yes, of course. But which King? … Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they will foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change. Do you understand?” Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard

Iraq is in turmoil. The terrorist attacks and ongoing war with Islamist militants, which catch the headlines, is only one of the crisis’ many manifestations. It is not just a toughest challenge, but a survival test the Iraqi state is facing today. Unless the root causes of the problem are addressed and a political solution that satisfies all the major actors (including the diverse groups of population along with political elites) is found and agreed upon, Iraq will struggle to establish peace and order in its territory, let alone offer its fellow citizens a prosperous and dignified life they long deserve. To borrow from di Lampedusa’s masterpiece, if Iraq is to remain a sovereign functioning state in its present borders, certain things in its fundamental rules have to change.


The Multiple Facets of the Iraqi Political Crisis

A Background

Today, the Arab and the entire Muslim world are going through a very dynamic, and at times highly volatile, process of transition. The mixture of cultural (including political) heritage with the processes and products of globalization offer a unique set of contexts that differ from each other locally, in dynamics and forms, but altogether give rise to diverse global trends and movements.  It is a complex, unpredictable, and quite painful process, were emergence of extremism and religious militancy coexists and effectively competes with secular forces and post-Islamist movements which, unlike their predecessors, recognize the compatibility of promoting Islamic values with respecting democratic procedures. It is also an innovative process, meaning that it allows testing diverse range of approaches, sometimes failing and reverting back to square one, and sometimes producing some novel political outcomes never experienced before—the evidence from countries as different in terms of political system as Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Kuwait, Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia clearly proves that.

Those political experiments are not innocent though—this is the struggle for power, after all. And their proponents keep looking for vulnerabilities, capitalize on the weaknesses of existing political regimes, and continuously adapt. Even seemingly stable Arab states (namely, the Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain) are struggling under the pressure of internal problems, where diminishing revenues, growing population, voluntary and real unemployment, inequality and poverty are taken against the ruling regimes by their opponents, who capitalize on the growing dissatisfaction and frustration of their citizen with economic and social problems, censorship and violation of human rights. Some commentators went as far as to suggest that these regimes, at least in their present form, will cease to exist within few years.

However, first affected by the popular uprising across the Middle East and North Africa, dubbed the Arab Spring of 2010-2011, were so called presidential monarchies. Dictators who made themselves their respective countries’ presidents for life, indeed, had ruled in increasingly authoritarian fashion, for four decades: Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya since the 1969 coup; the al-Assad family in Syria since the 1970 coup; Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen since the 1978 coup (in North Yemen); Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia since taking power in 1987 coup; and Hosni Mubarak since becoming a president of Egypt in 1981. To date, all but one are gone. Whatever happens with Bashar al-Assad at the eventual end of the civil war, it is clear that there is no way back to presidential monarchy in Syria. And in this context, it is safe to suggest that, if not toppled by the US-British invasion in 2003, Saddam Hussein would have faced the challenge of Arab Spring in Iraq, and the fate of the other rulers of similar kind.

The Iraqi Political Landscape

Political dynamics in Iraq in many ways reflect the mosaic of political landscape characteristic to the Middle East and broader Muslim world. It combines a centuries-long tradition of tribal politics with tendency for strong central power, inheritance of the failures of pan-Arabism nationalists and pan-Islamists in modern times, with sectarianism, cross-border influence of powerful neighbours, and a genuine search for a new, post-Saddam, political identity.

At the country level the politics is divided along ethnic (Arabs vs. Kurds) and sectarian (Sunni vs. Shi’a) lines. At the local level further divisions and rivalry exist within each of those polity segments—among Sunni tribes and political parties (e.g. Iraqi Islamic Party, Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq (AMSI), and Council of Iraqi Scholars); Shi’a parties (e.g. Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), Islamic Dawa Party, Badr Organization, Sadrist Movement); Kurdish parties (Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), but also new players such as Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), and Gorran); and Turkmen fractions (e.g. Iraqi National Turkmen Party (INTP), Turkmen Democratic Movement, and Islamic Union of Iraqi Turkoman which represents Shi’a Turkmen).

As a result of all these divisions, there is neither much issue-based politics nor is there genuinely inclusive secular political movement or party in Iraq. Perhaps, the fate of the Al-Iraqiya Alliance (a cross-confessional and mostly secular coalition of parties led by the former Interim Prime Minister A’yad Allawi) offers a telling story in this respect. Almost as prescribed in the seminal works of Mancur Olson,  the cooperation between various Iraqi political groups at the central or local levels happens, as a rule, only in the face of an eminent common threat, or under coercion. No one trusts anyone else.

Such a political set-up predetermines the character of transitional processes underway in Iraq, but at the same time it itself is profoundly influenced by the rapidly changing social, economic, and security contexts of the region and the country itself. This reciprocity has been famously noted by Michel Foucault, back in 1977: ‘The political is not what ultimately determines (or over-determines) elementary relations. … All relations of force imply a power relation … and each power relation can be referred to the political sphere of which it is a part, both as its effect and as its condition of possibility.’ [1] Therefore, understanding this interplay is crucial for making sense of what is going on in Iraq, and eventually helping the local political actors to find a solution—without attempting to picking winners, taking sides, or engineering the outcome.

Governance and Political Institutions

It is right to say that the Parliament, Council of Representatives of Iraq, has been largely dysfunctional in every mandate since 2005. Many crucial pieces of legislation have been blocked because of inability to come to consensus and to overcome narrow political stands by political opponents. It mirrors the major divides between Iraq’s political elites, and its members find it increasingly difficult to give concessions and make mutually acceptable agreements; the game played by the Iraqi politicians is strictly zero-sum, with desirable outcome of ‘winner takes all.’

The Government is oversized and costly: today, it keeps about 7 million people on public payroll, which costs it US$4 billion in salaries and pensions every month. Partly because of that, the Government is also ineffective as it employs an army of individuals most of whom don’t have a work to do, are unqualified and disinterested, in addition to the environment which does not offer any incentive for learning, innovating and improving.

In 2008/2011 survey by the World Bank, on the quality of public administration and its professionalism, Iraq was placed right at the median position of the global ranks. This was a time when the last generation of well-educated and experienced Iraqi civil servants was still around. In the recent five years, most of them have retired (even those who, in line with the effective regulations, were allowed to be employed as senior advisers to the Prime Minister and the key ministries). With their departure, the technical quality of the bureaucracy has fallen sharply.

In turn, the local (provincial) authorities lacked capacity from the onset and even though prescribed by the law, do not have in reality enough authority and resources to serve their constituents effectively. There is also big deal of competition and confusion between them and the representatives of central ministries in the field, in terms of who is in charge.

Unsurprisingly in such a set-up, the relations between the legislative and the executive continue to be troublesome. The ministers being political appointees hold their allegiance to their political parties, not to the Cabinet: on numerous occasions in the recent years, some would leave the office for indefinite time, in sign of solidarity with their political party’s/ bloc’s disagreement with Prime Minister or their failure to reach an agreement with the ruling bloc in the Parliament. Ironically, in a survey conducted in 2012 by World Justice Project/ Rule of Law, Iraq has scored much higher than the region’s average in terms of government powers being ‘effectively limited by the legislative’ category. They are effectively limited indeed, but not always in the ways one would expect from a functioning democracy.

Overall, the authorities, both elected and appointed, lack credibility—citizens see the officials as corrupt, self-serving and unwilling (if capable) to undertake the fundamental reforms for the people’s benefit. Transparency International consistently rates Iraq as ‘highly corrupt’, ranking it 175 (out of 178 countries) in 2010, 170 (out of 174 countries) in 2014 and 161 (out of 168 countries) in 2015. The countries which fare worse are Libya, Angola, South Sudan, Sudan, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Somali.

Understanding the cultural features

At the same time, certain behaviours of public office holders (both elected and appointed) are tolerated by the society. Nepotism and patronage are considered normal practice in Iraq (to quite a degree), as they are across the Middle East and broader, Eurasian socio-political realm. It has its roots in a culture and tradition built around strong kinship and nomadic or rural community bonds, and therefore is well accepted by local people. For example, such practices as ‘trade in influence’ and undue interference in appointments to public institutions are considered corrupt by the Council of Europe and international anti-corruption bodies, but not necessarily in Iraq and countries with similar political tradition.

There are plenty of examples from the international development field which point to the importance of respecting the local political culture and tradition. This is an insight from Samuel Huntington: ‘While studying the topic [political order], he was asked by the Johnson administration to assess the progress of the Vietnam War. After a tour of that country, he argued, in 1967 and 1968, that America’s strategy in South Vietnam was fatally flawed. The United States was trying to buy the support of the population through aid and development. But money wasn’t the key, in Huntington’s view. The South Vietnamese who resisted the Viet Cong’s efforts did so because they were secure within effective communities structured around religious or ethnic ties. The United States, though, wanted to create a modern Vietnamese nation, and it refused to reinforce these “backward” sources of authority.’ The author of the article, Farid Zakaria, went on to conclude that, ‘[s]adly, this 40-year-old analysis describes our dilemma in Afghanistan today.’ [2]

This is one of many examples pointing to necessity of taking more nuanced approach when assessing the prospects of democratic reforms in the countries which have political tradition different from the Western tradition, as well as when designing and delivering technical assistance programmes aimed at helping those countries along the path towards market reforms and governance systems that respect political, social and economic rights of their citizens.

[1] Michel Foucault, Foucault Live: Collected Interviews 1961-1984, S. Lotringer, ed. (New York: Semiotext(e), 1989), p. 211

[2] Washington Post, 4 January 2009

About the author: Elbay Alibayov is an international development professional specialising in state building and political processes in conflict and post-conflict countries. In 2011-2014, he worked in Baghdad assisting the Iraqi Government’s central executive offices and key ministries on a range of administrative initiatives and policy reforms.

The EU in Catch-22 Situation: Treaty Reform v Constitutional Compromises

On 6 April, the Dutch voters rejected a proposed trade and accession deal between the EU and Ukraine, in a national referendum. Ironically, the former Ukrainian President Yanukovich was ousted in a public protest two years ago because of not embracing this very deal. But there is more to that: the Freedom Party (PVV) of the Netherlands, which was a driving force behind the No move has stated that this outcome was a step towards the referendum on quitting the EU. This statement from one of the EU’s founding states coupled with the looming British referendum this summer is a clear signal that the EU is facing its toughest survival test ever—that is, political/constitutional. Being an inherently political project, the EU has struggled but shown resilience in economic and financial turmoil (exercising fluctuat nec mergitur, which also happens to be the motto of Paris), but may well sunk being tossed by political waves.


The daunting problems

The EU is struggling today on all fronts—politically, economically and financially, socially, and security-wise. This did not happen overnight; the problems kept accumulating for quite some time but were either ignored or brushed away as irrelevant. One the one hand, the EU faces the challenges of increasingly volatile world, as anyone else in the 21 century does. This is an irreversible, objective, process brought by globalization whereby fast changing environment poses unprecedented surprises to individuals, societies, states, and international organisations. On the other hand, there is a burden of misguided policies accumulated over the years (roughly since the end of Cold War). Increasingly, the EU has resembled all the characteristics of an empire in decline:

— fast and unfeasible territorial expansion at the expense of gradual progression;

— inequality in wealth distribution, as between the centre and the peripheries so within each country;

— mass migration from the peripheries to the centre combined with the tense intergroup and interfaith relations;

— poor overall economic performance, especially vis-à-vis aggressive external competition;

— inflexible decision making processes combined with diminished government effectiveness;

— sizeable and quite expensive central bureaucracy;

— the rise of radical political movements and disintegrative forces; and finally

— the escalating security threats (having declared bellum justum, or ‘just war’, fights it on its borders and elsewhere, while being systematically rampaged by savage attacks in its heartlands).

Since the end of the Cold war, the EU has increasingly resembled all the characteristics of an empire in decline.

These are quite grave symptoms, considering what has happened with all those initially successful imperial constructs in the course of history (from Romans, China and Mesoamericans, all the way long to British, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarians as of the last century). Also, it is important to note that these problems are correlated (not necessarily cause-effect relationship tied) but vary independently, which means that (a) there hardly is a one-off (whatever fundamental) solution that can fix all the troubles, and (b) it is almost improbable to address them by ‘traditional’ EU decision-making approach. Now the question is, whether it is at all possible?

Contributing factors

One of the political science methods to look into the problem is path dependency model, which is built on a presumption that where you end up depends upon how you got there, as a result of a series of choices made in the early trials along the way. From this perspective alone, there have been various (and numerous) explanations offered. Considering the political nature of the crisis faced by the EU, I will point out to the governance related weaknesses, namely, the inability of EU institutions to make difficult decisions and undertake strong action upon them, in order to survive politically and economically in this volatile world. As a result of its institutional complexity and the intricate political dynamics involving 28 member states, policy-making in the EU is slow, increasingly ineffective and inflexible, and above all, leaning towards preservation of status quo rather than change oriented.

There are four factors which, depending on the policy in hand, combine to contribute to this situation:

* the top policy direction giving bodies (such as European Commission and the European Council) frequently hold uncoordinated stands which leaves the decisions in impasse;

* the Parliament’s rule-making function, even though upgraded after Lisbon Treaty, in effect is not up to the task;

* mushroomed European agencies act upon diverging interests and policy agendas; and

* the member states act upon different (and at times competing, if not conflicting) preferences in various policy choices.

If the former three factors can be grouped as technical contributors the latter factor is crucial, since the most significant decisions in the EU are reached not through supranational institutions but as an outcome of bargaining between the national governments. Moreover, in negotiating and building compromises they lock in their domestic preferences, so that the ‘agreements [become] reflective of the lowest common denominator of national priorities’ [1], which in terms of the quality of decisions means that not the best policy alternative but rather the least objectionable would be opted for, in the end. In this set-up, the different policy preferences of member states come as natural and can be explained by such variables as member states facing different problems; being exposed to the same problem but with varying degree of severity; or demonstrating the interests that are driven by domestic political dynamics and present-day agendas.

Key criteria of successful government: effectiveness, legitimacy, credibility

Being problematic in the best of times, this arrangement turned out to be a killing factor during the euro crisis, calling the very survival of the EU into question. Hard economic and social tests of the recent years (and in addition, the refugee crisis) have exposed the deep rooted weaknesses of the EU, which cannot be addressed by merely cosmetic institutional adjustments (if aiming to achieve long-term sustainable outcomes). As it stands today, the EU does not meet any of the three core criteria against which the performance of any democratic system is broadly judged [2]: it lacks legitimacy to take tough decisions on behalf of the EU entirety; it does not have effective controls (and institutional capacities) to ensure the implementation on the ground; and it lacks credibility with the EU citizens due to unpopular austerity policies and many other failures (mostly related to wealth redistribution and welfare). [3]

As it stands today, the EU does not meet the three core criteria against which the performance of any democratic system is broadly judged: legitimacy, effectiveness, credibility.

Therefore, it has become obvious (for quite some time already) that the Treaty reform is imperative if the European integration endeavour is to move forward. Resistance to reform of various actors being the problem by itself, there are two challenges facing the pro-reform minded political actors. First results from different perspectives, second is a constitutional puzzle in its own right.

With regards to different perspectives, it has been long observed that, while everyone speaks of the EU reform they mean quite different things (even between political actors within one country, let alone across the member states). Everyone seems to be eager to make EU thrive and the Europeans as the community to prosper, but they somewhat fail to understand, let alone support, each other’s perspective even though sometimes it is in their common interest (partially because of the different set of problems faced, as discussed above, but also due to diverging approaches to handling their domestic problems—take, for example the rise of illiberal democracy in the East European states). This miscommunication (dubbed ‘lost in translation’ and meaning much more than the language barrier) between the EU member states (plus the Brussels based supranational institutions) reminds me of a verse from Rumi’s Mathnavi-i-Manavi, where the characters want and mean the same thing (grapes, in this case), but fail do understand each other and end up in disagreement and mess:

A man gave four companions one dirham/ The first said I will get angur with it/ The second, who was Arab, answered, No!/ I want inab, and not angur, you rogue!/ The third, a Turk, in Turkish chimed: It’s mine!/ I do not want your inab, but uzum/ A Greek, the fourth, called out:/ Put a stop to all this nonsense, It’s stafil I want./ Ignorant of the secret of those names/ through discord they were led to wrangling/ Long on ignorance, of understanding shorn,/ each punched, in knuckleheadedness, the other.’

Lack of legitimacy which derives from the ‘constitutional conundrum’ is at the heart of the EU troubles: the problem is that, despite being formalised in the Lisbon Treaty, the constitutional compromises (such as compromises between the supranational and intergovernmental interests) are not supported by ‘a constitutional framework from which to derive procedures for solving disputes and building new interstate compromises.’ [4] In this set-up, even if we suppose that in the end the member states come to the customary consensus at lowest common denominator, they still face a constitutional impasse which would demand much more effort than merely understanding each other’s preferences. What happens is that the EU finds itself in a paradoxical (or absurd) catch-22 situation: in order to get out of the crisis they need to reform the Treaty, but to do so it is necessary to follow procedures which, in turn, are not envisioned by the provisions of the present Treaty.

The EU’s catch-22 situation: in order to get out of crisis it needs to reform the Treaty, but to do so it has to follow procedures which, in turn, are not envisioned by the provisions of the Treaty.

The strategy for successful EU evolvers

It is broadly accepted that the future is unknown; it is impossible to predict the consequences of our decisions accurately, let alone offer their metrics. What is possible however is to look into reality – the EU is falling apart under the pressure of daunting problems and needs to change its mentality in order to survive, remain relevant, and evolve further ahead. Despite frequently referred to as ‘European integration project’, the EU is not a project in technical terms (‘project’ by definition being a set of activities to achieve a predefined goal in a limited time and with specified resources). Instead, the EU was designed as ‘an evolving institutional arrangement without fixed end-point’, where integration should be treated as means to an end and not the final destination. [5] This suggests the adoption of a strategy built on continuous adjustment and refinement.

The situation is complicated and threatening, but not hopeless. The much needed Treaty reform is impossible today (and perhaps in the nearest time period) due to political reasons briefly outlined above. But the attempts shall not stop. I am convinced that the only way is through deliberation, research, experimentation, learning and adapting – that the EU can transition through the current crisis into its next development stage (and perhaps, even different institutional shape). Considering the difficulty and at times irrelevance of grand projects in this fast evolving and unpredictable world (they demand vast data which is not always available, and time consuming computation, and time and resources to process, assess, and prioritise, and above all – by the time they are submitted to decision makers, such policy projects are already outdated, as the conditions on the ground have changed in the meantime), it makes much more sense concentrating at tactical level.

The attempts at finding solutions for the EU’s problems must continue – by scholars, development practitioners, government technocrats, and politicians of all ranks. I would distinguish two dimensions of this endeavour. First is practical: its modus operandi is sense-making through the trial and error approach, numerous small bids simultaneously placed across a variety of policy domains, to address primarily sectoral and sub-sectoral problems thorough timely adjustments. They will add the continuous waves of ‘random, low-intensity shocks’ necessary to keep the system healthy.[5] These efforts should be a driving force behind the EU reforming, while the other dimension – dealing with conceptual issues and strategising – would comprise learning, reflecting, and elaborating on the evidence produced by the former dimension and making larger-scale recommendations grouped along various clusters, such as by the EU policy domains and pillars, over time.

The importance of the EU is not limited to the European nations and their strategic allies only. It is a historic test of an approach that can offer a practice-tested answer to centuries-long questions. It can offer a model to be followed in the future elsewhere across the globe, with the necessary adjustments to local circumstances, political tradition and culture. (Even today, after a short period of existence, in historical terms, it can offer enough material for the students of political philosophy to entertain, on topics like EU as Empire, EU as Utopia, EU as Institution of World Order, or EU as Globalisation Era Political System).

The strategy is to keep implementing multiple small-scale innovative initiatives, learning and adapting, in order to keep the fundamental policy alternatives alive for the time when the ‘politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable’, from the evolutionary perspective.

To conclude, I believe that what the pro-reform EU champions have to do is, to paraphrase Milton Friedman, to keep on with the research and discourse and diplomatic talks, while simultaneously designing and  implementing multiple small-scale innovative initiatives in various policy domains, and keep learning and adapting to the changed environment accordingly—all in all, in order to keep the fundamental policy alternatives alive for the time when the politically impossible will become the politically inevitable, from the evolutionary perspective.


[1] James Hampshire, ‘European migration governance since the Lisbon Treaty’, Journal of Etnic and Migration Studies, 42:4 (2016), pp.537-553 at p.549

[2] The three criteria are known as the [democratic] government’s effectiveness, legitimacy, and credibility (owing to Samuel Huntington [1991] and Philip Keefer [2007]). In his recent book Francis Fukuyama [2015], following this tradition in political science, calls the key elements to successful government a strong state, the rule of law and institutions of democratic accountability.

[3] See, for example: Pieter de Wilde and Michael Zurn, ‘Can the Politicisation of European Integration Be Reversed?’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 50:1 (2012), pp. 137-153 at p.138

[4] Sergio Fabbini, ‘The Constitutional Conundrum of the European Union’, Journal of European Public Policy, 23:1 (2016), pp.84-100 at p.84

[5] Andrew Glencross, ‘Why a British referendum on EU membership will not solve the Europe question’, International Affairs, 91/2 (2015), pp. 303-317 at 317

[6] Nassim N. Taleb, Antifragile: How to Live in the World We Don’t Understand (London: Allen Lane, 2012), p.106

[7] As quoted in the Economist, 28 January 2010: ‘Milton Friedman, who, when monetarism was being mocked in the 1970s, replied “our basic function [is] to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”’

The Syrian War: How to Move from Chaos to Peace

It is five years as Syria is locked in a deadly conflict, which has cost to date hundreds of thousands killed and injured, millions of displaced persons and refugees, has ruined towns and physical infrastructure, and paralysed the delivery of even basic public services. It has been called the ‘biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II.’ [1] In spite of sustained efforts of a broad range of actors, the conflict has spiralled out of control over the years, with implications far beyond its physical borders. Something must be wrong here, and I think that it comes from the misconception of the Syrian war.

The Syrian kind of chaos

The Oxford Dictionary defines chaos as ‘complete disorder and confusion.’ A messy, anarchic situation is frequently referred to as chaos by politicians and journalists, in this meaning. The dictionary also gives the definition as applied to natural sciences: ‘The property of a complex system whose behaviour is so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions.’  This definition deserves a closer look. To start with, let’s take a snapshot of the current developments.

A ceasefire between the government and the opposition brokered by the American and Russian diplomats (which came into force on 27 February) scaled down an overall violence by 90 percent within first week; it also has given a whiff of fresh air allowing the humanitarian organisations to deliver so urgently needed aid to the millions of Syrian people. Airstrikes by foreign actors targeting ISIL continue though, with an outcry by opposition that their positions had been bombarded too, thus making ceasefire even more fragile. On the other hand, the preparations are on-going to resume the UN-sponsored negotiations in Geneva, although the opposition keep failing to agree on the representation at the talks. This notwithstanding, protests in the opposition-held parts of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Daraa were held in force (but peacefully) demanding the resignation of al-Assad.[2] Hundreds of thousands of Syrians meanwhile make their way out of the country, to escape misery and suffering and to find shelter in Europe.

All this looks somewhat familiar: we have seen this many times in the recent years: back-and-force, in a vicious cycle that gets ever complicated. And every time there is a warning that this is the chance not to miss, otherwise the country and perhaps the region will slip into chaos. The UN Under-Secretary-General’s recent statement being typical: ‘This war has to end. … The international community and the parties to the conflict must seize the momentum created around the nationwide cessation of hostilities to bring a political solution to the crisis. I cannot stress enough that we must not let this opportunity pass.’ [3] But Syria is in the chaos already, right in the epicentre.

Have you heard about chaos theory? It appears that chaos, like the one that we witness in Syria, is not as a messy thing as we used to think of it. Explaining the behaviour of chaotic systems, the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot has noted that an iterative process that keeps repeating on its own output does not replicate itself but ‘becomes endlessly complicated, at each stage giving an entirely different picture. A chaotic system, far from being disorganised or non-organised, starts with one particular point and cranks in through a repeating process; the outcome is unpredictable if you don’t know the process – and it depends heavily on the starting point.’ [4]

This implies that exploring the origins of the conflict and the character of interaction between its actors is key to understanding the Syrian war. Political science offers the relevant analytical tools for such an inquiry.

To name the game

From the political analysis point of view, it is important first to establish what is the game about, and only then to identify the players, their interests, strengths and weaknesses, the arenas where they play, and what resources they rely upon and what are their alliances.

To start with, we must distinguish between the dimensions of the Syrian war (something that is frequently ignored by the decision makers and observers alike). The conflict underway in Syria has two distinct dimensions: one is the civil war that resulted from the armed confrontation between the opposition (whatever disorganised and disunited) and the government in power; while the other is an invasion by the militant Islamists (namely, ISIL) of the territories in Syria (and neighbouring Iraq) whereby they confront and fight both the opposition and the government forces (and at times, even the al-Qaeda offspring Jabhat al-Nusra). With these dimensions the Syrian war represents a problem that does not have a single, simple or quick solution. In order to find an answer to this puzzle we have to look at the issues underlying each dimension, identify the workable solutions, and only afterwards try to bridge them with an overarching approach.

We can trace the starting point of the Syrian war to the ‘Arab spring’, when events in Tunisia had triggered a chain of popular uprising across the region aimed at overthrowing the authoritarian (or dictatorial) regimes. Some of them were successful, while others failed; but that does not come as a surprise, after all. What is important is that all of them had one thing in common—this was a contestation over power; not the protests to demand wealth redistribution concessions, social reforms, fresh elections or the like, but to take the power and ultimately change the regime. This point is crucial for understanding the war in Syria, because of the centrality of the notion of power: following the Weberian definition, it is broadly accepted in social sciences that power is the essence of state, allowing it to exercise its ‘monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force [violence] within a given territory.’ [5]

Therefore, by the very nature of the confrontation between the government of Bashar al-Assad and the broad range of opposition groups it was clear from the outset that for all the parties involved it was a zero-sum game—governed by coercive power that uses the methods of war with intention to dominate or suppress the opponent(s). This has been the kind of conflict that is ought to establish clear winners and losers in the end (which applies to both local actors and their foreign sponsors). It might have worked though for the uprising if only they were not so divided, disorganised, politically immature and supported by diverse range of external actors very different in their interests and methods. As a result, they managed to shaken the regime significantly, but failed to overthrow it. And this is where the process became chaotic—‘iterative, repeating on its own output’—because neither side has had enough strength to crash the other, and the confrontation goes by rounds simply repeating itself and the overall situation getting worse and worse.

This also was the point when conditions became conducive for the third group of actors—the militant Islamists—to enter the game forcefully. In comparison with the civil war, this dimension of the Syrian war has multiple losers and only one winner. Losers are Syrians—individually and collectively, as a nation. Neighbours are suffering from the war’s burden (especially considering their limited financial abilities these days, due to the record-low oil prices) and are themselves under the increasing threat from the extremists. Americans, Europeans, and Russians are under the strain of keeping up high cost of military operations. European countries are increasingly being pressured by the burden of attempts at handling the refugee crisis (and all of this amid their own numerous economic and social problems).

In turn, the Islamist extremists are benefitting on all fronts—they control substantial territories and their vast resources. Most importantly, they gain ideologically from running the self-proclaimed caliphate and from getting additional boost to their propaganda from being subject to airstrikes by ‘infidels’. The evidence of their growing popularity is found in the growing number of foreign fighters and supporters: according to the United Nations ‘ISIL succeeded in attracting a global pool of around 25,000 foreign fighters from 100 states.’ [6] On the other hand, the number of boys (teenagers but some as young as five-six years of age) joining as fighters and of women and girls travelling to Syria as ‘jihadi brides’ is rising. [7]

These young people, if survived, return back home to poison our societies—to preach, instruct, and organise terrorist attacks. In this way, considering the multiplying effect, it becomes a cancerous decease of global impact. The geography and varied methods of attacks perpetrated just in the last half-a-year indicates that this process is gaining momentum, while everyone is occupied with refugees and other burning problems caused by the Syrian war and other conflicts.

There is only one way to escape the endless downfall into abyss of disorder and destruction by following this chaotic process—and that is by changing the rules of the game. For that, we first have to explore why the current approach is ineffective.

Axioms don’t work in politics

In her recent article in British press, the Newsweek’s Middle East editor, Janine di Giovanni, who had spent considerable time in the field (including with the UN special envoy’s team) put forward the current approach to negotiations as follows: ‘Assad is all we have at the moment. To remove him would have a dangerous power vacuum which could, in all probability, be filled by IS. … If guarantees are given that he will remain in transitional government until the time is right for him to step down – in his own way, with dignity – then he has to contain the mass killing of civilians.’ [8] Sounds reasonable, does it not? The question is who is going to give those assurances—in such an authoritative manner that al-Assad (and anyone else) takes them seriously and relies on them and respects them in the future.

The record of negotiated transition is mixed—there have been many successful and failed attempts in the recent decades. Theoretical background has been set as an ‘axiom’ by the prominent political scientist Robert Dahl, in his Polyarchy: ’The lower the costs of toleration, the greater the security of the government. The greater the costs of suppression, the greater the security of the opposition. Hence conditions that provide a high degree of mutual security for the government and oppositions would tend to generate and to preserve wider opportunities for oppositions to contest the conduct of the government.’ [9] This sounded so logical and convincing that some social scientists (especially those who based their projections on mathematical models of rational choice) predicted this to be the main method of transition from the communist regimes to democracy in Eastern Europe. In some cases (the Polish round table negotiations of 1989 being an example) it worked like in the book; in others it utterly failed. The problem is that there is no such thing as an axiom in politics: everything depends on political culture and tradition, and a combination of a large number of external and internal factors which tend to behave wildly—at any given point in time—so that it makes the correlation between variables complicated and unpredictable, and the information for analysis fragmented, unknown or even unknowable.

My point here is that al-Assad is not going to accept an invitation to a provisional government, because, first, the opposition (and it is broadly acknowledged that those at the negotiation table do not represent the forces on the ground) is not in position to legitimately offer it, and second, the offer by definition being short term and temporary he is concerned with what happens with him and his aides once he steps down.

The latter is particularly tricky. It is known in the literature as a ‘torturer problem’ (as coined by Samuel Huntington):’How should the democratic government respond to charges of gross violations of human rights—murder, kidnapping, torture, rape, imprisonment without trial—committed by the officials of the authoritarian regimes? Was the appropriate course to prosecute and punish or to forget and forgive?’ [10] Once there are free and fair elections and a popular government is sworn in, the question will be immediately raised to keep al-Assad to account, for all what he and his regime have done both before and especially after the spring of 2011. The general advice so wisely communicated in the literature has been mostly ‘to forgive but not forget’. As you can imagine, it is easy said than done. A huge reconciliation work shall be conducted and sustained for quite a time, in order to forgive those even at the middle ranks of the former regime.[11] But al-Assad remaining safely in Syria after leaving the politics in a year or two, once the transitional government accomplishes its mandate? No one would believe that; and neither does he. That is why the government representative dismissed in categorical terms the proposal aired by Staffan di Mistura to hold presidential elections in the eighteen-month period.

Redefining the power game

As we can see, the current approach to the Syrian power game does not offer any answer sufficient enough to fundamentally change the course of events. This brings us back to definitions. In political science theory, among various kinds of power formulated by scholars there is one which I particularly favour, because it places the elements of the equation (peace, conflict, democracy, government) in their right place. Political scientist Mark Haugaard defines it as concerted power, one which ‘springs up whenever people get together and act in concert’. This is how he puts it: ‘Peace is an end in itself, and democratic government through concerted power is one of the means to that end. Furthermore … peace is not absence of conflict, but is rather its reinscription in the rules of concerted power. The coercive power of war, where there are only winners and losers, becomes transformed into the concerted power of politics, where conflict is no longer zero-sum, all or nothing, and thus no longer domination.’ [12] This is a totally different philosophy, and it has practical implications for both dimensions of the Syrian war.

Civil war

In practical terms, this would mean signing a peace agreement between the government of Bashar al-Assad and the opposition, to be accompanied with amendments to the constitution to introduce quotas (or similar mechanism) that would ensure a proportional representation of key polity groups in the legislative, executive branches and the independent judiciary—at all levels. And in order to ensure the implementation, along with new rules of procedure for the government, to give a special mandate to the UN envoy with extraordinary executive powers. This is not my invention—I simply borrowed the idea from the Dayton Peace Accords (formally, the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina) of 1995 and the peace implementation process ever since. I believe that it offers precisely the model to work on, provided that all the lessons learnt over the years are taken into account. The oversized bureaucratic apparatus, frequently stalled decision making, inefficient spending, slow economic growth—all this has long been criticized by the country’s citizens and the foreign practitioners and observers. However, there is something no one can deny—that is, for twenty years Bosnia and Herzegovina is a peaceful country where, even not without systemic problems, its state and society perform their functions tolerably well by the standards of young democracy.

It may sound as truism, but the conclusion from what has been witnessed even in the historically short span of a few decades (approximately from the end of WWII) is obvious: Peace is more important than government, and weak government is still better than no government at all. In practical terms, it calls for concessions from all sides to the Syrian civil war, to enable the benefits of power sharing and toleration to overweight the costs of confrontation and coercion. And I believe that once peace is guaranteed (through an agreement, special envoy for civilian issues, and an international military/stabilization force on the ground), democracy will start slowly but surely developing. It will take time, but this is what such transitional processes are about; it is an evolutionary development which does not happen overnight, and there will be numerous small and big problems along the way, which would require a continued commitment, political will, resources, and ongoing technical assistance and political support—of all parties, domestic, regional, and global.

“Peace is more important than government, and weak government is better than no government. This calls for concessions from all sides to the Syrian war, in order for the benefits of power sharing to overweight the costs of confrontation.”

To stress the point about the importance of establishing a balance of power for peace and prosperity in Syria, I will paraphrase the vision of Barak Obama for the Middle East expressed in an interview of 2014, that it would be profoundly in the interest of the Syrian citizens if they start unwinding some of the distrust among the political groups and thus create a new equilibrium. I am not picturing an idyllic view of such a settlement—there will and shall be, certain volatility and conflict in political system, but these shall be governed under the rule of law and channelled through the democratic processes. In the same interview, the US President went on to conclude that, ‘each individual piece of the puzzle is meant to paint a picture in which conflicts and competition still exist in the region but that it is contained.’ [13]

Military invasion

The second dimension of the Syrian war—the invasion of the territories by ISIL—is full of misconceptions and inconsistencies of its own. The approach to fighting ISIL in the occupied territories of Syria and Iraq has been confusing from the outset. If Russians offered their military support to the governments in both Damascus and Baghdad, the Americans and their coalition partners did not. Take for example the statement of the US Secretary of State John Kerry after the recent deal on the cessation of hostilities: ‘Make no mistake. The answer to the Syrian civil war will not be found in any military alliance with Assad.’ [14]

There are two confusing messages here. First is that, fighting ISIL is not a civil war—they are alien element that took advantage of the civil war and the lack (or absence) of power and order on the ground. Therefore, if the military alliance is not a solution for resolving the civil war, it is the only solution to fighting the Islamist militants’ invasion, in both Syria and Iraq.* And here is the second confusion—while fully cooperating with Iraqi government, he denies any cooperation with Damascus. This inconsistency has its operational consequences—the most obvious being that airstrikes do not decide the outcome of the war, it is regular armies that take and hold positions on the ground. The former is only in supporting role to the latter. With ‘foot-on-the-ground’ not being an option for foreign allies (at least at the present set-up)**, there is only one choice left—that is to jointly fight with the Syrian and Iraqi armies—full-scale, including intelligence sharing, arms supply, training the armed forces, and helping strengthen security sector and putting it under democratic control.

“Under the international mandate, the military alliance with the Syrian government is possible. Moreover, it is imperative for defeating the Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq.”

This is where the way out of the current impasse offers itself. The change of the game suggested for the civil war dimension (that is, an international mandate and coalition government) makes the government in Damascus no more the government of Bashar al-Assad (who becomes only an equal partner in the coalition government, under the new arrangements). In this way the military alliance is possible. Moreover, it is imperative. It also shall be made clear to everyone that even there is a broad military and diplomatic alliance, and there is a controlled transition to peace, the military campaign to defeat ISIL in Syria and Iraq will take many years (let along much more ambiguous and longer term target of defeating ISIL/extremist Islamists in the Middle East and North Africa). Therefore it demands a vision, patience, and long term commitment of all the parties involved. Disengagement at any point along the path will mean an immediate return to square one, thus the incarnation of chaos (just take Libya or South Sudan as examples). And I would take the freedom to generalize here by suggesting that this is as true for Syria as for any other conflict-torn country in the Middle East and North Africa region.

[*This is how the things stand today, due to numerous mistakes made in Syria and in the broader region before and after the 2011 uprising]

[**I will not consider the Iranian and Hezbollah militias in this picture, for the sake of merely keeping the argument focused]

From theory to practice

The solution to the Syrian war offered herein is rather foundational; it is an application of Public Policy 2.0 approach—the one that allows the departure from the established methods when they prove ineffective, embraces the notion that there is ‘no stability without volatility’  (to borrow from Nassim Taleb) [15], and encourages experimentation in adapting to the evolving environment, and making uncertainty work for its cause and not against it—what the art and craft of policy-making in the twenty-first century is about.

“Establishing a lasting peace will take decades and will demand a shared vision, patience, and long-term political commitment and resources. Disengagement at any point will mean an immediate return to square one, thus the reincarnation of chaos. This is equally true for Syria and any other conflict-torn country in the region.”

In the next post I will outline, in very broad terms, an international technical assistance programme for Syria and Iraq, aimed at translating this vision into practice. It is built on a premise that the assistance to Syria and Iraq in the middle-term shall be devised as combining both directions—military and civilian.


*The picture is of a mathematical object known as the Mandelbrot set (frequently used to illustrate the chaotic systems)—endlessly reapplies itself and generates pictures of ever increasing complexity.

[1] Oxfam International President Raymond Offenheiser, as quoted in Mariama Diallo, ‘Humanitarian Groups Call for Sustained Cease-fire in Syria,’ GlobalSecurity.org, 03 March 2016, at http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/syria/2016/syria-160303-voa03.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e1656%2ejt0ao08790%2e1iry

[2] Laura Pitel, ‘Peace shaken by anti-Assad protests,’ Independent, 5 March 2016

[3] UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordination, Stephen O’Brien, providing the Security Council with an update on 24 February 2016: ‘Everyone is losing’ in the Syrian conflict, UN relief chief tells Security Council, at http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=53308#.VttdeH2LRdg

[4] Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard L. Hudson, The (mis)Behavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Risk, Ruin, and Reward (New York: Basic Books, 2004), p. 294

[5] Max Weber, ‘Politics as Vocation,’ A speech at Munich University (1918) in H.H. Gerth and M.C. Wright (eds.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 78

[6] United Nations, ‘Special meeting of the Counter-Terrorism Committee with Member States and relevant international and regional organizations on “Preventing Terrorists from Exploiting the Internet and Social Media to Recruit Terrorists and Incite Terrorist Acts, while Respecting Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms”’, Concept note, New York, 17 December 2015  

[7] Richard Ford, ‘Number of British girls travelling to Syria jumps,’ The Times, 12 January 2016

[8] Janine di Giovanni, ‘Assad: a monster and dictator but he’s the best option for peace,’ Evening Standard, 29 February 2016

[9] Robert A. Dahl, Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1971), pp.15-16

[10] Samuel P. Huntington, The Third Wave: Democratization in the Late Twentieth Century (Oklahoma: Oklahoma University Press, 1993), p.211

[11] There is plenty of works written by practitioners and scholars. One of my favorites is the Chilean-American writer Ariel Dorfman’s insightful personal account: ‘Whose memory? Whose justice? A meditation on how and when and if to reconcile,’ The Eighth Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture address by Ariel Dorfman, 31 July 2010, at https://www.nelsonmandela.org/news/entry/eighth-nelson-mandela-annual-lecture-address

[12] Mark Haugaard, ‘Concerted Power Over,’ Constellations, 22/1 (2015), p. 147-158 at 148

[13] David Remnick, ‘Going the Distance: On and off the road with Barack Obama’, New Yorker, 27 January 2014

[14] Patrick Wintour,”’Provisional’ Syria ceasefire plan called into question as bombs kill 120,” The Guardian, 21 February 2016

[15] Nassim Nicolas Taleb, Antifragile: How to Live in the World We Don’t Understand (London: Allen Lane, 2012), p. 107

Introducing Public Policy version 2.0

Growing as teenagers back in the 1960s-70s, my generation believed that the world after the year 2001 would be totally different. In a way this turned to be true – along with technological advancements we could not dreamt of at the time the political, security, economic, environmental, and societal problems our planet faces today are not only unprecedented but go beyond comprehension, in their nature and severity.

public policy complexity

The fact that in the last ten years a series of ‘second versions’ have been introduced and commonly accepted—such as Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, Governance 2.0, Globalisation 2.0—suggests that we have come to realize that the world around us and the global processes have changed in a categorical / qualitative terms rather than mere quantitatively. And this ‘version two’ trend does not limit itself to the development of the worldwide web and the use of social software platforms, but reflects the fundamental changes in the way how we interact between us as individuals, groups, states and societies and how do we cope collectively, with the complex and unpredictable world of the twenty-first century.

Still this is not as surprising as is our inability to cope with them. The Financial Times editor, Lionel Barber, has stressed this point when describing the global trends under the ‘Globalisation 2.0’ banner, that ‘[n]ational governments are desperate to regain a measure of control’  over the mounting problems posed by global processes. [1] It looks like our political and economic institutions have not been prepared for this change to happen, and are struggling now in the hesitant attempts to adjust. Francis Fukuyama identifies the problem (with regards to democracies) as one of ‘political decay’ and puts his diagnosis as follows: ‘The failure of modern democracies come in many flavours, but the dominant one in the early twenty-first century is probably state weakness: contemporary democracies become too easily gridlocked and rigid, and thus unable to make difficult decisions to ensure their long-term economic and political survival.’ [2]

The fundamental insight offered by prominent thinkers of the day has been that we (as a humankind, at all levels, from individuals to institutions) must embrace the uncertainty, adapt to it, and evolve and grow stronger with it, instead of pretending that we can predict, measure and even manage the risks (let alone to do so without fundamental changes to our not-effective-anymore practices). [3]

When it comes to the state, the focus on building its evolutionary capabilities implies that, as its one overarching function public policy making shall be the first to adapt. In the course of the past century, especially its second half, public policy was heavily relying on the rational choice theory and related models which use cause-effect and pattern recognition methods (with a sophisticated statistical computation) to explain the operational environments with stable settings, known variables and the abundance of historical data available. Nowadays however, even though remaining relevant and useful this approach, coupled with hierarchical model of decision-making and the rigid goal-fixated implementation design, is showing its limitations in offering viable policy solutions in complex, dynamic settings and effectively addressing the emerging problems in various domains. Against this background, vast evidence produced by social scientists and practitioners from various fields of expertise over the last three decades has convincingly demonstrated the benefits of experimentation, evidence-based policy, and flexible, adaptive approaches to decision making. [4]

On a positive note, there is a growing recognition and use across the world, of new methods of policy analysis and design. As behavioural economist Richard Thaler reports with the reference to Economic and Social Research Council’s 2014 survey, more than 130 countries have utilised behavioural science insights in their policies, while over 50 countries have developed policies influenced by the behavioural sciences. [5] In other words, new (and at times distinctively different but compatible) approaches are already being used, but need to be recognised by governments as a legitimate choice and, in certain situations, even as a default option instead of Public Policy 1.0 methods.

In this post therefore, I am attempting to outline key features of Public Policy 2.0, drawing on the insights from various fields of knowledge grouped under the umbrella of effective policy making in the twenty-first century. It is a sketchy initial shot produced with an eye towards initiating a discussion and, ideally, collaboration around this project. I shall mention here that attempts have been already made to define the ‘version-two’ of policy analysis and evaluation. [6]

For the working definition I would suggest the following: Public Policy 2.0 is a proactive, experimental approach to policy making which derives from the appreciation of the complexity and unpredictability of the world and which is deployed with an aim of enabling the states and the societies adapt to the rapidly changing environment, and to evolve and thrive with and within it.

Public Policy 2.0 is a proactive, experimental approach to policy making which derives from the appreciation of the complexity and unpredictability of the world and which is deployed with an aim of enabling the states and the societies adapt to the rapidly changing environment, and to evolve and thrive with and within it.

To specify, Public Policy 2.0 rests on the following principles:

— builds bottom-up, where more authority and responsibility given at tactical and even ‘limited task’ level is married with strong coordination and support role at the centre of government;

— employs trial and error approach, with testing simultaneously many ideas trough small pilots, making sense of the findings (including those from inevitable failures), in order to collect and analyse evidence, learn, and to catch up with the changing environment in a timely manner and on the go;

— exercises the management methods that rely on the experimentation and feedback, are supportive to creativity, and encourage unorthodox approaches;

— maintains an ongoing dialogue between multidisciplinary teams of researchers and practitioners and relies, for the implementation, on a broad based in-country and international collaborative networks of partners; and

— recognises the structures only as non-rigid and adjustable to the evolving context, and both the strategic and tactical goals as subject to constant revision.

At this point I see the benefits coming in various ways, namely:

— sense-making: deployment of decision making mechanisms that, while relying on less data and complicated computation, allow for employing insights from social and behavioural sciences to make reasonable and effective policy interventions, given the limited time and information available;

— decentralisation: puts the decision making in right hands of those who deal with the problems in real time and space; helps building the cadre of experienced, tested managers who are ready to assume responsibility along with authority; and encourages the initiative and reasonable risk-taking;

— analysis: opens opportunities for generating more evidence, as from traditional experimental and quasi-experimental designs, so from qualitative and deliberative methods—to make the policy assessment and evaluation more insightful of values and aspirations of stakeholders and relevant to delivering the expected impacts and benefits; [7]

— design: allows designing strategies and policy programmes which combine the traditional integrated approach with the modular architecture—to enable decoupling potentially high-risk components from the rest of the programme and to create more opportunities for synergic effects from the implementation;

— monitoring: by making the policy programmes’ objectives subject to continuous examination, revision and adjustment—enables using simple but informative methods of relevance, in order to quickly and meaningfully assess the real progress made along the path.

With that said, this proposal does not call for the ‘policy reform’ or dismissal of the present Public Policy version 1.0 approach and for the wholesale shift to Public Policy 2.0 — immediately or in any visible term. Instead, I would advocate for their complementarity, the mutually reinforcing parallel application. The major task at the initial stage will be to demonstrate benefits (as ever) and to ensure that Public Policy 2.0 methods have their place as equals to those of Public Policy 1.0, when considering the analytical, implementation design and managerial issues of any policy issue.

This is especially relevant to the countries which make their state-building efforts in transition from authoritarian regimes towards democracy—where experimentation is imperative in order to find their own way, to tailor the practices tested (but still in need of further enhancement, as we have seen, along with those yet untested) in liberal democracies to their political tradition, culture, and present-day circumstances. I believe that the international organisations, development agencies and broader donor community shall place the strengthening of policy-making capacity of recipient governments at the centre of assistance, and do so with encouraging creativity, innovation and experimentation so that to enable the most effective and harmonious combination of both Public Policy methodological versions.


[1] From the speech delivered at the FT-Nikkei symposium:  Lionel Barber, ‘Globalisation 2.0an optimistic outlook,’ Financial Times, 14 January, 2016

[2] The quote is from: Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (London: Profile Books, 2011). More in detail he elaborates on this topic in his recent book, the second instalment of the series: Francis Fukuyama, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy (London: Profile Books, 2011). These two volumes are an essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the nature of political processes and to make sense of the current developments.

[3] Among those seminal works: Eric D. Beinhocker, The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics (Boston, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006); Nassim Nicolas Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (London: Allen Lane, 2007); and Nassim Nicolas Taleb, Antifragile: How to Live in the World We Don’t Understand (London: Allen Lane, 2012)

[4] There is vast literature—books, articles in academic journals, reports by think tanks—on the benefits of experimentation, evidence-based policy, and flexible management and decision-making methods. These are some of my favourite books: Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (London: Penguin Books, 2012); Gary Klein, Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009); Gerd Gigerenzer, Peter M. Todd, and the ABC Research Group, Simple Heuristics That Make Us Smart (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (New York and London: Yale University Press, 2008); Tim Harford, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure (London: Little, Brown, 2011)

[5] Richard H. Thaler, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioural Economics (London: Allen Lane, 2015), p. 344

[6] Agrell and Treverton, in their discussion on policy analysis draw on the unpublished paper by the economist and public policy scholar Robert Klitgaard, Policy Analysis and Evaluation 2.0 (2012): Wilhelm Argell and Gregory F. Treverton, National Intelligence and Science: Beyond the Great Divide in Analysis and Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 115-135. Also see for an elaborate account of post-positivist policy analysis: Ya Li, ‘Think tank 2.0 for deliberative policy analysis,’ Policy Sciences, 48/1 (2015), pp. 25-50

[7] It is not accidental that in defining Policy Analysis version 2.0, Klitgaard builds on the characteristics of evaluation suited to the world of uncertainty, borrowing from the leading authority in qualitative analysis methods, Michael Quinn Patton: M. Q. Patton, ‘Use as a Criterion of Quality in Evaluation,’ in A. Benson, C. Lloyd, and D.M. Hinn (eds.), Visions of Quality: How Evaluators Define, Understand, and Represent Program Quality: Advances in Program Evaluation (Kidlington, UK: Elsevier Science, 2001), pp. 23-26. In more recent publication, Patton points out to advantages of qualitative analysis methods (which are highly relevant to the policy analysis and evaluation version 2.0, as advocated in this post): ‘Indeed, qualitative evaluation and in-depth case studies were utilization-focused methodological responses to the kinds of evaluation questions stakeholders were asking and the criteria they applied to judge quality of finding: contextual understanding, in-depth analysis, and cross-case comparisons.’ [Michael Q. Patton, ‘The Sociological Roots of Utilization-Focused Evaluation,’ The American Sociologist, 46/4 (2015), pp. 457-462 at 461.