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Building stability overseas – one brick at a time

May 18, 2017

This post was also published on International Alert’s website.

Earlier this year a new guidance document was finalised outlining five building blocks and five shifts for the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and its work on building stability in fragile states and societies.

The document, titled the Building Stability Framework, has not yet received much publicity – but it should: it has much to commend it, and I hope the new UK government to be formed after the June general election makes more of it.

It could also be useful for other governments and organisations – not least in this year when the UN is reviewing how it can improve its performance in building and sustaining peace.


In 2011, the then UK government published its Building Stability Overseas Strategy (BSOS). This was much heralded, and was welcomed by peacebuilding organisations. We liked that it was cross-governmental, developed jointly by the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and DFID; that it was based on the idea that addressing instability and conflict overseas was both morally right and in the UK’s interest; that it was holistic, linking prevention, early warning and crisis response; and that it was premised on a long-term notion of stability, or ‘positive peace’:

‘The stability we are seeking to support can be characterised in terms of political systems which are representative and legitimate, capable of managing conflict and change peacefully, and societies in which human rights and rule of law are respected, basic needs are met, security established and opportunities for social and economic development are open to all. This type of “structural stability”, which is built on the consent of the population, is resilient and flexible in the face of shocks, and can evolve over time as the context changes.’

It therefore clearly marked out its territory as that of progressive change: not the kind of stability which the UK had so long supported in places like Egypt under repressive autocrats, but the kind of stability more typical of liberal democracies.

Essentially, it supported what political scientist Francis Fukuyama calls “getting to Denmark”, or creating stable, peaceful, and inclusive societies. It might almost have been written by an NGO like ours, such was its ambition for the transformation of fragile societies. And therein, unfortunately, lay the seeds of its own fragility.

BSOS is still government policy, and was integrated into the 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review. But look a little closer and it is hard to see where the strategy is genuinely being implemented as it was written. There are two main reasons for this.

First, Whitehall – at the political level, at least – still interprets ‘stability’ in the old-fashioned way, as the lack of upheaval and violence, rather than in the way quoted above. And since “getting to Denmark” involves an immense amount of change, and thus a risk of upheaval and instability, at least in many policy-makers’ minds, BSOS seems internally contradictory.  They settle for the status quo, though it falls far short of Denmark. To paraphrase St Augustine, they pray for Denmark, ‘but not yet’.

And the second reason is that it is genuinely difficult for the UK government to figure out how to support progress towards stability in practice. It is all very well to agree that Denmark is more stable than Somalia, but how does one navigate from the latter to former? And as we know only too well, it’s a journey that’s fundamentally non-linear and hard to plan or predict, especially within the short-term planning timeframes with which the UK is cursed by its electoral cycle and bureaucratic habits.

Good news, therefore, that DFID, recognising this challenge, has been quietly developing new guidance, which was approved by ministers earlier this year in the form of the BSF.

Five building blocks

The key difference between the BSF and BSOS, it seems to me, is that the former is less prescriptive, and written with a more practical application in mind – a short, easy to read document which offers a variety of examples where civil servants have opportunities to support improvements in stability, through instruments already to hand.

It thus tries to make building stability more practical, tangible and real, and crucially it recognises that progress is likely to be incremental at the best of times, and that there are always going to be setbacks along the way.

BSF sets out five building blocks – one might rather call them ‘colours’ that can be applied to enhance the picture of stability on the canvas before them. These are:

  • Fairer power structures;
  • More inclusive economic development;
  • Better mechanisms for resolving conflict;
  • More effective and legitimate institutions; and
  • A more supportive regional environment.

No wonder peacebuilders like this, as these are all areas on which we also focus our efforts. And – like the BSF – rather than seeing these as norms to be achieved come what may, we see them more simply as areas in which to try and make an incremental difference, where possible.

I feel the BSF might have gone further in some respects: I think ‘power distribution’ a more accurate label for the first building block; that global factors – including some on which the UK is quite influential, such as money laundering and climate change policy – could be more evident; that although this is much more down to earth than BSOS and other earlier policies, it still risks being misinterpreted as implying that DFID has more power to address ‘root causes’ of instability than it really has; and that limiting this policy to DFID, leaving out other departments, is a big gap.

But I also know that this enterprise of figuring out how a small island nation in western Europe can help increase stability elsewhere remains – quite rightly – a work in progress, and this document is a very useful step along the way.

Five shifts for DFID

With this same perspective in mind, the BSF ends with five pieces of advice for DFID – and by implication other UK government departments, and other international actors, we can assume – with which I wholeheartedly concur. Indeed, they form part of the advice my organisation International Alert and others have been giving the UK government for years:

  • Put politics first: Make sure what you do is grounded in an understanding of politics and power.
  • Think and act beyond the state: Stability is influenced as much by society, and by external factors, as by the state.
  • Integrate stability throughout the DFID portfolio: Look for where you can have an impact on the five building blocks through any and all aid programmes – in humanitarian, health, education, livelihoods, infrastructure, business development, etc. – not only in the more obvious governance and peacebuilding programmes, important as those are.
  • Be flexible in your choice of instruments and approaches, and be explicit about the need to recognise a high level of investment risk in pursuing critical, yet hard-to-achieve and hard-to-predict results.
  • Pay more attention to staffing – get the right people in the right places, with the right partners and networks, don’t rotate staff so often, and thus base programming on a granular understanding of the realities on the ground.

The BSF does not make the mistake of providing a prescription: it is broad level guidance which aims for a balance of theory and practice.

We recommend it to other UK departments and other international agencies, as a good starting point for understanding how, humbly, to make gradual changes to the peaceful co-existence and development progress of people living in fragile societies.

Download the Building Stability Framework.

Are politics simply civil war by other means?

March 16, 2017

In a recent blog post I shared a typology of conflicts. Presenting this in a workshop recently, I was asked why bother to categorise conflicts in this way? The response – helpfully provided by someone else at the seminar – was that framing or categorization is important, as how we explain and understand phenomena determines how we approach and address them.

I was reminded of this when reading David Armitages’s new book Civil Wars: A History in Ideas (Yale University Press, 2017). Armitage uses his book not to tell the story of civil wars in history but, as his sub-title suggests, to tell the story of how civil war has been framed through (western) history, and in so doing reminds us that history weighs on how we see the world, shaping how we define and deal with the phenomena of our day. Essentially, the baggage which all language carries shapes how we make sense of the world – and therefore how our world is.

Civil wars are the wars of our era. Of the 484 wars fought between 1816 and 2001, over 60% were civil wars. There have been on average 20 civil wars per year since the end of the Cold War (compared with only two per year between 1816 and 1989). 25 million people have died in battle in civil wars since 1945, and civil wars have cost around $125 billion per year during that period. So his book is highly relevant today. In his telling, ‘civil war’ is a relatively recent idea, born in Roman times.

Definitions and tropes entail and constrain other definitions and tropes. For the ancient Greeks, where citizenship was a matter of birth and breeding, what we now call civil war was not seen as war at all, but more as sedition – a conflict between citizens and the state: for how could citizen be at war against citizen when each was a part of a natural whole? Thus the Greek word for war, polemos (recognisable in our own polemic) was not used to describe internal conflicts, which were seen as stasis – meaning things were internally out of balance. And even in Rome until the first century BCE, where for many years political factions had used mobs and street gangs to express their politics through violence and assassination, this was part of political life, and not a “civil war” – i.e. not a war of citizen against citizen.

But once the genie was out of the bottle – according to Armitage, when Sulla fought against Marius around 80 BCE – when Roman generals and their troops under arms entered Rome and fought battles against other Romans – against other citizens – for power over the Roman State, this became a trope which Roman commentators and historians would never forget. (Although not the first Roman general to do so, Caesar’s decision on returning from Gaul, to cross the Rubicon under arms, thus breaking the terms of his commission, became emblematic of this new phenomenon).

Cicero is thought to be one of the first to use the term bellum civile around 60 BCE, but within decades it became part of the received wisdom of Roman ideas that the Roman polity was destined (‘cursed’) to suffer frequent eruption of civil wars – almost as though it was a price to pay for having developed a civilised political system in which citizenship (vis-a-vis the “civil” state) was such an essential feature. To be civilised entailed a concept of citizenship no longer linked to ethnicity but to class status and civic obligation. But to be civilised was also to be prone to civil war. And so, as Rome’s political scientists and historians described their past, their future was also to be: Rome undergoing periodic episodes of civil war throughout its history. As Rome succumbed to barbarian invasion centuries later, St Augustine noted that bellum civile had long been fundamental to the Roman political model, which thus contained the seeds of its own weakness and destruction. As we define our world, so it comes, perhaps, to be…

Armitage goes on to chart the evolution of concepts of civil war (its “history in ideas”) with stops in the 17th , 18th and 19th Centuries – and a brief look at modern times. In the first of these stops we see how contemporary events again reshape the idea. In the turbulent English 17th century, the Roman idea of citizen versus citizen, with each side having a theoretically equal legitimacy in its fight to gain the state – which had persisted through the Wars of the Roses in the 15th century – gave way to a new model of interpretation in which one side had greater legitimacy, based on its ideology, than the other – with supporters of each side expressing their preference accordingly. The English Civil War being a useful illustration, in that each side was not simply trying to capture or keep state power, but brought with it a significantly different view of what the nature of the state and citizenship should be, and how state power should be used: an ideological civil war.

Political thinkers in the 18th and 19th Centuries took this still further. Swiss enlightenment writer Emer de Vatel declared that war against the state – against the status quo – is acceptable if the status quo is unbearably unjust, and that in such circumstances the rules of war – of jus in bello – apply. This was a major turning point, as hitherto it had generally been considered that civil war was by definition a most brutal and unregulated kind of conflict, in which participants were not bound by normal rules. The declaration of independence by rebels created a situation of de facto state against state – civil war, again – and further legitimized other nations intervening on one side or the other in a way they should not if the conflict were merely seen as citizens rebelling against their state. Edmund Burke, an Anglo-Irish radical turned reactionary by the horrors of the French revolution, used this argument to claim Britain’s right and responsibility to intervene on the side of reaction in revolutionary France. John Stuart Mill took this further claimed there were two circumstances when intervention in others’ internal civil war was justified: when people were trying to throw off a foreign yoke, or when the war was creating prolonged suffering through the inability of one side to beat the other, so needed to be brought to an end for humanitarian reasons. (Here perhaps, we see the stirrings of what later became the international doctrine Responsibility to Protect…).

The idea of civil war evolved further in the 19th century, with the US Civil War playing a pivotal role,  with the Union side deciding that the rules of war applied – not as a humanitarian gesture, or at least not only that, but as a way to reinforce its legitimacy and tactics in crushing the other side. Lincoln saw the war as not just a rebellion but a civil war – a “great civil war” as he put it in the Gettysburg Address. But he was clear that it was an ideological attack against the whole United States, and not simply a war of secession from it.

As an illustration of how important labels, categories and concepts are, and of their interplay with politics, the US Civil War was not legally recognised as such by Congress – i.e. as a bellum civile, rather than a rebellion or ‘Abolition War’ –  until 1907 – and perhaps to this day is not so recognised by some Americans.

The book charts many other twists and turns (or layers, perhaps) in the building of the definition of civil war. So where does that leave us today? Absurd political debates about whether Iraq was in a state of civil war persisted even as tens of thousands died in violence. Of course it was a civil war: different factions were fighting violently for power. Is Syria in a state of civil war? That too was debated, absurdly, before the ICRC declared definitively in 2012 that it was a civil war. Surely if it looks and sounds and smells like civil war, then it is a civil war: when the people of a single polity are waging organised armed violence with recognisable factions or sides, it’s a civil war and needs to be treated as such?

But the concept of civil war is still evolving, and definitions do matter, as Armitage argues: ‘civil war is a contested concept about the essential elements of contestation’. As such, definitions inevitably reflect political interests. In this era of globalisation, when the nation-state is gradually being eroded by supranational rules and norms, and the presence of powerful economic interests and entities not bound by national borders, then we may need to reconsider the boundaries of civil war again. For the Romans, bellum civile was a war of citizen against citizen: Roman against Roman. And just as the concept of citizenship had shifted from an ethnically based – natural – identity in ancient Greece, to a civic – conferred – identity in Rome, we are perhaps seeing today the gradual emergence of the idea of global human citizenship, with universal rights and obligations inferred from international norms of human rights. If civil war in Rome was war of “brother against brother”, and if all citizens across the world are in some senses part of a global polity, does that mean that all wars are in some sense becoming civil wars?

Armitage’s book is a fascinating read – an intellectual pleasure. But teasing out its practical implications for peacebuilding today is not easy.  I think the key message remains his underlying premise that how we describe the world shapes how we respond to and address it, and thus how we shape our circumstances. If we define the wars in Syria as primarily a war of ‘the Syrian opposition’ against the Assad regime, then we not only miss the point that the opposition is multi-faceted, with all sorts of axes of ‘opposition’ in play, but that it is also a war about the nature of the Syrian state and of Syrian citizenship, with many different models being proposed; a war about the protection of minorities; a post-colonial war; a war about religious ideas and identity; a war about access to the economy; and many other wars as well… And that is without adding in the multiple regional and other geopolitical layers to the mix. Hence the risk in placing too much emphasis on the removal of Assad as the only path to peace.

And, now that the historic ceasefire deal has been signed between the Philippines government and the long-lasting rebel group National Democratic Front, following last years’ peace agreement between the government of Colombia and FARC rebels, perhaps the underlying  grievances over access to land and economic opportunity which spurred both rebellions many years ago can now be dealt with through politics instead of violence. If so, that would reinforce Armitage’s idea that ‘politics is civil war by other means’.

I think his book also reminds us that the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a doctrine of profound importance in the right hands, and that those hands really do have to be those of the UN. Edmund Burke’s view that Britain should intervene against the French revolution may look in hindsight like a version of R2P, but it was not. It was his desire to push back the tide of change, and prevent the spread of dangerous ideas to Britain. Thus political, not humanitarian in nature. R2P is still new, and still being shaped, in practical terms, and is an immensely sensitive concept as it pits international human rights norms against the norms of state sovereignty. We can’t leave the task of shaping how this tension will be resolved, in the hands of those with the most power to intervene: it must be a doctrine owned universally if it is to take root.

Finally, Armitage seems at the end of his book to hark back to Hobbes, when he turns von Clausewitz’s famous dictum on its head in saying that politics is civil war by other means. In this, he gets to the heart of the idea of positive peace: the idea that in human society at every level we need a combination of systems and culture allowing us to resolve and address our differences, and a sufficient degree of equality in access to welfare, to economic and political participation, and to the means of achieving justice and security, to be able to resist the call to arms against our fellow citizens. Surely Romans were wrong that civil war is inevitable, but they were right that the kinds of pressures which give rise to civil war will always exist. Unless the level of grievances within society is minimised and there are adequate mechanisms in place to work through our differences without recourse to violence, there will always be a risk of war.

(A shorter version of this is posted at International Alert’s website)



History may not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Lessons for international development?

March 2, 2017

(This was also posted by International Alert.)

In my recent post I dipped back into International Alert‘s 2010 report Working with the grain to change the grain, to share a way in which Alert had framed “development” – human progress, as the report had it, or perhaps a version of  the philosophical idea of “human flourishing” . This was in response to a great deal of online and political agonising currently about the levels of overseas aid provided by the UK. One of the sources Deborrah Baksh and I found useful in writing the report then was Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast’s book Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge University Press, 2009). In this they shared the conceptual framework they had developed to explain human progress. Now that people are asking again what development means – or, in the NGO jargon, refreshing the development narrative –  their work seems particularly relevant.

The book’s analysis was based on five key interlocking premises.

  • Economic and political progress are intimately intertwined, and cannot be considered separately if they are to be understood.
  • Violence is endemic to human society. Ruling elites have a strong incentive to retain control of violence, so they can control access to resources, ensuring sufficient peace and stability to allow them and their allies to benefit from such access, and using violence to disrupt access by others.
  • Access to economic and political opportunities becomes increasingly open as societies develop. In early stages of development, opportunities are restricted to and bargained and fought over by the elite(s), but then become more open to others. Only when access became more open has sustainable progress occurred.
  • Understanding organisations, institutions (i.e. the rules of the game), beliefs, values and culture is critical to understanding how society is organised and evolves.
  • One of the critical changes taking place as societies develop is from the personal exercise of economic and political opportunity and power (e.g. big man politics, landownership linked to the capacity for organised violence) to the impersonal (e.g. shareholder-owned corporations, freehold land, and offices of state).

North and his colleagues identify a process of transition from what they term a limited access order to an open access order. In a limited access order, political and economic opportunities are limited to the elites. The characteristics of such polities are vulnerability to shocks, arbitrary legal processes, personal insecurity, small governments accountable only to the elite, and patronage-based systems of governance. Open access is characterised by greater personal security, larger and more decentralised government, participatory citizen-based governance, the rule of law, and a more resilient political economy.

While considerable evolution and back-and-forth variation is possible within these broad parameters, a fairly rapid step-change towards open access has occurred when three so-called “doorstep conditions” were met:

  • The establishment of rule of law for the elites;
  • The existence of “perpetually lived” (i.e. institutionalised) forms of public and private elite organisations, including the state itself; and
  • Consolidated control by the state of the military and other forces of security.

Once these conditions are established for the elite, circumstances can lead them to be extended to include other members of society, and a broadening of access to political and economic opportunities can occur quite quickly. This step-change is reckoned to have happened for example in the UK and the USA around the end of the eighteenth century. North and his co-authors claim that most societies – and certainly all those known as fragile contexts – have yet to make this step-change from limited to open access order.

Like North et al., I  believe there are many lessons from history that can guide people in considering their development today. History does not repeat itself, but as someone has said before, it does rhyme. If you care to look back at the conceptual framework I shared in my previous post, you will see that it rhymes with many of the ideas summarised above.

What does ‘development’ actually mean?

February 25, 2017

(This was also posted by International Alert.)

What with all the attacks on international development aid of late, at least in the UK, there has been talk of reviewing the narrative about what ‘development’ actually means. In other words, what is this process – let’s simply call it progress – which aid is supposed to support?

After all, to those outside the aid bubble, it can be quite confusing – a complex mix of overlapping and competing ideas: poverty eradication (or is it reduction?), livelihoods, resilience, gender equality, ‘building back better’, better governance, peacebuilding, reducing fragility, building stability – and more recently calls for ‘no-one left behind‘ – to name just a few of the many tropes out there. And of course, some of history’s greatest thinkers have devoted their lives to the project of defining what a better society might look like, and how to get there: names like Plato and Marx spring to mind…

So I went back and looked again at the essay International Alert published in 2010 which unpacked this question. What we said then still seems highly relevant. And, perhaps deceptively, simple. We proposed that development was historically a process in which societies provided their citizens with increasingly fairer and more equal access to justice, security, economic opportunity, health and other factors of well-being, and a voice in decisions which affect them. These are the elements on the right in the diagram below, which was part of the essay I mentioned.

Looking at history, we identified a number of processes which appear to have enabled this kind of progress in the past – the elements on the left.  And we also said that leadership, values and institutions were crucial.



None of this is necessarily easy to achieve – history is a way of describing how things may have happened in the past, rather than how to make them happen again. But looking back on this 2010 narrative from the vantage point of 2017, it still seems substantially right.

So the question for progressives is, how to catalyse the kinds of processes on the left in the diagram above, while providing opportunities to strengthen institutions and leadership with the kinds of values which underpin the items on the right? And for those interested in aid: can overseas development aid help?

To both questions I say ‘of course’. Much of the development progress – and setbacks – in Latin America over the past decades can be seen in these terms, and in many ways aid has assisted this. The framework also helps to show how much further a country like – say – China can travel if is people so desire, despite its achievements to date.

One thing this narrative illustrates is that progress necessarily takes time to unfold in specific circumstances, and we need to have patience. For those seeking a more accurate way to describe ‘development’, I recommend a visit to International Alert as a source of ideas.

Can we avoid the Bannon Trap?

February 1, 2017

I’m one of those people who said “don’t worry, the Remainers will carry the day”, and then “I’m sure we’ll end up negotiating a relationship with the EU almost as good as membership”; and then “Trump –  surely they won’t vote for him?”, and finally “Wait and see, his bite won’t surely be as bad as his bark?”… So what do I know?

Nevertheless, ignorant or naive as I seem to be, this blog post is my expression of unease at the fervent anti-Trump fever that’s sweeping parts of the world and the twittersphere. Not that I don’t oppose a great deal of what Trump claims to stand for (though I must admit I still doubt he really does), but because I fear that by opposing him we risk strengthening his hand, at least in the short term. This is the Bannon Trap.

Trump was elected on a wave of anti-elitism, and as such has been bracketed with le Pen, Farage and the Brexiteers, and others. The genius of these populist figures, it seems to me, is that they get their opponents to do most of their campaigning. By creating a straw person – the sneering, liberal elitist who has captured all the gains of globalisation and cares more about the welfare of faraway foreigners than about you or me – they can stand back and let those very liberal elitists do the hard work by protesting against the seemingly self-evident truths the populists have coined.

But they don’t just stand back. In classic populist fashion, they produce speeches, tweets, TV spots – and now, presidential decrees – carefully designed to provoke precisely the kind of outraged reaction among those who oppose them that reveals them as members of a single bloc of elitists who are standing in the way of a fairer society. As traitors, indeed – as we can see from Trump’s claim that he fired his Attorney General because of her “betrayal” – rather than for upholding the rule of law which he has said he’ll restore. No wonder the branding of UKIP, the Trump campaign and other similar causes seems so crass and clumsy: not only is that intentional – to show that they don’t care about that slick, metropolitan branding s*** –   but it’s also unnecessary to develop a slick brand if you define yourself in terms of who is ranged against you, rather than what or who you are….

Trump’s supposedly personal midnight tweeting is no doubt also part of the same tactical approach. I’d be amazed if Trump himself is creating or tweeting those messages: they’re straight out of a Goebbels playbook, and no doubt there’s a team of people answerable to Steve Bannon, which drafts them, get them approved within the Trump Team hierarchy, and then puts them out there for all to read. It’s just another simple but clever way to get the elite all riled up about the idea of a president elect or a president sending such obtuse and oafish tweets. I can imagine a room full of hyped up young men (I bet they’re all men) outdoing themselves trying to come up with the most liberal-provocative statement yet.

How happy they must be now. Every time TV stations broadcast yet more footage of President Trump signing yet another executive order – most of which are drafts, and/or temporary in nature and no doubt designed to be modified in the course of the next few months – they rub their hands with glee at how this will push the elite – not just in big US cities, but around the world, for God’s sake! – out to protest, showing themselves up for the out of touch bunch of globalistas they are.

No matter that few of these sham “policies” will actually work. No matter than they may be counter-productive even in terms of Trump’s own rhetoric. Right now their purpose seems largely political: to rile up the opposition and let core supporters see their enemies for who they are – and to make real, the rift which Trump’s team has projected onto American society.

Of course, the “liberal elite” is no more a homogeneous bloc than are the diverse people who support Trump, Le Pen, Brexit, etc. But it serves the populists’ purposes to make it seem as though they are, and a simple way to do so is unite them in opposition to the oafish and abnormal behaviour and pronouncements emanating from the White House. Provocation 101, as it might be called if taught at political insurgency school.

So if, like me, you oppose what Trump appears to stand for – and what Steve Bannon and others in his team really do seem to stand for – you are confronted by a cleverly laid trap: you’re damned if you do react, and damned if you don’t. Either you react and are labelled as elitist, or you keep quiet and leave the way open for policies which will do harm. The Bannon Trap.

If this is right, where does that leave those who oppose Trump? I’m not saying people should stop responding to and criticizing Trump and his ilk, but his tactics do make it hard to oppose him without providing him with yet more oxygen.

I tweeted a few weeks ago – not long after the US election – that the UK and the US both (still) had strong institutions which should be resilient in the face of these populists. After the last week or so of Trumpery, I was challenged on Twitter as to whether I now had cause to change my mind and be less sanguine. It’s an important question and I hope I don’t turn out to be wrong in saying I have not changed my mind.

Brexit and Trump have shone a light clearly enough in parts of the USA and UK – on the margins, if you will – where people have not had a fair chance to participate in the gains of economic growth, where they feel ignored, and where resentment is real. But Trump and Brexit have happened within our political and societal institutions, not outside them. The Brexit referendum was devised by a democratically elected executive and approved by Parliament, and Trump was elected within the rules of a great democracy. Surely those institutions still contain mechanisms with the capacity to allow us to try and put this problem of unfairness right. I am confident that neither Brexit nor Trump will achieve this, but the political and societal systems from which they have emerged, and which have thus enabled such a clear light to be shone on the problem, can perhaps allow others to do so. That is resilience.

If so the key to responding effectively must be to take on the hard work of figuring out – with the participation of those affected and resentful – what those long-term political solutions might be, and argue within our political system for them to be adopted. To take on Trump and the Brexiteers on their own ground, as it were. (As has been said: take them seriously, rather than literally.) I don’t think this means turning our back on liberal economic and political ideas, but it does mean doing more to mitigate the harm which such ideas have caused, and will cause, to those for whom the benefits are harder to access. This will take time and will not be easy.

And in the meantime, I have a (still perhaps naïve) faith that what seems like a political crisis may yet drive newspapers and other traditional media to get their mojo back. They certainly need to. The courts in America are already being used to challenge Trump by the states and civil society.

There are also signs that an opposition coalition of sorts may emerge in the USA which extends beyond the ‘liberal elite’. Already Trump is causing resentment within his senior ‘team’ at the way he is sidelining them as he makes policy announcements which touch on their areas of competence. Either they will quit, or force him to adopt a more collegiate approach. (And if forced to be collegiate, perhaps he’ll quit…).

Nor can I imagine his relationship with Republicans in Congress remaining easy for long. They are quiet for now, in the main. But plenty of their swing voters will get riled up too, and the mid-term elections season in the USA starts as soon as the new president takes office – i.e. now. Who knows, maybe the unintended consequence of all this populism will ultimately be the resuscitation of one of the main institutions of modern day democracy: the political party.

In the meantime, even if I’m right about the Bannon Trap, all those who feel disempowered and therefore the need to tweet, take to the streets etc., will not and probably should not stop. But I’d like to think that once we get over the fact that things have changed, and Trump starts policy development in earnest, engaging with and compromising with Congress, opposition voices will move beyond being against what Trump is saying, and get back onto the more familiar ground (for the liberal elite!) of formulating policy ideas which might actually make a difference for the people whose sense of exclusion and alienation has brought Trump to office. Heck, he might even borrow some of those ideas.

Criticism of UK aid: it’s time for aid advocates to make a choice

December 20, 2016

Recent articles in British newspapers The Times and the Mail question whether the British Government is able to spend over £12 bn per year on overseas development aid. This in a context of large government cuts in other expenditure,  while parliament legislated in 2015 that Britain is required to spend at least 0.7% of the UK’s Gross National Income (GNI) on aid.

The various criticisms which have been levelled at Britain’s aid programme include:

There will always be those in the UK (and in developing countries) who simply don’t believe in overseas aid, feeling that we should first look after our own needs, or that it is somehow creating a moral hazard to help others out of their own difficulties. I will not address their criticism here – and I doubt most British newspapers fit into that category, anyway.

Regarding the criticisms listed above, I would suggest there are two main responses. The first is to accept that aid programmes will not always be effective, and commit to transparency, continuous improvement and accountability. This, successive governments have done, and it is right and proper for journalists, think thanks, citizens and MPs to continue holding successive governments’ feet to the fire. Neither UK taxpayers nor the people aid is intended to help, deserve anything less. All I would add here is that humanitarian and development aid is, and will always be, a complex, messy and difficult field, so it will be best served by well-informed criticism based on whether it achieves, or is likely to achieve results, in reference to specific problems or goals.

The other response is really about deciding how to balance an equation which currently does not add up. Let’s consider a few key points.

At least half of British Aid is destined for “fragile states”, i.e. poorly governed, unstable places in or at risk of conflict. Corruption and incompetence are unfortunately all-too-common bedfellows in such places. Aid programmes in such contexts are hard to design and implement; they need to be adaptable; they need to be implemented and overseen by expert, politically aware people motivated by achieving the right result for the people they are trying to help, and they need to be done by – or done in genuine partnership with – representatives those being helped. All of this is time consuming.

DFID and the other government departments responsible for spending over £12 bn per year have had their staffing numbers slashed since 2010, even as they have been saddled with the task of spending a budget which had risen by almost 50%. Not surprising therefore, that they have had to outsource so much of their expenditure to opaque multi-laterals and profit-making  project delivery companies. Not surprising either, that they have bundled their spending into ever-larger “projects” which are much harder to implement in the adaptable and beneficiary-oriented manner I have just described.

At the time the 0.7% legislation was being debated, I expressed a view that it was a mistake, and would lead to a backlash against aid. My article was entitled Squaring the circle. Now that the backlash is happening, I’d suggest that there are two basic – and opposing – options available, in order to square the circle.

  1. Reduce the amount of aid to a figure more easily manageable, by removing the 0.7% target so as to remove the perverse incentive which spending targets inevitably generate – according to basic economics.  This would also bring politics back into the equation, as the aid budget – and some of its details – would become part of the government budget approved annually by parliament and thus subject to regular debate and scrutiny. (The House of Lords has suggested removing the requirement to spend 0.7% of GNI within every 12 month period, and instead spread it over five years. But this would only only provide a temporary fix. )
  2. Increase the number of qualified civil servants deployed to oversee and implement Britain’s aid projects, in line with the volume of aid – for example by increasing the numbers in line with the 30% increase we have already seen since 2010. This would allow them to pay continuous attention to ensuring programmes are achieving results and if not, to be adapted or terminated, rather than – as is too often the case now – focusing on getting the money out of the door. They could provide  more detailed oversight and accompaniment of multi-lateral organisations to which British funds are allocated. This change would also allow the government to restore some of the partnerships between the government and non-governmental organisations, through which some of the most effective humanitarian and development programmes have long been designed and delivered. This would go some way towards relieving DFID’s much-criticised reliance on profit-making consultancy companies.

Both options are politically difficult in one way or another. Both would go some way to making aid more consistently effective. One of them has to be adopted, and advocates of aid need to recognise this, otherwise they will lose the bigger argument. The alternative is to continue to pretend that the problem can be solved by tweaking (for example by insisting that consulting companies publish more financial details, or pretending that insisting on better ‘value for money’ will fix the problem – it won’t, as any honest public sector economist will admit). Those who support a generous UK aid budget need to get behind either reducing it to more manageable levels, or beefing up the government’s capacity to spend it well. Otherwise they are at risk of attempting to keep their cake while eating it.

On Armistice Day, let’s honour the sacrifice of those who died then, by building peace today

November 11, 2016


11th November 1918. Armistice Day. The end of four years of terrible, industrial scale warfare which caused 18 million deaths, 23 million wounded, and countless other people’s lives ruined. It must never happen again, they said amidst sadness and relief, as they set about organising the peace. But they got it wrong, of course: a combination of victors’ justice imposed at the Treaty of Versailles, short-sighted planning and an inability to absorb all the economic, technological and political changes taking place in subsequent years, nor deal with class and international grievances, meant Europe and then the rest of the world slid into World War II and then the Cold War.

As we remember the end of the First World War today on the anniversary of the armistice, and empathise with the sadness and sorrow felt by those alive at the time, and acknowledge the sacrifices made, we must also focus our attention on the present and the future.

We seem to be surrounded by conflicts: from the naked violence of Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya and Nigeria; through tenuous ceasefires in places like South Sudan and Ukraine; the unresolved “frozen” conflicts such as in the Caucasus and Kashmir; to the structural violence which besets so many undemocratic countries – and is now increasingly visible in the mature western democracies too.

Learning at least some of the lessons of Versailles, the victors of 1945 were less bent on revenge and more on crafting a stable world order. Surely they got much of it wrong, to judge by some of the events which followed. But the establishment of institutions like the United Nations and Bretton Woods and – in the course of the next few years – the various iterations of what became the European Union, was surely one of the positives. The European Communities project was essentially a peacebuilding enterprise, and as such helped reduce the interest and opportunity of France and Germany to fight each other again – as per its design. This was recognised when the Nobel Peace Prize was given to the EU in recognition of this, in 2012.

But the Nobel Committee were not so much recognising past achievements, as encouraging the EU’s member states to try harder. (Just as they did when they awarded the prize to Barrack Obama before he’d had time to get his feet under the Oval Office desk in 2009). For they saw that the EU peace project was foundering, and risked contributing more to conflict than to peace. Clearly they had a point, as the Euro Crisis, Brexit and many other illustrations of European people’s sense of disempowerment, marginalisation and the democratic deficit have shown. Perhaps the existence of the Iron Curtain and NATO as additional incentives for stability within Europe masked the fact that the European project was beginning to crumble, as a peacebuilding enterprise.

International Alert’s peacebuilding framework acknowledges that no peace can even be seen as “achieved” – it has to be constantly maintained and nourished. This is why – for example – we continue to work in Rwanda, long after the terrible events of 1994. The institutions through which peaceful coexistence is enabled – whether local, national or supranational – need to be maintained and continuously renewed. Had the great powers recognised this, they might have been able to overcome the flaws of Versailles. But they did not – or at least acted as though they did not.

The implications for us today are manifold. But to take just a few examples:

  • Those with the means to do so must redouble their efforts to find a diplomatic solution to the various ongoing wars in the Middle East and North Africa. And in the meantime, we should all be seeking ways to build the future peace, where we can. For example, by providing young people with non-violent ways to engage in local politics, and help them access livelihood opportunities so they are not forced to join armed groups just to provide for their families; and by creating opportunities for inter-community dialogue around issues of common concern.
  • In NE Nigeria, as Boko Haram’s influence and territorial domination is reduced, the need to foster the reintegration of ex-fighters and those they have kidnapped and captured back into society, and into a society where the trust between citizen and state is rebuilt and re-energized, so that any problems which arise in the future can be resolved before they spill out of hand.
  • Across the EU and in the USA, there is a need for leaders at all levels to re-energise the political culture and institutions in which far too many citizens appear to have lost faith – to judge by the result of recent elections and the Brexit referendum, and ensure they are providing an opportunity to channel and address citizens’ grievances as well as their creative ideas.
  • And the global institutions also need to be revitalised, and oriented towards the proactive nourishment of peace – as recommended by the 2015 Sustaining peace – and towards shaping a fairer world. This means for example putting Responsibility to Protect into action more routinely, so that it becomes an accepted part of international precedence and doctrine. It means taking the Sustainable Development Goals seriously, and especially those which relate to peace, security, good governance and fair participation in a growing economy. It means implementing a fairer and simpler international approach to taxation, so that people and corporations pay tax in the countries where they operate. And it means continuing to close down money laundering opportunities.

These are just a few examples. All these and thousands of other mechanisms for nourishing peace in order to release human potential are available to us, and need to be exploited. Societies throughout history and the world recognise the sacrifices of those who give their lives in war. But such sacrifices are surely in vain if those who survive do not seize every opportunity to nourish and sustain the peace which comes after war, so people and societies can flourish and reach their potential. And so that when differences and conflicts do arise, they are resolved non-violently and fairly, and future generations remembering Armistice Day wonder why war was deemed necessary at all. Building peace today s surely the greatest way to honour those who have died in war.

This was also published on International Alert website.