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May 22, 2018

Select your glue with care
as most are designed for smooth
or porous surfaces – not both

brush clear of debris
then dab with alcohol
rehearse the join – and breathe

the contours
where the break occurred
must match

press firmly – tentatively rotate
till both sides fit as they did before
with a silent click

and breathe – now practise again
for you will not have a second
second chance

should you misjudge
the union will be
not as good as new

so breathe
unscrew the cap
imagine every step ahead

then pierce the seal with a pin
apply the swelling glue
and breathe

wipe clean the tip – replace the cap
and set aside the tube and pin
you should not need them again

can you feel your breathing?
spread the adhesive evenly
with an unspent match

position both parts so you’ll be
almost sure to grasp them right
can you feel your breathing now?

next you must wait
until it is almost
dry to the touch

so sit, and notice your breath’s caress
assess the glue with a fingertip
and test again

and now
while breathing quietly out
suspend your disbelief

take both in your hands – rotate
attempt the angles again – again
and breathe

in one swift movement press and hold
until your fingertips turn white
and breathe

a final check – the angle’s right?
wipe swollen beads from the join
the hairline disappears

set down the delicate whole
and breathe
and wait

and learn
while breathing
if the join will take

Published on Ink Sweat & Tears

Peter’s story

May 20, 2018

I’ll tell you what compassion is, my friend –
it’s when you know the crucible of pain
awaiting you, as you draw near the end,
and still elect to light the path they tread,
who walk in comfort, lit by lesser flame.

I noticed him, installed and calm ahead
of us, as we in urgent order swarmed
the carriage, took our places and prepared
to rattle through a January night
towards our weekend shelter from the storm.

Nobody spoke. In cheerless squares of light
we glimpsed the flickerings and silhouettes
of lives subordinate to evening rites
in rooms and kitchens: children, dogs and back-
yards telling tales of nurture or neglect.

We hurtled past, confined to our own track:
inflation, miners, oil, the three-day week,
the fight to keep our balance in the black;
until the guard appeared, the traveller stirred
himself and punctured our anxiety:

My ticket is for greater journeys, sir –
I come from where this line begins and goes,
to sit beside you all and share the word
you know, but need to hear and learn again,
and call you to rewrite the lives you chose.

Our eyes were drawn to him, upright, restrained,
stock still in a worn, ill-fitting suit. Dawn broke
forever in his eyes – a sky ingrained
with promise – new sunlight embellishing
the pattern of the day to come, with hope.

This crisis is the moment not to win
back all you can, but time to shake your fear
of losing, calmly reach across and bring
down all the boundaries that defend this world,
and find your plenty in the word we share.

That’s how he always spoke, in words which curled
around the truth until you felt it swell
and germinate within your heart. I turned
back to The Times, but set against its bleak
headlines… he simply drew me in. I fell

headlong, could think of no-one else all week –
his eyes, his voice, his words! – until I found
him on the train, sat close, willed him to speak
and when he stood to do so felt his grace
and love reverberating in the sound.

On better days, I simply breathe the faith
he showed and sowed in me, the certainty
with which he saw our nature, and his death,
and how our correspondence with the grain
of others’ lives dispels our poverty.

What he told us in darkness, we’d proclaim
in light, he said, and I’ll do all he asked,
to raise and radiate his words, his name,
and the compassion I saw in his glance,
as windows rushed the sound of darkness past.

Published in Pennine Platform No. 83

What we are afraid to tell our children

May 16, 2018

Before you start, best think it through;
more hands, light work; more haste, less speed;
take care, in all the things you do,
of others’ feelings, others’ needs:
treat them as you’d have them treat you.

All these and other rules of thumb,
words of advice and basic truth,
elders have garnered one by one,
and willingly pass on – as proof
against disquiet – to the young.

But out of fear, there’s one they won’t:
that arguments for quitting life
are barely weaker, more remote –
once you weigh happiness and strife –
than reasons why we mostly don’t.


Published in Pennine Platform no. 83

Aid agencies should be clearer about their ethical dilemmas

May 12, 2018

Are international aid organisations paying enough attention to the ethical complexities of what they do and how they do it?

Last year, as one of my final projects before I left International Alert after thirteen years, I led a review of the organisation’s ethical approach to its international peacebuilding work, and the development of a new ethical guidance to replace the one that had last been updated in the 1990s.

Along with colleagues from various parts of the world with whom I did this, I found it a fascinating experience which reminded me of and helped clarify some of the ethical tensions inherent in international aid, while also reassuring me that my colleagues at Alert were by and large acutely aware of these, and doing their best to navigate them carefully and responsibly -if not necessarily getting enough support and guidance from senior staff such as myself.

An ethical minefield

It is, after all, an ethical minefield to bring resources from far away and offer to help vulnerable people and societies build long-term resilience to the risks of conflict and the blandishments of conflict entrepreneurs. Building such resilience often entails people and communities taking new risks – part of the price of change – but how do you make sure that everyone concerned has provided their prior, informed consent, especially given the short timeframes and unrealistic expectations inherent in most donor funded projects? Is it even possible to do so, in places where governance systems – where one would normally go to discuss and obtain such consent, and develop agreed goals and plans – are often inadequate to the task? It seems irresponsible to suggest peacebuilding ideas which aren’t fully proven elsewhere, but the truth is, very few fully proven peacebuilding techniques exist, and anyway success in one place is no guarantee the same approach will work anywhere else…

We discussed these and many other ethical dilemmas of peacebuilding, and used this process to elaborate a short ethical guidance document for Alert. At its heart, this contains the organisation’s purpose, core values, and a set of ethical principles. But what I felt most useful about the guidance was its explicit recognition of the ethical difficulties and dilemmas peacebuilders face, and the importance of debate and discussion whenever decision makers were unsure of how (or whether) to proceed in a particular case.

Another project in which I was involved last year was a joint research initiative by Alert and Oxfam on civil society in conflict-affected countries. This raised some very troubling ethical questions about how local civil society organisations are typically treated – knowingly or unknowingly – by some of their international partners. This too was a reminder of the need for more  attention to be paid to ethics in international aid outfits

What do aid agencies say about their ethics?

After I left Alert, I was asked to contribute a short essay on the question of values in overseas aid, for a document due to be published later this year. In this, I touched on the question of ethics, and spent a little time looking online for other examples of aid organisations’ explorations of the ethics of their development, humanitarian or peacebuilding work.

I was surprised not to find very much, apart from internal codes of behaviour for employees, and the like. As it happened, this issue was not central to the piece I was writing, so I left it at that. But I always intended to come back and take another look, and did so today. I picked a small number of well-known and influential aid agencies: DFID, Oxfam, Save the Children, CARE, SIDA, USAID and the OECD-DAC. My methodology was simple: I looked for easy-to-find ethics statements or ethical guidance on their websites (for example under the “What we Do” or “How we Work” tabs), and also entered “Ethics” and “ethical” into their website search functions.

Obviously this methodology – if one can even dignify what I did with that word – would not stand up I court if I were using it to judge any of the organisations involved. But that’s not my purpose here. All I want to do is suggest that more formal attention seems to be needed to the ethics of aid.

From my rather superficial search I came up with no single document published by any of these major players in the sector, which acknowledged the ethical complexities of aid, and suggested how to address these. What I found instead was as follows:

  • A plethora of policies and statements about agencies’ procurement policies, and the lengths they go to, to avoid any of their funds being misspent or stolen.
  • Codes of behavioural conduct – USAID’s is one example – which cover issues like how to behave in respect of receiving gifts from outside sources; financial conflicts of interest; the misuse of position for private gain; outside activities; seeking other employment; post‐employment restrictions, etc. Most agencies had policies about whistleblowing, modern slavery and the like, and policies about sexual ethics – perhaps some of these were a response to the recent scandals in a number of international NGOs.
  • Many, many references to the need for others to improve their ethics:  developing country politicians and civil services, international trade, mining companies, etc.
  • Some useful articles explaining why giving foreign aid is morally the right thing for rich countries to do. A good example is Jeffery Sachs’ 2017 piece in the Boston Globe arguing against Trump’s proposed aid budget cuts sets out the moral case as well as a case based on justice, quoting St Ambrose that ‘You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich,’ and the even more rhetorical John F Kennedy: ‘If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich’.
  • Specific policy guidance in particular technical areas of aid, such as  principles for research and evaluation. 
  • Some organisations did have easy-to-find overarching statements: Oxfam, USAID, CARE and Save the Children, for example. These tended to set out high level principles and/or lists of values, but there was no indication that they acknowledged the ethical complexity of the enterprise in which each has been involved for several decades, such as thorny questions about the relative power of those with or without resources. CARE was the only one to use the word “ethics” in the title of the document. But they all, including CARE, came across as rather superficial, mainly containing lists of rather similar and over-used abstract words: responsibility, transparency, accountability, integrity, respect, passion, excellence, inclusion, a commitment to learning… Indeed, some of these seemed quite glib. If an organisation is “accountable … in particular to people living in poverty”, what does that mean? To hold someone accountable is to have power over them, exercised either through a carrot or a stick. What is the carrot or stick which people living in poverty can deploy towards an NGO which makes such a claim?

It’s time to be more explicit and honest about the ethical challenges

There is nothing necessarily wrong with the statements these organisations display on their websites, and it may be that beneath these lists and rather hollow phrases there is a deep lode of organisational reflection and documentation which provides the dimensions I found lacking in the documents I was able quickly to find. Certainly my own experience is that many individuals who work for these organisations do understand and worry about the ethical challenges. But I find it somehow troubling that the international aid sector – a sector which is fraught with ethical complexity and dilemmas – seems not to take this as seriously – or not explicitly, at least – as it should. The things we say most loudly, meaningfully and explicitly are, after all, surely the things we expect our staff and other stakeholders to pay most attention to, and know us for.

One contributing factor might be the fear that acknowledging our ethical problems might put off potential supporters. After all, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the public message these aid organisations have all conspired to communicate over several decades is that they can solve poverty overseas, and that the task is simple, if huge.

But it’s time to change that. In my experience ethical guidance is most useful when it is explicit about the ethical risks, and when it recognises uncertainty and grey areas as well as red lines; when it encourages debate. After all, medical students don’t simply learn the Hippocratic Oath, they are taught why it matters in situations of unequal information and power, and how it has been applied.

International aid organisations – from donors through to international NGOs and the consulting firms who deliver donors’ projects – all need make sure that every staff member carries out her work reflectively, with an appreciation of its ethical dimensions, and in the knowledge that she is expected to put any project on hold until any ethical question has been answered satisfactorily, even if this goes against the perceived short term interests of her employer. That seems at least as important as making sure she understands the procurement and whistleblowing policies, or knows which particular list of abstract nouns her organisation has decided to put on its website. The more she and her colleagues work reflectively, with access to ethical guidance, the more the aid sector will evolve into a better enabling environment for effective and sustainable development.

No guarantee

May 11, 2018

Overnight, the valley’s turned.
Its trees and hedges, wearied by

the endless summer days, have spurned
their tender murmuring for dry-

as-paper rustling in reply
to breezes brushed with leaf more rare

than gold, beneath a cloudless sky –
a beauty he can hardly bear.

He sees leaves fade then fall; then bare
limbs silhouetted under rough

storm clouds; then spring – all he can know
is how their scent suffused the air,

the feel and soft sound as he scuffed
through dampened drifts, lifetimes ago.


Forthcoming in Kent & Sussex Folio, 2018


Winter gardens

May 9, 2018

You see your gardens in the space between
the plants, raze every weed without a trace
lest it disturb the balance of your scheme,

deadhead each stem before its flower fades,
lift every labelled bulb to plant again,
and prune your trees and shrubs as each dictates.

I grow my plants so close they all complain
they’ve insufficient room to breathe, or sun
to drench their leaves, or share of summer rain,

let young weeds grow to be what they become,
and poppy stems and seed heads twist and dry –
then rot, when frost and winter rainfall come.

I watched you tend your silence constantly,
then found a careless way to nurture mine:
we’ve made our different landscapes home, and still

we touch each other’s quiet awkwardly.
But looking now, when winter’s worked its spell
of levelling, our gardens seem as one.


Forthcoming in Kent & Sussex Folio, and 4th prize winner


Conceptualising human security in international aid

April 29, 2018

The aid system we know today emerged in the 1970s as a way to provide succour for people in emergencies, and to support human progress in poor countries through what became widely known as development. This article focuses on development, with particular emphasis on improving human security in fragile, conflict-prone contexts. It explores the meaning of human security and how human security has accrued in history, with lessons for theories of change today.

1. The complexity of development in fragile contexts
Development aid was initially often seem in relatively simple terms: building the capacity of the state and the economy, and poverty reduction. This was to be addressed through the transfer of capital and capacity. Indeed, the origin of the idea that rich countries should allocate 0.7% of their national income as aid, appears to have been a ‘back of the envelope’ calculation of the gap in infrastructure investment needed, to bring the developing countries as they were in the 1960s, up to par with the developed world (Center for Global Development (2005). Working paper no. 68. Ghost of 0.7%:
Origins and Relevance of the International Aid Target, By Michael A. Clemens and Todd J. Moss). This simplistic translation of the development challenge into a need for financial capital illustrates the rather technical way much of the aid world then saw its role.

Since then, the notion of development has become ever more complex. Western donors and multi-lateral institutions became newly interested in good governance and human rights after the end of the Cold War. Meanwhile a plethora of other concepts has entered the lexicon: climate adaptation, environmental sustainability, fragility, gender, human security, inequality, landscapes, livelihoods, middle and low income countries, the Millennium Development and Sustainable Development Goals, peacebuilding, political settlements, poverty reduction or eradication, pro-poor growth, reducing violent extremism, resilience, state building and value chain enhancement. Explanations for all of these – and a hundred others – are easily found on-line and in development studies primers.

Although perhaps confusing, this conceptual breadth and diversity is not a problem in and of itself. If we replace the overused and rather meaningless word ‘development’ with ‘progress’, this takes us closer to how non-experts might describe people’s improved circumstances, welfare and opportunities. It also reminds us that we are dealing with a politically freighted concept. What ‘progress’ means, who should benefit, and which path will take us there, are probably the three most important questions of politics – and questions on which people will – rightly – never agree. Karl Marx, Amartya Sen and Adam Smith have provided quite different answers, to pick just three influential development thinkers. Therefore it makes sense for the international aid sector to be pluralist, embracing diverse, often competing ideologies, analytical lenses and delivery vehicles, on the basis that no single concept or approach has so far been agreed. How does this apply to human security?

2. What is human security and how does it accrue?
Human security is a simple notion. At its heart is the idea that people’s security is a better measure of public good than state security – though state security, provided in the right way, remains an essential component (United Nations Development Programme (1994): Human Development Report). It also looks beneath the surface at underlying factors that influence people’s security, such as culture, incomes, social capital, gender relations and governance. Now, human security can in principle be achieved by suitably targeted services, perhaps provided by external organisations: services of protection and provision. But such services, while perhaps sustainable in the short-term, are unsustainable over a longer term. To start with, it is politically unacceptable for external agencies to provide them, supplanting and relieving the government and other members of society of their responsibilities, and raising questions about the legitimacy of all concerned (Eric A. Heinze, 2011. Humanitarian Intervention, the Responsibility to Protect, and Confused Legitimacy). Second, being protected and provisioned by others undermines human dignity and this is insufficient as a long-term response. And in any case, external agencies providing and funding them will eventually tire of the task, and move on to elsewhere.

In what, then, does sustainable human security consist? There is fairly wide agreement that human security is most likely to be sustained when people, irrespective of their gender, religion, sexual identity, age, ethnicity or other facet of identity, have fair access to:
• A voice in decisions which affect them
• Economic opportunity, including the opportunity to save or invest
• The means of safety and justice
• Opportunities for education, health and a decent living environment (International Alert. Programming Framework, 2017).

The more these conditions – which are essentially about fairness as well as security – are met, the more likely societies are to be characterised by functional and trusting collaboration between citizens and the state, and among citizens themselves. And such relationships are, ultimately the measure of peace and stability, and thus of human security.

3. How do we get there?

But if this is the desired vision, how can people living in insecure environments get there? How do societies evolve, to reflect the characteristics outlined above?

One place to look for answers to this question are in history, as we have not yet had sufficient time to judge whether human security improvements have genuinely been sustained, since the concept was introduced in development aid in the 1990s.

There are many uncertainties in the trajectory of a country’s development, and historians will never agree. Nonetheless, it is possible to tease out the kinds of changes that have taken place in the liberal societies which have made the most sustained progress in improving human security. These include opening up access to political and economic opportunities, developing an increasingly dynamic civil society, and establishing states which are accountable to and have a strong sense of ownership or membership by the people they govern, and which adopt progressive goals and policies. They also include the establishment and incremental extension of the rule of law, and new ways of participating in the economy, in politics and in civil society. For example, the evolution from personal to shareholder ownership of businesses, from ‘big man’ political leadership to the idea of ‘political office’ in increasingly representative and accountable forms of government. Of course sustained and shared economic growth is critical, as is the development of a culture that supports the exercise of initiative and encourages creativity. And perhaps most crucially of all, the control of organised violence should be transferred from the hands of powerful individuals or factions, to the accountable state (North, Douglass C., Wallis, John Joseph & Weingast, Barry R. Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2009)). 

Drawing on a 2010 critique of aid in fragile contexts, co-written with Deborrah Baksh (Working with the Grain to Change the Grain. International Alert, 2010), I  look briefly at each of these, below. For reasons of space, historical examples are not given, but readers are invited to explore and validate or improve this thesis from their own reading.

Opening up access to political and economic opportunities, and developing an increasingly dynamic civil society
When ruling elites have relaxed their exclusive hold on political and economic opportunities, and progressively allowed others to participate, this is a signal of progress. This has usually happened when it was in the elite’s own perceived political and economic interests to broaden access. This process has generally entailed – and has been partly the result of – a restructuring of the economy, for example changes in land tenure, the commercialisation of agriculture, or industrialisation. Changes in the economy were then reflected in changes in politics, and vice versa. This was also accompanied by the growth and increasing dynamism of civil society: i.e. people from across society acting together in pursuit of what they saw as shared interests, which was an important factor in the development and opening up political institutions.

Establishing states accountable to and with a strong sense of ownership and membership by the people, and whose governments adopt progressive, developmental goals and policies
Societies that have been most successful in making sustained progress in human security have established some version of the nation-state, i.e. a well-defined polity with clear boundaries and citizenship, and with a large part of its population committed to membership of the nation as a primary identity (equal to or above other identities such as ethnicity, religion, etc.), and an accountable state with authority to act. This means that issues of identity have been resolved or are being managed in a way which prevents them from being obstacles to progress, and also that different polities and states have found ways to co-exist cooperatively out of self-interest.

Governments in such cases have focused, among other things, on purposeful (developmental) national economic policies. These have differed according to ideology and context, including for example protectionism, industrial planning, free trade, empire-building, etc. The point is not the particular policy choice – which depends on internal and external circumstances anyway – but the idea that purposeful policy choices in the perceived interests of the country were made and purposefully implemented.

Establishing, gradually extending and eventually universalising the rule of law
Another change was to extend the rule of law to more and more people, allowing them to participate in the economy with the confidence that they would be treated fairly. This extension of rights from the elites to others happened when it was in the interests of those who had initially established such rights for themselves – the elites – to do so, i.e. because it suited their own economic interests to allow others to participate. For example, land is an important political and economic resource in developing economies, and the sale of land by elites becomes a great deal more profitable when the potential pool of customers is widened because more people are deemed to have legal rights protecting their ownership of land.

This went hand-in-hand with the evolution of civil society. As people increasingly combined outside their narrow caste, kinship, gender and patronage circles, in pursuit of shared economic, social or political aims, they needed the protection of law instead of patronage and kinship loyalty in so doing. This created further incentives for widening the scope of the rule of law, which further encouraged people to combine, and so on.

Evolution from personal to impersonal forms of participation in the economy, politics and civil society
A critical aspect of development has been the move from leadership based on personal strength and patronage to leadership by legitimate, temporary occupants of permanent or semi-permanent offices and institutions of state. The same kind of move happened from personal buccaneering to shareholder corporations, from factions to political parties, and from kinship to other forms of civic association. This entailed the institutionalisation of governance and the creation of corporate organisations – in government, the economy, security, and civil society – and went hand-in-hand with an increase in freedom of association.

Achieving sustained, shared economic growth
Sustained shared economic growth per capita was essential for the growth of political and economic opportunity. This happened when capital was freed up: for example, through the development of a market in freehold land, allowing the possibility of mortgage and sale to realise capital for investment; and the establishment of corporations, partnerships and shareholder companies. A critical aspect of this was also the progressive de-linking of conjunctural political power from economic power, as a rules-based economy gave increasing confidence to investors that their interests would be protected even if political changes were to occur.

Developing a culture that increasingly supports the exercise of initiative and encourages creativity
Cultures have been shaped by, and in their turn have shaped, the historical development of societies and regions. Important elements in this have been, for example, the extent to which cultures have supported and encouraged indiviFig 1dual or collective enterprise and initiative, and progressively greater freedom of expression and action (Landes, David. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor. (Little, Brown, 1998).).

Transferring control of organised violence from the hands of powerful individuals or factions, to the accountable state
The control of violence, and especially of organised violence, is a critical aspect controlling access to resources. As states developed and became accountable to those they served, so they also took over the control of organised violence, and limited the capacity of others to use it for their own ends.

Adopting increasingly democratic, or representative and accountable forms of government
In places where the changes described above happened, they were accompanied by an increase in the extent to which the governed were able to choose and hold to account their governors. While confined initially to the elite, this gradually became more open, as the institutional rules of the game were strengthened, and access to the economy widened to include more and more people whose interests became critical to success and thus needed a legitimate voice in politics. Local democracy within a decentralised polity has also often been a critical feature of successful democratisation.


4. Cross-cutting features of change
The above list is hugely subject to challenge, and is certainly not comprehensive. But it summarises some of the most important development processes from history, all of which are critical to human security. Looking within them, we can identify four common features:
Negotiation. Most of these changes have come about largely through a process of negotiation. This includes members of the elite negotiating among themselves and thus creating bargains and systems for the effective management of resources, and members of the elite re-negotiating non-elites’ access to privileges and rights.
Relationships. Effective (functional) relationships are critical to progress. These include relationships among the elites, between the state and civil society, and within civil society.
Incentives. Changes have happened when it was in the interests of those with the most power, to make (or accept) those changes.
Leadership. As Machiavelli wrote, ‘There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of new order of things’. Progress happens when a number of factors come together; some of these are circumstantial, but human agency and therefore leadership are critical. By leadership, I  mean the ability and willingness to take risks, provide inspiration for change, and navigate politically towards change.

5. Implications for development aid
This summary of development processes – depicted in figure 1 – is necessarily short, incomplete and lacking in detail. It is rightly open to challenge. Nevertheless, much within it is common sense and although different ideologies interpret history differently, many of the processes summarised above are relatively uncontroversial. It seems therefore obvious that it should be reflected in ‘development’ paradigms applied to fragile of conflict-prone contexts, and in the mandate and structures of international aid institutions.

It is beyond the remit of this article to examine the extent to which this is the case. Nevertheless, we can at least draw the conclusion that successful aid programmes should:
• Frame their mandate and their policy and programme goals around historically-based theories of change.
• Use programming approaches which recognise the uncertainty of progress, centred on a long-term vision of improving human security in a given context, using adaptive strategies, rather than fixed, pre-defined pathways, to achieve this.
• Be managed by staff who are politically astute, not just proficient in technical areas of development such as health and education.
• Be willing to take risks with their own resources and reputations, while being careful not to expose others to risks they have not opted for.
• Be heterogenous and – between them – work at multiple levels and on different issues.
• Identify and leverage incentives for change, in the form of carrots or sticks.